Growing up in the Catskills, north of New York City, Arleigh Kincheloe began singing with her parents’ blues-rock band when she was 9 years old. “I was learning the ropes all the while,” says the singer, now 27. “It was pretty clear from an early age that this was what I was put here to do.” By age 18, she’d started writing songs and hosting house concerts.
“Our house was like the party house,” Kincheloe says. “Everybody was always there. I was having people over to eat, drink, be merry and play music… looking back, it was kind of me running the show and playing the songs that I’d written or liked, and we’d all join in.”
Kincheloe’s still running the show, only at rock clubs across the country as the head of Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds, inspiring people to join in the merry groove of the Brooklyn septet’s brassy soul-funk.
“It’s definitely a party, and people come out for that experience,” says Kincheloe, whose band rolls into the Sinclair on June 21. “That’s exactly my goal, to create a space for everyone to have a good time.”
The same goes for the band, now that Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds have played about 150 shows a year on tour since 2011. “It makes the music tighter because we can anticipate each other’s emotions and reactions, and that’s really exciting to translate to the music,” she says. “We were strangers when we started, and now we’re family.”
Actually, part family from the start, as Kincheloe drafted her older brother Jackson (harmonica) and cousin Bram (drums) to start a band when she moved to New York several years ago. She was influenced by music she’d heard at home in the Catskills (where she still returns to write), like the Band, Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat, inspirations since updated to include the Tedeschi/Trucks Band and New Orleans brass bands.
“I definitely wanted a big band,” she says, “and I knew I wanted a horn section, which is ambitious.” Aided by Bram’s experience and contacts on the New York circuit, they rounded up a crew that now includes bassist Josh Myers, Berklee-schooled guitarist Sasha Brown, tenor and baritone saxophonist Brian Graham and trumpeter Phil Rodriguez. They cut their teeth during a weekly residency at the Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side. “That’s how we became a band,” Kincheloe says. “It took away the stress of finding another gig.”
Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds don’t have to worry about that now, playing festivals from Bonnaroo to Telluride and jamming with bands like Gov’t Mule, though touring can be stressful by nature. “It’s a lot of personalities, a lot of mouths to feed, and it’s not a lot of hotel rooms,” she says. “It’s insane, but now that we’re returning the second or third time to a lot of places, it’s like ‘I remember this town; I remember where to go get the good coffee.’ It does get easier because you get more familiar with it.”
The band has released two albums in addition to last fall’s punchy four-song EP, Fight, which shifts from the jazzy syncopation of “The Long Way” to its torchy title track. That record was produced by Randy Jackson, best known as a longtime American Idol judge, though he’s also played bass with artists from Jean-Luc Ponty to Mariah Carey. “He’s all about the vibe,” Kincheloe says. “He really didn’t want to mess with it too much, which was cool.”
Indeed, Sister Sparrow’s heartbreak-tinged songs (“Inspiration comes from hardship, not from your happy-go-lucky days,” she says) truly take flight onstage, where the diminutive Kincheloe reigns as a throaty dynamo who also knows how to work the crowd with her sensual moves.
“It’s my own personality, and if there’s sex appeal there, then cool, I think. But really my goal is just to be true to myself,” Kincheloe says. “If you look at YouTube, the first few years I was performing at Rockwood, I was wearing high heels and I was a lot more dolled up than I get now. Nowadays, I’m in my boots and my jeans, and I’m throwing down, and that’s how I would rather play my part.”
Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds play the Sinclair on June 21.