As lead singer and principal songwriter of Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds, Arleigh Kincheloe realized early on in her career that a voice as powerful as hers needed a band that was capable of complementing it without being overpowering.
The Dirty Birds definitely fit that description. While Kincheloe's soulful vocals bring to mind a young Bonnie Raitt, they're accompanied by the backing of musicians performing some of the strongest blues-rock notes this side of a Delta roadhouse. If Kincheloe needed reassurance that she'd chosen her compatriots wisely, she received it from a very unlikely musical legend during the process of recording the band's 2013 Fight EP when Randy Jackson (American Idol) sat behind the boards to produce the disc.
"He is clearly more known for pop stuff, which isn't anything like what we do, but I think it was sort of a passion project for him," the singer explains. "He didn't want to change us at all. He never attempted to come in and put his own sound on us. He just wanted to let us shine on our own. I remember one day he said something like, 'We don't want to clean this up too much. The dirtiness is what makes it you.' He was really into keeping us authentic, which is great."
Jackson's seal of approval inside the studio translated into more exposure for the band outside of it as well. While the Dirty Birds had built up some interest amongst music fans since first hitting the road in 2011, Jackson's name in the producer credit gained them a credibility they had lacked.
"Just the fact that you and I are talking about it right now kind of shows how important that was," Kincheloe says with a laugh. "It definitely raised some eyebrows, and that was good for us, because you need people to talk about you one way or another."
The band is currently in the midst of a nonstop tour behind their third full-length studio album, The Weather Below. While the oddness of working with Jackson may have gotten curious listeners to give the band a whirl, pure talent has led them to become fans. The new LP features the Birds' skills being harnessed as never before, with acclaimed Americana producer Ryan Hadlock (The Lumineers, Vance Joy) having a better sense of the band's strengths in this particular genre.
For the band, collaborating with Hadlock was a whole different ballgame. Kincheloe explains, "We had a ton more time with this disc, spending weeks together, and we ended up living at the studio. We worked every day with Ryan, and I just really enjoyed working with him. He and I saw eye-to-eye on pretty much everything. The vision that I had for the project was shared by him.
"It also allowed us to step outside of our comfort zone quite a bit," she continues. "Most of our other recordings have been more or less live — and some of them on the new album are as well — but there was just something a little more meticulous about the different sounds that went into this one."
Between the new album, the band's post-South by Southwest buzz, and an avalanche of music-blog love, 2015 has had every sign of being a special year for the band. Kincheloe doesn't allow herself to get too worked up over positive press.
"I try to stay in the habit of not getting too excited about anything, just because we've been doing this long enough that I would like to think that I know better," the sultry vocalist explains. "When I was younger, I used to get my hopes up and would get excited about every little thing that would happen. In the seven years that our band has been together, we have experienced a lot of ups and downs, so it taught me to take it easy and wait out what is going to happen.
"There have been a lot of moments that have felt like we are getting somewhere," she continues. "And I think putting this record out and getting a little radio play nationally, it's starting to feel like all of the hard work is beginning to pay off."
A little bit of a payoff is a nice change of pace. The term "road warrior" is one that is overused when discussing touring bands, as most musicians have to travel in order to break through to a national audience, but Sparrow has taken the concept as a challenge since first forming. Their reputation as a must-see live act was hard-earned, covering 28 states and over 50,000 miles during the Birds' very first tour.
"I think we survived those crazy conditions those first couple of years of touring because we didn't know any better," she admits. "And nobody told us there was a different way to do things. The only reason we're able to take it a little easier now is from busting our asses early on."