As seen in
Guitar Girl Magazine July 2018 issue
The MonaLisa Twins is a ‘60s influenced band based in London, England fronted by twin sisters Mona and Lisa Wagner. When GGM first learned about the group in October last year, we poured through YouTube clips to see their work. We were immediately taken by their high positive energy, their talent as musicians with voices that harmonized and took every song to a different level, and their love of 1960s pop music demonstrated in high -quality music video tributes to The Beatles and other iconic ‘60s bands.
Pictured LtoR: Mona and Lisa Wagner
Photo Credit: MonaLisa Twins
While their YouTube channel was growing rapidly, they were writing and performing their own music to an expanding and loyal fan base. On September 29, 2017, the Twins released their second album ORANGE featuring 12 original tracks revealing their ‘60s inspiration while demonstrating their talent for creating their own sound blending pop, rock, and blues.
GGM had the pleasure of catching up with Mona and Lisa again to see how things have been going since the release of ORANGE and what lies ahead for them…and they have been very busy indeed! They have released music videos from ORANGE including most recently “Still a Friend of Mine.” I would highly recommend watching and listening to this (and see if you can guess who it’s about).
Keeping their fans up-to-date via their many social media outlets, working in the studio, and so much more, we really appreciated the time they gave us filling us in on all that has been happening in their exciting lives. From their fantastic album ORANGE, the exponential growth of their YouTube channel, the inspiration, and development of their music, to their singing and songwriting style, collaboration, the special bond of twins, and a hint of new music on the horizon…can’t wait for that!
And now, a conversation with Mona and Lisa:
So nice to catch up with you two. When we last spoke, it was right after the release of Orange. How is the album doing?
Lisa: Great to talk to you again. What a crazy last few months these have been. We’re still seeing everything through orange-tinted glasses, and things are looking all the more beautiful for it. We couldn’t be happier with the feedback we have received, and the interest in this album is growing and growing.
Mona: And the album isn’t even on Spotify and YouTube yet, except the singles, and people are talking about it more than ever. It goes to show that you don’t have to do things the same way major labels do and can still have an impact.
I see you recently released a music video for the closing track from the album, “Still A Friend of Mine,” which is beautifully done. Tell us about the filming and the musicians that accompanied you on the video.
Mona: Thanks! This is a song from the album that stood out to a lot of people, and it became everybody’s instant favorite. Piano ballads often strike a chord with people, but we assume a lot of our listeners did not expect that from a guitar-heavy band like us. Maybe because it’s something we’ve never done before. A piano ballad, who would have thought?
When our Dad, who we write our songs with, first approached us with the rough idea for this song, we knew this was going to turn into something special. The words mean a lot to us, and some people have already cracked the code who it is about, but we also view it as a general statement. About a certain type of person that the world could use a lot more of. The type of friend everyone should have. We wanted to keep the video simple, let the words and song do their thing. Not going to lie, I prefer having a guitar in my hands, but I like how different it turned out, showing a new side of us.
Lisa: For the video we needed other musicians to play the parts that we recorded in the studio, so we contacted a few orchestras in our area with a certain image and idea in mind. The players that came forward and that we ended up choosing fitted that vision perfectly. Brigid Hemingway (Viola), Rachel Pugh (Cello 1) and Phil Turner (Cello 2), three professional and seasoned players who did a marvelous job despite never having performed in a music video before. And, of course, it’s “Papa” Rudi, our Dad, on piano, who normally stands on the other side of the camera. But the video wouldn’t have felt right without him in there.
And congratulations on reaching 20 million YouTube views! You’ve had your channel for ten years now. I read that it took you eight years to get the first 10 million views, but only two to get the second 10 million views. What do you attribute that growth to and what plans do you have for continued growth?
Lisa: Quite a few factors played into this. The more videos we made, the better we got musically and as videographers, and the more songs we had online for people to discover. We have a special approach to how we cover Beatles and other ‘60s musicians, and YouTube is just the perfect showcase for what we do. When people search for their favorite Beatles song, there’s almost always our cover on the first page, too, or in the recommendations on the side. Throw all the other things we were doing outside of YouTube into the mix, for example, four years of non-stop playing live shows and a tour with Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, and we get a very exponential curve.
Mona: Of course, it’s a lot about the algorithm on YouTube, too. Sometimes it works in your favor; sometimes it doesn’t. We had weird, unexplanatory spikes in our view count and sometimes where things got quieter. All in all, we love how the curve appears to follow our level of experience and “readiness.” It all seems to happen at the right time.
When you look back on those ten years, how do you feel you have developed both creatively as artists and as musicians?
Lisa: This goes quite deep actually. At the moment, when I think of ten years ago, I think of a quite confused 14-year-old trying to figure out its place in the universe.
For us, it was music at the time that gave us something to aim for and of course the amazing family support that helped us through all the rough patches along the way. And ten years later it is still that. Playing guitar together, working on harmonies, standing in the kitchen and coming up with crazy drumming patterns while cooking spaghetti. It’s needless to say that in ten years our musical abilities improved a lot and I remember the time when I reached the point on my guitar journey where things I played started to sound the way I envisioned them in my head. That was huge for me and meant I no longer had to struggle with the basics and the frustration of not getting my fingers to cooperate. Well, most of the time.
Our experiences through life changed our outlook on things, our priorities and the focus on what we want to communicate through our music and art. This whole talk about self-development and life-experiences and “being yourself” that you hear about when you’re young, actually starts making sense after falling on your face a couple of times. Things boil down to their essence, to what is really important. We think that also reflects in the music.
Are there any other music videos from Orange in the works?
Mona: We have some ideas and some things on the boil. Which ones will actually get to see the light of day is another question that we can’t answer yet.
Your Beatles inspiration is apparent in the rhythm patterns you play and your harmony, two and three-part, the latter presenting a challenge for only two singers. Tell us more about the work you did to achieve perfection in that style of singing, I mean, did it come naturally or did you two take singing lessons to develop that natural instrument?
Mona: We never took any serious singing lessons, but ever since we were young we would spend every car journey with our Dad singing our hearts out having a go at harmonies. Cars have great acoustics and smartphones weren’t invented yet, so singing was the number one activity on long trips to go see relatives.
Lisa: We loved it. The thrill of hearing individual voices blend into something bigger was exhilarating. It was natural for us to explore it more and more and like anything in life, it all comes down to practice and repetition. And since we were twins with lots of bus rides to school every day, we had enough opportunity for all that practice and repetition. Did you know those roofed bus-stops also have great acoustics?
Mona: It’s kind of funny to think that we still get most of our practice time from car rides these days. However, we obviously spend some time in the rehearsal room actually sitting down and working on tricky vocal parts.
It’s said that there’s a special bond between twins that is different from regular siblings. Do you agree? From your perspectives, can you share with us an example of how that special bond is reflected in your music?
Mona: What we have found is that between us there is this unspoken understanding about things that you never really think about until you start working with other people. Things that Lisa and I can say with a single look or gesture suddenly take minutes to explain.
Lisa: That makes for a very easy and straightforward experience in the studio but especially in live situations and when we harmonise. We very often both know what we want and adapt to each other subconsciously.
Singer-songwriters are interesting and seem to all have different approaches to their work. Some start with the poem (lyric) and put music to it while others lay lyrics over a melody or chord rhythm. For a songwriting team, collaboration is key, like when Paul McCartney talks about how John collaborated with him on “Getting Better” when he added, “it can’t get no worse” to the lyrics…so typical John. So, how do the two of you approach the songwriting process?
Lisa: We always write together with our Dad, so for us it’s definitely a collaborative process. When we’re not specifically working on a new album, all three of us are usually collecting ideas on the side. We all have several word documents with phrases and short audio recordings on our phones of hummed melodies. It’s fun when you empty your phone after a few months and find all these melodies that you didn’t remember recording. That’s when you know what has got potential and what to throw away. Sometimes the brilliant idea you had at 4 am isn’t quite that brilliant on second listen while the line you overheard someone say casually at the mall that you typed into your phone to remember still makes you smile.
Mona: When we properly begin working on a new album, we usually bring out all these ideas and collectively decide which ones to take further. From then on, mostly two of us work on one aspect of a song at the same time. Having all three of us chiming in at the same time can be a bit too much, so we’ve found that working in pairs or on our own is the best way to do it. We meet after a few hours, discuss, and pair up again.
In our last interview, I mentioned that there were many young women your age who listen to Top 40 and that you both have such a love for ‘60s music and that songwriting style, and that has been apparent throughout all of your music. On ORANGE, you blended that ‘60s sound with your own distinctive and modern sound, almost as if the ‘60s was a ferry boat your fans took to get to a whole new place that was MLT. What is in store for your fans now? Will you move to an all-new MLT sound or will we always be reminded of the ‘60s? Either would be great I’m sure.
Lisa: Thanks, that’s a lovely way to put it! We definitely had a lot of fun taking our sound a little bit further with the latest album ORANGE and combining the ‘60s style with influences from all over the place.
Mona: We definitely can’t imagine ever getting rid of that melodic, ‘60s element in what we do – it’s what we love about music and why we fell in love with it in the first place. Besides, that era in music was so diverse and so experimental that it’s not like we are limiting ourselves in any way. If anything, that is what we are striving for – varied, interesting and beautiful music. It’s not about sounding “retro” – it just happens that we find a lot of inspiration in the ‘60s.
You mentioned in the past that you both learned different instruments, Mona on drums and Lisa on lead guitar, then you started learning each other’s instruments…and added some rhythm guitar for Mona and uke for Lisa. How can we expect you to evolve from here?
Mona: We’re often picking up new instruments and playing around with them, especially for experimental purposes on recordings. For our next cover album, I recorded a bit of flute for the first time, and Lisa has picked up the cello quite a lot lately. We both know the very, VERY basics of piano, but thankfully have a Dad who is great on the keys and bass.
Lisa: We’ve not mastered any of these other instruments nor is that a current priority, but we like to try out new things. If you can imagine it, there’s usually a way to get it to sound right on the track – with enough patience.
Speaking of instruments, tell us a little about your gear; preferred brands and models of guitars for writing, recording and performing?
Lisa: My go-to guitar for almost anything would be my Gretsch Duo-Jet. For me, it is just the perfect instrument. It has that Les-Paul-like comfortable shape but provides the iconic Gretsch voice. It’s hollow which gives it that woody, semi-acoustic sound as well as makes it comfortably light-weight on stage. I changed the Bigsby for a Düsenberg tremolo which means changing strings is no longer a nightmare, and I also swapped the floating bridge for a “Compton” one that I sticky-taped in place. Pair that with a good set of strings, and you’ll never want to play anything else.
I use this little Vox Pedal for just a little bit of compression, volume control, maybe chorus, and other than that, go straight into a Vox AC30. If the strings are super new or of the extra crisp sounding variety, I can go quite heavy on the tone-cut. There is so much twang in that guitar also due to the brassy Compton bridge that I use it to calm it down just a little bit. But the great thing is you could go all out if you wanted to, there is so much character in it. That was the set-up I used for more than 100 shows at the Cavern Club, and it was perfect.
Mona: At home, we do most of the writing on acoustic guitars. I currently have a Maton guitar sitting on my bed that we picked up in Australia back in 2009. Beautiful sounding guitar with great playability.
Lisa: In the studio, we use whatever suits the song best. There is a lot of Gretsch, but also loads of Rickenbacker, Strat, even some dobro and banjo on the record. Some guitar tracks we recorded in reverse, sometimes we used our AC30, sometimes a combination of obscure plug-ins. All we concentrated on was making each guitar track fit the sound, message, and vibe of each song. Sometimes that meant no guitar at all.
John Sebastian appeared on “Waiting for the Waiter.” Which iconic musician would you like to collaborate with next?
Lisa: Recently we got to know the Zombies, whose music we absolutely adore. You might know them for their hits like “Time of the Season” or “She’s Not There.” They also released this insanely gorgeous album called Odessey and Oracle after they had already split up in 1968. So underrated, yet one of our favorites. It would be fun to work with them on something at some point maybe. Obviously, Paul McCartney is very high up that list, too. The man without whom our journey wouldn’t even have started that way. A girl can dream, right?
Your music career is a family affair with Rudi and Michaela as part of the band/business, and even a recording studio in your home. What does the family do for fun on its “off” time?
Mona: So much of our work is part of everyday life and our passion anyway, so for a long time we hardly separated the two. In a way that’s a good sign, as our “work,” our craft is so much part of what we want to do with our time that it just seeped into every part of our lives. And over large parts, this is also absolutely necessary to be able to achieve something of this magnitude.
It’s only recently that we decided to dedicate more time to consciously spend as a “family” rather than “band family.” It helps to do that mindfully. So, when we’re not figuring out the next release strategy, writing songs, updating the website, or planning the future, we normally like to go out into nature somewhere. Dad and Lisa do a lot of working out together, lifting weights and such. I sometimes join them and tend to go for long runs with Lisa. Michaela loves nature, so we do picnics and hikes. It sounds very “Sound of Music,” but turns out that many of the things I deemed “lame” as a teenager are actually pretty darn nice. And then, of course, there’s the obvious stuff we’ve always loved like going on holidays, going for motorbike rides with Dad, watching movies, going shopping with Michaela, visiting our grandparents, etc.
Lisa: But to be honest nothing beats working on music, photos, and videos together. You know, these creations are also always sort of our private family chronic and dairy that we get to rewatch from time to time. Naturally, there’s always some kind of traveling involved too, which we just love. And then we remember all the happy and rough times we had together and feel massively proud about what we have accomplished together as a family so far.
What are the MonaLisa Twins’ plans for 2018? Is there another album in the works?
YES. Details coming soon. Also, more videos, more recordings – both original and covers. Besides that, we’re currently working on a major website upgrade to be able to share a lot more content. Over the last ten years, we’ve accumulated so much stuff – music, videos, photos, ideas, stories – that we simply never got around to releasing. So, we’re planning to give it all a place to live on our website soon.