SistaStrings Brings Classical Vibes To Americana Stages
On a recent morning, the atmosphere at Monique Ross’s East Nashville home is high energy. She and her sister Chauntee are here for a day between tour dates, having just arrived from the Newport Folk Festival where they played to thousands with Brandi Carlile and sat on stage during Joni Mitchell’s historic performance there. Monique’s 10-year-old daughter is heading out the door for the afternoon. Two small dogs, including a Chihuahua named Cello, scamper around the Victorian house. But things quiet down. The dogs curl up to sleep, and between gales of sisterly laughter Chauntee and Monique talk about what it’s been like to be on some of folk music’s biggest stages supporting Carlile and Allison Russell in the past whirlwind year.
It has definitely been extraordinary,” says Monique. “I don't know if it's something I ever actually visualized myself doing, because we grew up playing classical music playing in churches. But I don't feel out of place, you know, just because of how genuine both Brandi and Allison are. It really feels like a community. It feels like we're giving our true selves.”
“For me, it feels like it feels like a culmination of everything that we've been working at,” Chauntee says. “Being able to bring all the hours and hours of work and practice into any genre of music that is joyful and celebratory and brings us together feels incredible. I can't even put words to it.”
Chauntee plays violin, while Monique, two years older, plays the cello. Together, they are the innovative, supportive and flexible duo SistaStrings. Widely appreciated as artists and collaborators in their hometown of Milwaukee, WI, they moved to Nashville in mid 2021 without a clear plan other than a change of surroundings in a creatively potent place. And it’s working out. They found their way into Russell’s band as she toured in support of her Grammy-nominated 2021 album Outside Child. That led to shows with Carlile, one of the dominant folk stars of recent years. Now they’re preparing to release Love Is The Only Thing as a co-bill with their old friend Milwaukee songwriter Peter Mulvey. The sisters have also appeared with the fast-moving collective The Black Opry Revue, including at Nashville’s City Winery where the duo closed a songwriters’ show with string pieces that mingled R&B songwriting and classical music.
The Ross sisters are two of five siblings whose parents were both ministers, so as Monique says, playing in church was a given. And not all string music either. “We were in a church youth band where Chauntee played drums and I played bass. Very fun. We started playing by ear, because in church when we were younger, there wasn’t music given. It's someone on the piano and the bass player. They're all incredible musicians. And it's like, keep up!”
Their training on violin and cello got serious, up to and including college conservatory studies at the University of Michigan for Chauntee and the University of Wisconsin for Monique. Then they had to reckon, separately and together, with what exactly to do with their instruments, their eclectic musical background, and their creative spirits.
“I realized that the classical route wasn't where I was going to find my career,” says Chauntee of her last year of college. “Which was startling, because that was what I'd put all my energy and work towards from a very young age. So I was really lost.” She went inward, tuning out any class not required for her degree, listening to a lot of things, and playing freely. “I’d just jam on my violin, trying to reconnect with the sound of making music for pleasure, as opposed to critiquing every little thing.” She and Monique also took inspiration from the growing career of Black Violin, the classical/hip-hop hybrid out of Fort Lauderdale that’s reached large worldwide audiences. With session work, collaboration, performance, and teaching in mind, they formed SistaStrings in 2014.
Monique observes readily that “there's the stigma around classical music, that it's boring, or for a certain class of people, or people that look a certain way.” But when SistaStrings visits schools to perform and speak, they undermine such notions with sharp juxtapositions. “We fuse a classical showpiece with Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ and we see the kids get excited about that,” says Monique. “You can do anything you want to take a piece of something and flip it and mix it and make whatever sounds you want. I wish I saw that as a child.”
When the Ross sisters staged their going-away show at a club in Milwaukee, they had guest rapper Klassik, folk singer Johanna Rose, and friends on viola and piano to play an excellent rendition of a chamber quartet by Brahms, a particular favorite. Then they played and sang as a duo, including the pensive and tuneful “Her Name Was,” a song by Monique that SistaStrings recently submitted as their audition for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert. The range of sounds and the creative use of their instruments were striking. Before they moved, they also recorded their new album with Mulvey, which arrives this Friday, Aug. 12 from Righteous Babe Records. He wrote the songs, while they wrote their string and voice arrangements, filling out a collection that’s plainspoken and refined.
It was Mulvey who tipped off Allison Russell that the Rosses were moving to Music City, and Russell already knew them from sharing some dates when she was in her duo Birds of Chicago. She invited them into her band, lending Russell’s stage show a chamber folk refinement that pairs beautifully with Russell’s emotional songs. When Russell plays the clarinet, one of the boldest moves in roots music, it pairs with the Ross sisters’ strings like butter on a baguette. Russell has gushed on stage about them, calling the musicians “my chosen family.” Monique and Chauntee’s flair for style - bold glasses and neon-colored braids - has added to the overall drama of performances on late night shows like Jimmy Kimmel’s and at high profile events such as the Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony last winter.
Roots, country and Americana music have deployed classically derived string sections in a variety of ways over the decades, lending lushness and fullness to music that’s fundamentally about communicating emotion. As support artists for songwriters, SistaStrings supercharges those emotions because their classical training brings delicate shading and dynamic force to their original arrangements. But we’ll see more SistaStrings as featured artists in the months and years to come. An album is in the works, though the sisters are still feeling their way to what kind of hybrid mashup it’s going to be. For now, they’re keeping up with a whirlwind schedule and new opportunities, mildly astonished that they’re finding so many vehicles for their unique background and skills.
“I thought I was going to be a chamber musician, (and) I still am,” says Monique. “It just looks completely different.” Their adventurous way with their instruments “comes down to how I feel like my parents raised us to be true to yourselves, express yourself as authentically as you can.”
Chauntee revels in the reality that they don’t fit in established boxes. “We just got to do our thing and just give it our whole hearts and have a good time,” she says. “And hopefully that touches someone in some type of way. I don't know that I could do anything else, as passionately as music has seemed to touch every part of my life. So to share that with everyone is a true gift.”