The Pierces: karaoke, loneliness and shamanic ayahuasca rituals

What led folk-pop siblings Allison and Catherine Pierce to seek inspiration in the South American hallucinogenic? And did it work?

‘There’s this karaoke bar by my house that I go to a lot,” says Allison Pierce, sitting at a cafe table in Silverlake, Los Angeles. “There seems to be hardly anyone in there. But there’s this old Korean man, and we do a lot of duets. We do Beatles songs, and New York, New York and Country Roads …”

Next to her, her sister and bandmate Catherine looks at her with disbelief. “You do?” she asks, amazed.

“It’s because there’s just something about it that is a release,” Allison continues, unabashed. “I started going to the karaoke bar at a time when I was very, very single, when I first moved here, and I didn’t really know anybody; for me it was like some people play basketball: just letting off steam. When I sing it feels like flying to me. I just let go. I don’t know if that makes me seem crazy.”

Catherine blinks. “I have to be very, very drunk to do karaoke,” she says.

The story of the Pierces has been well-documented: two sisters from Alabama wrote and performed a kind of agreeable folk-pop, and languished for many years on the edge of success until, just as they were on the brink of giving it all up, they found themselves taken under the wing of Guy Berryman from Coldplay, who produced their 2011 record You & I, which duly reached No 4 in the UK album charts.

Profiles dwelled on their age (now 36 and 39, pop stardom found them later than many), their beauty and their celebrity connections, and so it’s understandable that as they now return with their fifth album, Creation, there seems a desire to move on.

After all, life has changed substantially for the sisters since You & I. After the hubbub of touring the last record subsided, they relocated from New York to Los Angeles — Catherine moving west first, and Allison arriving shortly afterwards following a fair amount of convincing.

Today, they speak in glowing terms of the city’s openness. “There’s definitely an energetic thing in LA,” Catherine says. “In New York and London there’s always this scepticism, like you have to put this smirk on your face just in case something’s not true.” She talks with similar rapture about the landscape, the mountains and the beach and the desert. “And you know, I never even really liked nature that much,” she laughs. “Because I loved New York, the lifestyle there, going out, the energy. I totally never felt that I needed nature. But once I was here I started getting into it. Maybe it’s just you change as you grow.”

Growth is perhaps the governing theme of our conversation this lunchtime. They tell me how they have grown inwardly as individuals, and the ways in which they have, healthily, grown apart as songwriters. As with the last album, the new songs were all written separately. “And it’s very rare that we write together,” says Catherine. “I think till you’ve written the first 40 songs in your life it’s like a novelty, an experiment, and then as you get older you’ve said a certain amount of things, and then you’ve got to dig deeper. And it’s almost like you can’t do that with other people, because some come from your head, some from here.” She places a hand over her heart. “It depends, but I think that the process is now more like a meditation, a going inward, rather than, ‘Let’s try to write a song!’ It’s less of a game and more of a therapeutic thing.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure I’m on the same page as you on this,” says Allison. “For me [songwriting’s] become less natural maybe. When I was younger it was this constant hunger of wanting to, needing to express, and as I’ve gotten older that’s lessened. Maybe I’m happier. I don’t care as much, I don’t feel that need to prove something any more.”

Finding that happiness has been the sisters’ impetus over the course of the past year or so. For Catherine it has come in the form of a new relationship – she is now engaged to Christian “Leggy” Langdon, who was once their bass player and musical director and produced Creation. “They’d been dating for like two weeks when she said: ‘Can Leggy come on the road and play bass with us?’” Allison recalls. “And I was like can he play bass? But it turned out he was an amazing musician, he whipped our band into shape, he started producing, he was really the best thing that could’ve happened to our band.”

Several of Catherine’s songs on the new album reflect this flush of contentment, notably Flesh and Bone. “It feels so peaceful to sing it,” she says. “It’s about my fiance. It’s just about loving each other really purely. A lot of the songs I wrote were about things going well. Which was weird for me. Before it was always like: ‘Why is this not going well?’ But I really enjoyed writing happy songs.”

Allison’s experience seems to have been a little different. “My songs aren’t as happy,” she says bluntly. “I think I was still drawing on previous experiences.” And Catherine talks of one song she wrote, Devil is a Lonely Night, perhaps being inspired by her sister. “You were newly single, and I was remembering how the worst feeling in the world is going to bed alone again,” she says, “and it compels you to get in touch with your old flame, just to get out of that pain, to get away from that loneliness.”

Between the empty bed, the karaoke bar and the contentment she insists she feels today, Allison seems to have done a great deal of soul-searching. “I think initially it was just because of the desire to be happy,” she says. “And when you’re not happy you think what’s wrong and how can I fix it? You start going inwards or you turn outwards for help with therapy …”

For both of the Pierce sisters, a huge revelation came through trying the South American hallucinogen ayahuasca. “I’d heard about it years ago and I thought you had to go to the jungle to do it,” says Allison, who tried it first. “And then I lived with this girl, we’d never met before but we became roommates, and the night she moved in she said something about doing ayahuasca, and I was like ‘Wait a minute, you’ve done ayahuasca?’ And she said ‘Yeah, tonnes of times, in fact my shaman’s going to be in town tomorrow night …’” Catherine smiles: “That’s LA for you,” she laughs.

“I was going through a really difficult time,” Allison says, “and I knew that I was going to do this.” The following evening she found herself in a yoga studio in Venice Beach, faintly disappointed to find the Peruvian shaman wasn’t wearing long white robes or even a poncho, taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony. “During the ceremony everyone sits around in a circle, drinking tea, and you sit like that for five hours, lights out, completely inside of yourself and beyond yourself. There’s no talking. The shaman sings these ancient South American chants and shakes this palm branch, and it sounds crazy-otherworldly.”

Ayahuasca has gained something of a cult reputation among celebrities from Sting and Paul Simon to Lindsay Lohan and the Klaxons, though it remains illegal, and its implication in the death of a British teenager in Colombia earlier this year has cast a shadow over the rapturous accounts made by some of those who have tried it.

When Catherine later took part in a ceremony she was concerned about what might happen. “I was convinced I was going to die,” she says, “but I still felt really compelled to do it. I was so nervous I put my shoes on the wrong feet. The shaman was like ‘Everyone should just relax …’ and I was like ‘What if you can’t relax? Is this safe? Should I be doing this?’ I thought I was going to be completely out of my mind, that I was going to lose my senses. But instead it was the opposite, I was so heightened, so aware, it’s different every time. But the first time I did it it was amazing, the most incredible experience of my life.”

Indeed Catherine was so taken by the effects of ayahuasca that she took herself off to the Peruvian jungle, alone, to take part in a five-day intensive ceremony that saw her taking ayahuasca every day and repeatedly throwing up. “I’m the last person in the world who would go to the jungle and live in a hut with no electricity for a week. Literally probably the last person. I really like my hairdryer,” she says. “I think I’m still processing the experience. Some of it I didn’t quite understand. This sounds so LA, but it felt like it was shifting me on a cellular level. It was almost as if I went there to throw up my entire being and start again.”

“My first experience was completely horrifying,” Allison adds. “I swore I would never do it again. I said you cannot give me $1m to do that again. And then a few weeks later I realised how it had shifted my brain, my mind and emotions and showed me the things that were holding me back in life and I knew what I needed to do.”

She says she feels a lightness these days that has made her reconsider her career. She speaks of one day moving to Nashville to be closer to their family, of perhaps starting an interior design company with their younger sister. Certainly she believes that the next time the sisters record it will be separately. Catherine is already working on some material with Langdon that sounds “like Emmylou Harris … but modern”, while Allison would like to make something “folkier” and more akin to the sound they had in the beginning. “I just feel like it’s my natural expression,” she says.

And as she braces herself for another tour as one half of the Pierces, these are the questions Allison will be asking herself. “I definitely wonder what kind of art you can make without struggle,” she says, “I think a lot of art is struggle, and I’m just not sure if I’m willing to struggle that hard any more. And I’m seeing that the less I struggle the less art I want to make.” She thinks about this for a moment. “Or it could be that I want to express myself in different ways,” she adds. “It could just be that I’m growing.”


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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