Emily Kastrul sputters around the corner and bleats an apology for being late, a bike helmet high atop her hastily bunned shrub of hair. Her mouth splits into an exaggerated grin as she swings a plastic bag from behind her back.
“I hope you’re hungry, ’cause I brought burritos!”
I’d been sitting in a red room with Emily’s sister Abby Kastrul for 10 minutes, petting her pessimistic rescue dog, Tabitha, inhaling a strange mix of salted chocolate and pickle brine. We’d chatted about how Emily, the older sibling, was the caretaker of the family—the organizer, the provider. When Emily burst into the red-walled living room with a bounty of Lake Street provisions, it felt like we’d conjured her.
Emily and Abby are the heart of the eight-piece chamber-pop group Sister Species. The band has been a shared vision of the two native Minneapolitans since 2011, but with their most fully fledged record to date set to release, the sisters are at a point of renewal. They consider 2016’sCloser Now their debut; sophomore record Heavy Things Do Move (out November 29 with a show at the Cedar) brims with the maturity and perspective of musicians who understand their power and purpose.
“I love Closer Now, but there’s a sense of tentativeness,” Emily says. “Going into this album, we knew we had something juicy and honest that we wanted to share with other people.”
While Emily talks, Abby spreads out plates and ramekins of salsa on the coffee table. Emily unwraps her vegetarian burrito and pinches apart the tortilla into manageable bites as Abby shoos Tabitha away to the kitchen. The two navigate the interview like ballet partners; cradling where the other needs cradling, making space when a flourish bursts from the other.
But things were not always as pleasant as Burrito Night in the Red Room.
When Emily and Abby were growing up in the East Isles neighborhood, the three-year age gap between them felt impassable. Emily was the consummate older child, succeeding in school and eventually earning a four-year degree in biology. She now works in youth education. Abby tested boundaries. She developed a dark, defensive sarcasm, and left college to travel Europe. She tried a career in real estate but now works as a baker. It was music, the one common denominator outside their gene pool, that finally brought them to an understanding.
“We’ve really learned how to support each other through this band,” Emily says. “It’s a part of our lives where our roles are very clear. Having this shared thing outside ourselves, that’s done some healing.”
The difference between Emily and Abby is accentuated on the B side of the record. Gone are the forceful trumpets and intricately woven melodies; instead, each sister sits at the piano to open her heart. First, it’s Abby, charging into the challenge with her bare and uncertain confessional “Swallow Me Whole.” She’s curt and direct, pounding out her anxiety in uneven measures on the keyboard. It’s shaky but gorgeous, and her lyrics read like she’d never meant to sing them aloud.
Emily’s answer, album closer “That Dries Out That Is Dust,” opens with an angelic coo, the elder sister singing like she’s traipsing through a garden thinking up revelations. Her lyrics are charming but abstract, calling listeners away from the jerking piano lines into the filigree of her words. It’s here that she dreams up the album’s title, imagining herself as a canyon to articulate the slow pace of her maturation.
“There’s a lot of autonomy in how each of us chooses to write,” Emily says. She attributes the record’s cohesion to the influence of their bandmates. “Abby and I are pretty different songwriters, but when you have seven or eight people in the space who are bringing their perspective to it, that becomes the thread.”
For Sister Species, therapy comes in orchestral layers that are often emotionally at odds with the lyrics’ meaning. The three-part trumpet cohort of Jake Baldwin, Sten Johnson, and Noah Ophoven-Baldwin injects Heavy Things Do Move with a jaunt that makes it forget itself. Opener “Flatline.” a fear-stricken tune about Abby’s antidepressant regimen, is a folksy jaunt. “Take It Easy,” a dismissal of anyone who’d write off her mental illness as an overreaction, bursts into brassy resplendence right just as Abby’s at her most pissed-off, with drummer Lars Johnson carrying the finish off like a march.
Heavy Things Do Move addresses a list of afflictions that reads like a government-mandated disclaimer. Anxiety, loss, intimacy, desire, depression, and exhaustion—heavy things, as the title would have it—are all cited in the album’s press material. But these are not clinical side effects or emotional boogeymen. These are hellscapes that have been conquered.
“Playing in the band is a space of healing for lots of us,” Emily says. “When I’m feeling a heavy feeling, writing a song is how I get it out of my body. Then, it turns into something you can look at and is finite. A song is three and a half minutes long or whatever, and through that, you can exist with that very heavy thing, or very close to it, and then you can let go of it.”
Tabitha grounds herself with a low growl, interrupting Emily. She springs and, in a too-obvious metaphor, chases Abby’s cat behind the couch. Abby returns from the kitchen with a fresh-baked cookie, then takes away what’s left of Emily’s picked-apart burrito. Before she leaves, she encourages her two familiars to continue their chase around the red room.
Abby attributes the band’s growth and synthesis to chance—they’ve gone through it, so they get it. Emily, biology student that she is, attributes it to the formation of each’s prefrontal cortex. Whatever the explanation, the Kastrul sisters and their orchestra of compatriots have found a way through the chaos to something beautiful.