You always remember your first time and Jay Sweet, executive producer of the Newport Folk Festival, certainly recalls his first encounter with Lucius, March of 2014.
”I was standing at a show at Willie Nelson’s ranch in Texas,” he says, “chatting with some industry people and then they came on and started singing. From note one I was floored. The whole band’s magnetism and interplay demolished expectations by not simply demanding attention, but cultivating it.”
There was the sound, of course, but there was very much the retro/glam-rock, twin-like appearance of co-lead singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. The two often face each other (more so than the audience) and lock eyes as they sing, appearing to fuse personalities, voices and images. (Recently, they’re sporting orange up do jellyroll hairstyles and gold lame capes.)
“The visual cues of a singular look and identity only mirror the nature of their music,” says Sweet. “The aspect that still astounds me is that they create the most unique singular voice. It’s not simply interweaving harmonies; it’s combined beams of sound, both elusive and evocative.”
Lucius, at that point, had released their debut album, “Wildewoman.” Smitten by both sound and vision, Sweet booked them for 2015’s Folk Festival, where aside from their own set they joined ex-Pink Floyd leader Roger Waters, My Morning Jacket and others for a rendition of Waters’ “Mother.” Sweet called it “transcendent and frankly emotional -- one of the few times I knew I was witnessing something truly historic and legendary in real time.”
Earlier this month, Lucius performed their dizzy hook fest of a single, “Born Again Teen” on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and subsequently released the album from which it came, their second, “Good Grief.” (It entered the Billboard Alternative Chart at No. 13, and No. 92 on the Billboard 200.) They are currently in the midst of a massive, 52-date North American/European tour with a stop in Boston for a sold-out show at Royale March 29.
So, is Lucius on the verge of a major breakthrough?
“You know, it’s really hard to know when you’re in it,” says Wolfe, on the phone. “I feel excitement, I feel momentum. I don’t know if it’s from us or everything around us. It’s really hard to gauge.”
Lucius may be a relatively new band in the general public’s consciousness, but the quintet is no overnight sensation. The idea began gestating in 2005 at Berklee College of Music, two years after Wolfe and Laessig met and bonded at the school. They sang together for six years as a duo.
The band took shape after Wolfe and Laessig moved to Brooklyn in 2007. They both live in Los Angeles now, Wolfe with her husband, Lucius drummer Dan Molad.
“Lucius was the result of many years of working together and trying to figure out where we were as a unit and what we wanted to be,” Wolfe says. “We had a lot of patience. We didn’t want to just throw something out there and we wanted it to be something that felt thoughtful.”
“For us, I think, growing up, we never really had communities of our own to feel a part of,” she adds, speaking for herself and Laessig. Wolfe grew up in a Los Angeles suburb, Laessig in Cleveland. “We had a couple of great friends, but it was a difficult time -- especially as a young artist. Feeling nurtured was not something that came easily. I think that when we went to Berklee, it was the first time that we felt we had a real sense of community.”
“She’s my best friend and ultimate musical collaborator,” Wolfe says of Laessig, “but also it’s a real oneness being able to talk from her perspective and vice versa. To be able to speak on behalf of the other because you’re seeing all that they’re experiencing and it’s a pretty powerful thing. We’re very different personality types. I’ve always been sort of a leader at the business game; she’s a bit quieter, a real thinker.”
The concept, the two-into-one merging, developed over time. “It’s amazing how different our voices are apart,” says Wolfe, “but when they’re together we create this sort of … thing. In all honesty, it was a way of feeling more comfortable on stage. I think we were both sort of suffering from, not shyness, but a little bit of awkwardness. It was an automatic connector for us. We were a unit; there was not one without the other. And it also reinforced what was there musically. So many people were commenting -- ‘Two voices as one!’ and ‘You sound like sisters!’”
Inspiration came from many sources, David Bowie and Kate Bush among them. “We were always attracted to artists with a strong visual representation of their music,” Wolfe says. “Something about being transported, about creating an alternate universe for yourself and for your audience was always something we were intrigued by.
“But how to incorporate it? We maybe didn’t realize quite how in the beginning. We had other jobs and we lived together for several years; we’d come home and write and practice our partnership. It became clear that we were creating a real sound, probably, when Danny [Molad] stepped in the picture and we started composing the first record.”
Aside from singing, Wolfe plays synthesizer and Laessig keyboards. Molad brought in multi-instrumentalist Peter Lalish; the two had also met at Berklee, pre-Lucius. Another multi-instrumentalist, Andrew Burri, joined in 2012, completing the picture.
On the surreal cover of “Good Grief,” Wolfe hugs a figure in dark. “The figure in dark is whoever you imagine it to be,” Wolfe explains. “It’s not necessarily meant to be a man or a woman, but it could be somebody that you’re missing or somebody that you’re not able to have. But also it’s just supposed to be the idea of embracing grief or darkness. That there’s some ‘good’ in grief.”
With the varied tracks on “Good Grief,” Lucius moves in a more crazy-quilt fashion. It’s a trip through lush, multi-layered landscape. The album’s genre hopping sounds include indie pop-folk, retro '80 style synth pop and funk, a mix of acoustic and sampled sounds, close harmony vocals reminiscent of Haim, songs that can move from a whisper to a scream. It’s an enveloping album and it gets quite dark in places.
The women write the songs and send demos to the guys. The guys add to it and they all come together in the studio to put everything together.
“Good Grief” begins with “Madness” -- “Maybe I’ll drive myself to madness, spinning in circles/Don’t have it figured out just yet.” Lucius goes there again later in “Gone Insane” -- “My heart’s so heavy, I’m gonna need your help/Losing my grip while holding everything else/My fists are clenched and I’m angry at you.”
“It’s heavy,” says Wolfe. “We were gone for a really long time. I think in 2014 we spent 21 non-consecutive days at home. We’d never done anything like that and I think the idea of constantly being surrounded and yet feeling alone was something that we were dealing with together and separately.”
“Wildewoman” was a lo-fi indie-folk effort; “Good Grief” ups the firepower with a fuller, more pop-oriented sound and production. Veteran producer Bob Ezrin (Lou Reed, Pink Floyd, Kiss) teamed up with Shawn Everett (Weezer, Alabama Shakes) to help Lucius shape the sound.
Wolfe says they weren’t aiming for any overarching theme.
“After touring for several years you do absolutely know what works on stage and what doesn’t,” she says, “and there were elements there we wanted to approach. We wanted to nurture the percussive and epic moments in order to have more excitement on stage. We had such a collection of feelings and thoughts and we were so ready to purge. Maybe that’s why it feels so intense.
“After realizing there was so much intensity, the only conscious decision we did make was we needed to have a few songs in here that are going to give ourselves, and our listeners, a little relief. Comically. Or, literally, just a breath.”
Most notably, that’s “Born Again Teen,” a sassy, exuberant song (with a matching-in-tone video), where the singers ache for a teen crush phase. In real life, of course, teen dreams are in the rear-view mirror.
“I have had my eye on you for quite a while,” they sing. “Never seen your moves like this and always such self-confidence/I'm thinking how your lips taste next to mine … It's a feeling like a born again teen/Got a heartbeat like we're only 16.”
The song, admits Wolfe, is “sort of” an attempt to rejigger their past via fantasy. “We started talking about the freedom of being a teenager,” she continues, “and what we would do at the time. Holly and I were not the happiest of kids. It was a song that was written about what it would feel like, after having been an adult, going backwards and how that would change things for us. How we could honor those feelings now. You’re not really able to really honor that freedom and appreciate it [at the time].”
Maybe for Wolfe, 31, and Laessig, 30, their teen dream years are beginning right now.