Longtime Austin Collaborators Patrice Pike and Wayne Sutton Finally Duo Up
At the heart of so many essential acts beats a duo, so it is with the Little Sister / Sister 7 legends
"It's weird to think that had we talked two or three weeks ago, we would be having a very different conversation."
So lamented Patrice Pike on the coronavirus pandemic at the beginning of March and more than a month later little has changed. At that juncture, the singer and her guitarist counterpart Wayne Sutton counted a promising schedule of dates lined up in support of their duo debut, Heart Is a Compass, including two South by Southwest showcases and a slot time at Lollapalooza in Chile. In a now familiar refrain, all those plans vanished in the span of a week amidst global precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Turns out fear and uncertainty remain familiar bedfellows for Pike & Sutton, both personally and professionally.
In the Nineties, the duo formed the core of seminal Sixth Street jam band Little Sister, whose frontwoman became the scene's de facto Grace Slick given its populist and commercial crossover behind homegrown acts such as Joe Rockhead, Soulhat, and the Ugly Americans at bygone Downtown rock palaces and shacks including Steamboat and the Black Cat. Rebranding as Sister 7, the group began gaining national traction in the wake of 1997's This the Trip, but in making Wrestling Over Tiny Matters at the millennium, the band's major label Arista Records dropped the band in a fiasco that even booted label head and music industry legend Clive Davis.
"We were on this up trajectory of making records and touring half the planet for a whole year, and then suddenly things are different," recalled Sutton. "You're in this family microcosm for nine years, and then you're not. It was almost like a divorce and you feel a loss of identity."
While Sister 7 soon disbanded and each member went their separate ways, Pike & Sutton's presence in each other's lives never abated. When the pair soldiered on with Black Box Rebellion, Pike as its voice and focal point and Sutton as its lead axe, separately they played a full hand into the ranks of Texas songwriters. She led a faithful residency at the Saxon Pub and released albums Unraveling (2006) and The Calling (2013), while he leaned into Americana and folk roots on acoustic-leaned debut Heart of the Donkey (2003) and sophomore follow-up Walking Disaster (2005).
Now, Heart Is a Compass reunites the tandem as a co-writing unit, their musical chemistry bonded by music as much as mutual love and friendship.
"I'm so thankful to have Wayne in my life because while seeing my other friends out on tours and performing at late-night shows, I was dealing with the potential death of my niece, which was one of the hardest moments in my life," reveals Pike. "Not only that, we have different lives now in supporting ourselves [Pike as a co-founder and director of The Step Onward Foundation and Sutton as a music ensemble teacher], so we have all these different tools we didn't have back then."
These tools, stories, and experiences weave an entirely new whole and identity for the two musicians on Heart Is a Compass. Despite shared decades of musical camaraderie, Sutton quickly notes how different the whole experience is proving for both of them.
"It didn't feel like coming home," he says.
In fact, despite Pike's powerhouse vocal transcendence and Sutton's six-string inlay remaining their primary focus of expression, the Austinites capitalized on other strengths.
"I think percussively and my body is rhythm and beats," muses Pike. "While Wayne's tools are creating beds of chord progressions."
Even then, the joint album binds styles, genres, and instruments seamlessly. Opener "Let the Music Get You High" wafts sandy African expanses along ethereal guitar, "Moonbeam" shuffles coiled-steel funk, and the percussion in "Worthy Ones" echoes cathedral hall reverb as Pike's voice carries like a delicate prayer. The tensile bloom and slow burn in "Hands Up" morphs into a six-minute epic entwining otherworldly blues-soul and torrential Hendrix taming.
Although Sister 7 became centric on Patrice Pike because it proved "easier to market by a major label," according to Pike, "It was a very painful experience, since that was never the band's intention." Her latest work showcases Sutton's singing chops equally, "giving [dual vocals] more focus and the record more continuity." Paradoxically, that coalescence pops her singing.
When her intonation shape-shifts on "Bright as the Sun," wherein Sutton's bright, anthemic heights entwine with the leading lady's aching falsettos, Pike's insistence sounds prophetic: "The tide is gonna turn/ We live and learn." As his playing soars off the proverbial cliff, her vocals suspend in air. On the counterbalance, Sutton's smooth alto grounds Heart Is a Compass as corporeal in "Take a Stand" and "Never Enough for the Man."
"Not even knowing if it was stable financially, we wanted to make an album in the tradition of how we grew up listening to records that we can listen to from front to back, like Stevie Wonder or Pink Floyd," offers Pike. "We just had to follow our hearts and what followed was a very organic process of what a band would be like if Wayne and I co-created it together."
Produced by Grammy winner Jim Watts (Emmylou Harris), the album features an all-star cast of Pike & Sutton mainstays: Jay D. Sties on keys, original Little Sister member John Thomasson on bass, Golden Dawn Arkestra's Robb Kidd on drums, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians' John Bush on percussion, and Foo Fighters' touring MVP Laura Mace. Within their musical sanctuary nestle the heart of the operation, a mutual admiration society that's palpable through the phone.
"I remember John Bush, our drummer, telling me 'You and Wayne bring the best out of each other, and I want to do everything I can to bring that out'," recalls Pike. "You see it, [a unit], often in some of the greatest rock bands, and it's hard to have perspective sometimes, but people do really see Wayne and I as a unit."