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Joseph's Natalie Closner on James Bay, 'White Flag' and the intrigue of a sister act

"I understand the curiosity because families are weird."
Ebru Yildiz

Joseph’s haunting, melodic folk harmonies and time-traveling narrative lyrics have garnered them mainstream appeal. The sister trio — Natalie, Allison and Meegan Closner from Portland, Oregon — rose to the top of the Billboard Adult Alternative chart with “White Flag” just last week and kicked off their fall headlining tour in early September. Next week, they’ll perform on Colbert.

“I keep having these pinch myself moments,” says Natalie, the eldest of the three. (Allison and Meegan are twins.) “We’ve had several moments that felt like ‘arrivals,’ and all of those moments are heart-swelling, but it’s like that old saying, ‘It takes three years to be an overnight success.’”

For Joseph, these moments follow their second studio album, “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” which also snagged the top spot on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart in September. En route to St. Louis, Natalie calls in for a quick chat about being a sister act, their inspiration for "White Flag" and how they really feel about "Portlandia."

Can we talk about “White Flag”? It’s such a big, emotional song that almost feels like a fight song. Where did the inspiration for it come from?

We were in L.A. and struggling with all these things going on in the world. It feels like any news headline you read, you just want to pull back further on your hair and be like, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” It was such a heavy time for us, but we had this breaking point where we were like, “We can’t be pushed down by this.” Like, “OK, we’re going into countries with terrorist attacks and unrest and an earthquake might destroy the entire west coast, but we can’t sit back and wait in terror. We have to live our lives.”

It was after the fact that a friend sent me this quote from C.S. Lewis that’s like, let them find us drinking beers and taking care of the children, not cowering in fear. His generation was afraid of the atomic bomb, and I think in 2016, we’re having a similar cultural moment.

[Editor’s note, here’s the full quote: “If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts —not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”]

How is being on the road with James Bay?

He’s so, so good and I have no doubt saying, that man is going to be a legend some day. I’m on this tour thinking, “Oh, there’s going to be a documentary about this person in 30 years, and I’m going to have to figure out what to say about it.”

Do you find there are comparisons of you guys with other west coast family or sister acts — like Haim?

Of course, and there are some really amazing three-sister bands out there so I feel super honored. People are just going to naturally compare you to these types of things. It’s just a unique thing to do, to be a family and doing this. I understand the curiosity because families are weird and people are like, “How do you do that?”

Howdoyou do that?

I would be curious to read interviews with other family bands, but for us, it’s amazing. When we’re 80 years old, well be able to look back and be like, “Remember that time in Wyoming?”

You still have conflict because you’re dealing with the people you’ve known from when you were two-years-old and those things from when you were two-years-old still get brought up. You have to face those dynamics of your family head-on. For me, I have the dominating older sister, center of attention dynamic. And for someone else, it’s “Oh, I have to fall into my role as the younger sibling, doing whatever I’m told to do.” I have to consciously say, “How do I empower you to break through this thing you knew about yourself growing up?”

Does Portland ever show itself in your music?

I think wherever you’re from is going to have a big influence on the art that you make. I think it’s the [Portland] landscape. It’s very moody with gray skies and foggy evergreen mountains. We spent a lot of time camping and being outdoors. I hope that adds some groundedness to the art we make.

Are you Portland residents who is horrified by “Portlandia”?

I don’t mind going on the record and saying, everything that is on that show is true. It’s just a little bit exaggerated, but it’s absurd and wonderful.

 
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