August 2011

Wellfleet to the World

Cape Cod Life  /  August 2011 / ,

Writer: Rob Conery / Photographer: Kian Oringer 

From playing for change in Provincetown to touring the continent, the Parkington Sisters recent success reveals lives of musical devotion.

Parkington Sisters

The 5 multi-talented Parkington sisters are up and coming on the music scene, and their eclectic sound appeals to just about everyone.

In just a few short years, Wellfleet’s Ariel, Sarah, Nora, Rose, and Lydia Parkington have gone from busking on the streets of Provincetown to sold-out concerts and national tours. Today, this band of sisters hit the stage with violins and a cello. They are fearless, playing music that one can’t readily dance to, nor even really sing along with, yet they transfix audiences. They are bright, articulate young women. There’s just one question they can’t answer: What does their music sound like?

Rose hems for a few moments, then defers to Sarah. Sarah isn’t sure either. Nora is equally stymied. Giggling, she finally says, “Tell them we’re a cult Norwegian metal band, that’ll throw ‘em off.”

The sisters’ range is considerable, and their influences are not always apparent. They often close shows with a Radiohead cover. But at the conclusion of a recent performance at the Jailhouse in Orleans, even as sustained applause faded and the sisters began to file off stage, Rose playfully began the familiar keyboard intro to “Jump,” Van Halen’s pop-metal paean from 1984, an album that came out four years before she was born.

“They transcend genres,” says Chris Blood, an independent Cape Cod producer who recorded tracks for the Parkington Sisters’ debut Eagle and the Wolf EP. “I tell people what they’re not. They’re not classical, they’re not folk. Not pop, exactly. Their music has a timelessness that doesn’t sound traditional. That’s really hard to do.”

The sisters grew up in Wellfleet with music drifting in and out of the rooms in the house. Their parents are both accomplished musicians: their mother, Cheryl, is a singer-songwriter; father Daniel is more into avant-garde jazz fusion. Daniel’s band Andromeda once cut an album for Capital Records in New York.

Sarah describes growing up in a house with “a basement full of instruments, there were pianos, banjos, you name it.” They all play music and sing. Between them, they hold seven musical degrees.

A few years back, Rose and Sarah, seeking an outlet for their growing musical affinity, decided to drive up to Provincetown and wing it. They popped open their instrument cases to catch loose change and played on the streets, in the seaside festival of bohemia that is a Provincetown summer night. Rose admits they made “like 10 dollars or something,” but there was a thrill to performing, to connecting. They went home with excited stories. They returned with more sisters and the act began to take shape.

The Parkington Sisters played their first real show at the Wellfleet Public Library in 2005—just string instruments and celestial harmonies. Dad did the sound. The reaction was great. “That feeling of community involvement made us want to keep going,” says Nora.

Parkington Sisters

Equipped with all different types of instruments, the smiling sisters welcome a round of applause from the audience after a performance. Photo by Kian Oringer

By the second show, they had written an original song. They continued to hone their sound and esthetic, sometimes taking the stage barefoot in formal gowns. During a summer 2010 show at Wellfleet’s First Congressional Church, Ken Casey, co-founder and singer of the Dropkick Murphys, caught their act. Impressed, he offered an opening slot on some upcoming shows.

The Dropkick Murphys—Boston punk rock mainstays who’s “Shipping Up To Boston” was the anthem of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed—virtually adopted the group as its preferred opening act, and the Parkington Sisters accompanied them on a tour of Canada and California that summer. “We’re travelers at heart,” says Nora.

In March, Ashley Capps, co-founder of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, caught the Parkington Sisters when they opened for the Dropkicks at a New York City gig. Capps offered the sisters a coveted invitation to play at the festival, which has drawn roughly 80,000 music fans to rural Tennessee each summer for the last decade. Nora recalls being in the audience with her sister Rose years earlier.

At a Dropkicks show in Boston this past St. Patrick’s Day, the sisters got to meet special guest Bruce Springsteen before he went on stage. “He was so nice, so genuine,” says Sarah. They were all chuffed when he complimented Lydia. Sarah recalls Springsteen’s words: “‘You’ve got an amazing voice, rough in all the right places.’”

For their debut full-length album Till Voices Wake Us, the Parkington Sisters teamed up with Joel Hamilton, a West Yarmouth native and New York City music producer whose credits range from post-punk icon Elvis Costello to pop idol Justin Timberlake. He has high praise for the sisters’ vision. “They have this unified aesthetic, something other rock bands could take a lesson from,” he says. Hamilton says bands often have a shorthand of their own, a language that develops among a closely knit creative unit, a cohesion only intensified in a sibling band.

“It’s like an iceberg flying a kite,” Hamilton says of the Parkington Sisters’ music—meaning, their sound possesses a certain weight. “They have a beautiful melancholy, like a black-and-white French film. It’s heavy without loud guitars. It’s heavy in the way it affects your mind.”

And the Parkington Sisters have an undeniable magnetism—they don’t play to audiences so much as vaporize them. Last spring, before big tours took them across the country, the sisters appeared at the Jailhouse Tavern in Orleans. Center stage, bowing her cello was the pixyish Lydia, who all but slurred out her lyrics to “Sailor Song.” The haunting tale of a soul’s destruction on an indifferent sea seems almost impossible for a teenager to have penned. Says Blood, “Doesn’t that sound like it was written a hundred years ago?”

Rob Conery is a frequent contributor to Cape Cod Life.

Rob Conery

Rob Conery writes a weekly fishing column for Cape Cod Times. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, he splits time between a hobo camp in western Maine and his native Cape Cod where he has spent 45 consecutive summers walking distance to Lewis Bay. He has written many articles for Cape Cod LIFE including a recent piece on Cape Cod and Islands divers, and his novel Winterland is available on Strawberry Books.