Kid Sistr—One Stage at a Time

It’s a chilly Saturday night on the Lower East Side of New York City, and I am watching the best all-girl band I have ever seen tear this sweaty, gyrating, crammed room apart. Kid Sistr is 22-year-old, singer-guitarist, Isabella Englert, aka Sabel, singer-bassist, Sara Keden, also 22, and 19-year-old drummer, Rebecca Webster. Air-tight and perfectly loud, they’re fueled with such a wired iridescence that you don’t know where to focus. They growl, croon, jive, jump, punk, swing, kneel, smile, guffaw, and dominate the tiny space. They are owning Stage One of the Rockwood Music Hall. It is a full-on invasion.

Sabel, dressed nattily in a black mini-dress with fishnet stockings and black boots, is the beautiful savant, visually dark in that “you-get-what-I give-you” kind of way, which belies an absolute youthful cheeriness when I met her earlier in the day. In fact, even in the throes of this intimidating spotlight persona she manages to exude a joy for life that one should have when young, hungry, and traveling around playing killer music. 

Sara—all checkered-dress, clashing yellow tie, engineer’s cap, and sneakers—is the raucous, chatty, jokey, ballsy one up there. She plays with funky virtuosity, sneering and snarling, and rapt with the type of enthusiasm you might display in private air guitar struts. Rebecca is a proficient, shy, coquettish petite monster on drums. All red-haired and fresh faced, there are zero histrionics or bravado in her playing—all wrists and reactions. She barely looks like she’s breaking a sweat and when you catch her eye she smiles as if sitting across from you on a first date. Her accents and fills are spot-on, until they’re not, but only because she wants to buttress the careening mood of Keden, who clearly knows how this engine should run.

This is to say this whole Kid Sistr thing that’s going on about five feet in front of me, as I remain stoically slack-jawed at stage center, is something akin to a full-frontal military assault of vicious rollick worthy of seasoned professionals fully captured by their craft. The opening song, “Wave”, all starts, stops, and barre chords, captures the crowd’s attention the way a three-hundred pound bouncer might when he’s wrapped his giant hand around your throat. It is punk and classic head-bopping rock-pop. Soon there will be ballads and oddly jazzy chord changes thrown in to tilt your head, even if you have no idea what genre-hopping is going on. Every song has lyrical tongue-in-cheek twists sung with octave calisthenics of yips, yelps, and screams buttressed effectively by taming harmonies that put smoother edges on the instrumental barrage. My favorite may be a song called “Pls Dump Him,” which Sara announces from the stage had been written for her sister’s “shitty boyfriend” and features this plucky stanza sung with resplendent ire; “How many times have you said sorry to him/Can you count it on your hands like he counts on you/To get him gluten-free pizza at Trader Joe’s/He doesn’t have celiac, he’s just an asshole/And his fabricated gluten-intolerance is just the tip of the iceberg, yeah!

Photo by Dan Vasta

Later in the set a song sung with gleeful malice has another title connected to actual kid sisters, “Little Sister Song,” as the band would later tell me is the inspiration for its name. They all have younger sisters. Sara has two! “You can’t do her any favors/She’s doing fine” goes the line penned by one of the aforementioned kid sisters named Liv, who I am told later doesn’t care if she doesn’t get a writing credit. Sabel sings the song with a petulant sneer, and then breaks into a grin before thrashing her clenched fist down across the strings, getting a similar sneer-smile from Sara, who is kneeling down to caution young Rebecca to be ready for another booming bass run. Listening, watching, being slaughtered by this performance reminds me why I loved rock ‘n’ roll in the first place and why music, when played with this level of irascible passion and unmitigated bliss, can be a religious experience.

“There are no powerplays in this band,” Sara says. “We all serve the song, because after years of humbleness from side-playing other people’s music I don’t need to shred a million sixteenth notes to show I’m good at music. We’re all good. We know it and there is no reason other than playing the song that we need to prove it.”

Turns out Kid Sistr is no inaugural launch of burgeoning music careers. These young women have been at it for some time. Sabel has built a substantial following from her solo work, her latest EP, Mirth Drive, is stunning stuff. Same for Sara, whose been at this since the age of fourteen, lending her bass-playing and vocal talents for national and international tours, most recently for Interscope artist Billy Raffoul, as well as an impressive solo output. Rebecca, also no stranger to session and road work, won the Hit Like a Girl international drumming competition at the age of sixteen.

Both graduates from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Sara and Sabel have been working together and supporting one another’s music since the first days of freshman year when they “clicked right away,” both sharing similar influences—they twice reference another power trio, The Police, when I spoke to them. 

Along with Rebecca, they decided in 2017 to form Kid Sistr mainly to pool their considerable resources and just have fun making music together. “This is a friendship built from growth,” notes Sabel. “Rebecca and Sara have been playing for years and Sara and I work on each other’s songs. We’re just young women trying to navigate the struggles of an independent band together.”

Photo by Dan Vasta

To that end, these (gulp!) grizzled veterans of the music biz have worked several key rooms around New York City, including the legendary Bitter End, the Mercury Lounge, and Rockwood Music Hall for the third Underwater Sunshine Festival, for which I am a titular co-host with Counting Crows front man, Adam Duritz. The two of us host a music podcast by the same name. It is here that I find myself standing in the midst of this onslaught with a smile creasing my face.

What the hell is happening? I am old. Well, too old to be smitten by these kids who are kicking my ass with each song—some about dreadful child-men with no between-the-sheets chops and still more terrible young boys who treat their sisters badly and other men who try and pigeon hole them into whatever box you can fit young women with this kind of fierce recalcitrance tuned into a raunchy chin-shot vintage Fender Telecaster cranked through a moaning amp and a bowel-removing Fender bass that is snapping and burping against the relentless pounding of the drums.

Probably the most structured and sing-song of Kid Sistr’s material is a wonderful nugget titled “Tourist” with its “I know everything” refrain, which, considering the tender ages and defiant nature of this band, makes perfect sense. Until you listen closely and maybe even get your hands on the lyrics, which is something you can do being a music journalist, and when I do I see each verse begins with the song’s narrator, in this case Sabel, trying to come to grips with all the personalities one must possess to begin to mature, to even fit into society—the tourist, the dancer, the psychic, the boxer—all of them necessary traits as defense mechanisms. It is quite an insight and reveals a deeper sense of lyricism here.

When pressed on their songwriting techniques, it goes something like this: “For most of our songs, but especially ‘Tourist’ we wanted to each list a bunch of things, set a timer for two minutes, and sit across from each other and write anything off the top of our heads and then share it with each other,” explains Sara. Sabel adds with a snicker, “Then we’d write all over each other’s papers with suggestions.” It is sloppily democratic and makes for a fine musical stew that works, boy does it ever, live. “It took a long time to cultivate that method,” Sabel adds, laughing again. “Our first one, ‘Little Sister Song’ took forever to write.”

A week or so later I discuss this and other things with Sabel and Sara, only about an hour or so after they laid down the initial tracks of what will be a Kid Sistr debut. “I love solo stuff, but the band is such a unique thing,” Sabel tells me with breathless excitement in her voice. “We love doing what makes us feel good,” Sara adds. “We want to record our songs and then plan a spring and summer tour next year.” Then she needles her friend about looking forward to seeing “how bad your body feels on the road after a few weeks.”

Photo by Dan Vasta

You see, Kid Sistr has nothing you can hear or see out in the ether yet. Don’t bother looking. You may stumble on some pseudo pop star’s video with the “e” in the title. This is not Kid Sistr. Kid Sistr is darker, funnier, more rock ‘n’ roll than your father’s rock ‘n’ roll or even his father’s. There is as much Little Richard and the Troggs and the spitfire, pimply-faced, greasy-haired kick-your-door down grunge pop Joan Jett than anything you are likely to see on any circuit anywhere. To that end, the band grooved hard on a fine version of The Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” halfway through the Underwater Sunshine set, all swivel-hipped, tongue-wagging charm until Sabel and Sara ended up prone on the stage. At least Sara did. Sabel almost gets there, explaining to the audience, “I’m wearing a dress and fishnets, so I was not committing to that.”

New music is indeed coming. The girls tell me their time at Happy Camper Studios in Nashville, commandeered by producer/engineers, Carter Vail and Reed Gaines with assistance from Garrett Fracol on drums (Rebecca is waist deep into her freshman year at the Thornton School of Music at USC) and Andre Bernier on keyboards is already bearing musical fruit. So, very soon, there will be Kid Sistr we can hear in our cars and headphones and parties.

In fact, things are just beginning for Kid Sistr. Yet they already see past what destroyed the relationships within other power trios like The Police eventually. “We’re going to survive and get better and better because we’re women,” Sara says without a hint of sarcasm. “Men are conditioned to compete and bottle emotions, not communicate with the emotional openness that we’ve relied on to strengthen our bonds.” Sabel punctuates this with, “We’re never afraid to say something stupid or share our art with each other. Ever.”

Sara concluded before we parted ways; “Our biggest goal for this band is to represent women and change the way we’re perceived in the music industry. The amount of bullshit a young woman has to deal with on the road is frustrating. It needs to change, and I think we can change it.”

“Whatever we do, it feeds Kid Sistr,” said Sabel more than once.

It is a tribe. It is a movement. But most of all it is kick-ass rock and roll fun. This is what’s needed and Kid Sistr provides it. Loud, uncompromising women in charge; on stage, in song, in yo’ face.