Almost Famous: Lily & Madeleine
In the past couple of years, the Jurkiewicz sister songstresses have captured the attention of producers, labels, and the national media. Now, on the eve of their second album’s release, the young siblings are on the cusp of still more acclaim—and at a creative crossroads.
Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz can’t remember a time when they weren’t singing together.
Lullabies, movie-soundtrack tunes, Disney ditties—whatever their mother crooned to them, they mimicked right back. “We thought singing and harmonizing together was totally normal,” says Madeleine. “That’s why it was strange at first when people started responding so strongly to us.” And how. In the last 16 months, the duo has been toasted by Vogue, The New York Times, NPR, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and legions of fans who snapped up the girls’ 2013 self-titled debut album, a master class in rich, haunting harmonies—a sweeter, more ethereal Simon and Garfunkel. The video for their first original song, “In the Middle,” garnered almost 430,000 YouTube views.
They’ve toured the United States and part of Europe. And on October 28, the sisters will release their second album, Fumes. Here’s how Lily, 17, and Madeleine, who turns 20 this month, made the leap from high-school hallways to the national spotlight—and why, even with all the media love, their future is still unwritten.
To showcase their talent, the girls duet on tunes from Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit, Mumford & Sons, Adele, and Fleet Foxes, and upload the cover songs to YouTube. “A lot of kids our age were doing it,” says Madeleine. “We didn’t think anything at all was going to happen. We just did it for fun.”
A friend of Bloomington music producer Paul Mahern shows him the video of the sisters singing First Aid Kit’s “Our Own Pretty Ways.” “People send me stuff all the time—you start to get numb,” says Mahern. “I’ve done this for so long. You start to believe you’re jaded, and then something like this comes along.” Mahern watches the video over and over, finally deciding he really is hearing something special: “The tone of their voices, the delivery, the blend of the two of them together—but then also some sort of magical quality that the sound of their voices had.” Mahern tracks down the girls’ parents and introduces himself, telling them their daughters have a real chance at a music career. The praise doesn’t stun David and Mary Jurkiewicz. “The first time I heard them sing together, it just sounded so beautiful to me,” says Mary. Still, she acknowledges, “Everybody uploads videos to YouTube, and everybody thinks their kid is great.”
At Mahern’s urging, Lily and Madeleine write one song a day for two weeks. In the beginning, when the sisters didn’t yet have the perspective of age and experience, writing was harder. Cliche as it sounds, Madeleine says, she then favored lyrics about teen anxieties, pressures from society, and being in high school at Bishop Chatard (she has since graduated; Lily went to North Central and now takes online classes). “And then getting this opportunity to write and record opened my mind a little bit,” Madeleine explains. The girls still pen their own stuff, with the help of veteran Bloomington songwriter Kenny Childers. “‘Back to the River’ [from their EP The Weight of the Globe] felt like a real breakthrough, like this is it!” says Childers. “The narrative is mysterious and evocative, and the resigned melancholia of the melody makes it feel a bit like a hymn. During the writing of that song, I absolutely felt like we were doing something special and possibly transcendent.”
Mahern, who also produces for John Mellencamp, recommends the Jurkiewicz sisters sing backup on one of the songs the Hoosier rocker is recording for his Southern Gothic musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. After school one day, they go to Mellencamp’s studio in Southern Indiana. “He taught us the song, and we sang it through a few times, and it was easy-peasy,” says Madeleine, who admits their father was even more excited about the Mellencamp project than she and her sister were. The track, “Truth,” is included on the Ghost Brothers album, which debuts in June 2013 and also features the likes of Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, and Kris Kristofferson.
January 17, 2013
A video of “In the Middle” goes viral after making Reddit.com’s front page. Sample lyrics: “The river is white, it’s tangled and dry. But I still remember you here, swimming in the middle.” What does it all mean? “Middle—we’re in the middle of the United States, the middle of our lives,” says Lily. “The ‘river’ is obviously White River.” Madeleine chimes in: “We had that really dry spell a couple of years ago. That’s what inspired that.”
February 9, 2013
Their first show (ever) sells out. Friends and family fill the Do317 event in Fountain Square, and both girls feel nervous. “I remember trying to get a good night’s sleep and rest my voice as though it was a big deal and I needed lots of preparation,” says Lily. “Now we play shows on four hours of sleep and don’t think twice about it.”
The sisters release digital EP The Weight of the Globe themselves.
Indie cred! John Beeler, a project manager for artist Sufjan Stevens’s record label, Asthmatic Kitty (which has an Indianapolis office), receives audio files of an acoustic session recording of “In the Middle” from Mahern. “I very clearly remember being in the parking lot of a grocery store on a warm December Saturday, and my three daughters wouldn’t let me turn off the car because it’d end the song too early,” says Beeler. “So we sat, the four of us, singing in harmony with these beautiful voices.” He sent the audio files of the entire EP to Stevens and Lowell Brams, co-owners of Asthmatic Kitty, which rereleases the EP.
“I’ve done this for so long,” says music producer Paul Mahern. “You start to believe you’re jaded, and then something like this comes along.”
The media begins to discover them. “[Lily and Madeleine are] certainly not the first singers to find fame on YouTube, but they are among the
coolest … Translation: These girls need to be on your radar!” —Casey Lewis, Teen Vogue
June 4, 2013
“Back to the River” premieres on Vogue.com. “That was a big deal for us, especially so early on in our career,” says Madeleine. “Even though Vogue doesn’t have a big music following, it’s a major source for new trends, and that kind of exposure is what we had dreamed of.”
Madeleine moves into a dorm at Indiana University (though she hasn’t decided on a major). “It was fun, but I didn’t really get to experience college the way that my friends did, because I was busy [with a budding music career] all the time,” she says.
October 25, 2013
Just before the release of their first full-length album, Lily & Madeleine, the reviews begin. “It’s not often that a song will come on and I’ll completely stop what I’m doing to hear it. However, that’s exactly what I did the first time I heard teen sisters Lily & Madeleine. The song was ‘Come to Me,’ and its simple beauty and clear harmonies demanded attention.” —Whitney Matheson, USA Today
October 28, 2013
The Gray Lady reviews Lily & Madeleine. “The thing that flags them as extraordinary is their sibling vocal blend, deep and seamless and relaxed.”
—Nate Chinen, The New York Times
October 29, 2013
Lily & Madeleine drops.
October 29, 2013
More endorsements arrive. “On its surface, the golden rise of Lily & Madeleine sounds like another typical story of Internet-driven fast fame built on youth, beauty, and a few catchy songs. But rest assured: there is nothing superficial or typical about this duo and its startling talent. Prepare to be emotionally disarmed by the otherworldly, heart-shredding harmonies of these Indianapolis, Ind. sisters.”
—Chrissie Dickinson, Chicago Tribune
They take time off from school. Lily becomes isolated from friends. “I didn’t really talk to them for a month or two because they were in their own world, and I was in my own world,” she says of the touring-recording-promotional whirlwind of the past year or so. “Madeleine, I think, has better luck with friends who stick around. I’ve definitely lost a ton, but you know, it’s for the best … I think the music stuff we’re doing is a really big deal, and it will benefit me later in life, and it’s more important than, you know, being popular in high school.” Madeleine, who made it through most of high school before the duo hit it big, had more time to build strong bonds, the sisters agree. Their parents struggle with the idea of the sisters pausing their education for a few months but ultimately decide that the girls can’t fully pursue music while dealing with the daily stresses of school. “It felt like a leap of faith,” says their mother, Mary. “But I feel like they have so many wonderful opportunities that may not come along in a lifetime. I kept thinking to myself, If they were training for the Olympics, it would be a no-brainer.”
January 7, 2014
The duo serenades NPR. “Their music—a restrained, homespun mix of folk and pop with undeniably sweet harmonies—certainly ranks among the loveliest we’ve heard,” writes Robin Hilton of “Tiny Desk Concerts,” for which artists make intimate recordings of songs live at the desk of All Things Considered host Bob Boilen. That turned out to be an unexpectedly big break. “Anytime we play a show, there’s always someone who comes up to us and is like, ‘Oh, I saw your Tiny Desk show, and that’s how I got introduced!’” says Lily. Madeleine agrees: “I really had no idea that it was going to be such a career-booster.”
January 23, 2014
They play four songs at a sold-out Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra show. “The first ISO concert we went to was Ben Folds performing with them,” says Lily, “so when we got to play with them, it was like, Whaaaat?” The symphony even arranges the sisters’ songs for the performance. “It was so beautiful,” says Madeleine of working with the classically trained musicians. “You can’t even believe how talented they are. Super-cool.”
“Madeline, I think, has better luck with friends who stick around. I’ve definitely lost a ton, but you know, it’s for the best …”
February 12, 2014
They get starstruck. While in the United Kingdom to play The Castle in Manchester, the sisters meet Klara Soderberg, one-half of the sister duo First Aid Kit—and one of their musical idols. “It was a surprise,” says Madeleine. “The man who opened for us is her fiance, so she just happened to be there, and then she joined him onstage for the last few songs in his set right before we went onstage, and we were like, Oh my God!”
Early April 2014
Their first U.S. tour, a swing through the South, begins, complete with a manager and a tour van. In Dallas, the girls open for the Grammy Award–winning rock group Los Lobos—“such an honor,” says Madeleine.
April 23, 2014
Recording begins in Bloomington for a second full-length album, Fumes. Lily and Madge, as her sister sometimes calls her, arrive bearing cupcakes and doughnuts from nearby vegan Rainbow Bakery for the crew. Days last from around 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., with the pair recording approximately one song per day. (That’s fast.) The duo read the lyrics to their new song “Peppermint Candy” off of Lily’s iPhone as they record a rough track: “Peppermint candy, and a hand upon my gun, I keep it handy, I’ve never been the kind to run.” The song is about facing your fears, Lily explains.
Late April 2014
The sisters leave for an East Coast tour. “Our Aunt Katie was our tour manager,” says Lily. “We had a show every night for a week.”
June 9–21, 2014
The girls fall in love with California on this, their first trip to the state during a West Coast tour that both inspires and takes a toll. As they drive up the coast from San Diego to Vancouver, the sisters’ road-trip playlist includes edgier music than their own: Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, Beck’s Morning Phase, The Black Keys’ Turn Blue. “I like to listen to music that doesn’t sound like what we do,” says Lily. “It’s more refreshing to listen to stuff that’s totally different. Plus, I prefer that kind of music. The kind we sing, it’s getting closer to what I want, but, like, I’m kind of tired of the acoustic-folk–type thing.” Pause. “It’s still fun, though.” For her part, Madeleine was ready to wrap up the trip by the end. “To be honest, I was like, I kinda wanna get home, see my friends, see my cats, and sleep in my bed.”
June 30, 2014
Madeleine signs the lease on her very first apartment, in Broad Ripple. For now, Lily pays half the rent on the tiny pad, crashing on a futon.
A UK/Norway tour launches. The girls play alongside the likes of St. Vincent at Picnic in the Park, a music fest in Norway, and the End of the Road Festival in the United Kingdom.
Fumes is scheduled to drop on October 28. More polished and produced than its predecessor, the girls’ second album plays up the pop aspect of what Lily & Madeleine do without forgetting what’s made them famous so far: their gentle harmonizing. “I would say it’s the same genre,” says Lily. “Folk, maybe?” “Don’t mention folk,” says Madeleine. “I don’t know what to call it. Alternative.” Lyrically, say the girls, Fumes is about empowerment, each song telling a story, though not necessarily their own. The album title feels right for the pair’s ethereal sound. “The word has this negative connotation, but that’s not necessarily what we were going for,” says Madeleine. “I think it can be more like conjuring up memories of the past, and they can be bad fumes, like toxic fumes, or pleasant.” “Perfume,” adds Lily.
Depending on how Fumes is received, the sisters may consider options beyond playing together. Instead, their future might hold a return to school, or a full band for Lily, or a move toward Broadway for Madeleine, who performed musical theater all four years at Bishop Chatard. “I want to do the very best that I possibly can to get this album—” begins Lily. “Some more traction,” finishes Madeleine. “I don’t know if this will be our last album; we just don’t have a plan. But we definitely are going to promote the heck out of this thing, and see if we can get it on the radio, and see how far we can take it. And then we’ll figure it out.”