The guitarguitar Interview: The Pierces
Published on 13 November 2020
The Pierces make some of the most memorable, melodic, well-crafted music around. Allison and Catherine Pierce, sisters from Alabama and now based in Los Angeles, have captivated millions with their willowy, sun-bleached vocal harmonies and wistful melodies over the course of the last 20 years.
You may know them from their song ‘Secret’, which has been used in both Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. You may be a long-time fan who has been with the Pierce sisters since their debut in 2000 right up to their most recent masterpiece, Creation. Either way, if you know the sound of The Pierces, you probably love the sound of The Pierces. Ethereal, slightly ‘witchy’ and with more than a hint of Laurel Canyon, their songs are as beautiful as they are timeless.
Recently, The Pierces released a new single, Everything, and a special unplugged streaming concert. We thought it high time to get some Zoom time in with Catherine and Allison, and they were happy to accept our invitation! Each sister joined from their respective LA home, where it seemed to be a sunny midday. Catherine and Allison were on fine form, laughing and joking as I tried to explain what I thought ‘harmonies looked like’ to two people who were natural experts on the subject! Indeed, it seems that much of their talent is natural and intuitive, and their familial bond is an integral element to the development of their sound.
Catherine was the first to join on Zoom, where we chatted a little about LA before Allison appeared and we commenced...
guitarguitar: So, thank you both for joining me!
Allison Pierce: Of course!
GG: So, I’d love to talk about songwriting, singing and that sort of thing. Sound good?
Catherine Pierce: Yeah, that sounds great.
GG: Sweet! So, the new single, ‘Everything’, was released recently, which is a lovely song. Is that potentially an indicator of a new album on the horizon?
AP: Perhaps... (laughs) It was supposed to be the beginning of an album. Then the pandemic hit and so we had to quit recording. We just haven’t gotten back in the studio quite yet, but we still intend to in, I’d say, the next month or so.
GG: So, at this point, would you have maybe finished the recording?
CP: Yeah, that was the plan. Our producer was kinda nervous about the pandemic, and now she’s re-hauling her studio, so we’re waiting for her to give us the green light!
GG: So, everything’s written and ready to be recorded?
CP: Um, for the most part, yeah.
GG: Cool! Something to look forward to. So, one thing I know about you guys is that you don’t tend to write together. You write separate songs and bring them to the table, is that correct?
CP: For the most part, yes, but we actually wrote Everything together. Because we went off and did separate solo albums, we thought that we’d kinda got a lot of that out of our system, of writing separately, so I think we kind of wanted to experiment with what writing together would look like. It’ll probably be a little of both on the album: some that we’ve done individually and some that we’ve written together.
AP: It’s kind of an experiment of what it would be like to write everything together.
GG: So, when you each did your solo records, was it easy to know which songs were going to be for solo albums and which would work better as Pierces songs?
AP: I feel like you just kind of know. I think both of us are just like, ‘this is for The Pierces, this one’s for me’.
CP: Sometimes there’s something you wanna say on your own, like ‘These are MY thoughts! (laughs) And sometimes it feels like something we wanna express together.
GG: Okay, cool! And in terms of songs you’ve written in the past, for example, Allison, you’ve written a song to bring in to The Pierces: would that tend to mean that you’d sing the lead vocal? And the same for you, Catherine, if you were the writer?
CP: Generally, yes.
GG: But not always?
AP: I can’t think of any, but probably...
CP: I think there’s a couple where you wrote or I wrote, and, like, switched out verses, maybe? But generally, if we write it, we wanna sing it! (laughs)
AP: We’re very possessive of the ones we write, I think.
GG: Interesting... well, with that in mind: when it comes to compiling a tracklist for a record, presumably you’ll each write a body of work and then bring them together. So, what happens if there’s 7 of Catherine’s and only 5 of Allison’s? How does that work out?
CP: We battle to the death! (laughs)
AP: Some of our biggest fights have been over things like that, yes...
CP: In the past there’s sometimes been label people to make those decisions. Right now, we don’t have a label, so it will be us fighting and there will be death!
GG: Haha, Round one: fight!
AP: I actually feel now that our egos are less attached. When we were younger, we were very ego-driven and had a lot to prove. Now, we’ve just...
CP: We’ve matured.
AP: We enjoy singing together so it’s fine. (to Cat) You can sing all my songs!
CP: Okay! (laughs)
GG: We’ll see how that turns out when the record’s released, yeah! So, in terms of the writing, Allison, you tend to be the guitar player. Catherine, do you play an instrument, too?
CP: No, not really. Sometimes I’ll write with, like, an iPad instrument, just to pick out the notes, but I’m not great with instruments. Or, I’m kind of afraid of them! (laughs) I tend to write in my head, and Allison will pick it out on the guitar, or I’ll pick it out on an iPad instrument.
GG: Ah, so you actually come out with melodies, and hum a melody in its entirety and record on your phone or something?
CP: Yeah. I find that, because I’m limited with instruments, it limits me to write on them. I can just come up with any melody in my head, but I can only play certain chords, so it makes them go into a certain structure, but if I just write in my head, I can go anywhere.
GG: Wow! One of the many things I really like about The Pierces’ music is that it’s so melodic, so beautifully melodic. We’ll get to the harmonies soon, but just in terms of pure melody... Catherine, for you, the melody comes for you on its own. Allison: does that happen for you, too? Do you tend to have like a bed of acoustic chords first, before the melodies suggest themselves?
AP: Yeah, I usually will start just strumming some chords and they all, like, come together with the melody and the words. It usually happens all at once. Sometimes I’ll write without the guitar but that’s pretty rare.
GG: When the creative spirit arrives, for both of you, is it melody first and then lyrics after?
AP: Yeah, for me it’s usually melody and lyrics at the same time. Like, I’ll just start singing words and that will help the melody to evolve and then they just weave in together.
GG: Okay, and what about you, Catherine?
CP: Um, sometimes I’m just, like, delivered a line. It’s like a line and a melody come together, like ‘bloop’, dropped in the inbox! (laughs) Then I build on that. Or sometimes just an idea of what I want to say will come to mind and then I find a melody that suits it.
GG: I see, it’s a very intuitive process. Now, this isn’t a massively guitar-focused interview, but since it’s for guitarguitar, we may as well throw a little guitar chat in there! Allison, what’s your favourite go-to guitar for writing with?
AP: Well, I have a 1974 Guild that I really love, it’s very sweet. And then I have a 1999 Martin, and I love them both I wouldn’t be able to choose which one I like better.
GG: And are the guitars that you write on the same ones that you tour with?
AP: They are, they’re the same. I’m not a guitar geek, you know? Basically, the guitar is so that I can sing my songs. I’m not all that picky about what I’m playing.
AP: I have really small hands (laughs) I just need a small neck!
GG: That’s refreshing to see it as a songwriting machine, rather than getting too trapped up in the minutiae of it all.
AP: Well, there’s something to that, too. I’m kind of jealous of that, like I wish that I’d get more geeky about it but it’s just not where my passion lies, I don’t think.
GG: I think the direction you’ve taken is the correct direction, so just keep going that way! (laughs)
AP: Yeah, I’m not gonna switch it up twenty years in!
GG: Something that I’ve noticed a lot in the music, and I don’t want to use the wrong word or phrase, but there seems to be a really spiritual, esoteric element to the music. I know that Catherine, you’ve designed your own set of tarot cards and so on. Is that worldview something that you both have in your everyday life?
CP: Yes, that’s a big part of our life. I think, like, you used the right word: spiritual. We’re not religious at all, but we are very spiritual, and I think being spiritual is about learning more about your own spirit and your own growth. We’re pretty devoted to that, and becoming a better person. Learning how to be happier. So yeah, I’m glad it comes through in our music!
AP: I relate to that, too.
GG: And were you guys like that growing up?
CP: We were raised Christian as children, and then we kind of came out of that – our whole entire family – moved out of that.
CP: And realised it was bullshit! (laughs) But I think we both kind of missed the...there was something about it we missed. There are nice things about, you know, I imagine a pure religion... I’m not sure where I’m going with this...
GG: There are elements of religious devotion and so on that are kind of beautiful though, aren’t there?
AL: Yeah, and I think it’s just trying to show us truth and happiness. In its purest form, it can do that, but of course, we all know what has become of religion. For us, I think our search is for truth and happiness. But good luck finding any truth these days! (laughs)
GG: Yes, that’s very true, and it relates to something I wanted to ask you two. Listening to your music, the word that keeps springing to mind for me is ‘empathy’. There’s a lot of emotional understanding and a lot of searching for depth and a connection. Whilst I expect we can agree that all great music has that, it’s interesting to note that a lot of current music doesn’t have that empathy at all. Would you guys go along with that? Is empathy a term that’s important within The Pierces’ music?
AP: Yeah. I think, for me, it’s always been just an expression of an emotion, you know? It’s a way to get emotion out. I feel very connected to...like, I have a very difficult time getting through most songs without crying. Does that happen to you, Catherine?
CP: (laughing) Your own songs?
AP: Like, any song that I feel emotionally connected to, it’s like, I have to hold back tears.
CP: Yeah, for sure.
AP: I think it’s just like, it’s been therapy. Music is very healing for the person the person singing or performing and for the listener. I think that’s one of the most important aspects of music for humans. Healing, connection and release of emotion. Feeling.
CP: With social media and stuff, we’ve been able to connect with fans directly and we get a lot of messages saying, ‘I don’t know why but your music has healed me’, or, ‘I don’t know why, but your music inspired me to come out of the closet’. We get a lot of those messages. I’m not sure exactly what it is that people are connecting with but I’m very happy about it. I guess we bring honesty to our listeners, they connect with that and I guess it inspires honesty and opening in them.
GG: Yeah, they give an honest reaction to your honest performance.
GG: That might be why, Allison, you cry during your own songs: it’s because they’re effective, right? (Catherine and Allison start laughing) They’re doing their job!
AP: I don’t know! Actually, it can make performing songs very difficult, sometimes.
CP: Adele says she cries at her own songs, so, if Adele can do it... Haha!
AP: It’s not just my own songs. It’s any song that I connect with emotionally.
GG: What was the last song that wasn’t yours, that made you just break down uncontrollably?
AP: Well, I don’t know if I break down uncontrollably! (laughs) I’ll choke, because I have to hold back my tears. A lot of Joni Mitchell songs do that for me. It comes back to this honesty: people that are willing to be completely honest about who they are, how they feel, without apology, you know? Just laying it out, and letting it be what it is.
GG: Yeah, it’s very brave.
GG: So, let’s talk about the singing and the harmonies, because that’s such a big part of your sound. I would love to know more about how you guys came about it. They seem more specific. Did you just sing a lot together as kids, and the skills just grew naturally?
CP: Yeah. Our father was a musician and he always encouraged us to sing. I remember one day when harmony just clicked: I remember not getting it, not being able to do it and we were in the car, and I can’t remember what was on the radio, but I heard the two parts. And you (Allison) were singing the melody and I switched to the harmony, and I was like, ‘Ohhh!’ I was on this little train, I had no control so I just went with it, like ‘Oh my god, I’m doing it!’ And I’ve been doing it ever since!
GG: Haha, alright! And is that the same for yourself, Allison?
AP: Yeah, I don’t remember ever learning how to do it and I can’t remember the first time we did it, it just kind of happened. Then I think we just loved doing it, we loved singing together. It felt really good, so we would, like, go into tiled bathrooms where the acoustics were good and sit and sing together. Our father’s the one who taught us how to sing and get started. He encouraged us. So, we’ve been doing it all our lives and we’ve always loved it.
GG: For both of you, do you ever tend to see melodic lines as linear, visual things? Like if you’re singing, the melody has like, hills and valleys, so to speak? Does that make sense?
GG: So, when you’re harmonising, do you 'see' to go up when the other person goes low and vice versa, in that visual way? And does the harmony automatically come?
CP: Yeah, if she plays a new song of hers, I immediately know what I’m supposed to sing, almost every time. There are some times where there’s a tricky note or a ‘wait, what is that?’ moment where we have to work it out, but generally, it’s super intuitive and comes very quickly. And that’s what I was saying about how it’s like being on a train, almost like a rollercoaster, because you’re like following these little curves and hills.
GG: Exactly! And with that intuitive harmony in mind, do you tend to stick with the first harmony that suggests itself to you? Or do you test lots of different versions?
CP: Usually the most intuitive one wins, but there are times when maybe the producer of someone will influence us. Sometimes they’re right! (laughs)
AP: We’re not very technical: we do it by feel, so it’s like when we’re recording, the producers might be like, ‘No, you can’t do this, you have to do this note and this note’, and we’re like (makes a comical ‘nonplussed’ face) Uh-uh. But yeah, sometimes we would do what they said. Whenever we did though, it would feel different. There was one album we did, where the producer suggested a lot of harmonies and I had a few people say they noticed that it was different from what we normally did.
GG: So the harmonies that you two are intuitively creating are musically different from what a ‘schooled’ person might do, but that’s maybe what gives The Pierces that special sound, right?
AP: Yeah, maybe so.
GG: Cool! Now, recently you guys did that acoustic streaming performance event. How did you guys enjoy doing that?
AP: We enjoyed it so much that we’re doing another one! We’re doing a Christmas one. Actually, we’re recording it this week.
GG: Oh, really? Well, that’s good timing! So, I was going to ask about how you chose the setlist for that performance – which is still worth asking – but maybe you could tell us about this upcoming performance, too?
CP: Yeah! We haven’t performed in a long time, so we kinda just chose our favourite ones to sing, the ones that we felt best about. The ones that (laughs) Allison knew on guitar the best! Yeah, we were just kinda getting back into it, so we wanted to go with what was the strongest. But there were some songs that we left out, that some people, y’know...we didn’t do Glorious, we didn’t do a few that people were up in arms about (laughs)
GG: Ah, it’s always the way! You could’ve performed for five hours and there would still be some songs that the die-hards would grumble about, you know?
AP: But you didn’t do that b-side from 1998!
GG: Haha, yes, but there’s always another opportunity like this Christmas one! So, is there anything you can tell us about it?
AP: Well, we’re doing just Christmas songs, as you can imagine, and we just picked some of our favourite ones: some upbeat ones, some more emotional ones, and then one that I wrote and put out a couple of years ago. So, it should be fun! We’re gonna have a couple other musicians join us this time.
GG: Interesting! So, is it still going to be quite an acoustic sort of affair, just with more layers in it?
AP: We’ve got a guitar player and a keyboard player. We haven’t had a rehearsal yet so we’re not quite sure what the guitar player will be playing. Probably some electric, just like little nice, floaty things.
GG: Yeah, I like nice floaty things, that works.
AP: Yeah, who doesn’t! (laughs)
Sounds good to us! We’re looking forward to The Pierces’ forthcoming Christmas event (it’s not too early for Christmas chat, is it?) and also for the new record! Hopefully that’ll be available soon, but in the meantime, you can keep up to date with Catherine and Allison via the official Pierces Facebook page.
We’d like to thank Catherine and Allison for taking the time out to talk with us, it was our pleasure.
Thank you, out there, for reading this interview article! We hope you enjoyed it and there will be more soon, so check back in with us! (Find more right here on our Interviews page on the site)