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Songwriting and Sisterhood 

I meet Madeleine and Lily Jurkiewicz of the budding musical duo Lily & Madeleine at Monon Coffee Company. We fill up our mugs with black brew, and as we settle into comfy armchairs, I can tell it won't be difficult getting these teenage sisters to talk.

"Our family's pretty musical," says 18-year-old Madeleine, a chestnut-haired senior from Bishop Chatard. "My mom taught us everything we know."

A cross between Indie and folk, the duo's music is lilting, ponderous, gentle; filled with youthful questioning and a surprising poetic maturity. An unexpected sound coming from the Justin Bieber generation.

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Since last summer the Indianapolis-raised sisters have gone from casually singing together in their living room to writing and recording their first album--The Weight of the Globe (officially releasing by Asthmatic Kitty June 11)--to touring around the state, with their largest concert yet slated for June 8 at the Murat.

It all started when they made a cover video of the First Aid Kit song 'Our Own Pretty Ways' and decided to put it on Facebook. Not long afterward, their parents secretly contacted Paul Mahern, Bloomington-based Grammy-nominated musical engineer, and asked if he would meet with the girls.

"He liked what we did, so he met with us and asked us to try writing our own stuff to see what we could do," Madeleine explains. "Over the summer, he challenged us to write a song a day for two weeks."

The big sister, Madeleine, is by far the more loquacious of the two. But Lily, though more reserved, carries herself with a poise and confidence beyond her 16 years. 

"It was really tough," she says. "We kind of felt like we were in over our heads. We had never done anything like that before and we didn't know where to start."

Mahern, who signed on as the duo's manager, connected them with singer-songwriter Kenny Childers, of the band Gentleman Caller, who helped the girls refine their melodies and lyrics. The result was the five songs which would become The Weight of the Globe, recorded at Mahern's White Arc Studio and pre-released on YouTube in January.

In the Middle

The "weight" that comes from straddling childhood and adulthood is the narrative that permeates the album.

Madeleine explains: "I feel like this time in our life--especially me being a senior--I'm legally an adult, but I still kind of feel like a child. But I'm going off to college and I'm going to be really independent next year, and it's going to be so fun, and I'm really, really excited, but kind of scared at the same time. So there's this anxious, excited feeling throughout the lyrics--some self-doubt too. Am I making the right choices in life?"

Although not as near to leaving home as her older sister, Lily too feels the itch to move on to bigger things.

"I feel like for me, because there are two whole years ahead for me before I get to leave, I kind of have 'senioritis' a little bit too early. I really want to move on and make a change and really feel like I'm doing something in life instead of school, and essays, and blah, blah, blah."

"In the Middle," which has had more than a quarter of a million hits on Youtube, encapsulates this tension experienced by young adults who feel nostalgic about where they're from but are ready to test their wings.



"We're in the middle of the state," Madeleine explains. "We're in the middle of the country. And though it's beautiful here and we're so lucky to have grown up here, I think we're ready to move on."

And the river?

"It's the White River," Lily says. "It's kind of a nasty river, but we grew up swimming in [it]."

While "In the Middle" carries a hopeful tone, "These Great Things," the first song they wrote, resounds more with self-doubt, "the fear of what's going to happen next."



"I feel like at this age, on TV, all the teenagers are all having fun 'cause it's the best time of your life," Lily says, "but personally, I kind of worry about 'Where am I going? What will my future be like?' Stuff like that."

Already mature for their ages, over the past year, the sisters have felt an increasing disparity between the things they're thinking about and the things typical teenagers are thinking about.

"I used to feel like my peers," Lily says. "But this year we're in a situation that could potentially be a career. I don't feel like my peers, because they get to party and drink and do high school stuff and we're, like, playing shows."

"I'd rather play shows than do that other stuff," Madeleine clarifies.

Pretty and engaging, my hunch is that neither of these girls have lacked for their fair share of male admirers, but, refreshingly, 'boy crazy' is the last thing you'd use to describe them.

"When I write a song, I want to write about something meaningful," says Madeleine, "something I really care about, and if that is about a boy or a breakup, sure, I'll write about it, but those kinds of things just aren't really present in my life right now. I'm not really concerned about those things."

Two Tones

When it comes to sisterhood and songwriting, they approach both with the same quality: harmony. In fact, to hear them sing--the way their voices blend, taking turns as the lead and the backup--it's as if you're listening to the same person.

"We've always been friends--same interests, same taste in music--I think that's why it works--because we have a great relationship," says Madeleine.

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"I like to think that Madeline is better with the words, and I'm better with the melody. . ." Lily starts.

". . . but usually one of us will come up with an idea and take it to the other," Madeleine finishes her thought.

Although they sound almost identical when they're singing, dress similarly--in skinny jeans and flats--and share the same last name, they've also begun charting their individual courses.

Madeleine is the performer of the two. An enthusiast for musical theater, in fifth grade she played Marta in a production of The Sound of Music. Since then, she has continued to be involved in musical theater, this spring starring in Bishop Chatard's production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Self-described as "more mellow," Lily is the natural instrumentalist of the duo. She learned to play piano and the cello in elementary school, and the saxophone for middle school band. And just last year, right before they started recording, she taught herself the guitar. She also plays the ukulele. And all of it by ear.

"I like instruments, and, just like, sounds."

These Great Things

Over the past few months, the girls' fear of failure has proven to be merely in their heads. In March, they were picked up by Asthmatic Kitty Records, the same company that made popular artists like Sufjan Stevens.

"We've been fans of Sufjan for years, and now we're on his label and it's so exciting!" Madeleine gushes.

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Another brush with stardom came last September when the girls were approached by John Mellencamp to sing background vocals for the album for Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a forthcoming southern gothic musical created by John Mellencamp, written by Stephen King, and produced by T Bone Burnett. Lily & Madeleine join names like Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Matthew McConaughy, and Megan Ryan in the album's credits.

The girls have also begun performing around the state. They sold out their first two concerts at Fountain Square's Do317 Lounge in February. Up next, for their largest performance yet, they will be at the Old National Centre (Deluxe room) on Saturday.

"Honestly, I'm a little nervous, but I'm not really thinking about it," Madeleine admits. "It's pretty freaky to go from like seventy-five people to a few hundred."

Lily says she's not concerned.

Meanwhile, this summer looks to be another busy one, as the girls are hoping to go on tour and record another album. They don't have a name for it yet, but they say the songs they have been writing recently are a little more positive and more focused on "the adventure to come."

For Madeleine, that means heading off to Indiana University in the fall and to take the band as far as they can. After that, the sky's the limit.

"What about Broadway?" Lily asks, looking at her big sister. "I think Mad should do that, she's so good at [musical theater]."

For Lily, the adventure includes finishing high school while juggling all of the new responsibilities that come with being a recording artist. Down the road, she dreams of being a part of a bigger band--not that the girls have any intention of splitting up--and collaborating with as many musicians as she can.

A year ago, the sisters could not have imagined that they'd be where they are now.

"We did not think it was going to work out at all," Lily admits.

"It was just an experiment," Madeleine adds.

But for all those who have packed out their concerts, pre-purchased their album, or simply been enamored by their YouTube presence, it seems that it's an experiment whose time has come.

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About The Author

Zoe S. Erler

Zoe S. Erler

Bio:
Zoe S. Erler is a freelance writer and editor based in Indianapolis, Ind. An Aussie by birth, she has spent her adult life writing about interesting people and redemptive movements around the world. Over the past eight years, she has written for Prison Fellowship Ministries, The Washington Times, World Magazine,... more

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