When I was a child, every Easter and Christmas my very stylish mother dressed my two younger sisters and I in matching outfits, many of which she sewed herself. Our looks always had at least one variable, usually a color or a pattern. For example, we’d all have dresses made in the same Laura Ashley pouf-sleeve style (this was the ’80s), but Millie’s would be in a blue floral, Marie’s green, and mine purple.
Dressing like Marie and Millie didn't phase me when I was little. I didn’t think twice about it when Marie and I headed out the door to grammar school in senior and junior versions of the same look. I remember one distinctly. When I was in third grade and she was in first, we wore matching yellow turtlenecks and tights under denim jumpers from Neiman Marcus that had tall, slim pockets on the bib designed to fit four crayons. The French names for each color were embroidered atop the corresponding slot: bleu, rouge, vert, jaune. We were tres mignon — very cute.
But mignon gets tedious as one gets older. Playing The Callaway Triplets was not as much fun when I hit puberty. (Plus it seriously threatened any fashion cred my Salvation Army old-man jackets might have been giving me the other 363 days of the year.) The girls and I finally put the kibosh on dressing in triplicate.
I have no doubt that my personal history of dressing like my siblings contributes to my deep fascination with the matching stage wear of Leigh and Chandra Watson, Nashville’s beautiful and beloved singing sisters, known professionally as The Watson Twins.
For the last ten years, the Watsons have complemented their work as a duo with gigs as backup singers. For those performances, they dress alike. They move alike, too: throwback synchronized choreography is a big part of the shows that Chandra and Leigh play with genre-spanning acts ranging from R&B artist CeeLo Green to jazz great Harry Connick, Jr. to pop-driven singer-songwriters like Jenny Lewis, who the Twins recently toured with to mark the ten-year anniversary of the trio’s wildly popular album, Rabbit Fur Coat.
It was on the inaugural RFC tour in 2006, at Jenny’s request, that the Watsons started intentionally dressing alike for the first time in their lives. The idea of the Twins as mirror image was reinforced by the record’s cover art, shot by cult rock photographer Autumn de Wilde in the Kubrickian hallway of the Sportsman’s Lodge in LA’s Studio City. In the photo, the Watsons are dressed in baby blue vintage skirt sets with retro handbags over their forward-facing shoulders. Eyes cast downward, they flank a more diminutive Lewis, dressed in red and looking straight ahead. In a crowded sea of intentionally under-stylized indie rock visuals, this conceptual image stood out and struck a chord. It sticks with you.
Ten years later, that now-iconic album cover helped inspire the trio’s stage costumes for this year’s Rabbit Fur Coat anniversary tour. The first look consists of sparkly, blousy-sleeved “Pelican” dresses by Ola Mai, the Nashville fashion house led by designer Leslie Stephens. The second is custom chain-stitched embroidered suits by Austin’s Fort Lonesome. Designer Kathie Sever stitched personal information about the Watsons into the visuals of their design: four-leaf clovers signify the twins’ St. Patrick’s Day birthday while horseshoes pay homage to their home state of Kentucky.
Last month, at an exclusive TCR photo shoot led by the dream team of photographer Brett Warren, makeup artist Megan Thompson, hair stylist Alyssa Kraus, and Brett’s manager Chelsea Beauchamp, the Watsons modeled the RFC10 looks — both paired with insanely cool custom silver boots by the NYC-based company Modern Vice — as well as an “infinity dress,” which can be worn 17 (!) different ways, from their first Jenny Lewis tour.
A few days later, Leigh and Chandra met up for a chat with TCR at The Cordelle, the elegant Nashville event space that they co-own, where they spoke about their thriving second career as backup singers, the gift they’ve found in working together, and, after years of resistance, the fun they have now dressing alike.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
TCR: I almost didn’t suggest this story idea to you guys. I felt like the topic of dressing alike might be a sore subject for you, like it is for many of the twins I know.
LEIGH: I think initially it was. You spend your whole life trying to create your own identity, making sure that the guy you're dating doesn't grab your sister's hand and hoping that when you open the door for the first date —
CHANDRA: They're not looking at your sister —
LEIGH: — going, “Oh, wow. She's cute.” [LAUGHTER]
TCR: You just described the plot of at least a dozen ’80s movies.
CHANDRA: It’s so funny because people always ask if Leigh and I pulled tricks on people. And it actually wasn't fun for us.
LEIGH: Because we were always confused.
CHANDRA: People were always calling me the wrong name, so it's, like, I don't have to pull tricks on people. That's my daily life, you know? [LAUGHTER]
LEIGH: You’re always wondering if someone is thinking you’re someone else.
Our mother never dressed us alike, unless it was, like, grandma needed to see the outfit she bought for our birthday on both of us at the same time. She really allowed us to be creative in our dress and be our personalities, which I think was important growing up. And then, in our late twenties, to be asked if we can dress alike by Jenny… It was like, okay, that's kind of weird. But maybe that’s cool.
CHANDRA: But then she said, “I'll be wearing the same dress, too." And that’s a whole other thing. It turns us into, like, Tina Turner and her backup singers.
LEIGH: Girl groups. The Supremes. That kind of thing.
CHANDRA: Once we knew that she was going for that ’60s girl group thing, then all of a sudden it (made sense). First of all, it’s way cooler, and also there’s a certain ease to having costumes. When you know what you're putting on every night, it's kind of like putting on a uniform. It's part of the preparation of getting on stage.
LEIGH: It gets you into the mindset, since it's not something you would wear otherwise. You know, we play music on our own, too, and half of the struggle in playing a show is figuring out what to wear. Half of the musicians I know end up in a leather jacket, T-shirt, black pants, and some type of hat or whatever. That look is a uniform for a lot of rock and rollers, unless you're going to be Lady Gaga and wear a dress made out of meat, you know? But I feel like, for us, it's part of the process now.
Whenever we do shows with Jenny, we go through the process of collaborating on costumes with her. We all get really excited about it. You know, she brought Fort Lonesome to the table for the suits because she had been introduced to (designer Kathie Sever) through Nikki (Lane, the Nashville Americana singer known for her vintage Western style), and so it was all connected.
And then we were looking to replicate the blue dresses from the record cover. We had worked with Leslie (Stephens, the designer of the Nashville brand Ola Mai) when we did a date with Karen Elson (the Nashville singer and model). Leslie made our dresses for that performance and we just loved working with her. So we got to bring a Nashville designer to the table, which was really cool.
But fifteen costumes later, each of our dresses represents different things. Like, we started out with the long dresses for our first tour (with Jenny Lewis). For the second tour, we added some new, more upbeat songs. We had this picture of Tina Turner and her backup singers (by photographer Douglas Kent Hall) where they were wearing these mini sequin dresses, and all of a sudden I was like, "Okay, what if we did a costume change? Let's make that part of our show.” And it really elevated the performance aspect of it.
CHANDRA: We’ve always tried to be in sync, whether it’s being asked to dress alike or dance. But the first person that asked us to actually choreograph was Autumn de Wilde. She and her costume lady, Shirley Kurata, were integral to those first photo shoots. They were formative in creating a look for us, and then we ran with it. Autumn asked us to choreograph the “The Big Guns” video. It was, like, 30 minutes before we were supposed to start filming. And I’m thinking, Well, it looks like drill team is finally about to pay off. [LAUGHTER]
LEIGH: After that, when we started doing shows, we dropped right back into those moves.
CHANDRA: Now every song has choreographed movement. I mean, even our still positions are choreographed. It’s very, very specific, and that evolved over years of performing together. Now it’s the kind of thing where when we get asked to do performances, it’s what people expect. They expect a look and a cohesive experience with cohesive movements and cohesive presentation.
And it is funny, as we spoke about before, to realize the thing that you were against your whole life is now the signature of your career, you know? [LAUGHTER]
That’s been interesting to think about. I love that we're able to embrace it now and have fun with it, and that people respond to it. Being a twin is really special and unique, and I think that Leigh and I have never taken that for granted. We understand that what we have is really special as sisters, and also just as collaborators.
People who know us say we’re completely different, but we have such a connection. We finish each other's sentences. We often times show up in the same outfit unbeknownst to each other.
LEIGH: Or we have the same conversation with the same person twice. On this last run, Chandra would arrive backstage and have a conversation with the guitar player and I would arrive three minutes later and have the same conversation, literally verbatim.
CHANDRA: People would entertain us, which was very nice. I'd start by saying, "I'm sorry, you're getting ready to have the exact same conversation with me that you just had with Leigh. I really apologize, but that's just the way it rolls."
LEIGH: Or she pipes in on a conversation and says, "I just said that.” And I'm like, "I know, but I don’t know the outcome yet!"
Going back to the music, when we started doing the stuff with Jenny, it was the first time we weren’t in the back of the band, next to the drum riser. We were front and center with her, and she celebrated us. That was really the start of something that grew in a way we never expected. (Singing backup) has been such an amazing journey.
“20 Feet from Stardom” (the Oscar-winning documentary about the terrific trials of female pop and R&B backup singers) really hit home. I was at home, watching it with a tissue, calling Chandra, asking, "Did you see this?"
CHANDRA: I saw it at The Belcourt by myself and I just cried.
LEIGH: We’ve been lucky.
CHANDRA: There are some great sentiments in there. One woman talks about how something happens inside of you, a reverberation that happens when you sing with people, and how it's spiritual. And it really is. Leigh and I grew up singing in church choir. There's something about singing with people that we love so much. Outside of the visually creative side of what we do and the musical part of it, it’s really spiritual and beautiful. We have a certain blend together, and we can lend that to a performer.
CHANDRA: And it works because we're not trying to stick out as future soloists. We're really trying to create a sound to lift the lead singer up to another level. And I think that's also why people hire us, because it's not us just coming into a room and singing a part.
TCR: It's more of a whole package.
LEIGH: And it’s also fun to work with people who let us do what we do, you know? I love going into the studio and someone being like, "You guys just do you."
CHANDRA: "Just do Watson Twins. That's what we want."
LEIGH: "That's why you're here.” And we're like, "Okay, cool. We can do that." It changes all the time, but I feel like inherently we know where the other is going to go.
TCR: Do you ever wonder what your music careers would have been like if you’d have not had a twin sister to work with?
LEIGH: I definitely wouldn't have stayed being a musician if I didn't work with Chandra. I don't think I would have had… not the guts, but the gumption to stick with it. When I was feeling low, she always said, "No, this is what you are supposed to be doing. Here are the 50 reasons why we're here.” And vice-versa. We’re each other’s cheerleaders.
And, you know, if you ask our husbands or any of our friends, we can fight like the dickens, too.
CHANDRA: But we can also be making each other laugh ten minutes later.
LEIGH: Yeah, it doesn't stick with us.
CHANDRA: It’s like fighting with yourself.
LEIGH: I feel like it’s a real gift. And there are a lot of musicians out there that have twin siblings that sing together. Tegan and Sara. The guys in the National (Aaron and Bryce Dessner). It’s a special bond. It's a special thing to be able to do together. A gift, you know?
With the tenth anniversary of this record, in this time of reflection, you look back over your career and things that have happened and I can only say they wouldn't have happened if I weren’t a twin.
TCR: So Jenny was the first person that asked you to dress alike, for the first Rabbit Fur Coat tour. And those awesome infinity dresses came out of that?
LEIGH: Yeah. Basically, we needed something long. Jenny’s a tiny little thing, and can wear all that cool vintage stuff —
CHANDRA: Floor-length ballroom gowns.
LEIGH: — and we're, like, six feet tall. Even if we buy a long vintage dress, it's probably not going to be long enough. So our manager at the time found a pattern for an infinity dress, and said, “What if I make up a couple of these and when you guys go on the road, you can wear them all different ways. You're not wearing the same dress every night, but you can both still have on the same thing.” We ended up wearing it the same most of the time.
CHANDRA: We had the three colors made to take on the road for that tour. But when we perform as Watson Twins —
LEIGH: We never dress alike.
CHANDRA: And would never dress alike.
LEIGH: It’d be creepy.
CHANDRA: But for all our backup gigs, it's usually complimentary outfits. And definitely for Jenny. Even if it’s black dresses that have different accents on them or something like that.
TCR: That famous Shining-esque shot of you guys in the hallway came out of a promo shoot with Autumn. It’s become so iconic.
CHANDRA: It really has. I loved working with Autumn for that. She sees things, the whole picture. And especially with the Jenny stuff, she’s very concept-driven. Like, in all the pictures, she wanted our eyes to be tilted down, almost closed. That was her thing. I mean, there are very few pictures of us with Jenny where we're looking at the camera. And that blue eye shadow…
LEIGH: Even now in our performance (for RFC10), in our moves we're always head tilted down, unless we're singing. We don't ever look at the audience. It became a stage presence thing that we felt was more commanding. We were looking up to ask for people to listen or so that people knew we were going to be singing.
CHANDRA: There are a handful of moments where we're more relaxed, but (the movement) really lends itself to all the songs. Again, it's all choreographed, from the way our heads tilt, to where we're looking, to where our feet are positioned. We've narrowed it down to be something really, really specific.
TCR: You are so well known for these moves, that in Nashville at least, "Watson-ing" is used as a verb.
CHANDRA: [LAUGHTER] Yeah. (Our friends) Brooke (Baxter) and Jamie (Bryan) were doing karaoke and posted a video to Instagram, and the comment Karen (Elson) made was, "You need to work on your Watson Twins moves."
LEIGH: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, exactly. Karen’s fun to sing with, too. I mean, it's interesting: we got to sing with Willie Nelson, and that was such a random highlight. But if we were doing our own thing, that wouldn't have happened. Working this way has put us in different worlds.
As a singer, when you're following your own path, you don’t usually cross genres. But we sang with CeeLo last fall. That wouldn’t have happened if we weren't doing backup gigs. We would have just been on our folk-indie-rock, Americana trajectory. So it's cool to look down the list of people we’ve sung with. It's really diverse, for sure.
TCR: Name drop a little for me.
CHANDRA: Willie, CeeLo, Foster the People, Bright Eyes, Harry Connick, Jr., Vanessa Carlton... Karen and (another fellow Nashvillian) Jessie Baylin, of course. My Morning Jacket, Bahamas... Oh, The Shins — that was a good one.
The cool thing about doing backup is that a lot of times they're not taking you out on a full tour; they're having you come out for the feature show. So it's like, you're at Coachella, singing with The Shins on the main stage. That's a great performance to be a part of. Or The Tonight Show with CeeLo. That's a good gig.
LEIGH: We'll take it.
Our friend Brett Warren started his photography career with a Nikon Cool Pix and a dream to present the world as how it could be. Along the way he found encouragement through a personal encounter with Wayne White, a serendipitous internship with Annie Leibovitz, and invitations to shoot at New York Fashion Week from the likes of Billy Reid, and gigs shooting for Surface and GQ. Not that we need to say it, but he's all kinds of talented.