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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Chris Riemenschneider

Brandi Carlile's new sibling bandmates SistaStrings return to home stage on their own

MINNEAPOLIS — After performing with their first big-name employer at the Newport Folk Festival two summers ago, Milwaukee sisters Monique and Chauntee Ross were approached by the second major singer-songwriter who would take them around the world as part of her band.

"We got offstage, and Brandi walked up to me and asked: 'Do you tour?'" Monique recalled with an incredulous laugh.

They do now.

The star in question was Brandi Carlile, who has been featuring the Ross sisters as part of her ensemble on tour this year and even gave them prominent screen time in her IMAX concert special last week.

"She has been so gracious about giving us a spotlight and creating this beautiful journey for us," Chauntee Ross said.

Using a rare gap in tour dates with Carlile and their other boss, Nashville Americana innovator Allison Russell, the Ross sisters are out playing shows this week with their own group, SistaStrings. They formed the classical/folk/Americana/jazz hybrid duo in 2014 after a childhood in which music featured prominently at both school and church.

On Thursday, Monique and Chauntee are slated to perform at the Cedar Cultural Center with singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey, a longtime friend of theirs from Milwaukee whom they said "is like family." In fact, it was Mulvey who first introduced them to Russell.

The sisters recorded a mostly acoustic, folk-leaning, hopeful new album with Mulvey, "Love Is the Only Thing," issued in August via Ani DiFranco's label Righteous Babe Records. Thursday's show will feature songs from that record as well as the siblings' original material, which they are planning to record and put out as the first official SistaStrings album next year.

As if they didn't already have enough going on.

"This has been a beautiful and crazy experience — a whirlwind of excitement and exhaustion," Monique said in a speaker-phone interview with Chauntee to recap their eventful year. "I've never spent so much time in airports."

Still, she earnestly added, "You really have to love playing music to do it on this scale, and this has all proven to us we really do love it."

Of course, it's easier to enjoy it when you get to perform with one of the most acclaimed and popular music stars of the day.

The Rosses began rehearsing and performing with Carlile over the winter. They were first seen with her during her dramatic performance of "Right on Time" at the Grammy Awards in April — after they also backed Russell for the Grammy premiere ceremony.

Upon hitting the road with Carlile in June, the sisters quickly fell in with her band and became part of what they called "a beautiful, collaborative environment." As the shows went on, they said, Carlile made a point of more prominently featuring her string section in the new showpiece "Sinners, Saints and Fools."

Said Chauntee, who primarily plays cello and sings, "That song has grown over the summer. There was already a string breakdown in it, and as the tour went on the breakdown got extended, and Brandi said, 'This needs to be an even bigger moment.'"

The sisters, by the way, concurred with Carlile's assessment onstage at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center in July that the sold-out audience was "a once-in-a-lifetime crowd."

"That was like the first real powerhouse show on the tour," Chauntee said. "There was something about it in the air."

As Brandi's fans know very well, the Rosses are not the first sibling duo to perform with her. Carlile has used twin musicians Phil and Tim Hanseroth as her primary collaborators since the early 2000s.

"I think there can be a special, natural kind of musical connection between siblings who play together, and Brandi just recognizes it," said Monique, who plays violin and sings.

The sisters have been connecting with other musicians since moving to Nashville last year near the end of COVID-19 lockdown. They didn't even know Russell — who they met when she still performed with her previous group Birds of Chicago — would be looking for bandmates to promote her breakout solo album, "Outside Child."

"We were maybe in Nashville a month when we started playing with Allison," Monique said. "It was like some kind of divine connection."

They pointed out, though, that the connection was first made in Wisconsin, and they don't necessarily think that moving to the more musically famous city was vital to becoming full-time touring musicians.

"I think like (the Twin Cities), Milwaukee has the kind of rich artistic community that gave us enough independence to find our own musical path, and learn how the business works without too many hurdles," Chauntee said.

As for Nashville, Monique laughingly offered this deadpan assessment of their adopted hometown: "We don't really know it, because we've barely spent any time here."


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