The Roches—Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy Roche—are a singing trio of sisters who are best known for their three-part harmony, quirky lyrics, and otherwise unconventional approach to music. Holly Crenshaw described their music in The Performing Songwriter: “The Roches’ art is filled with flashes of unexpected beauty, weird turns of phrase that suddenly veer off to the left, self-deprecating humor tinged with an edge of seriousness, and choir-like, three-part harmonies that dip and soar with an easy grace. It’s a one-of-a-kind commodity that confounds categorization—and consequently, their ten albums have often fallen outside the safe parameters of commercial pop music.” The group, which is most often given a folk-pop tag, has largely maintained its status as a cult or campus phenomenon, although it has had mainstream media exposure, having made guest appearances on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, The Late Show with David Letterman, and VH-1. More importantly, however, the Roches’s loyal and enthusiastic following has continued to grow over the span of their career as a trio—which is approaching the 20-year mark.
It is the Roches’s idiosyncrasies, perhaps, that seem to guarantee their continued cult status. Their 1995 release Can We Go Home A/ow/includes a musical anomaly, an eight-minute song about Maggie’s favorite possession, “My Winter Coat.” When the group performed on the Johnny Carson show, they chose to sing the song “Big Nuthin’”—which deals with the disappointments they had faced following other events that were supposed to be big career breaks—to the obvious consternation of their host. Also, otherwise complementary critics reveal why the group may not agree with everyone’s tastes. In Stereo Review Brett Milano quoted a friend who said, “They sound just like a female version of the Chipmunks.” Daniel Gewertz commented in the Boston Herald, “The Roches’ modus operandi has been to write songs about life’s weird little details, making the mundane seem funny. The strange harmonies and purposefully flat melodies can get too aimless. But at their best, the Roches aren’t just clever nihilists: their quirks shed light on the plight of the heart.”
A Musical Childhood
The Roche sisters grew up in Park Ridge, New Jersey, singing in Catholic choirs. Maggie and Terre also performed at political rallies; their father, John Roche, wrote the songs’ lyrics to fit popular melodies. When they were in their teens, Maggie introduced herself to Paul Simon at a New York University songwriting class, which he invited the two older sisters to attend. Eventually, the pair dropped out of high school to go on tour, performing in college towns. They sang backup vocals on
For the Record…
Members include Maggie Roche, born October 26, 1951, in Detroit, Michigan; Terre Roche, born April 10, 1953, in New York City; Suzzy Roche, born in New York City; daughters of John (a teacher) and Jude Roche (an advertising copywriter). Education: Suzzy Roche graduated from the State University of New York at Purchase with a degree in dramatic arts.
Maggie and Terre Roche began performing profession-ally in their teens, sang back-up vocals for Paul Simon on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and recorded an album as a duo, Seductive Reasoning, 1975; formed the Roches with the addition of sister Suzzy, c. 1976; recorded debut album, The Roches, in 1979.
Awards: Parent’s Choice Gold Award for Will You Be My Friend?.
Addresses: Record company —Rykodisc, Shetland Park, 27 Congress Street, Salem, MA 01970.
Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and, in 1975, they recorded an album, Seductive Reasoning, for CBS. However, the thrill of being signed by a big-name label was counteracted by difficulties in the recording studio. The young women were given an impressive backup band but had to fight for the right to play their own instruments. The project with CBS thoroughly soured the sisters’ taste for the music industry; they soon dropped out altogether and moved (with Suzzy) to a kung fu temple in Hammond, Louisiana.
Six months later the three sisters were back in New York City, singing Christmas carols in the streets. Having graduated from college with a degree in dramatic arts, it was Suzzy who reinvigorated Maggie and Terre’s desire to sing. Maggie later explained to the San Francisco Examiner, “We have always been really close, so when she joined us it wasn’t like her joining our duo. It was like we became a whole new thing.” After performing, and also tending bar, at a Greenwich Village club, the sisters started identifying themselves as the Roches.
It was at a New York club that the sisters met Robert Fripp, the guitarist of the temporarily-disbanded art rock band King Crimson, who would produce their first album, The Roches, for Warner Brothers. Not only did they enjoy the experience and Fripp’s emphasis on a “live” sound, the record also proved to be a critical success.
The Roches made more albums for Warner Brothers, during which time they learned to incorporate conventional rock instrumentation and synthesizers into their work. Following their 1985 release Another World, the band began shopping around for a new recording contract. In the meantime, the sisters released a fourcut EP and contributed four songs to the soundtrack of Crossing Delancy; Suzzy also made her screen debut in the 1988 film, playing Amy Irving’s friend. The Roches did not release a new album until 1989, when they produced Speak lor MCA. Two of the group’s subsequent albums, the Christmas collection We Three Kings and the children’s recording Will You Be My Friend?, gave the group an opportunity to revisit old favorites and to reach back into their own childhood for musical inspiration. The band’s final recording for MCA was A Dove, an album produced in the in-home studio of Stewart Lerman.
Returned to Earlier Sound
When the Roches left MCA for Rykodisc in 1995 they continued to work with Lerman, producing Can We Go Home Now?In\ one way the album is a throwback to the group’s early sound, with its absence of keyboards and computerized effects. Writing for New Country, Brett Milano commented that Lerman “is their first producer since Robert Fripp to understand how to record the sisters’ voices, not smoothing out the natural roughness…it recalls the freshness of the first album and throws more depth into the bargain.” It is also the Roches most serious album to date; it deals with themes such as lost friendship, jealousy, and their father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. Terre Roche told the Washington Post that the album was indeed a tribute to their father, who shared their love of words and sense of humor—and who supported their careers from the first; she said, “I remember it’d be 3 o’clock in the morning, and he’d be there with his 15-year-old daughters waiting to play three songs at the Gaslight in the city. All those memories came flooding back this past year, so making the record was a very emotional process.”
Formed a Democracy
Like all of their previous albums, Can We Go Home Now? consists of equal contributions from each sister. Some Roches songs are written collaboratively, others come from an individual point of view. The Roches operate as a democracy, with each providing a different sensibility and style to their songs. The process of selecting songs for an album is part diplomacy, part sibling intuition. “You’ve got this real bank of communication that goes back to when you were babies,” Terre explained to the Washington Times. “You really know what each other is talking about.” In August of 1996 the sisters agreed that it was time to take a break from being the Roches, and announced that they were going on a six-month hiatus to work on solo projects. As Terre told the Providence Journal-Bulletin, “All of us have songs we’ve written that have never been on Roches albums… There are times when you express something that isn’t really appropriate for the Roches.”
(Maggie and Terre Roche) Seductive Reasoning, CBS, 1975.
The Roches, Warner Brothers, 1979.
Nurds, Warner Brothers, 1980.
Keep On Doing, Warner Brothers, 1982.
Another World, Warner Brothers, 1985.
No Trespassing (EP), Rhino, 1986.
Speak, MCA/Paradox, 1989.
We Three Kings, MCA/Paradox, 1990; reissued, Rykodisc, 1994.
A Dove, MCA/Paradox, 1992.
Will You Be My Friend? (children’s album), Baby Boom, 1994.
Can We Go Home Now?, Rykodisc, 1995.
Boston Globe, February 27, 1996.
Boston Herald, June 6, 1994.
Dirty Linen, October/November 1995.
Journal-Bulletin (Providence, Rhode Island), March 15, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1995.
New Country, September 1995.
New York Times, November 10, 1995.
Performing Songwriter, September/October 1995, pp. 73-75.
San Francisco Examiner, January 14, 1990.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), January 19, 1990.
Village Voice, December 26, 1995.
Washington Post, September 22, 1995.
Washington Times, July 2, 1990.
—Paula Pyzik Scott
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