At only 21 and 20 years old respectively, Chloe and Halle, the sister singing duo signed to Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment, have an almost preternatural poise and polish. You see it in on-camera interviews, their big smiles never breaking, or when they’re singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, their harmonies as sweeping and pristine as harmonies can be. Even in the homemade YouTube covers which made them Internet-famous as adolescents — a cover of Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” (a song, interestingly enough, about the demands on young women to be flawless) caught the attention of Queen B and got them signed in 2015 in the first place — they have a peaceful and almost uncannily seasoned presence.
This seeming perfection has made them into major role models to young fans, and one of them into a future megastar fronting the massive Disney machine, as the younger Halle takes the lead role of Ariel in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid expected out in 2021. They’ve had real world ambitions for the entirety of their teen years, starting their YouTube channel when Chloe was 13 and Halle 11, criss-crossing the country multiple times as the opening act for their mentor Bey, and dabbling in acting, with roles on Kenya Barris’ sitcom Grown-ish.
But beyond the sheen they’ve developed, it’s nice to hear, on a quarantine Zoom call one Friday morning, that they are more steadfastly committed — even dogged — about their craft than they are the presentation. They write, arrange, and produce much of their own music in their home studio in Los Angeles. While their sophomore album, Ungodly Hour, features guestwork by super-producers Scott Storch and Mike WiLL Made-It, the sisters executive produced the whole thing, and still brought unfinished collaborative tracks home from sessions to tighten them up in their own way, on their own computer software.
Though their debut, The Kids Are Alright — an unlikely but satisfying cross between SZA and Björk — hinted at this artistry, Ungodly Hour is the true breakthrough. It’s a grown-up album in a number of ways, with lyrics about hook-ups, break-ups, and mess-ups. But it’s also just undeniably and straightforwardly cool. In the choreography-heavy video for the excellent “Do It,” their astonishing maturity begins to look more like bravado. They mine sounds from late-’90s R&B, recalling forebears like Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, TLC, and Blaque, but have come up with something refreshing and personal. There are no lags on Ungodly Hour, no saccharine ballads or misplaced attempts at massive over-the-top pop — just easily enjoyable bops with silky harmonies and relatable themes. That’s an achievement for an artist of any age.
In conversation, they are, yes, incredibly composed, but also engaged and interested in talking about a range of subjects, from 808s and Atlanta to politics and pain. Here, the two sisters offer a little glimpse into their lives — and how they got to be so on top of everything to begin with.
Note: This interview occurred after the death of George Floyd but before demonstrations surrounding the killing fully heated up across the country, and the sisters have since delayed the release of the album from the original June 5 to this Friday, June 12. At the bottom of this Q&A, we’ve included some questions and answers the two responded to by email this week concerning moving the release date and their solidarity with the protestors.
Have you been quarantining together?
Halle: We are quarantining together in Los Angeles. We’re in our family home, so it’s really nice to all be together.
Chloe: I think, you know, with any family being in close spaces, you all have to relearn each other. You can’t, like, escape and go to your own corner.
H: We’re learning more every single day in quarantine what not to do [laughs]. We know the trigger points for both of us. We both love to get our feelings out, so once we do that, I think it’s good.
Let’s get into the album: In the past, your music has had an innocence about it, but this album is pretty grown.
C: You know, with anything in life, we never like to force it. Halle just turned 20. I’ll be 22 in July. Naturally, the music will just grow with that. We’re sharing our experiences, sharing what we’re going through, whether it’s heartbreak or falling in love or our insecurities — what makes us tick. People only really know us as, like, little sweet angels and all of that. And everyone is multi-layered.
“Busy Boy” is about a guy who sleeps around and sends you unsolicited late night photos of, well, a very particular body part of his. Are lines like this born from real life?
H: Absolutely. All the songs on the album are pulled from real-life experiences, real-life relationships. And for “Busy Boy,” everyone can relate to knowing this guy who is just so hot, he is just A+ everywhere. But everyone knows him as a player. They know he jumps around from girl to girl. It was funny to talk about that because in our little girl group [of friends], sometimes we do find that one dude who has tried to talk to all of us. And we laugh about it and we kiki about it.
Are you able to find time to date and have fun, and do what young people do?
H: Of course!
C: You know, we explore. We date around. We’re learning as we experience life. And it helps stimulate the lyrics.
There’s a lot of tense back and forth between the sexes on the album, and I wonder if you thought of it as a kind of break-up album.
C: It’s that back and forth because that’s how it was in our lives at the time when we were creating this album. You know, my sister and I, we’re at that age where you’re learning yourself through relationships, learning how people work. Even though Halle and I are a year and a half apart, we were going through the same thing at the same time when we were writing. We were heartbroken and putting that into the music. But we also wanted to come from a point where we don’t have to be these weak girls crying over it, but instead take our power back.
H: Love is a huge theme of the album. But also feeling alone, and the rawness. These were all themes that we hadn’t really talked about before in music. Our deepest, deepest feelings. The title, Ungodly Hour, stemmed from everything that happens during those hours, you know, in the middle of the night when you’re about to go to sleep. You’re thinking of all your insecurities — your mind is swimming. You’re thinking of lustful things, you’re thinking of heartbreak.
C: It feels conversational because when we were writing it, we were simply having a conversation. My sister and I tell each other everything when it comes to these things. And as we’re sitting down, explaining, “I’m pissed because of this,” or, “I’m happy because of this,” we would just write it into the music.
You worked with the 2000s producer Scott Storch on “Do It,” and there’s almost a nostalgic feel for that time in R&B and pop.
C: He’s really a legend, and just seeing him on the keys when we had multiple sessions together, we were always left in awe. Production-wise, I’ve always been inspired by experimental sounds and the weirder side of music. But while we were making this album, I really started falling more and more in love with ’90s music and early 2000s production; listening to a lot of Kelis. We wanted this album to feel fun and flirty, but also grunge, in a way, and a little dark and mysterious and sexy. And I really feel like ’90s production with beautiful melodies on top truly embodied that. [‘90s producers] weren’t afraid to experiment.
How do you balance creative freedom and experimentation with what I imagine to be a lot of pressure to make a hit?
H: We were feeling a little bit, like, “So where do we go from here? What do we do now?” We were a little bit stuck at the beginning, because we were hearing from the label about doing songs a bit more commercial. Whenever we are given direction, it always throws us off. Whenever somebody tells us what to do, we don’t like it. At the beginning, we were making songs that didn’t really sound like us. And we realized we were trying to please everyone else.
So then we were like, You know what? Scratch that. Let’s go back to the beginning. Let’s remember why we’re doing this. Let’s make the sounds that make us happy. Let’s go back to doing those experimental things that have made us so happy all the time. With these sessions with [Ariana Grande songwriter] Victoria [Monet] and Scott [Scorch], we can also add a bop or two in there and find a beautiful way to do it without sacrificing our musical integrity. We never want to feel like we’re selling out.
““Whenever we’re given direction, it throws us off. Whenever somebody tells us what to do, we don’t like it.””
You taught yourselves how to produce, arrange, write, and record your music at a very young age, but now that there is this bigger spotlight, is it important to still create in that more organic way?
C: Absolutely. Yeah. If we didn’t keep that, I don’t think we would even have finished this album. We love creating at home so much. You know, [our first album] The Kids Are Alright, we created the whole thing in our living room. [For this album], we converted the garage and carpeted it up and made it into our little studio here. We always prefer home and working on our laptop and arranging all the weird harmonies together and recording each other.
We worked with so many amazing producers and songwriters on this album, but at the end of every session, we would take the stems, and we would revamp them up and really add, like, our sauce to the songs afterward so it really felt like us. But also, half the album is strictly just us and our production and writing as well. We executive produced it. That’s the only way to do it. If it starts to feel forced or bad, we walk away.
What programs do you use to produce on your laptop?
C: I’m a huge Logic Pro girl. When we do live shows, I use Ableton, but when we’re recording each other and I’m making the tracks, it’s all on Logic.
You’re known for your harmonies, and you also produce all your own vocals. How do you think about the resonance and affect and power of your voices? What are you aiming for with a vocal?
H: There’s something really special about singing with your sibling, or singing with somebody who has the same blood as you. The Clark Sisters are one of our favorites, and every time we listen to their harmonies, it just takes us to another world. And I don’t know what it is, but every time I sing with my sister, I do feel like it’s a power, like it’s something special that’s happening when the two of us are singing together. It’s different than when I’m just singing alone.
C: We know how to fit and blend with each other. Usually I’ll take like more of the lower notes, and Halle will take a lot more of the higher ones. For me, ever since I was a little girl, I loved Destiny’s Child and Toni Braxton and Nina Simone. Our family would always play Erykah Badu and Jill Scott around the house. So I have grown up loving soulful tones. As I got older, being a female producer, I was really inspired by other female producers, like Grimes and Imogen Heap and Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, and I really started appreciating and loving alternative music, where they use different experimental sounds. More recently, I was listening to a lot of Kelis and Missy [Elliott] and Timbaland production, and Aaliyah and all of that. All of my inspirations… I love how it’s in contrast with my sister. Because, you know — and she’ll tell you this — she is a huge jazzhead. She loves jazz melodies. And when the two worlds come together, it kind of creates us.
You mentioned Erykah Badu and Jill Scott as influences, so I gotta ask — what’d you think of the Erykah and Jill Verzuz on Instagram?
H: We loved it so much. We put it on our TV and watched the whole thing.
Who do you think won?
H: They both won. You know, you could sing those songs every single day and never get tired of them. We want our music to live on like those songs live on.
You both have childhood roots in Atlanta, which has become essentially the musical epicenter of America in the last 20 years. Does that influence your sound?
C: Oh my gosh, yeah. Atlanta music is so incredible. We’ve always been so inspired by OutKast. Ciara. Donald Glover.
H: Janelle Monáe.
C: It’s so much soul and rhythm and bounce. And I think that’s why I love big drums and 808 so much. We are true Atlanta girls at heart. And I think that also comes into why we’re really kind. It’s just southern hospitality.
““As I got older, being a female producer, I was really inspired by other female producers.””
You’re signed to Beyoncé’s management company, Parkwood, and I’m curious what kind of creative notes or advice she gives you when you’re working on an album.
C: She allows us to grow and flourish on our own. And, you know, as we’ve been finding our sound through the past five years, she’s just kind of sat back in the wings and let us do what we want to do. When we feel like we got the music to a special place, we always want her input. It’s Beyoncé! She has the experience, she’s incredibly talented, and she has such good instincts.
With her notes, a lot of the time, we’re on the same page. Whether it’s about what she hears in the layers of the production, if she thinks the production should change on one part, or how we sang a certain word or something, she’ll always recommend, but it’s up to us whether we want to do it or not. She allows us to do what we want to do, musically.
When we sent this album to her, she didn’t have any notes. Halle and I were like, whoa. She must really, really like it. And she could give us as many notes as she wants! She’s Queen Bey.
Halle, you’re about to be Ariel in the live-action version of ‘The Little Mermaid’ for Disney. What is it like wearing the mermaid tail?
H: [Laughs] Well, I can’t really .. [laughs] … that was a good try [laughs]. I can’t really tell you about that [ed. note: Disney is notorious for strictly enforcing a code of silence about a future production]. But it’s really cool being able to play one of my favorite characters from my favorite Disney movie. And show other little black girls that, yes, you can be Ariel too. That the part is not just for anyone who does not look like us. We can do it too.
There was a really dumb conservative backlash when Disney announced it was casting a black woman in the role.
H: Yeah, well, I don’t really pay attention to that stuff. People are hurting right now, so a lot of the times people take their hurt out on you. And you can’t do anything about that. We just gotta move forward in love and light and say a prayer for them, you know?
On one very serious note, you posted a cover on Instagram that blended the hymnals “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a tribute to George Floyd. I’m wondering how you’re viewing what’s happening in America right now?
H: [That] week was very difficult for us. Just that video of George — I couldn’t watch it. This keeps happening to our people. When I see George, I think of my father, and I think of my little brother, and I think of them just wanting to live and to not be killed just for living their lives. I don’t think we will ever understand why it keeps happening. I don’t think we could ever wrap our heads around it.
So we just thought, What can we do? What can we do to make ourselves feel better? What can we do to make everyone feel better? And we decided to sing those two songs that have been sung for many, many years. It made us feel a little better, but it didn’t take it all away. It’s crazy that this keeps repeating itself. [That] whole week was kind of wonky for us.
When I see you two on camera and in interviews, I’m struck by how poised you both are, from such a young age. You present yourself almost perfectly. But I wonder if that ever feels like pressure? You’ve had to be really mature since before most kids ever really do.
H: It’s not a persona. It’s not something that we turn on and we turn off. It’s just the way that our parents raised us. Sometimes, we do get compliments, like, “Oh my gosh. You guys are always so happy and positive. You guys are angels!” And, you know, that’s one side of it, of course. I know some people put us on a pedestal. And I think that what hones us in on continuing to just be positive beings and lights is the way we grew up, our parents constantly reminding us that all of these things don’t matter. All of these grand things don’t matter.
But there’s also the other layers of us that people don’t see when we’re not in the spotlight. We do overthink. We do have insecurities just like everybody else. And that’s what with this album in particular we wanted people to get through their heads. Like, hello, we are just like you. At times, yes, it does get overwhelming. But that’s just a part of life. And that’s more fuel for inspiration for us to write.
As previously noted, the original interview occurred before demonstrations surrounding the killing of George Floyd reached full steam. Here, the two sisters followed up by email more recently in a joint statement to address changing the release date of the album in light of the uprising and how they are participating in protest.
Originally you were meant to release the album on June 5, but now it is coming out this Friday, June 12. How’d you come to that decision?
These past two weeks have definitely felt like an emergency call to justice that is much needed. It was important for us to push our album and bring awareness to everything else that’s been going on. We didn’t want this moment to be about us, but rather about getting justice for our brothers and sisters and making a change.
What are you feeling in heart and mind about what we’re witnessing?
Honestly, it has been very, very difficult for us this past week. Having to witness someone’s life being taken away just because of the color of their skin is just traumatic. Even though these days have been hard, we are thankful that people are now seeing what has been happening for a while. And we are grateful that the world is finally doing something about it! Seeing these protests happening all around the country and world truly makes us hopeful that a change is coming. We are so much stronger than we think and so powerful when we come together.
It’s your generation that’s in no small part fueling this movement — how does it make you feel to see people in your age group activated in this way?
It makes us so proud to see our peers standing up for what’s right. We are the future and deserve to be in a world that protects us, rather than harm us. We deserve to live a life not in fear.
How are you two approaching contributing to the protests — what do you find effective?
We are doing everything we can to speak up for what’s right: signing and posting petitions online, donating, etc. We will not let anyone silence us. We have also been singing a lot more, trying to use our voices as healing for the world right now. Music always tends to be the best therapy.
Where are you turning for information, solace, discussion, leadership, and creativity in a moment like this?
Social media has definitely been one of our main sources. We’ve been seeing and sharing content from our peers who are actually out there protesting on the frontlines and experiencing firsthand. We can now view videos and photos and form our own opinions, instead of being swayed by mainstream media. There’s a lot of stuff that’s not being shown on the news, that we may find on Twitter or Instagram. Because of social media and technology, more light is finally being shed on the injustices being done to our people. It’s helping change our world for the better!
Though it’s an invigorating moment in a lot of ways, it’s also a difficult one, and I’ve been hearing from people that they’re excited to be protesting but also feeling anxious and not sleeping well. How do you keep your mental and physical health up while staying activated around the movement?
As much as it’s our main source of information, we also take frequent breaks from social media. We will delete the various apps from our phones and almost block out the world, in a way. And when we really begin to feel hopeless, prayer and mediation has been so beneficial during these times. As well as working out, to clear our heads and let out any built-up frustration.
Do you have recommendations for your young fans of readings, songs, or movies that they can watch to further educate themselves on racial justice?
The movie American Son shows firsthand what it feels like for a mother to lose her son to police brutality. The book The Water Dancer reminds us of how our ancestors overcame slavery and found freedom through the pain. And even though Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album was released in the 1970s, it’s still so relevant to what’s going on now in the year 2020.