“Joseph” sisters named 2019 GOLD Alumnae of the Year
<p>Before the Closner sisters were Joseph, they were Seattle Pacific students who loved to sing.</p>

A 2012 YouTube video shows the three sisters serenading an empty SPU campus late at night. Natalie Closner Schepman ’09 sings the lead and smiles and steps and strums with conviction. Allison and Meegan Closner ’11 saunter behind in zip-up hoodies and T-shirts.

The video showcases the band’s emerging sound, but the women look far removed from the group who would belt their lyrics, “Burn the white flag,” on the stages of Conan, The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, and Ellen four years later.

In these TV appearances, the group is full of power and confidence. They look like a band whose songs have millions of downloads on Spotify and whose music videos have hundreds of thousands of views.

Today, Joseph tours nationally and internationally, playing intimate venues and huge music festivals. The sisters have opened for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, James Bay, and Dave Matthews, who founded their label, ATO Records. They’ve released two albums: Native Dreamer Kin in 2014 and I’m Alone, No You’re Not — which spent two weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseeker’s chart — in 2016. They also released an EP, Stay Awake, in 2017. This year, SPU is recognizing Natalie, Meegan, and Allison as SPU’s GOLD (Graduates of the Last Decade) alumnae of the year.

The sisters have opened for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, James Bay, and Dave Matthews, who founded their label, ATO Records.

The path to their current success demanded perfecting harmonies and lyrics. It also required reimagining long-standing family roles.

Even as a child, Natalie felt alive on stage. She sang during the church offering in her hometown of Estacada, Oregon. Her soulful voice swept through Brougham Pavilion at SPU, where the vocal performance major sang with a different ensemble in the Talent Show every year. “All I wanted was to write songs and play them in front of people,” she said.

Her sisters, twins Meegan and Allison Closner, were not as eager to be in the spotlight, although they dabbled in musical theatre and choir in high school. The twins are four years younger than Natalie, and have a brother, Ryan Closner ’11, in between.

Allison and Meegan made their way to SPU while Natalie pursued her own music. Then, in late 2012, a friend told Natalie that he didn’t think she believed in her songs anymore. Those words resonated, and she decided to experiment by asking her sisters to sing with her.

“We were like, ‘Sure we’ll sing backup for you,’” Meegan said. “And Natalie was like, ‘No, I don’t mean backup. Let’s be a band!’”

The vocalists formed Joseph. The name is a nod to their grandpa Jo, and the mountain town of Joseph, Oregon, where he grew up.

Joseph performing | photo by Garland CaryWhen Joseph first started performing, the introverted twins struggled with the social aspect of performance.

“We would want to leave events early or not talk to people,” said Meegan, who describes herself as shy. “The shows in general were really hard at first. What do you do with your hands? What do you do with your body?”

To adapt, Allison and Meegan studied other vocalists’ live performances to create their band’s stage presence.

Two years ago, Carlene Brown and Stephen Newby, both professors of music at SPU, went to see Joseph perform at Neumos in Capitol Hill. Brown was struck by the hundreds of people singing to lyrics, such as “I will love you anyway with all your demons in the way.”

“When you see your student reach success, there’s nothing but pride,” Brown said. “I’ve never gotten the impression that the spotlight has changed Natalie. She’s still that student I know from SPU.”

“When you see your student reach success, there’s nothing but pride.” — Carlene Brown

Brown remembered one quarter during which Natalie, usually a good student, had to take an incomplete in a context studies course. Brown was unimpressed with the paper Natalie eventually turned in to finish the course. She asked Natalie what grade she thought she earned, and Natalie responded, “C.” Natalie’s lack of excuses impressed Brown. “She understood she needed to better manage her academic and musical career,” Brown said. “It was really a great moment. We both smiled at each other and left it at that.”

This year, the band has been mostly off the road, living in different cities and taking the opportunity to rest after touring 280 days in 2016 and 240 in 2017.

The band is recording a fourth album that should drop in the spring, and Meegan said live audiences have been going wild for the new songs. Their vulnerable lyrics often resonate with fans as they explore the big questions about being alive.

“We’ve found that when you say what you really mean — even if it’s so vulnerable — the response every time is someone going, ‘Me too. I didn’t know anyone else felt like that,’” Meegan said. “It has been a very beautiful experience for us and our listeners.”

This article originally appeared on pages 46–47 of the autumn 2018 issue of Response with the headline, “The band Joseph: GOLD Alumnae of the Year top Triple A music charts.”

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