A Conversation with Sister Species & Lena Elizabeth

As Sister Species, guitarist Abby Kastrul and accordionist Emily Kastrul transform two decades of sibling rivalry into raw, vibrant, orchestral pop songs, with a sound supported by an intricate eight piece band. Lena Elizabeth writes songs influenced by folk storytelling with a voice rooted in the blues, blending old and new influences to create a sound that is approachable across generations.

On Thursday, November 29th, these two groups will join together at The Cedar to celebrate simultaneous album releases for their newest recordings: Heavy Things Do Move (Sister Species) and Get It Right (Lena Elizabeth).

Robert Lehmann, Marketing and Booking Coordinator, sat down to speak with Lena, Emily, and Abby at The Cedar in advance of their dual release show. They chatted about how each group got started in music, family connections in the music scene, honesty in songwriting, and a desire for collaboration between musicians and other artists.

Read the full interview below and get tickets and more information about the show here.

Lena Elizabeth (Left) and Abby and Emily Kastrul of Sister Species (Right)

Lena Elizabeth (Left) and Abby and Emily Kastrul of Sister Species (Right)

Robert: Let's dig in! Could you all tell me about how you got started in music?

Lena: I got started in music, because my dad was a singer songwriter. He was also a guitar teacher, and he would start his younger students on the baritone ukulele before guitar, because it's a little bit easier to get the finger positions. He started me out on baritone ukulele, and I'm pretty stubborn, so I never moved onto guitar because I liked the baritone so much.

My brothers Sam and Joe are musicians as well, and watching them play music growing up was really inspiring. I also have my cousins who are close to my age who are a lot more like brothers to me. They were also super musical. My cousin, Gabriel Rodreick is part of Treading North

Robert: Oh cool! He’s playing a show here two weeks later! (Laughs)

Lena: (Laughs) I know!  Originally it was the day after, and we were like, "Yeah! Family at The Cedar!" We write music together, me and his brother, Charles, who will also be doing background vocals for the show on Thursday.

Robert: And you, Abby and Emily?

Abby: We also have a musical family. Our dad was a self-taught pianist, self-taught on guitar, too, and he used to teach drums.

Emily: Yeah, he's “YouTube piano famous.” He has way more views on all his videos than any of our videos. It’s funny, he once had a handy person come to his house who asked, "Are you the Dan Kastrul piano page?" And Dad was like, "Seriously, you've seen my piano covers?"

But I also feel like people often ask Abby and me, "Oh have you guys always been singing together?"

Abby: Oh no ... We did not get along until we both moved out. I guess once Emily went off to college and I was still in high school, having that distance was integral to our relationship actually working.

Emily: Our musicianship was always encouraged. Our parents put us in piano lessons and later I played bass guitar and Abby played guitar in high school.

Abby: Actually, I played baritone ukulele in high school.

(Everyone laughs)

Abby: I took guitar lessons when I was ten and quit.  And then I got a baritone ukulele from my Uncle Jim. And liked it so much more than guitar.

Lena: Yeah, it's nice to start on!

Abby: Now I play guitar, mostly because it’s versatile. I might've felt more inspired if I'd had a nicer baritone ukulele!

Lena: I think everyone should get a baritone ukulele. But I might be biased.

Emily: And I play the accordion. Regarding that, our aunt and uncle met when she saw him play accordion at an event and then asked, "Can you teach me accordion?" They were together for a long time, and I've inherited my aunt’s accordion when I was 17, which is how I got into the instrument.

There's a family link in that sense, but I feel like my musicianship was nurtured more by learning from people who played in the folk tradition, and realizing, "I can learn a song from this person on this side of the country and I can go to another city, and call out the same song and people will know a similar version." That was how I got started.

Abby:  You definitely taught me some of those folk songs! I also played banjo in high school because I visited Emily in Portland and her roommate Hazel Ra, taught me how to clawhammer, and I was like, "Daaaang, this rules."

Emily and I played some songs together after that. Mostly, I was just teaching myself songs that I liked. Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside was a huge influence on me when I was 18, and that's where I found my ideal vocal range and realized, "Oh actually? Belting is great, and I should totally do that."

Then, after I came back from Italy and New York and Emily came back from the West Coast, we started playing music together.

Robert: Was that an earlier iteration of Sister Species? And how did it evolve from there?

Emily: The early iteration was us playing Anarchist fundraisers and stuff. It was like, "Oh you're doing a breakfast potluck for a political prisoner and you need a band to play? We got it!" We were playing a mix of older folk songs and songs that we had written. And then ...

Abby: Emily was about to leave for Turkey.

Emily: Oh yeah! Before that, we recorded our very first EP in 2011 (which I don't recommend listening to!)

That music was this kind of slow, chill side project initially. But slowly we introduced people who were a little more serious about playing music and were challenging us. We really cemented who was in the band around 2014 . Where we'd had one trumpet player, suddenly we had three serious trumpet players.

In Spring of 2015, we had seven people including us that were all committed to our band and who are all still in our band. That to me was when our songwriting really took off together because we were able to ...

Abby: Solidify our sound.

Emily: Totally. We all committed to weekly rehearsals. We all really believe in this. We’ve developed a listening language together. We have this fun mix of people who play drone to funk to improvised music to folk to pop - everyone brings different sets of ears to the group.

Abby: It’s also really fun having people who have such a thorough and studied understanding of music theory, whereas we are more on the self-taught side of things. We've had some lessons, and Emily's had more music theory than I’ve had. I don't always know the name of the chord I'm playing but I know what I want it to sound like.

It’s cool being able to find the common language between those things. It feels like the people in our band are interpreters
— Abby Kastrul

Emily: I think we all respect the different ears that we have.

Abby: It’s cool being able to find the common language between those things. It feels like the people in our band are interpreters. For example, I might just say an emotion-based thing that's not easily decipherable, and they're just like, "Cool, yeah, we get it." That's pretty sick.

Emily: We also have pretty intimate relationships - everyone in the band has lived with at least one other person in the band and maybe is related to someone else in the band. It's very intertwined.

Abby: It’s also how I met my partner. He started out as our bassist, and then he moved into my house, and then we fell in love. Which is PRETTY COOL!

I aim to share exactly how I feel about things, and hopefully it’s inspiring to other people to also be blunt and open
— Lena Elizabeth

Robert: What do you aim for your music to communicate with your playing?

Lena: Other people have described my music as very honest. That's what I really strive to do.

As a person I don't feel eloquent all the time. In moments when I'm feeling emotions, I can't necessarily communicate what I want to say. Music is where I can communicate feelings, whether it be anger, love, sadness, or just frustrations.

I was honest all throughout the album, Get It Right. Hopefully people can relate to that honesty. I aim to share exactly how I feel about things, and hopefully it's inspiring to other people to also be blunt and open.

Emily: That resonates a lot with how we approach music and that's part of why it has been exciting to work on the show together. There's this shared desire to communicate feeling and healing.

Abby: Yeah, you never know how a listener will react. With a lot of my songs, I have a concrete feeling writing it, but someone listening might resonate with something completely different that they're feeling. If they can use that as a vehicle to sort through their heaviness, that's awesome.

Emily: My songwriting uses a lot of metaphor in it. It’s also honest and blunt, but oftentimes hidden amidst talking about rivers and birds. I'm into writing really personal songs but also leaving space for people to project their own experiences and feel.

I’ve been thinking about music as healing recently. For some people music is about ego which I also respect and of course if you're going to front a band you have to have some ego, but I'm also curious how music can be about healing and not only ego.

It’s been refreshing to say, “Come to our show! This is gonna be this cool experience of sharing both of our new albums.” It’s very communal.
— Lena Elizabeth

Robert: Which brings up the question: "What is your vision for the music community in the Twin Cities?"

Abby: More collaboration!

Emily: Yes! We've been talking about how great it's been to be able to do a dual release show. Like, "You're releasing an album. We are, too. That's good for everyone!" As opposed to being like, "I want this to be all about me and my album."


Lena: That's what's been really refreshing about this. There's so much pressure with a release show to super promote myself but it's refreshing to be promoting somebody else at the same time.

Abby: I feel that way, too!

Lena: How do I put this … you guys have a band name and then for me it's like it's my name. Sometimes it just feels like you have to have that confidence to say, "Come to my show! This is my name!" and that can be exhausting for me. It’s been refreshing to say, "Come to our show! This is gonna be this cool experience of sharing both of our new albums." It's very communal.

Abby: It kind of feels comparable to times where you and your friend both have anxiety, and your friend can't do something because of their anxiety, so you immediately go into this mode of, "Hey! I'm gonna do this thing for my friend, because they rule and I like them, even thugh I’d never be able to do it for myself." Being able to promote your show while also promoting someone else's also helps to move past that anxiety in a similar way.

Emily: Focusing back on the music scene, I'm excited to see more collaboration happening across genre in the music community in Minneapolis. We've played a lot of other shows where we've worked on a collaborative song with another artist, which we will also do for this show. We’d love to see more collaboration and less competition.

Abby: And also with the broader arts community like collaborating with Hiponymous for our music video release show. And beyond music, as a baker I’m at a point now where people know to ask, "Hey! Want to sell donuts or cupcakes at my show?" It's a really fun way to support each other.

Emily: It's exciting playing with people of all genders and backgrounds, but it’s exciting to specifically play with other women and gender nonconforming (GNC) people. It’s been a long time since we've been the only women or GNC people on a bill and that feels refreshing. I feel like more and more I'm seeing better representation of all genders at shows, not always, maybe you still go to like dude fest but I feel like that's becoming less acceptable, so I'm happy for that.

Robert: For such a long time it seemed like indie rock was just so many three to four-piece, white dude groups.

Abby + Emily: Like so many!

There is some satisfaction in smashing the idea that it has to be cute and sweet and palatable and easy or something because of what other people think that we ought to be
— Emily Kastrul

Robert: After reading a few of the album reviews or pieces on Sister Species and Lena Elizabeth, it seems like your image is so often presented as "Oh! Cutesy person with a ukulele, but with grit."

Lena: Yep! Or like it's like a surprising, "Whoa! Didn't expect that!" That's definitely been most of my experience. I like surprising people. But I think people assume that when I walk out on stage with a ukulele that I'm going to sing really sweet songs.

Robert: How do you feel about that perception?

Lena: The perception that it's gonna be really cute?

Robert: Yeah.


Lena: It's boring. It's exhausting. I wish people wouldn't assume I was going to be a certain way based on what I look like or the instrument I play. But with that being the case, I like to dash their expectations. I think that you guys talk about that, too with being sisters.

Abby: Like when we get, "Oh are you a family band?" or "Did you guys write this whole album about each other?" And I'm thinking to myself, "Oh no, that would be pretty gross."

Emily: There is some satisfaction in smashing the idea that it has to be cute and sweet and palatable and easy or something because of what other people think that we ought to be.

Sometimes that smashing is satisfying and sometimes I just think, "Can we talk about something else?" Or I think my fantasy is that every time a group of men was interviewed they were asked something like, “What is it like to be four white dudes in a rock band?”

Lena: That would be hilarious.

Abby: I wonder what they'd say. Like, “It’s hard to have people assume you're capable and can play your instrument. How exhausting is it that nobody stands in your path, offering to carry some of the heaviest and most expensive items you own?”

Emily: With our band I often have to really communicate that we are an eight-piece band, not just a sister duo. Just trying to get people to understand the orchestralness. Also, our band has six dudes in it, so that's a whole other consideration.

Lena: Yeah, I have three dudes in mine.

Emily: I appreciate you offering and saying like, "Yeah, if you don't want to talk about this, we don't have to. It's probably annoying." Lena and the two of us definitely connected about this experience, "Oh, people call your stuff cute, too?" That happens to lots of people.

Abby: I had someone reach for my instrument case when I was carrying it downtown starting to ask, "Can I ..." and I was like, "NO! No you can't! For one, don't start reaching before I've given you an answer, and for two, this thing's expensive. You want to pay to replace it if you break it?”

Emily: That being said, I have a lot of hope about the Twin Cities music scene in that regard, too. There's just so many people of many genders playing many different kinds of music to where it's not just limited to one genre. There are metal bands, punk bands, hip-hop bands, folk bands, and pop bands that have a lot of different genders of people in them too, and that's exciting.

Robert: Yeah, definitely. The more that I learn about the Twin Cities music community, the more it seems like there are people who are down to collaborate; it’s a more supportive environment than other cities.

Lena: I feel like compared to other cities, people are trying to help you out. When I started going to open mics and things like that, people came up and said, “Here are some other venues. This is how you get shows.” They started answering these questions that I didn't necessarily even ask - they were just ready to help me. I think the music community here is really, really helpful.

Emily: It feels like it’s based on abundance as opposed to scarcity. It's easy to feel a sense of scarcity. Part of the abundance is that there is arts funding here. I don't know where else that feeling comes from, but I'm thankful for it.

I also watched my mom do this crazy thing and it was definitely an experience where I felt, ‘You can do whatever you want to do. You are capable, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.’
— Lena Elizabeth

Robert: Alright, left turn, here. So you mentioned you’re a baker earlier, Abby, and Lena you also have a history of baking ...

Lena: I grew up in a bakery, yeah.

(Everyone celebrates)

Lena: Common themes!

Abby: Love it!

Emily: Honestly it’s super surprising that we didn't know each other before this. I mean we’d heard of each other because Lena's bassist and photographer, Taylor, has done photography for us and was a friend. But we didn't really know each other, so it's super cool to find weird themes.

Lena: Baking is definitely a theme.

Robert: So … what is the role of baking in your lives?

Abby: Baking is literally the only way that I am supporting myself right now. I'm self-employed as a baker - my business is Bakery Box - and my donuts have been blowing up. I actually have business cards this time! I've been doing weekend donuts by pre-order and I have a website with event details.

Emily: I like to list Bakery Box as a side project of Abby, like you know how sometimes people list the side bands that they're in.

Abby: Right now I've got some sourdough and yeast poolish going and when I get home I'm going to make another brioche batch. I do laminated brioche donuts. It’s kind of cronut style, but I've heard from people who tried cronuts that mine are better - suck it, Dominique Ansel!

I love baking. I've been doing that ever since I was a tiny child. I scored a free KitchenAid mixer from my Barista job because they were going to throw it away, and it helps me do so much more than before I had it.

Abby Kastrul’s mixer tattoo

Abby Kastrul’s mixer tattoo

Emily: Can you show your tattoo right now? Abby has a cool tattoo of her mixer.

Robert: Oh niiice.

Lena: That's awesome! Oh my god...

Robert: Beautiful.

Abby: I love this. Emilie Robinson - phenomenal tattoo artist.

Emily: Do you maybe want to grow to have your own commercial kitchen?

Abby: Yeah. I would like to just have complete control over everything.

Lena: Having grown up in a bakery, good luck with that.

Abby: I know ... I'm saying it now but ... I guess that's my baking journey.

Lena: For my baking journey, I grew up in a bakery, I know how to bake, and I bake for fun, but I wouldn't necessarily call myself a baker like you would call yourself a baker, Abby. I grew up in a family of bakers and baking in my life has mostly been a business and that's been cool for me to watch.

My mom started Patisserie Margo herself with a lot of help from my dad. Just watching her say this is what I want to do and then actually just doing it. I know for a fact that she didn't know what she was doing and you know, she asked for help and created this thing. It's still going today and it's successful. I grew up working there and all my brothers grew up working there.

It's a very unique situation where I grew up working with my family and that made us very strong, but I also watched my mom do this crazy thing and it was definitely an experience where I felt, "You can do whatever you want to do. You are capable, even if you don't know what you're doing."

I have no idea what I'm doing for music stuff, regarding promotions and things like that, but I have friends that I can ask and reach out to. I know I can figure this out because she did it. So that's baking in my life.

Robert: Cool. BAKING.

Lena & Abby: BAKING.

I want to accept myself for who I am and I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to get it right or live my life the way that I wanted to until I accepted myself.
— Lena Elizabeth

Robert: Turning to a different subject, what inspired you the most during the album writing process?

Lena: I think that, basically the album is a lot about my own personal relationships. I started out writing songs about bad or toxic relationships that I had been in or bad relationships with friends, and then I went on to talk about mental health. I struggle with anxiety, so I go into talking about these bad relationships but then also look deeper at the relationship with myself. I realized that you’re not going to have good relationships with others if you don't have a good relationship with yourself first.

I get to the song “Get It Right” in the middle of the album and that looks at that voice inside of me that tells me I'm not good enough or that I can be better, and I say I don't want this anymore. I want to accept myself for who I am and I knew that I wasn't going to be able to get it right or live my life the way that I wanted to until I accepted myself. It’s mostly about my own anxieties with self-doubts but also with my own self image where I struggled with an eating disorder and anxiety.

Then I move on to exploring new relationships and also accepting relationships that I have that I can't change. The track "Wasted" is about people in my life with addictions where I would blame myself for things, but I can't actually change that and it was hard accepting that. Then, I move on to things like love and I have one love song on the album that's actually good.

Get It Right is about getting to that self-acceptance and being able to accept love and also being able to accept loss. But it's also about relationships and acceptance of things that can’t change, so those were the themes that really inspired me throughout the process.

Robert: Do you feel like the album was a crystallization of the process that was going on with you? Or do you feel like the album helped you get to that stage of self-acceptance?

Lena: A little bit of both. Each song was definitely therapeutic when I got down exactly what I wanted to say. Afterwards, I could let go of those feelings. You guys have said something similar about songwriting. It's just my way of getting that stuff out and my own self-therapy.

Emily: Yeah, that experience really resonates with us. Self-acceptance was definitely a theme that came up for both of us in the different songs we wrote.

Abby: And relationships with anxiety, ourselves, and how our relationships with others affect our relationships with ourselves.

Emily: Totally. Songwriting is a way to heal or a way to take whatever you’re feeling inside of yourself and then having a safe space to look at it from different angles, you know? With a song, you have three and a half minutes where you can feel and explore all of whatever the feeling is and then it's over and you can set it aside.

Our album is called Heavy Things Do Move which sort of was a theme that emerged after we wrote it. We didn’t really think, "Let's write an album!" We said it earlier - our band band kind of feels like a family. We are a community; we practice regularly; and we are continually writing songs together, and then these are the songs that stuck throughout our process.

I’ve been on a number of different emotional journeys over the time of writing the record and it was interesting to realize, “This feels different.”

— Emily Kastrul

After recording all the songs we looked back and saw some really major threads that were running through them. The idea that Heavy Things Do Move, that was a feeling that I was sitting with as we finished the album. I've been on a number of different emotional journeys over the time of writing the record and it was interesting to really feel the movement inside of myself through making the record.

Going into making this album, we knew and believed in the power of our band to play together and create something. It was a different level of confidence in releasing this record and a different sense of the clarity of vision than on our last record.

Part of that is just having the experience of recording an album together before and understanding different parts of the process, and part of that also was taking our time with this record and not rushing. Part of it was also working with Jason McGlone at The Hideaway who's like an angel on Earth and a total genius wizard. I could sing his praises for a whole other record.

Abby: He'd probably record it happily.

Emily: (Laughs) We were also feeling really confident that we knew who to collaborate with, too. We have a lot of different guests on our record, some of whom will be making an appearance for the release show! It was exciting to know, "I know who I want to add their voice to this song,” or “I know the right trombone player for this song." It's just nice to have other people touch the album and offer their own love to it. So we had a lot of the same influences as Lena’s: self-acceptance, and struggling with the heavy stuff ... also planets, rivers, and seasons.

Robert: What was the vision in developing each video in your music video trilogy that accompanies the album?

Emily: We were trying to dig deeper into themes of vulnerability and self-acceptance which are espeially prominent in the songs that we made the video trilogy for. We saw it as an opportunity to collaborate across different disciplines and provide a different way for people to access the feelings of our music. Some people are more responsive to film or more responsive to movement. We wanted to find other ways to share the themes we were exploring in our music. It was really amazing to work with Hiponymous and LoonarCity because they asked really clear artist questions.

[Collaboration] challenged us to find the language for talking about vulnerability and self-acceptance
— Abby Kastrul

Sometimes we have this almost non-verbal way of communicating as a band because we all are just in the vision. Having to explain really ...

Abby: Challenged us to find the language for talking about vulnerability and self-acceptance.

Emily: Exactly. It was really exciting to work with the dancers and filmmakers and get their perspectives. Making an album is physically exhausting, but making videos is exhausting in a different way where you are repeating things. I feel like the image of me crawling across the rocks doesn't look that hard, but I was pretty sore the next day.

I think for us too, doing the video for Mississippi was really exciting because for that one, Hiponymous and LoonarCity filmed without us, and they took the lead with the concept. Afterward Jason McGlone and I remixed a song to go with the video. While “Take It Easy” and “In Orbit” were created as a response to our songs, Mississippi was an opportunity to score a video through a remix. It felt exciting to be in the responsive role of creation, so it felt like a really genuine collaboration in that kind of way where it wasn't just one of us leading. My real fantasy is to do a video album! But I don't have that grant yet.

Robert: Finally, what do you want your audiences to know before the show?

Emily: We love The Cedar! It’s an honor to get to celebrate our two releases in such a beautiful space.

Abby: It’s gonna rule.

Get tickets for Sister Species and Lena Elizabeth Double Album Release on Thursday, November 29th 2018 here. This is all an ages, seated show. Doors are 7pm, show at 7:30pm. Tickets: $12 Advance / $15 Day of Show.