The Graber household in St. Paul, Minn., must’ve been an interesting hang back in the day. The Call Me Spinster sisters—Rosalie, Rachel and Amelia—initially honed their seemingly effortless harmonies singing hymns with their Amish and Mennonite relatives. Mom was a trained classical singer and conductor. Dad played guitar and was a part-time singer/songwriter. Both were music teachers.
“Our parents always told us we could sing before we could speak,” says Rachel, the middle third—age wise—of the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based indie-folk trio. “Our Amish grandpa called barn dances, which was super forbidden. We also have some top-secret pictures of him dressed as Elvis.”
There was another wildcard grandfather, a Gilbert and Sullivan fanatic who toiled in his basement arranging songs. Through college, two of the sisters dabbled in things like opera, jazz theory, Brazilian and West African percussion, and the classical music of Northern India, eventually starting their own band as seniors. Amelia, the oldest, was a more reluctant performer.
“When we would sing in church, I’d have these huge panics,” she says. “It was the primary reason I stopped taking piano lessons as a kid. But I’ve always yearned to be part of the club.”
With their Amish grandad’s squeezebox as initial inspiration, the three teachers spent their summers off learning pop covers on mandolin, upright bass, glockenspiel, washboard and other instruments acquired from various sources. By 2016, they were playing out regularly in Chattanooga. As a cover band, they cast a wide net, from folk, doo-wop and R&B to MTV staples and more current hits. Much of the novelty comes by way of the offbeat arrangements for stand-up bass, accordion, banjo, ukulele and a makeshift drum set. “The Bangles, Vance Joy, the Jackson Five, Spice Girls, TLC, Eve 6,” says Amelia, running through a recent set. “And then these random folksy things like ‘Angel from Montgomery’ by John Prine.”
This past summer, Spinster met Strolling Bones Records’ George Fontaine at the Timber Roots Music Festival in Lookout Mountain, Ga. He introduced them to Drew Vandenberg (of Montreal, Toro y Moi), who produced their new self-titled EP—due out December 11 on Strolling Bones—at the esteemed Chase Park Tranduction in Athens, Ga. The pandemic forced the trio to cancel their return to the studio, so they finished vocals and various instrumental overdubs at home.
“We built this hilarious sound booth in the biggest bedroom in the house with furniture pads and an old mattress propped up on one side, and we borrowed a nice microphone from a friend down the street,” says Amelia. “We’d send stuff to Drew, and often he’d say, ‘Do that again, and make sure the dog’s not in it and you can’t hear the refrigerator.”
“Two Hearts” epitomizes the album’s fleshed-out version of a timeless sound that hints at the past while steering just clear of preciousness. Vandenberg’s forgiving touch deserves some of the credit, though Call Me Spinster’s surplus of personality can’t be tamed. And the comfy familial vibe is undeniable.
“We do have this advantage of having practiced fighting our whole lives, and trusting that we’ll all come back to it and someone won’t run away,” says Rosalie. “We argue so well.”