The title of the Roches’ third album, Keep on Doing, might be the group’s three-word manifesto. Sisters Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy Roche, who emerged from the 1970s Greenwich Village folk scene, always did things their own way, never adhering to one genre or style. The Roches’ self-titled 1979 debut featured an original amalgamation of folk, doo-wop, Celtic, and pop, all sung in the trio’s intricate harmonies. The unlikely pairing of producer Robert Fripp situated the album within the late 1970s art-rock milieu, where it rubbed shoulders with post-punk and experimental music. That the group never fit into a single box is to their credit. Radio play may have eluded them, but their uniqueness won them raves from critics and a dedicated fan base. Fripp returned for Keep on Doing, lending his signature “fripperies” and “audio vérité” technique, creating an alchemy unlike any other folk record.
The sisters, as a group and individually, contributed to projects by Philip Glass, the Wooster Group, Loudon Wainwright III, and others. Maggie died from breast cancer at age 65 in 2017. The Roches’ enduring influence can be heard in groups such as the Indigo Girls, First Aid Kit, and the Staves.
In advance of Keep on Doing’s 40th anniversary, I spoke with Suzzy and Terre about songwriting, music industry politics, and the making of the album. The interviews were conducted separately, over Zoom, in February of this year.
Suzzy: When we signed our record contract with Warner Brothers, [Fripp] at the very same time was signing a production contract with Warner. He asked John Rockwell of the New York Times who he should go see and John suggested us. We didn’t really know who he was, to be honest—we were just sort of punking around the West Village and stuff.
Terre: Our first record got a lot of attention because everyone wanted to know, ‘Who are these people that Robert Fripp is producing?’ People expected there to be some kind of King Crimson-style noise going on. But the record itself was so sparse and so acoustic—basically, a lot of it was played live sitting around the microphone.
Suzzy: One of the problems with the Roches, in general, was that people would want to produce us. So you’d get a bunch of guys that would come into the studio and play right over our parts because they didn’t listen to what we had done.
Terre: I loved working with Fripp. He’s an intense dude! It was very revolutionary what he was doing with us because he had seen us live in a club and he said, ‘That’s what should go on your record. We shouldn’t take you and then bring in a bunch of other musicians. It should be what I saw in that room because that was very powerful.’ Even though it was just three voices and three guitars.
Suzzy: People were referring to us as “folk punk” because it was right during the punk scene. It wasn’t punk music, but it had the same attitude. You know, we’re not going to dress the way people said; we were just going to do it our way. We kind of ran into a brick wall everywhere, even from the women’s music scene. We were not really welcomed into the folk community. We were doing something that was just very unique to us and there was nothing like it, and there hasn’t been anything like it since. Because frankly, nobody would put that kind of energy into something like that.
First of all, we were pretty much untrained and it was note-by-note-by-note, how we figured it out. The harmonies were just so unconventional and yet very powerful. It was powerful to see it. It was a physical sensation. But we didn’t belong to any society and therefore didn’t get welcomed into any society. The place we were coming from musically was just so unusual. I didn’t think of it that way then, but now that I’m older I look back and I see it.
Terre: We benefited from the punk movement, the attitude of the punk movement. It was very good for us because, first of all, people assumed because of the name of the band [a homophone of the insect], we were probably like the Ramones or something. We were always getting people from different styles and genres of music. That was really great because I don’t think we were working within the framework of any particular genre, really.
Writing in the New York Times, Rockwell proclaimed The Roches as “the best pop record of 1979 thus far. In fact, it’s so superior that it will be remarkable if another disk comes along to supplant it as the best album of the year.”
Terre: Everywhere we went around the country people were like, “the New York Times said your record was the best record of the year”. So that was pretty good, even though we were not getting on the radio. We started to get people coming to see us because of word of mouth, then Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow came to one of our shows at Folk City. Then they went on Saturday Night Live and sang Maggie’s song “The Married Men”. They talked about how they’d seen this great group down in the Village. It was an incredibly generous thing for them to do. I always tell Linda, “You and Phoebe really handed us a career with that move.” It was just such a beautiful thing they did and she’s just known for that among musicians.
The Roches were booked on SNL several months later, in November 1979. Their first record had been out for less than a year, so conventional wisdom would suggest they play album cuts to promote it. Never ones to follow the rules, however, the group instead chose two unreleased songs: their arrangement of George Frideric Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus“, and “Bobby’s Song”. The latter would appear on their second album, Nurds, and the Handel rendition is the lead track of Keep on Doing.
Suzzy: Basically we just did whatever we wanted to do, and we weren’t calculating. Today people are much more calculating. We had creative freedom, but as a result of it, we paid the price of not having commercial success. People would come to our shows—people in the business—and they would say, ‘Wow this is amazing! Let me see if I can change it to be something else!’
Terre: We always had creative control of the music. There was a clause in all the contracts that we are going to experiment, and we’re going to work with different people, and you’re not going to tell us how to do the music. That is something that, 40-50 years later, I’m very proud of, because we stuck to our guns.
Suzzy: We would not have had a career if it wasn’t for the people who came to our shows. I don’t know how they found out about us because we were not in the mainstream. It’s so touching to me because it really means that people were looking for things that were different. It’s like when I was a kid listening to the radio, you would hear all different kinds of songs. On the radio, they were all mixed up and now with the Internet, I guess everything is separated and they don’t crossover as much.
Terre: Our [first] record came out on the same label as the first Talking Heads record and Rickie Lee Jones’ first record, and both of those went right on the radio. With the second album [1980’s Nurds], the record company would not let us use Robert Fripp again because we didn’t get on the radio. So with the second record, we worked with Roy Halee, who had produced all those wonderful Simon and Garfunkel records. And that was a great experience too because we actually worked with JD Daugherty, who is Patti Smith’s drummer, and Fred Smith who was in a group called Television. So now we’re actually melding in with some of the punk people with Roy Halee producing. But that record didn’t get on the radio either!
Suzzy: I can’t tell you how many times people would come up to us and say, “Why aren’t you big stars?” There was a good reason why we weren’t. We were not easy. We were three completely different personalities. There was also a real anti-establishment thing going on, so we resisted.
Terre: After the first record, we had a lot of pressure on us to open shows for big stadium acts. We turned down opening for James Taylor because he was playing in 25,000-seat places and we thought, “We’re going to get creamed!” We didn’t even plug in the guitars—we had acoustic guitars—and we were playing 500-seat places. So we turned that down. The next offer that came in was Boz Scaggs on his Silk Degrees tour. We took that one, which was 6,000 seats, and we got booed off the fucking stage every night on that tour. It was just really awful. Anybody I run into who says, “Oh I saw you opening for Boz Scaggs”, I want to just go dive under the bed; it was so humiliating.