Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds’ soul-singing frontwoman may be small, but her voice rattles the rafters
Arleigh Kincheloe’s weathered voice, which cracks in and out when she laughs or talks excitedly, suits her music perfectly. As frontwoman of Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds, a horn-heavy seven-piece steeped in classic R&B and rock, Kincheloe gives her band a soulful and gritty flair reminiscent of old-school soul acts out of Memphis and Nashville. But Kincheloe grew up far from the bright lights of those southern cities, in the Catskill Mountains of southeastern New York.
When GT caught up with the singer, she was taking a break from Brooklyn, where the band currently resides, to hang out at her family home.
“Being here has always really inspired me,” Kincheloe says, reflecting on how much she likes the mountains. “I just wrote a new song today.”
Just under 5´4˝, and what she describes as “100 pounds soaking wet,” Kincheloe is the youngest of four siblings—the self-described “runt of the litter,” who had to find her own way in a house full of family and friends.
“You kind of had to fight for your place in line, a little bit, you know?” she says. “You had to make your own way and make sure you didn’t get trampled by the masses.”
Those early lessons made a lasting impression on Kincheloe. She learned to speak up and speak out. By the looks of her, you’d think she would have a dainty little voice, but when Kincheloe opens her mouth she reveals a deep, powerhouse voice capable of rattling rafters. Frequently mistaken for a boy on the phone, Kincheloe even surprised a vocal coach who marveled that she had never heard a voice like hers.
“She was fascinated by my low speaking voice,” says Kincheloe with a laugh. “She was saying, ‘I bet your voice resonates on the same frequency as most men, if not lower—you’re so different.’”
Kincheloe put her voice to use early, doing guest appearances with her parents’ band at age 9. She was immediately enamoured with the glamour of showbiz and performers—especially her mother, who she describes as a wonder woman who did construction, farm work, cooking and daycare. On the weekends, however, mom pulled out a vintage dress and got glammed up to sing.
“She’d look like a moviestar,” says Kincheloe. “It was so cool.”
Kincheloe grew up listening to the music her parents loved, such as Little Feat and the Band, but she eventually gravitated to classic soul singers including Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone. Once she started writing songs, she enlisted her brother, Jackson Kincheloe, to play harmonica, and the two created Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds.
With four albums under its belt, the band is now one of the darlings of the indie/roots underground. Combining straight-ahead rock grooves with irresistibly danceable funky soul jams, Sister Sparrow seamlessly blends genres and eras, giving a nod to classic soul while introducing the sound to new audiences excited by the depth and range coming out of a group of youngsters from Brooklyn.
The band’s new album, The Weather Below, is a bonafide success. The Village Voice calls it “lovely, grimy, and soulful,” and the Baltimore Sun cautions, “Prepare to be blown away.” Standout tracks include the sexy and super-funky jam “Sugar,” the light-hearted, deep groove “Prison Cells,” and “Mama Knows,” a loving tribute that passes on some motherly wisdom from Kincheloe’s mom: “Don’t hit me with your stuff/Think you got money/You got somethin/Just hit me with love/If you ain’t got love/Then you ain’t got nothing.”
“It’s all rooted in truth,” Kincheloe says of the song. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come off as cliché. Because it’s true and genuine, I feel like it’s OK to do that.”
Once the family runt, Kincheloe is now the leader of a band on the rise. Though it’s taken her some time to adjust to the role, she now embraces it.
“It’s been fun for me to be like, ‘Actually, I really want it to sound like this, can you please do it this way,’” she says. “Being the youngest in my family, and not being the boss of anybody, and sometimes not even being the boss of me, it’s been a fun learning experience.”
Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds will perform at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23 at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $10/adv, $13/door. 479-1854.
SOUL SIBLINGS Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds perform on Wednesday, Sept. 23 at Moe’s Alley.