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Doing It Themselves: The Bowmans, May 24 at the Redstone Room PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 23 May 2006 23:37
The story of the “anti-folk” musical duo the Bowmans – twin sisters Sarah and Claire Bowman – might be tired and cheap if it weren’t so compelling and poignant.

They grew up in the Quad Cities, operate out of New York City, and are making their return this week, opening for Lowry (a band in which they also play) at the Redstone Room on May 24. Hometown girls made good!

Except ... they don’t have a recording contract, and family members chipped in to buy the CDs for their CD-release party.

They’re singing twins who started writing songs and performing (with puppets!) and even recording as kids. “There was really never a question in our minds,” Claire said in an interview this week, that they wanted to perform together as a career. Claire remembers their first public performance, at Theo’s Java Hut in Davenport when they were 14 years old.

Except ... those plans kept getting waylaid by education and careers, only coming to fruition in 2004.

Last year, they suffered the rite-of-passage indignity of having their tour van stolen. “That was my van,” said Claire, who sings and fiddles. “Actually, I had just agreed to buy that van from my dad.”

The kicker? Three days before, the Bowmans had $10,000 in music gear and merchandise stolen ... from the same van ... in the same parking space. “And none of it was insured,” Claire said.

And then there’s this story from Sarah – a cruel O. Henry twist. “When we were hard-pressed to finish the CD [in December 2005], and we didn’t have any money,” she said, “I had to sell my beloved guitar, and I haven’t had one ... since.” The singer/songwriter/producer/cellist/guitarist will borrow a guitar before a show, she said. “Sometimes I would even show up without one and just hope that someone would lend me one,” she added.

“We have done this all on our own without the help of the industry,” Sarah said. “We’ve come across some major hurdles, and each time ... somebody stepped up and helped.” Friends, for example, held benefit shows that have helped offset the loss of the equipment that was stolen.

And despite the challenges they’ve faced in the past two years, as they try to sustain themselves financially with music, the sisters stressed that this is what they want to do.

“Struggle is just a way to be alive,” Sarah said.

Both Bowmans had epiphanies in 2004 that brought them together musically.

Sarah had always wanted to be a songwriter but instead focused on playing the cello, and then teaching. Songwriting fell away. “I have a lot of pride in what I do, so whatever it is I’ve become involved with, I do it 100 percent,” she said. “I would start to forget that I went to music school because I wanted to find out about the music world, the creation of music, in order to apply it to my songwriting.”

Late at night, grading papers, she understood that she needed to dump her job. “I’m teaching children to believe that music can be a major part of their lives, and not to ignore it just because it doesn’t lend itself to a path that’s clear and predictable and stable financially,” she said. “I started to think that maybe I was being a little bit of a hypocrite.”

So she moved to New York in summer 2004, throwing herself into the anti-folk scene, where she found that there was plenty of work for cellists. “She was in at least a dozen bands in the first month or two,” Claire said.

Sarah said she wanted to establish herself without her sister. “It was really important that I developed the self-trust that I could do this on my own, so that I would know that having Claire with me was a choice and not a dependency,” she said.

Claire, meanwhile, was working in a career-counseling office. “When people alienate themselves from their own dreams, it just makes them anxious and miserable and unsettled and dissatisfied,” she said. Her graduate studies were in counseling at Johns Hopkins. “I had worked in Washington, D.C., for Senator Harkin,” she said. In other words, by any measure, she had accomplished a lot in terms of her career.

Except ... . “There’s that moment when you realize that you’re telling yourself your childhood dreams are bullshit,” Claire said. She rejected that notion; how can childhood dreams be bullshit? “We’ve had this dream that’s pretty consistent,” she said. “We can’t seem to figure ourselves out outside of this one constant dream.”

She visited her sister in New York, hung out with songwriters, and saw Sarah play live in a bar. “You just have those moments when you just know that this is what you need to do,” she said. That’s when she decided, helped along by a divorce, that she and her sister were going to make a run at a musical career together.

Sarah said she was not going to ask Claire to come to New York. Because Sarah was the songwriter of the family, she didn’t want to pressure her sister into taking a secondary role in a musical partnership.

She needn’t have worried. Claire takes care of the business end of things –including managing both the Bowmans and Lowry – while Sarah handles most of the songwriting. As Claire put it: “Sarah’s the main songwriter. I’m the one who gives the interviews.”

More seriously, she said: “I’m doing a lot of what a label normally does myself.”

Last year, they decided to make a proper record together. Like everything else they’ve done musically, it was a do-it-yourself (and pay-for-it-yourself) affair, costing $20,000. They started recording in Baton Rouge in summer 2005 and finished in New York City in December. In keeping with the pair’s DIY ethic, Sarah was the primary producer, even teaching herself the Pro Tools software.

Far from Home was self-released earlier this year. Sarah called it a document of transition, and evidence of the sisters “knowing for the first time in our lives that we were doing the right thing.”

Sarah had recorded a solo record that wasn’t good in terms of sales or art, Claire said, and Far from Home was the beneficiary of that learning experience.

I haven’t heard the whole CD, but the four tracks available on the Bowmans’ MySpace page shyly sparkle, self-confident and mature but not wanting to be flashy. The tone and production are patient and muted, almost afraid of waking somebody up. Horns, clarinet, and electric guitar are pleasant surprises but politely stay in the background. At the forefront are the sleepy vocals, less harmonies than intertwined, inseparable voices.

The money isn’t pouring in, but the Bowmans get by. “We budget very well,” Claire said. “We keep our expenses very low. We live in a crappy part of Brooklyn. We have low rent. ... Cell phone and rent are basically what we’ve got to make, enough for Metrocard and food on top of that. ...

“We’re just going to go and go and go until we’re at the point of collapse, and hopefully at that moment, there’s going to be this great label deal that doesn’t strip us of everything ... . We’re not looking to be rock stars and have a house in Beverly Hills or something. We just want to be able to keep doing music and maybe even pay rent off that or something.”

That goal might be within reach. Sarah has been asked to join the goth-cello rock outfit Rasputina, and the Bowmans will be opening for the ensemble for July dates. “I’m going to learn a lot more about how normal people tour,” Claire said with obvious enthusiasm, “because they’re putting us in a van, and they got someone to carry our stuff, and they’re putting us in hotel rooms ... and they’re paying us. Not a lot, but we actually earn money, which is amazing.”

The Bowmans and Lowry will perform at the Redstone Room in the River Music Experience on Wednesday, May 24. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are $5.

For more information on the Bowmans, visit (http://thebowmansmusic.com) or (http://www.myspace.com/thebowmans). To listen to an audio version of the
Reader interview with the Bowman sisters (37 minutes, 8.4 megabytes, mp3), click here.

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