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THREE-PART HARMONY : Fetching, Funny and Fundamentally Sound, the Roche Sisters Are Hitless Wonders Bound by Tenacity

July 11, 1991|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

About 10 years ago, the Roches recorded a rousing pep talk of a song called "Keep on Doing" that counseled perseverance and humor in the face of adversity.

The three harmony-singing Roche sisters, Maggie, Terre and Suzzy, are still practicing what the song preaches. They have kept on going through a 12-year recording career as hitless wonders, continuing to hone their fetching, funny and technically accomplished act despite a lack of mass commercial success.

It's a hard-to-classify act that doesn't fall into any of the easily tagged, readily salable pop music categories. There's some folk in there, some soft rock, and a classic choral music influence, too. The Roches added a bit of a country twang to a few of the carols on "We Three Kings," the album of Christmas songs they released last year; they also offered a reading of "Winter Wonderland" sung in Brooklynese.

The Roches effectively have blended the humorous and the heartfelt. Their songs subtly but acutely convey the idea that life is an enterprise simultaneously painful and funny. Above all, there have been those three beautifully meshed voices--Maggie providing lower-register grounding, Terre a sweet, elevated, ethereal lilt, and Suzzy hovering in the mid-range. A Roches show will encompass its share of delicate and intimate balladry, as well as impressive displays of force such as the trio's trademark show-stopper, a three-part a cappella rollick through Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."

Between the exacting technical demands of their music (it requires an unending rehearsal routine that keeps the sisters in almost daily contact), the inevitable friction that comes when grown blood relatives remain at close quarters for years on end, and the group's continuing lack of commercial validation, it has taken some doing for the Roches to keep on doing.

In separate phone interviews from Manhattan's Greenwich Village, where the sisters live within eight blocks of each other, all three Roches readily acknowledged that the sometimes turbulent Roche personalities have not always meshed as seamlessly as the sweet Roche voices.

"It's been a struggle to keep it going," said Maggie, at 39 the oldest sister (Terre is 38 and Suzzy is 34. Their brother, David, 33, serves as road manager and sometimes opens the Roches' shows with his own solo-acoustic act). "We all are really different personalities. It's a constant compromise. I know people who can't be in a room with their families for 10 minutes, so I think it's pretty remarkable we've been able to keep it together. It's not peaches and cream, but what we have is really strong. In a way you're trying to be your own person, but in a way it's a very deep support system. You think, 'I want to be me for a while,' but it's hard to walk away. You have very intense bonds."

A particularly intense moment of sisterly interaction took place one night in Norfolk, Va., about six or seven years ago. Terre and Maggie, it seems, had a falling-out. As Suzzy recalls it, Terre went to Maggie's motel room intending to make up with her. Instead, Terre grabbed a chair and heaved it through the wall.

"I can't remember what it was about," Terre said in a light tone. "Suzzy talked me into going down and confessing my crime. The man at the desk came up and looked at the hole and said, (she mimics a Southern drawl), 'Ma'am, that's a $10 hole, I'm afraid.' I thought it was going to be into the hundreds of dollars. It goes to show how inexpensive those walls are."

An emphasis on creativity was the sisters' common bond as they grew up in Park Ridge, N.J., where the walls were presumably sturdier.

"We weren't like the Osmonds or something, where our parents formed us into a singing group when we were 7 years old," Maggie said. "But we're a close family, and we all did the same things. We all made up songs, we all played the piano that was in the house, we all wrote stories, we were all cut from the same cloth."

The sisters got early experience singing in school and church choirs (in an era of cutbacks in school music programs, let it be noted that Maggie points to the influence of a public school choral instructor named Paris Simms, "one of those great teachers who's like a legend-in-the-school type guy. We learned a lot from him").

With some coaxing from their father, Maggie and Terre began performing as a folk duo. When they found out that Paul Simon was giving a songwriting course at New York University, the two teen-agers cornered the pop hero outside a classroom and persuaded him to listen to their work.

"We thought he was going to listen to these songs and say, 'This is the greatest thing I've ever heard,' " thus giving the two Roche sisters instant entree to the big time, Terre recalled. "Instead, he just said, 'If you like, you can join this songwriting class.' For us, that was the beginning of the reality of the music business, as opposed to your fantasies of it."

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