Ghost Stories, the debut full-length from The Whitmore Sisters, examines mortal connections that persist even after death, melodic conduits of the spirit that maintain a tether between the beating hearts of the living and the echoes of the departed. Though the album marks the first offering under this particular banner, the Whitmores, Eleanor and Bonnie, have been bandmates since childhood, performing with their parents and entering the professional realm as accomplished multi-instrumentalists as capable on stage as they are in the studio. Eleanor is perhaps best known as a member of Steve Earle’s Dukes & Duchesses as well as The Mastersons, the duo completed by her husband Chris Masterson, who served as instigator and producer for Ghost Stories. As a solo artist, Bonnie’s forged her own identity as a fierce songwriter and session player, recording and touring with the likes of Hayes Carll, James McMurtry, and John Moreland while refining a genre-bending style that morphs at will to challenge mental health, racism, sexual assault, or any subject confronted by “shut up and sing” mentalities. Ghost Stories finds the sisters sharing the pen as well as delivering fresh interpretations charged with evocative blood harmonies, vulnerability, and the chimeric light of memory.
AI- This is the first time recording as The Whitmore Sisters, and I tell ya’ when I first saw the announcement, I had to double-check that it hadn’t happened before. There’s been a lot of discussion about that, but I wanna know what the songwriting was like. You know how to sing together–you’ve been doing it your whole lives. Tell me about coming together to write songs.
Bonnie- Well, we had dabbled in it over the years. In fact, there’s a co-write that we did on my first record that I put out. A couple years ago, we sat down and wrote the “Friends We Leave Behind”, which was kind of the template for the record, and when we were sort of pushed into making the record…
Eleanor- By my husband, Chris Masterson (laughs)!
Bonnie- It was actually pretty easy! We came together with what we had…
Eleanor- We got together over ZOOM. Each of us had pieces of songs that we’d started but not finished and we were able to help each other finish ’em out for the record. It was pretty easy, considering.
You bring up Chris instigating this, putting this all together. Bonnie, you were on your way out to L.A. to go visit them– did I understand that you guys basically had created your own little COVID-free space out there?
Eleanor- Yeah. It was still pre-vaccine, and we’re still being really careful, but Bonnie had been locked down at home [in Austin] from March until I guess December was when we started having this conversation.
Bonnie- I was gettin’ antsy! I had planned to leave my bubble, but I was thinking I was gonna go spend an extended time down in Terlingua, and I realized that’s probably not the move I wanted to make. So I was like, “Hey, how about I come out to L.A. and hang out with you guys?” And Chris was like, “Yeah, that’d be cool. Except for, you’re not gonna just sit on the couch, we’re gonna make a record!” We don’t know what a vacation really is as musicians!
Was he just hangin’ on for dear life throughout all of this? Just lettin’ you two be yourselves and make the album?
Bonnie- He’s definitely been Whitmore’d a lot!
Eleanor- Yeah, it’s a lot. The husband and wife dynamic between Chris and I on top of the sister dynamic is definitely a lot for people to handle (laughs)! But we try to be on our best behavior, and honestly, it was really a pretty seamless process. We just had a lot of fun. There wasn’t a lot of pressure to make any certain type of record. We didn’t have a label deal at the time, and so we got to have a lot of creative freedom to do what we wanted.
Bonnie- And it being the pandemic, it was just nice to make music with other people ’cause that’d been lacking at that point. It was really easy and really fun, and I think we had our headspace in the right place.
You brought up “Friends We Leave Behind”, a song that you two wrote together that sets the tone for the record, which is full of memorials and musical tributes to friends, and family. Tell me about how you decided to go that direction. It’s heavy material. Of course, both of you, with The Mastersons and Bonnie solo, you’ve tackled plenty of heavy material in the past. Was this is the way you were going to do it from the beginning?
Bonnie- I figured after an album like Last Will & Testament, Ghost Stories seemed like the right move (laughs)! But yeah, I think it was also really cathartic to make this record. I think Eleanor and I pulled from inspiration when we were going through grief previously in the past, and right now, it just seems like loss is very much a universal thing that everybody is experiencing. So it felt like the right move to take what most people think of ghost stories– as scary– and try to make it more celebratory, like you said, homages to friends that we’ve lost.
Eleanor- I think songwriting can also be a good form of therapy for both the listener and the songwriter.
There’s also a sense, I think, that because there has been such a great deal of loss that there’s almost a danger of becoming inundated to it. But when you invoke that emotion through song, we get closer to it again.
Eleanor- It’s hard in our culture to talk about death. We tend to not talk about it and to avoid talking about it, and music is a good way to be able to bring it up, but dress it up in melody and make it a little more accessible for people to process.
Bonnie- Coming at it with a melody that’s more whimsical, even though the subject matter is heavy.
Let’s talk about the Aaron Lee Tasjan track on the record, “Big Heart Sick Mind”. I did not realize that was even floating around out there, that it was one that he had considered for his last record. How did you come upon that one to add it to yours?
Eleanor- Chris and I have been friends with Aaron for a really long time. We lived in New York at the same time, he played in our wedding, he’s just a really amazing friend. Both Chris and I, and Bonnie have…
Bonnie- We’ve all written with him over the years. He’s been on most of my projects.
Eleanor- We reached out to him to see if he had time to write with us, and he was like, “Yeah, sure! But I have this song…” We really needed something with some tempo for the pile that we had in place already, and he sent that track over and I was like, “Oh my God, this is perfect! Are you sure you wanna give us this song?” And he was like, “Yeah!” And then he heard it as a duet, and he was kinda knocked out by it and thought that it worked better as a duet– kind of like battling between the heart and the mind. I’m really happy that he let us cut that song.
You also do “On The Wings Of A Nightingale”, and there’s no way around it, when it comes to sibling harmonies, blood harmonies, the Everly Brothers are always at the top of the conversation. Bonnie, I believe you’ve also made a particular Louvin Brothers reference as well (laughs)! Tell me about choosing that song. I read Will Rigby had sent you [Paul] McCartney’s demo when he had put it together?
Eleanor- Years ago, Will Rigby used to play in Steve Earle & The Dukes with Chris and I, and he sent The Mastersons that tune thinkin’ that we would like to cover it. We worked it up at soundcheck and always loved the song, but never got around to cutting it. I kinda forgot about it, and then when I was talkin’ to Aaron about songs, he was the one that actually reminded me of the Everly’s version and that McCartney wrote that tune for the Everlys. His demo of the song is really cool because, you know, it’s McCartney and he’s singing the harmony parts himself in the style of the Everlys! It’s just such a cool track without all of the bells and whistles and stuff, so that was the template for our version.
I think that “Superficial World Of Love” could have totally been recorded by the Everlys, and it’s one of the standout tracks on the album. I’ve been tryin’ to figure out what the song is about, and I can’t tell if the war you reference is the pandemic? If it’s something more personal? If it’s actual war? Tell me a little bit about the song and you two writin’ that one together.
Bonnie- A lot of the inspiration for the song kind of came from Eleanor and I’s childhood of opera influence from our mother, pulling from the dramatic…
Eleanor- Those feminist lead characters…
Bonnie- Who usually end up murdering themselves (laughs)…
Eleanor- Or dying of consumption! Our mother played the lead in La Traviata and is one of those singers that emotes a lot.
Bonnie- We were channeling that when we were creating this song. But I like to leave it up to the listener’s interpretation of what war. That can be a war within yourself, or the inevitable when a breakup happens and you have to find a new boundary but not wanting to lose that person. I think the pandemic is also an example of that. It can be interpreted a lot of ways.
Let’s talk about “Ghost Stories”, the title track itself. That started inspired by the death of Elijah McClain, but it grew to encompass so much more.
Eleanor: That was a really tricky song. The violin melody in that song was inspired by Elijah. He was a musician, a violinist, and really just kind of a pacifist. He somehow got targeted. Somebody thought he looked weird and police were called, and he ended up dying at the hands of police. This is something that is systemic, and when we wrote this song, it was at the height of the George Floyd protests, and we began to realize that the story just about one person was a little too painful and too raw, and that we needed to pull the lens back and recognize that there was something bigger happening and this isn’t just one incident.
Bonnie- We didn’t wanna make it a murder ballad about one individual either. I think it was important for us, especially as two white women to write a song that pulls the lens back and speaks to the actual problems that are within the system, not just this one incident.
Eleanor- There’s a lot of problems these days, and it can be really overwhelming, but I think there’s a lot of good in humanity. If we just take some time to examine what’s going on and to try to imagine something that is better for everyone… I think that we have a lot of work to do but that it can be done. We’ve seen it happen in the past, and I hope that the momentum will keep going so that policing can work for everyone.
Eleanor, in the bio on The Whitmore Sister’s website, you quote Woody Guthrie, “Music is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” When I spoke to Chris right at the very beginning of the pandemic, I think it was late February 2020, he actually used the same quote when we were talking about No Time for Love Songs. It’s clear that’s a philosophy that you continue to embody when you write. Bonnie, you and I have spoken about how keeping the conversation going and making sure people are aware is so very important in these songs.
Bonnie- You can say something over and over again, and it doesn’t get processed, whereas if you sing about it and you also get people to participate with that, it hits differently. It can go further than just words.
[Bonnie], when you and I spoke last time, it was very fresh, it was still very new– the passing of Justin Earle. You have a song on the new album, “Greek Tragedy”, for Justin. Eleanor, you’ve recently been involved with the recording of the J.T. tribute album, which is just an amazing, emotional record. When you have the opportunity to remember artists in song, how do you balance the tragedy with the happiness?
Eleanor- Well, it’s hard to do that. Sometimes the emotion is so fresh, and the problem of addiction has definitely affected… Everybody has somebody in their life that struggles with addiction. With songwriting, sometimes when the lyric is really cutting, if you pair it with a melody that is whimsical or moving in a different way, it’s a juxtaposition that can get the point across with the words but doesn’t cut quite as deeply when it’s set to a happy melody. With that song, it’s definitely meant to be celebratory and the comfort of the heavens and the harp opening up and receiving the individual.
Bonnie- Especially with that particular thing. When someone loses their life to addiction or even to suicide, it’s devastating to those of us that are left behind, but there’s also a sense of you’re glad that they no longer have to bear that burden anymore.
Eleanor- That they’re not struggling.
Bonnie- They’re not having to struggle with it. That’s the only kind of silver lining or comfort that I can get from those situations.
There’s quite a few danceable moments on the album. Bonnie, you told me that you had a country album that you wanted to make. “Hurtin’ For A Letdown”, did that come out of that, or was that specifically for this record?
Bonnie- Well… I think when we were talking about it, I had these songs that were leaning in that direction, and so it sort of made it perfect that The Whitmore Sisters project came together. So I would say that this is kind of like my more country record that we had alluded to, but “Hurtin’ For A Letdown” was actually one that came out right before I went to L.A. I was needing to express more about my suicidal heart tendencies and my addiction to heartbreak (laughs)!
Eleanor- That’s a country song for you right there!