By Chelsea Spear for Folk Alley
You might not know Monique and Chauntee Ross by name, but if you’ve been listening to folk and Americana music for the past decade, you’ve definitely heard them play. Under the name SistaStrings, the Ross siblings have collaborated with a wide swath of artists—among them, big names like Brandi Carlile and Allison Russell—and have appeared at Carnegie Hall and on CBS This Morning.
After releasing their debut EP Lift in 2019, SistaStrings are preparing to tour behind Love Is the Only Thing, their collaboration with the beloved folk songwriter Peter Mulvey. This welcoming collection of songs reflects on the strife of the past few years and looks ahead with a sense of hard-earned optimism. The Ross’s melodic sensibility complements Mulvey’s percussive guitar playing, and their harmony vocals give a more universal spin to the songwriter’s personal ruminations.
The sisters first learned about Mulvey through his 2015 viral song “Take Down Your Flag”, which inspired a series of responses by other members of the folk community.
“I remember reading and hearing about the song, and then, like a week later, we met him at the Unitarian church [in Milwaukee],” Monique recalls in a recent interview. “We were playing a gig and he was also doing a workshop with the youth separately, but we were in the same building. And everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got to meet Peter.’”
While their initial meeting was brief, it made enough of an impact that Mulvey remembered them a few years later. “We were playing with the other band, he’s like, ‘Hey, did you guys want to come over here?’ We’re like, ‘Yeah.’ And we’ve been playing together ever since.”
SistaStrings’ ability to make a great first impression through music comes from a lifetime of studying the classics. The Ross sisters took lessons at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. “We had a string quartet growing up,” Chauntee says. “But Monique and I are the only ones who’ve kept up with it. After everybody went to college, got real jobs, and did that thing.”
Playing at churches allowed the sisters to put their skills to the test. “There’s no reason in gospel music at all,” Chauntee observes. “I would say that church and gospel music is really our training ground for improvisation and kind of being able to flow with the music.”
The combination of conservatory training and performances at churches gave the duo a good foundation for their later career.
“Every Saturday we would have our music lessons at the Senior Academy of Wisconsin,” Monique says. “So it’s theory class, group lessons with everyone. Then Sunday, we’d go to church and play with a different church band … they would be like, ‘Hey, you guys want to play the strings?’”
Observing that “technique never goes out of style,” Monique reflects on how “playing in church, it definitely strengthened our ear, as far as improv. And just playing along taught you to hear.”
After graduating college, the Ross sisters returned to Milwaukee, where they “started exploring the music community there. We hadn’t really done [that] growing up, being homeschooled. [We were] really, honestly, just immersed in the classical world,” Monique says. “I didn’t know, personally that there was such a rich, supportive scene in Milwaukee, in the arts.”
Their post-graduate return to their hometown further informed their approach to playing and composing music. “The Milwaukee scene is lovely,” she adds. “It definitely is a community of people that are trying to work together to change and build that industry there. Milwaukee definitely is not known for its music industry, by any means, but there are definitely people who are trying to change that, because there is so much talent in Milwaukee. It’s oozing with talent. We are blessed to be friends with people who are actively trying to work on bringing attention to the Milwaukee talent.”
One member of the Milwaukee music scene is Peter Mulvey.
Prior to the pandemic, SistaStrings collaborated with Mulvey on a live recording, Live at the Café Carpe, and had begun to work on a studio follow-up just as COVID-19 began to strike. “[The album] came about from us saying we were going to do a record and coming together in Wisconsin. This was literally a couple weeks before everything got shut down, so we completed it. We thought that we were going to be taking it on tour the next summer and all that, but we needed these couple years.”
Mulvey has always responded eloquently to the current moment, and his ability to find the telling details comes through on Love Is the Only Thing. The somber “Song for Michael Brown” looks at the reverberations of Michael Brown’s death within the community and the country, while “Early Summer of ‘21” is a snapshot of the optimism many felt as the COVID-19 vaccine became more widely available. The songwriter’s ability to write about our current historical moment gives the album a sense of immediacy.
That immediacy extended to the recording of these songs.
“Peter would come downstairs and be like, ‘All right, you guys, I just finished this song. We need music for it.’ And then we’d figure out the parts and then we’d be like, ‘Okay, record it. Boom,’” Monique says.
“Usually there’s more time to get in your head about things and be nervous, but because we just need these parts to be here, boom, boom, and record it. It made it just a little bit more comfortable of a space to be in, rather than sometimes if you have more time and written-out parts and things, you can just get in your head. But we just really just have to connect with [the] music and heart and soul on this one.”
The Ross sisters’ improv skills and their ability to connect with heart and soul have served them well as they’ve worked with artists like Brandi Carlile and Allison Russell, who have created a collaborative space with SistaStrings, giving them space to do some of their best work.
SistaStrings are currently on tour with Carlile and Russell, as part of Russell’s Rainbow Coalition of the Loving. This fall, they will be joining Mulvey to support Love Is the Only Thing.
In the year and change since Mulvey wrote “Early Summer of ‘21”, what felt like optimism towards the end of COVID-19 has been challenged, as variants have continued to flourish and have shut down gatherings. Nonetheless, the Ross sisters remain optimistic about the release of the album and their upcoming live shows.
“We can’t live our lives scared,” Chauntee says of the band’s concerts. “We’re just living them carefully as we can. [We] take all the precautions we can, but [we’re] living our lives cautiously.”
Reflecting on the themes of their album with Mulvey, Monique adds, “I think it honestly might bring a ring of authenticity to these songs even more so. We’re still going through these things. We’re rushing through these issues as a whole and a community, but I imagine that it’ll be a needed thing—hopefully a healing thing for all of us.”
Love is the Only Thing is available HERE.