Lucius Doubles Your Pop Pleasure With ‘Second Nature,’ With Help From Brandi Carlile and Dave Cobb

They're back in front after collaborating with Roger Waters, the War on Drugs, Harry Styles and others. Co-producer Brandi Carlile modestly proclaims: "I do think it’s the best pop record of the last 20 years.”

Lucius Variety Facetime
Max Wagner

Even if the band name Lucius doesn’t ring a bell, chances are you’ve seen frontwomen Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe at some point — guesting with someone else, if not out on their own — and asked, “Who are those two identical-twin singers… who are not actually identical, but close enough for rock ‘n’ roll?” The two women have forged a strong visual as well as musical identity by singing in perfect unison as well as dressing and styling alike.

They’re certainly known, as a visual reference if not a proper name, to anyone who saw them prominently featured on Roger Waters’ 157-date “Us + Them” tour in 2017-18, and to many who’ve caught their featured appearances live or on record with the War on Drugs, Harry Styles, Sheryl Crow, Ozzy Osbourne and Mavis Staples, among others. And their audience for their own music is substantial, although it’s been a while since they properly cultivated it touring behind “Wildewoman” (2013), “Good Grief” (2016) or the semi-acoustic placeholder “Nudes” (2018). But with “Second Nature,” their first album of all-new material in six years, they’re no longer 20 feet or even a couple of yards from stardom, but reclaiming the spotlight for themselves.

Brandi Carlile and Dave Cobb co-produced it in Nashville’s RCA Studio Studio B — facts that may well steer you toward thinking “Second Nature” might be an Americana-leaning record. Consider yourself wrongly steered, in that case.

Carlile tells Variety: “We all decided to do this at Girls Just Wanna Weekend [in 2019]. Dave and me were watching them on the balcony when I was getting my makeup done for my set, and he goes, ‘That is the best band that not enough people know about.’ And I was like, I know! And he goes, ‘They need to make an ABBA record, and they need some Bee Gees.’ And I was like, [skeptically] ‘Interesting … not being super-familiar with that concept musically, and also being such a fan of theirs that I didn’t think that they needed to do anything different. You know, I loved ‘Wildewoman’ and ‘Good Grief,’ and when ‘Nudes’ came out, I heard some potential for Americana on that one.”

Carlile continues, “But then I got to thinking about it, and I’m like, ‘Dave’s absolutely right.’ And when we actually got in the studio with the band, there were elements of that in there. But then, some of who they actually are, and the age that we actually are [born in the ’80s], started to make an appearance. There started to be a little bit of Janet Jackson stuff happening, and some Whitney (Houston), and Erasure, and even PM Dawn. I hope this comes across in the right way, but it’s grown-ass pop. It’s like pop music for grown-ups, and I mean that in the coolest, most avant-garde way. But I do think it’s the best pop record of the last 20 years.”

Lazy loaded image
Lucius’ Holly Laessig, Allison Russell, Jess Wolfe of Lucius and Brandi Carlile perform onstage at the Joni Mitchell MusiCares Person of the Year Gala on April 1, 2022 Brian Friedman for Variety

No small claim, from Carlile. But let’s let the two women of Lucius speak for themselves now. Variety met up with the dynamic duo on Wolfe’s deck overlooking downtown Los Angeles.

With Brandi and Dave producing, there was an expectation that “Second Nature” might lean toward Americana. But it’s very dance-oriented, in a Robyn-meets-the-late-‘70s kind of way.

Laessig: I think “Dance Around It” [which ended up featuring Carlile and Sheryl Crow on backing vocals] was probably the first one where we were like, “We’re going to make a dance song.” And doing that felt so good and cathartic at that point in time, during lockdown, and so we were like, “Oh, we need more of that feeling.” And Dave, from the get-go, wanted to make a disco record.

Wolfe: Partly because he is more accustomed to making Americana records, it was exciting to him to do something a little bit outside of the norm for him. When he said that, it was affirming of the feeling that we already had, which was like: We’ve been stuck inside. Can we still talk about heavy life experiences, but have a party and find something joyful in this dark moment?

And we love Robyn — we’re big fans. In fact, early on in the pandemic, we were having these weekly hangouts with our fans. One week we did a DJ set, and everybody could submit songs on this app called Jukebox. We had control over it, but people could suggest songs so we could see their suggestions and move them around and DJ. So everybody could hear it at the same time, dance at the same time, and see each other. It was the most real version of a dance party you could have through a computer. When we played the Robyn song, that was epic — people were losing their shit, turning the lights on and off.

Speaking to the album’s more personal side… Jess, your ex-husband [Dan Molad] is in the band. It hasn’t been that many years since you split. After the band was apart for some of the pandemic, what was it like bringing him into the studio to play on songs you’d written about your divorce?

Wolfe: We had sent [him] demos, because that would be a lot for somebody to inhale in one sitting. But we always, while we were married, too,  always had a green light when it came to writing. Like, you should not have any block or limit to what it is that you need to express artistically. And so I knew that it was okay, and he did expect songs to be about it. The songs have always been about our relationships. But I remember playing him “Man I’ll Never Find,” which is a big song emotionally, and he said, “It’s the best song you’ve ever written.” There’s an understanding and a camaraderie in our art and partnership, which is why things have gone as well as they can, given that circumstance.

There’s no one else in pop that does 100% unison singing besides you two. What is the origin story of that?

Wolfe: The way that we stumbled upon it was accidental, except we were present enough to recognize it. We were in college (at Berklee College of Music), working on a little recording project, and we started singing in unison. And we’re like, “Oh, this is like a double-tracked vocal, except there’s two of us” — and we could do it live. Both of us wanted to be the lead singer, but we didn’t want to just trade off. This was a way of being the lead singer together. It’s literally been the thing that’s anchored our entire career, this voice that we make together.

Is dressing alike on top of singing alike more about creating a kind of pop-art, or is there an element of branding because of that instant recognizability you have?

Wolfe: We weren’t thinking that it would be as much of a branding tool as it became. We are influenced by artists who have a strong visual representation of their music, like David Bowie. When we started, the idea was: We are singing as one unit. When people see us live, how can we visualize that in a way where they’re seeing what they’re hearing? When you go see a choir, they’re all wearing matching robes, because you are meant to hear them as as one voice, even though you make out different faces. But then with us, it became a sparkle/glitter explosion. [Laughs.] Which we never get sick of.

Do you have identical-dress and wig wranglers?

Wolfe: We are the wig and costume wranglers. It takes a lot of time and effort to keep finding new things that fit both of our body types.

Laessig: I remember running around Europe on the “Wildewoman” tour, looking for a last-minute costume. We went to H&M, and it was just like, go straight to the sale rack — the thing that nobody else wants … like the sparkliest, gaudiest thing.

Wolfe: It was the rainbow sequin top and skirt that matched. We wore that outfit singing with Jeff Tweedy, Mavis Staples, John Prine — it did us good, that 30 bucks.

Talk about being out with Roger Waters on his mammoth tour for years. Besides being featured on the surprising amount of Pink Floyd songs that are powered by female backing vocals, you took over the lead on  “The Great Gig in the Sky”  — quite an iconic classic-rock moment to recreate. Obviously on the original record it was not designed for two voices in harmony.

Wolfe: It was meant to be this voice of God — well, I shouldn’t say that, because Roger does not believe in God! — when Clare Torry sang it on “Dark Side of the Moon.” But Roger wasn’t looking for us to be traditional background singers. He was looking for us to give a piece of what it is that we do to his art, and was generous in allowing us to take this very iconic moment and come up with our own version of it. And I’m so glad he did, even though it was a process, because it’s a crazy song to tackle.

How were Pink Floyd fanatics about that? Any resistance to reformulating things?

Wolfe: Some Pink Floyd fans are purists, and others are just along for the ride. However it is delivered, they’re going to be there because they are so supportive and it’s their greatest joy to hear that music. So probably a little bit of both. [Laughs.] I think in some ways, they welcomed us with open arms. We definitely shined in our femininity on stage, both musically and visually. But others just want to hear the thing that they’ve heard on record for their entire lives, which, of course, we understand, but it’s not that. We are not [Torry], or whoever it was that was singing before us. We’re us.

You aren’t on the coming Waters tour, right?

Wolfe: No. We have a little FOMO. We have become a touring fam. We’ve played to 350,000 people with Roger. And it is some of the moments that I know we will both hold onto and cherish for our entire lives. But nothing beats being in a room with 500 fans screaming your own lyrics. There’s nothing that could ever top that, which is amazing to recognize now on the other side, because that was a wild, magical adventure.

Lazy loaded image
Lucius performs during the Roger Waters Us+Them tour at the Maracana stadium, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018 AP
Lazy loaded image
Lucius joins Roger Waters live on stage at the Verizon Center on Friday, August 4, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP

You’ve been on so many records. Do you have a favorite guest appearance you’ve done?

Laessig: We’ve done such an array of records with people, so it’s really hard to say between John Legend and War on Drugs and Harry Styles and Roger Waters and Sheryl Crow and Brandi Carlile and Grace Potter and Ozzy Osbourne.  I would say everybody that we’ve done a record with, when we go in the studio, they say, “Okay, you want to listen to this?” We do. And then they say, “Okay, go for it. Just do your thing. We want to hear what you do. That’s why you’re here.” And so it’s like a playground for us, because we’re not as obsessive since it’s not our own thing. So we get to try a whole bunch of stuff and just run amuck and see what lands. I don’t know. Do you have a favorite?

Wolfe: No. It changes. I will say I love listening to that War on Drugs song. I can listen to it forever. It is such a great song. And again, it was one of those things where Adam (Granduciel) wanted us to be us. And we came in there and played around with pads. And oftentimes we’ll tell people, if they give us the green light to do our thing, “We’re just going to layer a bunch of stuff and you can pick and choose what you keep. We’ll maybe even do extra, just so you have some stuff to play around with, and then you can sculpt it as you wish.” And a lot of times they’ll just keep everything. With Brandi, “You and Me on the Rock” was exactly as we recorded it. aAnd same with “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” exactly as we recorded it. It’s an honor really that they entrust us with their own art, to take the lead, knowing that this is what we do and we’re going to contribute something that they wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise. And I’m really grateful that we’ve gotten to a point where people recognize that. .

Your appearance on Harry Styles’ “Treat People With Kindness” was unusual, because you sing the chorus without him.

Wolfe: I remember the bridge was our concept, but the chorus was written. We actually went into the studio to write a song with him, which we didn’t finish, but at the end of the session, he was like, “Would you mind singing on this track?” We thought he was going to be singing over it, or with us. We didn’t know that the chorus was just going to be us. So we were surprised to see that, especially because…

Laessig: …we’re not listed.

Wolfe: They didn’t want to credit us as being featured on the record. And I say “they,” because we never spoke to Harry about this or anything. It’s been one of the moments that’s really sort of hurt us because here’s this opportunity… Normally when we go into the recording process, we work out the details ahead of time. We always ask, is this a feature? Is there a possibility for a feature? Because one, it changes how we’re going to charge people. And two, it changes like how we’re going to approach it, in a lot of ways. But we didn’t know we were going in to sing. We thought we were just going in to write. And after the fact, we heard the song and we’re singing the entire chorus without him, without anyone, just us. And…

Laessig: They said “We’re not having any features on the record. And if you don’t want that, then we’ll just take your voices off and replace them.”

Wolfe: They even spelled Holly’s name wrong in the credits on the album. Here’s these women who are trying to make a career for ourselves, and you wanted us to be a part of your thing, but you didn’t want to give the rightful credit for it. Like, how is that taking away from you? … We’ve always tried to be like that supportive and that honoring of the people around us as well… We made a TikTok that was like, “Did you know that we sang this chorus?” And we got a million views in one day: “You’re the voices? I had no idea.” Strangely enough, “Treat People With Kindness” is the name of the song. We’re not looking to like start a fight. It’s more about just like making a point: Where’s the love? That’s literally what the song is about.

You’ve gotten featured credit — and respect — with your other guest appearances, though?

Wolfe: Here’s Roger Waters being like, “Do whatever you want on my most iconic songs of all time. I want you to stand next to me throughout this show. And I will introduce your band name every night.” And he sits in on our shows, and does Instagram Lives with us…

Roger Waters goes on your Instagram Live?

Laessig: [Laughs] He did a radio show with us about disco, which he hates, and said so, multiple times throughout. He mentioned “the mind-numbingness of it” five times. It was great.

Lazy loaded image
Lucius Matthew Brush

There are songs that reference recent developments in your lives on the new record, including what we talked about related to Jess’ divorce. Holly, you had a son during this time frame. Are there any secret childbirth songs on the album?

Laessig: No, but we made another record before this one, that hasn’t come out yet, and that record strangely is called “Mother.”

Wolfe: And that was even before Oscar [Laessig’s son] was even a thought. It was more about like the egg, the seed of connection and seed of life, as opposed to what might be happening a year later. So when people do hear it, they’re going to think that was written probably at this time, but it actually was foreshadowing.

Why did you move on and make “Second Nature” instead of releasing “Mother”?

Wolfe: It was quite heavy, and also required a lot more of the listener. It just felt cerebral… and beautiful.  I’m so proud of those songs and those recordings, and it will see the light of day, but it felt like asking a lot of people off the heels of [the pandemic] — and not even off the heels; I mean, we’re not even totally out of this thing — but coming out of something that has been really intense for everyone, in similar and different ways. So this [“Second Nature”] felt like something we needed. We’re still talking about intense things, but in a way that makes it easier to cope with, so maybe we can get out of it a little bit lighter.

You’ve done a couple of wonderful videos for the first two singles. The one that’s set in an indoor swap meet out in the San Gabriel Valley, “Heartbursts,” looks like it could have been fun to shoot.

Wolfe: I grew up going to the swap meet because it’s my dad’s business. My first jobs were there. In coming up with the concept for this video, we had a pretty small budget. The idea was finding people in their everyday lives who break out into their joy, whether they’re in a difficult place or they’re in a really magical place of first love, whatever the circumstances. The original idea was, oh, there’d be a family in a supermarket, somebody at the nail salon, somebody at the barber shop, all these different places. But to get permits for all those different places is just wildly expensive. It was like, “Wait a minute: We can do all of this under one roof, at the swap meet.” And all of the vendors were really excited about it; it brightened everybody’s day and was the easiest, most joyful video-making experience we’d ever experienced. The feeling that we wanted people to get from the video is what we experienced the entire time while shooting it — it was magical.

“Dance Around it” has background vocals by Brandi and Sheryl Crow, whom you’ve done a lot of things with, and written at her house…

Laessig: We asked them to sing “dance, dance, dance,” just singing around a mic. We’re standing by going, “Are we insane for asking Brandi Carlile and Sheryl Crow to sing this on our record? [Laughs.] Are we using them to their best abilities?”

The video for “Dance Around It” has Brandi and Sheryl in it, but mostly fan-submitted footage. How did that work?

Laessig: There were about a thousand people who responded to the request, and they received an email with instructions and an audio file. I had cut up all the verses and choruses and either sped them up as fast as I thought you could speed them up and still sing or as slow as possible where I thought people could still make out some sort of words to sing along to. And these people must have thought we were crazy, but they did it. If you speed something up, it makes it more frenetic and exciting, and if you slow it down, it makes things feel dreamier. They didn’t get to hear the real song until it came out. They just trusted in us and we trusted in them. And even Brandi and Sheryl received the same email with the same clips.

Looking over some of the lyrics, it’s maybe a little ironic that you sing and dress in unison, but then in the song “Next to Normal,” you have the line “it’s time to separate yourself.” 

Laessig: That song is just about finding your tribe, finding your people or your person that makes you feel found.

Wolfe: WIth the two of us, I just think about moments where we’ve been matching, walking down the street in New York City, the two of us in our get-ups going to some interview or something where we had to arrive dressed — feeling like when people are looking at us, either they recognize us or they just are like, “Who are these weird ladies dressed as twins?” But we always laughed and giggled through the process. We were like, that’s my people.

Laessig: That is a funny image, when you’re talking about the lyric, “When everyone’s the same, it’s time to separate yourself,” because we dress the same. We are very different, and our voices are very different, and we’re complementary. It goes back to the whole dressing as a choir, dressing as a unit thing for performative reasons. But I think accepting each other’s quirks and individualities and like still saying, “Oh yeah, that’s you, this is me, and I want to be in your tribe. We’re one amd the same if we’re together.” You find your person and it doesn’t matter how different we are on our own, if that makes sense.

Finding the one person or group of people that makes you feel not weird?

Laessig: Or feeling weird in good company. Because we are OK with being weird.