The Pierces: 'We're the indie Abba'

Having spent a decade in near obscurity, the folk-rock pair are being tipped for glory. Just don't ask the siblings their age…

The Pierces are tired. Very, very tired. The two sisters walk into the lobby of their London hotel with bleary eyes and wilting smiles. "I'm sorry," says Allison, the brunette elder sibling. "I feel like I'm hungover, but I only had one beer last night." Catherine, the blond one, who seems marginally less exhausted, nods sympathetically. "Yeah, but we were on stage so you don't have as much dinner before and then you forget after…" The two of them gaze into space. A lassitude falls across the table like dust.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that the New York-based sisters possess a certain seen-it-all weariness. In an increasingly fast-paced music industry, where fresh-faced bands come and go at the click of a mouse, the Pierces are battle-hardened veterans. "We've been doing this for a long time."

In fact, the Alabama-raised siblings are about to release their hotly tipped fourth album, You & I, a melodic melange of folk, rock and 70s radio melodies, produced by Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman. Their success has been a long time coming. Perhaps that's why neither of them wants to give me her age. "We're old enough to know better but young enough to do it anyway," says Catherine.

For the best part of a decade, the duo worked hard and got nowhere. They released three albums but struggled to get public recognition, mainly, they think, because of a lack of support from their US record label. They had no money to tour, so shot their music videos for $500 a pop, calling in favours from friends and raising funds by taking part-time jobs – Allison as a nanny, Catherine as a DJ.

"Secret", a track from their third album, Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge, was featured on primetime TV shows Gossip Girl and Dexter but still they failed to break through. Not even a high-profile celebrity romance – Catherine used to date the Strokes guitarist, Albert Hammond Jr – was enough to catapult them into the big time. "It got pretty low," says Allison. "Just to put all that love into making a record, promoting it and then to have it fizzle out… it was heartbreaking."

They were on the verge of calling it a day when Berryman, a friend, persuaded them to think again. Berryman and the Grammy-winning producer Rik Simpson had just set up production company the Darktones and, over the next nine months, the Pierces recorded their fourth album under their guidance. It is now being released on their new label, Polydor. If the rapturous reception for their recent live London shows is anything to go by, the Pierces are on the brink of making it.

"The album was a magical collaboration," says Catherine, the dreamier of the two, her big blue eyes peering out from beneath a Bardot-esque fringe. "I'd describe the sound as a kind of indie Abba…"

"It's melodic pop rock," Allison cuts in briskly. "It feels like we've musically figured out where we want to go."

Although the sisters admit to arguing ("We try not to go for the jugular", says Catherine), their musical tastes are fairly similar, a legacy of their hippie upbringing. Their parents – Fielding, a musician, and Anne, an artist – educated their daughters at home from the age of 12 and raised them in a house filled with the music of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Jackson Browne.

"It was hugely inspirational," recalls Catherine. "Music was playing all the time. I don't know where we'd be without that."

The Pierces were born in Birmingham, Alabama, and had an itinerant childhood with two elder half-siblings and a younger sister. "We moved around a lot," says Catherine. "Even now, I don't like staying in one place. I moved 12 times in 10 years in New York just for the different apartments."

The home-schooling, though, was a mixed blessing: "We got to flourish in an area we were drawn to, like art… but our maths skills are definitely lacking."

"Our mother was a pushover," says Allison. "I had the teacher's edition of our maths book so we'd just write the answers down. That's called cheating."

At first, both girls were obsessed with ballet – at one point, Allison joined a troupe of Christian ballet dancers in Jackson, Mississippi, that was, in her words, "a little culty". In the end, her sibling rescued her from further brainwashing. "I just went down there and said, 'Stop being crazy, let's start a band,'" says Catherine.

Allison nods. "Yeah, and in that instant I realised I was over ballet."

"And cults," adds her sister.

They started performing in local Alabama coffee shops and eventually got a record deal but were, by their own admission, "badly equipped" for the hard-knocks life of fledgling musicians. "It used to make me angry when I saw manufactured pop stars have this instant success," says Allison. "But now I've come to a place of acceptance about where we are musically and as people. Ours has been such a slow build-up. We've seen our friends have success and we know it can be fleeting."

"Yeah," agrees Catherine. "Celebrity seems kind of ridiculous."

With the interview over, the Pierces push back their chairs, elegant limbs flopping languidly with the effort. Maybe, I suggest, they should have an afternoon nap? Catherine brightens. "Yeah, or there's a spa here, but you have to pay £25 to use it." Even if you're a guest? She nods. That's ridiculous, I say; don't they know who you are? She laughs. "I should say to them, shouldn't I? I should say, 'Don't you know who we're about to be?'"

The Pierces' "You'll Be Mine" EP is out on 7 March; the album You & I is released by Polydor on 23 May


Elizabeth Day

The GuardianTramp

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