Swing Out Sisters: An Interview with The Puppini Sisters
Here’s a musical question for you: What do you get when you take 1940’s glamour, mixed with gorgeous three-part harmonies sung by three women, who are not related by blood and call themselves “sisters?”
The simple answer can be found in the fabulousness that is the musical group The Puppini Sisters.
I spoke with the trio comprised of the group’s namesake Marcella Puppini, Kate Mullins and Stephanie O’Brien about how they formed their musical family, what it’s like being considered the modern day equivalent of the 1940’s girl group The Andrews Sisters with a twist, and their new CD entitled The Rise and Fall of Ruby Woo (the titular “Ruby Woo” is a nod to the group’s favorite MAC Cosmetic lipstick).
And these English Roses are far from being shrinking violets, as described on their MySpace.com page. Puppini is “the quirky Italian with a slightly morbid side,” Mullins, “the feisty blonde with a penchant for using stilettos as weapons,” and O’Brien, “the pouty redhead who can out-camp the whole of Soho.”
While on paper, these personality components may seem to be at odds with each other, but as anyone with siblings can tell you, it’s par for the course – especially when the question was put to them about how they are most like sisters.
“In the way that we argue!” O’Brien joked.
“I don’t think we’re like sisters at all. Well, we love each other.” Mullins chimed in jokingly also. “No, but the thing is we work as team very much so, and I think that’s kind of a nice bond.”
Upon meeting at the aptly named London’s Trinity College of Music, the threesome of gals found a kinship with one another, and despite varied musical tastes, were drawn to the allure of the 1940’s retro look and sound for their group.
“I got together with Steph and Kate, and all three of us are so different, as well, in influences and what we’ve been listening to,” Puppini recanted. “Kate was a metal fan, and Steph is a classical and a ’70s diva fiend, and I’m into sort of dark, alternative cabaret. And, I even had a gay club hit, a few years before. So, completely different influences; and it just seemed to be the perfect trio of people to start a venture like this together.”
The decision for setting their melodic course backwards came about after Puppini viewed the 2003 award-winning animated film Belleville Rendez-vous, which featured cartoonish Andrews Sisters type ladies, and their musical destiny was sealed.
“We all studied jazz, and we all have a passion for old Hollywood, so this was something that all of us had known and loved before. Immediately I thought this was the perfect thing to start – because there’s a music angle and there’s a fashion angle with it as well, and I loved the idea of discovering all of this 1940’s styling, so I relished the opportunity to dress up all the time,” Puppini said.
After The Puppini Sisters officially formed as a bonafide group in 2004, they accrued a cult-like following on the club scene, and consequently landed a record deal when they began attracting a different type of fan base, which includes Robert De Niro, Ozzy Osbourne, and even Prince Charles!
“Meeting Prince Charles was really quite funny, because we hadn’t expected to meet him” Puppini stated. “After doing a performance at The Royal Variety Performance, we got to meet him. And, he was going through the whole line, speaking to all of these big celebrities, and then he came to us. And at first he just said, ‘Oh hello, hello, hello,’ shook our hands and was on his way.
“And then he stopped and looked back and said, ‘Oh, it’s you,’ and he came back and talked to us again and said, ‘I have your CD, I was given it for my birthday, and I think it’s rather splendid.’ It was quite the funny experience to have and quite surreal.”
“And I think he was quite intrigued, because we had so much cleavage on show with the dresses we were wearing,” Mullins added and then joked. “And what with the light reflecting off our cleavage and his bald spot, I think everyone was very blinded!”
O’Brien put in her three cents worth that the clip of the royal meeting is available to view on their MySpace.com page.
The Puppini Sisters are known for their tongue-in-cheek approach to recreating such musical chestnuts as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Mr. Sandman,” and “Jeepers Creepers” with a pitch perfect approach, which would have listeners believe they had been magically transported, via song, to a bygone era.
But, they have also left their unique mark on renditions of contemporary harmonious fare such as: Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” The Smiths’ “Panic,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” on their first CD, Betcha Bottom Dollar.
And on “The Rise and Fall of Ruby Woo,” they have masterfully covered “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce, “Walk Like An Egyptian” by The Bangles, and “Spooky” (which was originally performed by the 1960’s group Classics IV, and later by Dusty Springfield).
Though the ladies have never heard from any of the contemporary artists about the inimitable style that they provided to the previously recorded material, Mullins did cite a particular accolade that they consider an honor.
“We have had a lot of feedback from the fans of all of these artists, like Kate Bush and Morrissey,” Mullins commented. “Morrissey fans are kind of renowned for being very, very picky, and they really like our version of ‘Panic.’ And, we’re actually featured on the website called ‘the worst Kate Bush covers ever,’ and we’re featured as being one of the good ones. So, we took that as quite a compliment”
And, there are other modern day songs out there that The Sisters are considering for future projects.
“Somebody suggested ‘Milkshake’ by Kelis,” Mullins said. “Also, we really want to do ‘Copacabana.’”
Puppini would like to put their spin on the 1983 Bonnie Tyler tune, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
And being the 1970’s diva-phile that she is, O’Brien answered appropriately.
“A Donna Summer medley,” she stated as her dream project. “We’ve all fallen in love with ‘MacArthur Park’ – we love that song! And we’re getting asked to do a lot of DJ ing sets back home in London, and that’s probably our theme at the moment, it’s the song we play when we get onto the turntables and we really love it.”
(The ladies love it so much, in fact, that they serenaded me with an impromptu version of the song, which promptly made me feel as giddy as a school girl.)
For now, these delightful dames are very content to utilize their vast background in music making to now include penning their own tunes for “The Rise & Fall of Ruby Woo.” Each Sister has put their own distinctive stamp on the tunes “Soho Nights” (written by O’Brien), “Jilted,” “And She Sang,” “I Can’t Believe I’m Not A Millionaire” (written by Puppini) and “It’s Not Over (Death Or The Toy Piano” (written by Mullins).
And, the ladies see it as a natural progression in the evolution of their group.
“We were always going to do that, we were always going to move towards writing,” Puppini explained. “But, we had to go through the process of discovering how the arrangements were crafted in the beginning.
“So, for the first album, we actually did transcribe a lot of Andrews Sisters original arrangements, and then we moved on to doing our own original arrangements. It was the next obvious move to make. It’s quite a tricky thing to write the three-part harmony – it’s one thing to write a song, and it’s one thing to write a song for three-part harmony.”
Despite the distinctive challenges of song arrangements – what these talented women have done is essentially reintroduced a style of music to a whole new generation.
“It’s very excited to actually be able to bring back something that was so fabulous in its heyday,” Mullins said. “But also, the world that we live in today, which is full of Timbaland’s and Beyonce’s, and that hip-hoppy kind of thing; it’s really exciting to be at the forefront band in that revolution.”
And, the future holds quite a great deal of promise for these broads from abroad by not straying too far away from the familiar path they are carving out for themselves, as Mullins mulled over what future projects may hold for The Puppini Sisters.
“Up next, I don’t know…more originals, more covers, bigger hair, bigger dresses, more lipstick!”
And Puppini has her own vision of the band that bears her surname, and its longevity.
“Our own style gets stronger and stronger,” she declared. “We now no longer sound like a 1940’s band, we sound like a contemporary band that takes inspiration from the 1940’s. We’ve created our own thing, which is amazing.”
This article was first published in February 2008