Tucson is where Lisa and Roberta Morales grew up, and where they got their start as musicians, singing in Mexican restaurants. "When we were little, Dad would take us to La Fuente and other restaurants and encourage us to sing with the mariachis," says Lisa. "We were shy, so it took a while to get us going. Our dad sang very well and loved music, but was raised in a way that discouraged him from doing what he loved. Providing for his family was very important, so he became an attorney instead of a singer. He was a big influence on us."
Their mother, of course, is another influence. "Mom's a genius," Lisa says. "She's a teacher, a professor. She's constantly teaching herself new languages. She used to own bookstores in Tucson, so we always had writers and playwrights from Spain and Latin America visiting our house. When we were little, Mom would read Lorca's poetry to us, which was a big influence." Other family members were also influential: an older brother who had his own band, a great aunt who was a violinist in the then-new Tucson Symphony.
Sisters Morales hold the distinction of being the first Mexican-American duo ever signed by a national label. That deal didn't work out, though. "They signed us and immediately tried to change us," says Roberta. "They just didn't get it. We tried telling them, 'Yes, we're Mexican-Americans. We grew up listening to rancheras and other Mexican music, but we also grew up listening to the Beatles and ZZ Top. We're all Americans; it's all American music.' But they just didn't get it. We thought we could follow their rules, but we couldn't."
Fed up, Sisters Morales formed their own label, Luna Records. "Now, we call all the shots. We don't have anyone saying 'Don't do that in Spanish,' or 'Don't do that in English.' We do what we want to do."
Their two albums, Ain't No Perfect Diamond and Someplace Far Away from Here, showcase the Sisters' strong songwriting and vocal harmonies, and display the eclectic influences that make their sound so undefinable to mainstream record execs. It's a lot of roots rock and alt-country, with a solid pop sensibility that includes a passion for Mexican classics. Think Agustín Lara, John Lennon and Merle Haggard as a power trio. Sort of.
Last time they played Tucson, Sisters Morales packed the Rialto Theatre with an audience that included lots of friends and relatives, giving the evening the feel of a family reunion. The crowd sang along on the Mexican numbers, friendly hecklers shouted inside jokes and family history, and the dance floor got a workout. Old ladies and little kids were still going strong well past midnight.
The band travels as a quintet that includes bassist Larry Evans, drummer J.D. DiTullio and guitarist David Spencer. If the onstage relationship between Lisa Morales and David Spencer seems especially tight, that's easily explained: They're married. "He gets to boss me around at home, and I get to boss him around on stage," remarks Lisa. When asked who has more fun on the road, Roberta, who gets to travel as a single woman, or Lisa, who gets to travel with her husband, the response is diplomatic: "We're so busy on the road, we have our fun on stage," says Lisa. (When asked who's older, Lisa and Roberta point at each other and say, 'She is,' simultaneously. Rehearsed or not, it's charming.)
On a recent unannounced visit to their childhood home in central Tucson, the Sisters were invited in by the current homeowners. "The neighbors tell us this is still the Morales' house," they said. The visit was bittersweet; everything conjured memories: "This is where we had our lemonade stand ... This is where our all-girl band would rehearse ... This is where we used to swim ...In this room, our mother could hear us singing, even when we weren't home."
This weekend in Tucson, they'll be singing again. And they'll be home.
Portions of this article appeared previously in Border Beat.