The opening track on the Kuhls’ first album, “A Woman is Like a Man,” tells you everything you need to know about Renee and Grace Kuhl’s personal and artistic growth in the last two years.
In 2010, the duo recorded a tamer, smokier version of the song on “The Midwest EP.” On their new self-released album, “Holy Rollin’ ” (thekuhls.com), the Kuhls deliver it with a snarl. “Let me tell you something about that woman scorned, a sweet talkin’ angel ain’t a girl no more” they sing about a relationship in which they learned about how to “love somebody wrong.” It’s a nasty bit of business, in the country-tinged rock ballad tradition of the Rolling Stones or Gram Parsons – or more precisely, the flip side to some of the sneering, sexist putdowns the Stones and artists of their ilk routinely wrote.
Renee Kuhl says the tougher stance was in part motivated by an impetuous decision she made a few years to move from her native Missouri to Chicago in 2008, when she enrolled at Columbia College to study fiction writing. Her younger sister Grace followed a year later to attend the same college, and the two have been honing their songs together ever since.
“It was a complete culture shock for me, and very scary for my parents,” Renee says. “People back home would tell me stories of people getting killed here. But it taught me how to be independent.”
Renee said she longed to sing and write songs for as long as she can remember, but “I grew up in a place where that was such a longshot. I had to commit myself to getting a college degree to give myself and my parents peace of mind. I was always trained to please everybody.”
She describes herself and Grace as a couple of “Dorothies” from the Midwest who grew up in a homogenized suburb outside Kansas City, sang in church and generally didn’t cause much trouble. “We come from a part of the Midwest where women are passive and not assertive,” she says. “When we made our first EP, we were cheerful and agreeable. Whatever was suggested, we said, ‘Yes.’ We were scared and didn’t know enough to do anything different.”
The recording was done in Kansas City, as the sisters were still figuring out how to transition from a folkish guitar-piano duo into a rock band. “There’s a great history of songwriters in Chicago, but not a lot of places right now for songwriters to play,” she says. “It’s awkward and uncomfortable here to play a singer-songwriter type of show. You have to be in a band and make a lot of noise to draw a crowd and get noticed. It forced us to evolve and figure out how to bridge the gap between rock and punk and where we came from.”
The transition was solidified when guitarist Luke Otwell bought a lap-slide guitar. “It brought that country thing out, at higher intensity,” Renee says. “It totally changed our view of the band.” The sisters enlisted Otwell, drummer Gregg Midon and bassist Kyle Crager to record “Holy Rollin’ ” with new confidence and purpose.
“Living in Chicago the last few years, our personalities have changed since making that first EP,” Renee says. “I know we’re real nice girls and smile a lot, but we know how to advocate for ourselves, and we had real specific ideas about how we wanted this album to sound. We told (engineers Dave Lugo and Brian Tepps at Million Yen Studios) we’d been listening to a lot of Crazy Horse for six months, and we’d say things like we want a ‘Cinnamon Girl’ or ‘Cortez’ guitar tone on the songs. We rehearsed for six weeks before going into the studio, we were completely prepared. We did the first song in a couple hours, and four in the first day. It was a lot of self-affirmation for both us, an identity-changing experience. The ability to assert ourselves came out of the confidence we’d gained as musicians and songwriters.”
“Holy Rollin’ ” documents the newfound grit in the guitars and vocals in songs both bittersweet and biting. The title track references where they came from, and how far they’ve come.
“We definitely grew up in the Bible Belt,” Renee says. “It’s always in the back of my mind when writing, the post 9-11 evangelical childhood we lived. I think we’re subversively playing with that background – even as I’m letting organized religion go, we still speak that language. ‘Holy Rollin’ ’ is a song about returning to our hometown as the people we are now. You have to put your armor on when you go home, to say who you are now.”
The Kuhls: 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., $8 or free with RSVP at metrochicago.com.
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