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Penelope Isles' sibling duo creates dark, beguiling indie-rock

All in the Family

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There are some people who never stop idolizing their older siblings. And when you talk to Lily Wolter, the bassist, keyboardist, and vocalist for U.K. band Penelope Isles, about her older brother, Jack, it's clear that she still looks up to him, even in adulthood. But perhaps that's because Jack, Penelope Isles' singer, songwriter, producer, and guitarist, is the one who served as Lily's guide from classical music into the world of atmospheric indie-rock.

"My brother is six years older than me," Wolter says, "and when I was about 10 years old, he was in this punk-pop emo band, and I really looked up to that; I thought it was cool. I played classical music at the time; that was my world. And he made me feel like I could move into his world quite comfortably."

As a child, Lily played in orchestras, moving from brass to harp. But it was her brother who taught her bass, taking her somewhere she says she never would have gone otherwise.

"I definitely don't think I'd be doing this with Penelope Isles without Jack," she says. "Realistically, I was going down a more classical route. Sometimes when I watch orchestras or I hear film scores, I think that would have been amazing because that's what I was drawn to as a youngster. But it wasn't until Jack came home from uni [university] and wanted to start a band and taught me how to play bass that this whole new world of music came in."

For the rest of us, it's fortunate that the two teamed up, because the band's 2019 album, Until The Tide Creeps In, is a beguiling and dark collection of songs. The Wolters, alongside bassist/guitarist Becky Redford and drummer Jack Sowton, layer spidery guitar lines over subtle but propulsive rhythms, topped off by airy, eerie vocal harmonies that are simultaneously sweet and haunting.

Lily has referred to the band's work as "quite maritime" in the past, and there is a sort of coastal storminess to what Penelope Isles does on Until The Tide Creeps In, which Jack produced. There are musical dark clouds thundering across the album, with occasional beams of sunlight streaming through thanks to the vocals and impressionistic lyrics. It's stormy music with dream-pop bliss floating just above the cloud-line.

And every so often, Lily even works in some of the skills from her previous musical life.

"There are a few little moments on the album where I play the electric harp," she says, "and that adds a sort of light classical element to it that I think is really cool."

That multilayered sound is difficult to recreate live, though, especially for a performer who doesn't like to use technological tricks to beef up her band's live sound.

"One thing I absolutely hate is bands that use loads of backing tracks," she says. "Instead of trying to recreate it in a different way, they basically hit the 'play' button onstage and play along. We just try to do the best we can to recreate the ambience you hear on record."

It's also a surprisingly mature sound for a band that just released their first full length album last year, after a series of singles and EPs.

"We have our own sound," Wolter says, "but it's a constant journey, isn't it? Music-wise, we don't know how it's going to sound, and that's the most exciting thing. You don't know until you get in there. I think like most musicians it stems from bands we've been inspired by, like the Thrills, and I think another huge influence is the Magic Numbers."

As for the blurry, atmospheric sound the band got on their first album, Wolter slips back in to hero-worship mode a bit when she talks about her big brother's big production.

"I'm a bedroom producer at most," she laughs. "But Jack is really skilled. Up until our first album, our music had that DIY-bedroom feel, and this one didn't, and I think it's because he really worked hard. If it wasn't sounding great, he'd do it again. It's going to be so interesting for the next album to see how he's progressed and what he's learned from other producers. He's excited to put that knowledge he's gotten within the last year into the next album."

While they're prepping that new release, Lily says that despite some occasional tension, she's happy to go through the ups and downs of the music business with a trusted friend by her side.

"It's all very personal, no matter what we're doing," she says. "We're family; I can't pretend that Jack isn't my brother, and vice versa. So I think no matter where we are, if we're having one of the most important meetings of our lives, I'm still sitting there with my brother. And it's a beautiful feeling. It's hard sometimes, but I think it makes it better for the good times, and for the music, too."

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