“This is Karen and I’m in Scranton, Pa.”
“This is Sharon and I’m in hot and sunny Phoenix, Ariz.”
Doesn’t sound like a recipe for the makings of a great relationship. Or does it?
Karen Lynn and Sharon Lee have been, in their own words, “inseparable” since birth. And even though the distance between them may be great in miles, their talents are always within reach. The deep connection between these first cousins has resulted in a project called The Bookends and on Sept. 18, they will their second album Calliope, in formats including pink vinyl, on the Jersey-based Jem Records label.
“We have been called The Bookends pretty much since we’ve been born,” said Lee. “We are super-related: Our moms are related and our dads are related, so we’ve been together just about every day of our lives. Growing up, we always had some kind of music going on, whether it was singing songs and making our parents sit through our little performances, or whatever it was. We always did something musical together.
“Then I got married and moved out here to Arizona, and we always said we would circle back. We had little bands or sang backups when we were growing up, but nothing too crazy … so, one day we just decided to do it, and now we do everything long distance. I’m lucky enough that I have a studio in my home so it’s super-easy for Karen and I to hash out our songs, how we want them to sound, because we don’t have that ‘time is money’ thing going on. We have a studio at our disposal. So, that’s how The Bookends started just a few years ago, once we finally both had the time to work on it.
“I’m also in a couple of other bands, so I’ve been super-busy musically, but … it’s something that is near and dear to me, to do this project with Karen. There is no way I could let more time go by. We just decided we’re doing it, and we’ll fit it in. We are so glad that we did because the music is a labor of love for us and it’s a long-standing musical relationship, so it just flows.”
Growing up in such a tight-knit environment can have its advantages or its disadvantages, depending on how one looks at it. So what was it that set these two off on their musical path?
Lee said that when they grew up, “We were always surrounded by music. Both of our parents, on both sides, were huge music lovers. Music was always on more than television or anything else in our homes. There was always music. … Karen and I were always listening to old ’60s music or new stuff that reminded us of that, so it was just a natural progression for us to want to do that, and as teens we started kind of goofing around with different ideas and bands. It was always fun.”
Lynn is the guitarist in the duo and she, like Lee, brings her own influences and viewpoints from songwriting to equipment choices. This can make for an interesting dynamic given the distance currently separating the two.
“I’m a huge Beatles fan,” said Lynn. “I always wanted the John Lennon Rickenbacker, the 325. I love the jangly sound of a Rickenbacker, it’s very ’60s, and I started buying one after another. I then bought the 12-string. I have, like, six Rickenbackers. I just love the sound and the tone.
“I play the guitar. We usually sing in unison. That’s our thing: We sing together like bookends, and we both write.”
Lee continued: “I’ll write a song and lay down a demo and send it to Karen, she works out a guitar part and her vocal and sends it back to me and then I’ll add it to mine, or vice versa. She’ll send me her stuff and I’ll put down a bass line or keys and my vocal and send it back to her and then into the magical machine it goes, and out pops a song (laughs).”
What happens when there are differences of opinion when writing or creating a song?
“We just kind of work it out or find that happy medium, or that place where it belongs,” says Lee. “If somebody is objecting to something, there’s a reason behind it, and sometimes you can see it and sometimes you can’t and sometimes it works the other way around, where whoever is not hearing it will say, ‘You know you’re right, that does make sense.’ ”
“For the most part, we usually have the same ideas,” said Lynn. “We grew up inseparably, hence The Bookends, and we’ve always done things like pick the same color unbeknownst to the other one. For example, we designed the same exact high school ring as the other one and didn’t know until we got the rings. So many things. We would buy the same records, the same outfits … the same whatever.”
Lynn explained how social media and timing played a big role in their current good fortune.
“I knew (Jem owner) Marty Scott through Facebook, and one time he sent me a message because I guess he saw our page and he said, ‘Hey; how would you like to be the first girls to be signed to Jem Records?’ Apparently all of the acts he had signed previously had been men and we guess he thought, ‘Maybe I should try some female artists,’ and when he asked, we thought, ‘Sure, why not?’ We knew it was a great label, we were excited for the opportunity, so that’s how it all came about.”
Opportunity knocked and this excited, bubbly duo answered. They had already released a single, ‘Sing This Song,’ but were yet to have a title for the new album. So how did they come to settle on Calliope?
Lee said that when they released “Sing This Song,” she was talking to Scott “and I said, ‘A good single should be like a good ride at an amusement park. You should want to get on the ride. And as soon as you get off, you should want to get right back on again.’ … His wife Toni said, ‘Hey, you should call the album Calliope,’ and we both said, ‘Hey, we love that idea.’ It just lent itself so well to the artwork and the overall vibe on the record.
“There have been two singles released to this point: ‘Sing This Song,’ which kind of spawned the name of the album, and one just recently called ‘She’s Got It’ … I don’t know what the label’s plans are on releasing a single simultaneously with the album. We’ve not heard anything regarding that yet, so I’m not sure.”
The 14-track Calliope has been in the can for quite some time.
“We’re pretty quick about things,” said Lee. “Sometimes it can take a while to get that first inspiration, but once we get going, we run with it. So it doesn’t take us long. We worked on this album for a while, but some of it we had written for a long time, and then COVID kind of slowed us down a little bit. But for the most part I think it came together pretty quickly. We bring in drummers because I can sort of eke out a beat but I can’t play like that, and I know tons of drummers that I work with pretty regularly, and they were all thrilled to be on this record, so we are very fortunate. Frank Labor, who is also my husband and the producer, did some of the additional guitar work. We’re very lucky to be surrounded with the resources that we need. If I needed an oboe player I could probably find one (laughs).”
What effect will living so far away from each other have on their ability to promote the album?
“I think the last time we actually graced a stage was when I was on tour with one of my other bands and Karen came up and did a song with us,” said Lee. “But us as a band, it was a long time ago. We plan on promoting our records, we make little lyric videos, we make ourselves available for interviews and those kinds of things, and it has actually worked out very well for us. Our first album … for a debut album from two unheard girls, it really took off. It sold so well, to the point where people like Marty Scott and Jem Records were approaching us. We are so fortunate to have a fan base that’s excited for this kind of music and they are incredibly supportive and we are grateful for that every day. We know how lucky we are to have those kinds of people as fans and friends.”
“It would be wonderful to tour, but the expense and the logistics are just crazy. Not that we’d be opposed to that, but just getting rehearsals down and getting a band in playable condition to go on tour is no easy task. You would need to put the time in and to have that time. One of us would have to go to the other coast for a certain amount of time, and then go on the road. … it’s unfortunate because it would be so much fun. Who knows? Maybe if we sell a million copies and we’re independently wealthy, we can work some of this out!”
For more about The Bookends, visit facebook.com/thebookends2.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.