SistaStrings and Nickel&Rose bring the sound of Milwaukee to Isis Music Hall

SPIRIT MOVES: Classically trained siblings Monique, left, and Chauntee Ross grew up performing in various versions of family-band string quartets. But when Chauntee wanted to make more soulful music, her sister was on board to exploring ways to fold all the music they love — gospel, show tunes, classical, folk — into SistaStrings’ signature style. Photo courtesy of the band

When naming thriving roots music scenes, Milwaukee is probably not the city most people think of, but it is home to a handful of rising artists of note. Two of its best local bands — SistaStrings and Nickel&Rose — have joined together for a seven-date tour that will bring them to Isis Music Hall on Wednesday, July 17.

When SistaStrings’ violinist, Chauntee Ross, talks about her preparation for the tour, she’s quick to praise her hometown and recognize the unique way it has supported her and her sister, Monique, as they’ve found their feet in what is, to them, a relatively new realm of the music industry.

The Ross sisters — the two youngest of five talented siblings — grew up studying classical music and performing in various versions of family-band string quartets for weddings, funerals, parties and church events. In fact, it was playing in the church orchestra that Chauntee credits with SistaStrings’ ability to so seamlessly shift within a single composition, from quoting the Catholic hymn “Ave Maria” to soulfully nailing the gospel tune “Deep River.”

“Church music was how we honed our ears,” she says. “You go to church, and somebody feels the spirit, and they start singing a song. We’re sitting over by the band with all these old dudes, and [they’re like], ‘OK, we’re going to do this in this key,’ and then we’ve got to play it. You have to quickly react, so that allowed us to [have the skills to] be able to collaborate with a bunch of different artists.”

And though the Ross sisters have, between them, played at venues such as Carnegie Hall and with symphony orchestras, as SistaStrings they’ve performed alongside acts as variant as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Black Violin and folk singer Peter Mulvey, a fellow Milwaukeean. Chauntee notes Mulvey has become a bit of a mentor — one of several supportive artists who have helped her and Monique get acquainted with the music business beyond their second nature of booking gigs.

“I was born and raised in Milwaukee,” Chauntee says, “but I just discovered the music scene by going to shows of local musicians when I came back from college in 2014.”

Chauntee had just earned her bachelor’s degree in violin performance from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. During her final year there, she found herself entering a string of classical violin competitions but began asking herself, “What am I even doing?”

“I was supercompetitive,” she says. “But I wanted to make more soulful music. Thankfully, I have some sisters at home who I talked to about it. I [let them hear] some songs that I had written when I was supposed to be in class.”

She and Monique, who had just completed her studies in cello performance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, started playing together. They were toying with Chauntee’s original songs, exploring ways to fold all the music they love — gospel, show tunes, classical, folk — together into some kind of signature musical style, and going out at night to hear what kind of music other people in Milwaukee were making.

Chauntee started seeing upright bassist Johanna Rose everywhere. Rose was playing in three different bands at the time. “We became friends,” Chauntee says. “We actually lived together for a minute before she met Carl [Nichols] and then they went on their tour as Nickel&Rose.”

The like-minded musicians started jamming. “Last summer, we had a show at an outdoor [event],” Chauntee says. “They put Nickel&Rose and SistaStrings [on the bill together], so I was like, ‘Why don’t we do a shorter set where we switch and play one of each other’s songs that we all play and sing on?’ It was really nice — harmony vocals and all the strings. People were really responding to it, and we loved it, so we were like, ‘Great! Let’s do some more of it.’ Then [they decided to] take us on the road outside of Milwaukee.”

While both members of Nickel&Rose have done considerable touring and recording — their 2017 release, Oh Sweet Love, garnered praise from Americana UK, AFROPUNK and Wide Open Country — the Ross sisters feel they only hit a sweet spot a year or two ago in the development of their sound. They have a five-song EP, Lust, dropping this summer and will begin recording their debut full-length album as soon as they get back to Milwaukee.

But first, when the two bands swing through Asheville, they will each play a set before joining together for a third, collaborative set. Teaser videos show this collaboration as a lush, experimental string band that sits somewhere in a Venn diagram between artists like Birds of Chicago, Kaia Kater and Punch Brothers. And while Asheville isn’t home, a WNC audience accustomed to eclectic approaches to traditional music is likely to lap it up.

WHO: Nickel&Rose with SistaStrings
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Wednesday, July 17, 8:30 p.m., $12 advance/$15 day of show

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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: The Life and Times of Zilphia Horton,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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