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Q&A: The Kuhls

| April 17, 2013

“Sisters, sisters . . . Two different faces, but in tight places/We think and we act as one” or so the cheeky classic from “White Christmas” goes.

For the Kuhl sisters (Renee, 24, and Grace, 22), their shared DNA gives the Chicago transplants’ full-length debut a splash of Beach Boys magic.

“I feel because we’re siblings our voices blend together way more. A lot of times people have trouble telling us apart . . . I feel like it just it runs in the blood,” Grace says.

Make no mistake, Holy Rollin‘ (available at under a “name your price” model) leaves the surf ditties and skirt chasing to the sleek California pros. The Kuhls deliver a rootsy concoction that isn’t afraid to let the speakers pulsate without ever distorting the siblings’ clean harmonies.

Since moving to the big city four years ago from Kansas City, Kan., and releasing a folkie EP, The Midwest EP, that dissected their rural upbringing before growing into a stomping five-piece, the Kuhl girls have had to balance living together, writing together, performing together – basically being attached at the hip.

“I want to say about once a month we, like, explode on each other, but we just learn to deal with it,” Renee confesses. But the creative positives outweigh the lack of personal space. “Sometimes we end up battling each other, but it’s always a good thing.”

We chatted with Renee and Grace by speaker phone where they dished on what it’s like for female musicians growing up in the sticks.

Illinois Entertainer: How did living in Chicago shape Holy Rollin’?

Renee Kuhl: That whole album is pretty much representative of who we are after having lived in the city for two years and trying to make use of both sides of our experience. I’ve learned a lot about music since I’ve lived here. Like being so close to the punk rock scene has been huge for Grace and for me, and that’s something where we’re from, it was never even visible at all. I think [we] got to finally play the music that we’ve always wanted to play. Probably the reason we came out here is because we wanted to play rock music, but it really wasn’t acceptable or permissible or it wasn’t even an idea you sort of allowed yourself to have if you’re like a teenage girl growing up where we grew up. So just being here has kind of been freeing, like our emancipation. Not just as girls, but as musicians too. Like freeing ourselves up to be loud and snarl and be angry and bitter and basically rock out.

IE: The Kuhls aren’t an all-girl band, even though you sometimes get pegged as one. Why aren’t you? Why did you feel you needed the male energy of guitarist Luke Otwell, bassist Kyle Crager, and drummer Gregg Midon?

Grace Kuhl: We don’t really know any other female musicians that are . . .

RK: We don’t really have a lot of female friends that play music in the first place or maybe that are as interested in roots rock the way we are. And I can think on one hand of the girls I know, even in Chicago, who are friends of mine that play in bands, but I’m friends with, like, 20 dudes who play in bands. We’d love to play with more girls, but we just haven’t met the right girl musicians who would fit with us. We just picked people who shared our influences and whose personalities match with ours. It doesn’t matter to us if they’re guys or girls.

IE: How did your parents react to you wanting to start a band?

RK: We weren’t brought up to play rock music. When I told my mom I wanted to sing when I was little, I was put into classical voice training for, like, six years. That’s not an entry. I had to fight to sing rock music. Like I had to completely revert what I was trained to do and sing with Grace to play the kind of music we play now because we didn’t have any instructors who weren’t church musicians. Whenever you want to play music – you want to sing or play – you’re either put in community theater or choir. You’re not told you can play in a band at all. Even in the 2000s, which is sort of ridiculous.

IE: Are they onboard now?

RK: Our parents are like crazy supportive. They love it. It’s funnily like something that never occurred to them or never occurred to anyone in the community, or even never occurred to us that we could play in a band. Once we started doing it, everybody’s like, “Yeah that’s really cool.” It’s just like an idea that popped into someone’s head, but now our parents love it. They came out for our Metro show. They’ve given us money to record. They’re really the only label we’ve been on.

GK: They trust the fact that we are gonna tackle what we’re doing really hard and not just play in a rock band just to fart around. They know that we take it really seriously. It’s like our small business, so they trust that.

IE: A career in music is such a long shot. But your Plan B involved moving to Chicago to attend Columbia College to study fiction writing, which is an equally slippery career goal.

RK: Equally fantastical, yeah.

IE: Did it affect the way you write songs?

RK: I picked fiction writing because I was a music major in this small college in Minnesota and I dropped after a semester because I was like, “I don’t want to do this.” I realized right away, like I’m sick of technique. I don’t want to be a church musician and I think I was really allowing myself to dream basically. So when I came out here and picked fiction writing, part of it was I want to do something creative and I want to be able to finish it and not hate every second of it. I love to write, I love to read – that’s my other passion – and if I wasn’t so focused on this I probably could go and do freelance and stuff. But yeah, the creative writing workshop at Columbia totally helped me as a songwriter. I was probably resistant to it at first, but I did my five semesters there and it allowed me to think about writing songs as telling stories, as opposed to what I think a lot of women songwriters do, which is something that’s really confessional and like reading your diary out loud or telling your secrets. And that’s what I think an audience expects women songwriters to do, be really autobiographical. I kind of approach it now, and a lot of it is because I studied fiction writing for a little while, I want to tell stories and write about characters and have different scenes. That definitely helped me feel comfortable from a narrative point of view how I approach my songwriting.

IE: How does the songwriting process work for the two of you?

GK: We write separately and we write together. About 20 percent of the time we write a full song together. But we just kind of have bits and pieces that we work on and then bring it together and then we finish it, and then we bring it to the band after that. But it’s about 50/50 as far as both of us go with writing.

IE: Is it easier or more difficult to bring a song to a relative and be open to their criticism?

GK: For me, it’s comfortable in a sense because she is my sister and her criticism is the most important because we do this together and it becomes our project, it becomes our song. So, it has to be up to standard, but at the same time, sometimes it can be harder because she’s the most critical person I can bring a song to. What do you think Renee?

RE: I think we’re just really honest with each other and if anybody else were to bring me something they’re working on in music or whatever creative thing it is, I would be way less critical of it than I would be if Grace does. We’re each other’s biggest critic, but I think we value that. Every creative person needs that and if you don’t have it, then you’re not going to go as far as you would if you did have that. I completely value the trust that we’ve built with each other.

IE: What if something the other person wrote is just really awful?

RK: We’ll just tell each other our immediate, visceral reaction. Like Grace will do that to me. She’ll literally be like, “No, I don’t like that.” And I’ll go, “If she hates it, that’s her visceral reaction to it, it’s gone.” Of course, if I really love it maybe I’ll just go, “Actually, I really like it, you should listen to it again. Are you sure you hate it?” It’s such a valuable partnership to have built that ability to bounce off each other that way. Most people don’t have that. It’s so useful to me.

GK: We both know which direction we’re headed in, like what sound we want. So now, we’re like the only people who understand where that’s going, and so that’s why we are totally accountable for each other.

RK: And then it’s useful too when we go to the band because it’s already been through kind of a process. And we don’t waste their time. It works out. Sometimes it’s very frustrating. Like the point of creative work is for it to not be roses all the time. That’s not why I decided to this. It’s O.K.; it makes me feel like I’m doing something important that it matters if it’s good or not.

Appearing: 4/18 at The Burlington (3425 W. Fullerton) Chicago with Scotland Yard Gospel Choir and Rivals Of The Peacemaker.

— Janine Schaults

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