With times tough all over, it seems that flexible, economically minded duo and solo touring acts stand a better chance to survive, even thrive, in the changing music marketplace. Though they started five years ago with a full band, these days The Bowmans are finding international success by staying small, and keeping it in the family. But just because Claire and Sarah Bowman are twins and seem to have done nearly everything together -- including undergrad at Duquesne University -- don't assume they're completing each other's rhymes.
"The real twin freakish connectiveness is on stage," says Sarah, the guitarist and main songwriter, where on-the-fly adjustments and changes are conveyed with a glance. "From my perspective, we're just communicating," but "The irony is that offstage, we hardly ever understand each other when we're talking! It's ridiculous -- I think it's because we rely on this assumption that we understand each other so well, that we're not really explaining ourselves."
While you could say the Bowmans are based in Brooklyn, that's a bit misleading on two fronts. For starters, the sisters have been vagabonding for the last couple of years, splitting their time between European tours and driving all over the U.S. in Sarah's Toyota Corolla. "The back seat's full of camping gear and instruments and CDs -- we've got it kinda down to a science," she says.
Secondly, the Bowmans grew up far from the bright lights: Davenport, Iowa. As kids, they'd make up songs to accompany their puppet shows, and "when we got a little older, I was in the attic making karaoke versions of Depeche Mode songs on the synthesizer," Sarah says.
"Claire and I, we just sang together without even thinking about it. We would just improvise melodies and harmonies, and the harmonies were usually pretty medieval-sounding and dark, and we'd end up playing around with singing dissonant tones and not resolving," she says. "And that still is found in our music now."
College at Duquesne followed -- Sarah studied cello in the music school, and Claire studied philosophy and psychology -- along with four years of soaking in the unique pleasures of Pittsburgh. For Sarah, that meant the Symphony every weekend; for Claire, the Graffiti club. After grad school and various careers, the two found themselves carving out a niche in New York City's "anti-folk" scene, based around the Sidewalk Café.
Anti-folk "started in the '80s in reaction to the West Village polished super-folky sound," according to Sarah. "Thirty years later, 'anti-folk' applies to people who are doing anything outside the mainstream sound and using acoustic instruments -- you get all kinds." She cites Regina Spektor as a contemporary example. Through performing at the Sidewalk Café, they met promoters who got them started in Europe; most recently, the Bowmans were featured in Bob Harris' live BBC broadcast.
"There's so much of a hunger for Americana music right now," Sarah says, "and we're just so lucky that we've got some elements that, in Europe, qualifies."
So far, the Bowmans have released one album -- 2007's Far From Home, which featured their trademark close harmonies alongside some Dixieland-style arrangements on jaunty songs like "Forever" and "On the Rod." But they have a new, self-titled album in the can, and -- remarkably -- already paid for, through a presale campaign where fans bought the album six months in advance.
For this second record, the Bowmans sought to stay consistent with their live performance, but also to "make the album that will reach the broader audience." To that end, they worked with producer Malcolm Burn (Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan), whom Sarah met while playing a cello session date.
The sisters tracked their vocals and acoustic guitar live in the studio, avoiding the endless perfectionism that modern recording offers in favor of naturalism. Even the minimal overdubs -- piano, steel guitar and other touches -- were done in groups. "It felt like we were making music, instead of making a record," Sarah says.
While the album has been finished for awhile, it's just out in the U.K. and won't reach the U.S. until the fall. "It's just a time to take it easy and figure out how things are going to unfold," says Sarah, who notes they're researching the best avenues available to independent artists in the changing industry. "It's no time to hurry with a release."
While it may be awhile before you can hear the Bowmans' new material on a recording, you can catch them back in their old stomping grounds on Sat., June 20, at Club Café. "Coming back to Pittsburgh is coming back home, in a way," says Sarah. "I love that city, and tell everybody it's the hidden gem." Lately, she's been considering moving back to the area.
"If it didn't rain so much, I'd be there in a heartbeat."
The Bowmans with The Natural Way of Farming. 7 p.m. Sat., June 20 (doors at 6 p.m.). Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $7. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com