The Lucid Culture Interview: Amy Allison
As a songwriter, lyricist and singer, Amy Allison is esteemed by her peers and owns a devoted cult following throughout the US and Europe. Elvis Costello – who appears on her new cd Sheffield Streets, just out today – happens to be one of those fans. A charming, charismatic and very funny performer, she’s released four previous albums under her own name as well as two with her 90s indie rock band Parlor James. In a rare, candid interview, Allison reveals some of the secrets of her craft along with some surprising insights into her songs as well as herself: she’s a lot tougher than she looks.
Lucid Culture: In concert, you interact with your fans a lot. Yet you’re also hard to read, some might say inscrutable. Is this deliberate, maybe a function of having grown up as the daughter of someone famous [jazz piano great Mose Allison]?
Amy Allison: I have no idea. I don’t think anything I do is deliberate. I almost always feel like a fool. My father wasn’t famous in the usual sense. Nobody where I grew up knew who he was.
LC: You do a mean Lawn Guyland accent. Did you grow up there?
AA: Yes, I did. I’m good at a lot of accents though.
LC: Was that in the celebrity part of town?
AA: Very funny. I don’t know if Smithtown had a celebrity part of town but it wasn’t our neighborhood.
LC: I believe you’re the youngest of four children, is that right?
AA: No, I’m in the middle. I have a sister four years older and twins – a brother and sister – one year younger.
LC: I imagine music was a big part of your childhood. Or did you rebel?
AA: Music was a big part. I played the piano and the flute and listened to lots of different types of stuff. It was definitely important to me.
LC: I get the impression you were something of a hellraiser when you were in your teens, is there any truth to that?
AA: No, I was way too chicken to raise hell but I was a bit of a clown. I could make my friends laugh. I was more rebellious in college.
LC: I also understand you don’t compose on the guitar, is that correct?
AA: Yes, I only started playing guitar to accompany myself in the last ten years or less. I always compose in my head.
LC: This is the parental question that any good musician probably hates, but I’ll ask it anyway. To what degree has your dad influenced you? I mean, the two of you have a very similar sense of humor, a finely honed sense of irony, you always go for the mot juste….
AA: I’m very flattered that you hear a similarity. His music is very “him” so I grew up with that humor and irony and pithiness. I think I’m influenced by him in many ways.
LC: Everybody knows that your dad is a big fan of yours – and obviously the feeling is mutual. Was it always like that?
AA: Yes, I would say so. I always thought he was great.
LC: You received a great deal of acclaim as a country songwriter, with your albums The Maudlin Years and Sad Girl. You were coming up just as alt-country was getting popular, in fact you managed to catch that wave as I recall. How did you first start listening to country, back when all the kids were listening to U2 and Bon Jovi?
AA: Well, I was far older than a kid when the kids were listening to those guys but I know what you mean. This is how it happened: I saw Loretta Lynn on TV when I was eleven or twelve on the Mike Douglas afternoon variety show. She was his co-host for a week. I loved her and started looking for her records which were very hard to find at the local Sam Goody. Also, my older sister used to buy Porter and Dolly and Tammy Wynette records. We thought their hair was hilarious and we loved the melodrama. I liked country from that time on and started writing country songs in college. I would find armed forces LP’s that had great stuff on them at the local library. I remember I loved Gary Stewart then, he was on the radio. I had written a lot of songs before I dreamed I could ever perform them. I was scared shitless at the idea of singing in public.
LC: The idiom you were writing in then was fairly simple, but your lyrics have always been very sophisticated. So what you were doing was urban country in a sense. Do you see that as an oxymoron?
AA: No, because great country writers are very sophisticated, what with their humor, wordplay and use of metaphor. But I think I do bring a more urban slant to it ’cause that’s my experience. I was also trying to be sad and funny at the same time.
LC: You still write country songs, but you’ve expanded your repertoire into straight-up rock and jazzy pop as well. Did that just evolve, or was that a deliberate choice on your part?
AA: It wasn’t really deliberate. I think it just evolved. I was just listening to different things and I think you naturally want to branch out and write as many types of things as you can.There’s always some other side of yourself you’d like to express. I guess country was the linchpin, is that the right word? The idiom I started from. I never think “I’ll write such and such kind of song,” I don’t feel like I can control it, I’m just happy when I get an idea for any song. It’s really been a natural evolution, I guess.
LC: Like Elvis Costello, you love wordplay, double entendres and puns. How did he come across your work?
AA: Well, I think Jamie Kitman, They Might Be Giants’ manager, sent him a cassette a long time ago. Then when my first album The Maudlin Years came out a few years later it ended up on his Top 500 Albums of Alltime list in Vanity Fair, so then I knew he really liked the songs. He was a huge influence on me. One of my favorites. I remember finding out that he liked country music and it made so much sense.
LC: And what does he do on the new album?
AA: He sings one of my father’s tunes, Monsters of the Id with me. We weren’t together though, he recorded it at Don Heffington’s – the producer’s – studio in LA. I couldn’t be there at that time so I missed him.
LC: Your two most recent albums, No Frills Friend and Everything and Nothing Too were both produced in Scotland, by Davie Scott of the Pearlfishers. How did you make that connection?
AA: Through Lindsay Hutton, my good friend in Scotland who wrote and suggested I open a few shows for Amy Rigby and I did. Davie who was based in Glasgow played guitar with Amy and with me. Then Lindsay suggested I come back the next summer and try recording with him. I barely knew him but had a good feeling about it. I went there and we did five songs and loved it. So I went back and finished No Frills Friend. I love Davie and so I went back and did Everything and Nothing Too with him as well a few years later.
LC: I’m curious about how your working process goes, as a songwriter. Many of your songs are thematic, or there’s a narrative there. I’m thinking everything from Garden State Mall, a shopping trip as a metaphor for something far deeper, or your signature song, The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter. How do you get started with a song? With a title, a hook, a chord progression?
AA: For me, it’s usually a line, it doesn’t always end up as the hook or the title but it’s a hook of sorts, for me anyway, something that satisfies me somehow and makes me want to write a song around it. Often it’s just a first line and I write from there. If I get a good one of those I know I’ll have a good song from it eventually. I always remember where I was when I got the “seed” for a song.
LC: Which comes first, words or melody?
AA: Usually a combination, even if the melody changes, the words usually come with some sort of melodic thing.
LC: You don’t have to answer this one if you don’t want to, but a lot of the songs are sung from the point of view of a sort of lovable klutz, who can’t seem to pull her life together. And there’s a bittersweetness to it. To what extent does that persona mirror your own life?
AA: Pretty much.
LC: You titled one of your albums Sad Girl. Yet you’re also one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Are you really a Sad Girl at heart?
AA: Yes, that’s why I have to be funny! It’s a coping mechanism!
LC: A lot of people don’t realize that dark music is actually a way to get through hard times, rather than just being depressing. Some of your songs are dark as hell, I’m thinking of two of my favorites, No Frills Friend which is sung from the point of view of a woman who’s so desperate for companionship that she’ll go out with a guy who won’t even say a word to her. And then there’s Turn out the Lights [Lucid Culture’s pick for best song of 2007], which as a metaphor is pretty self-explanatory. Has anybody ever come up to you and said, damn, No Frills Friend, that’s me! You saved my life!
AA: It’s nice when people really feel like you captured something they’ve felt or experienced. I think my songs always have something positive, hope or humor or a prettiness to counter the dark. I think that’s most effective. By the way, I never thought of No Frills Friend as a romantic thing. It was just a friendship. and I think of it as just “I’m tired, you’re tired, life is lonely, being social is a strain, but you don’t need to put on a show for me, if you don’t feel like talking or you just wanna walk around I won’t demand more of you” and Turn Out the Lights is sort of my “I’m just in this for myself” anthem. I think I was thinking of the music business in a way. Of course it can be about anything. the suicide thing is sort of a joke, like, “I don’t care, I’m just gonna retreat into myself, I don’t need you.” It’s kinda defiant. And that’s why there’s a freedom and optimistic feel to it, in spite of itself, at least musically. Hey, I just thought of a song I loved as a kid, World Without Love by Peter and Gordon. Turn Out the Lights is kinda like that.
LC: As a singer, you’ve evolved into a song stylist: you can make a very dramatic statement with just a minute inflection in your voice. What singers do you admire most?
AA: Thank you, that’s hard ’cause there are so many. I always loved singers. All kinds. I loved a lot of the old country singers, Lefty Frizzell, Kitty Wells, etc. I loved Larry Kert from West Side Story when he sang Maria on the Broadway soundtrack album (not the movie), I loved Billie Holiday – in particular the early years, we had an album in the house of her with Teddy Wilson and Lester Young etc. from the 30’s. I loved Jeri Southern – another album we had in my house, called You Better Go Now was a favorite. Michael Jackson when he was a little boy. I’ll have to think and make a list. A million of them. I listen a lot to Dinah Washington lately, I don’t know why, I just like her. And this woman Ella Johnson who my father told me about who sang with her brother Buddy Johnson’s band in the 40’s and 50’s. Those records are great and I find her sound so refreshing ’cause it is unaffected and artless but so unique and full of personality. I heard a girl last year named Nicole Atkins on, of all things, a tv commercial, and I immediately checked her out. She has some really good songs and a lovely voice. I thought she was gonna be a big star. Maybe she sorta is, and I just don’t know it?
LC: I think the commercial worked against her. But I like her songs too. Now in addition to your own work, you’ve also sung with a number of other acts, the Silos and others. Where else can we hear that voice of yours?
AA: Christy McWilson and I did back-up on a Mudhoney record, but I don’t know how much you can hear me on that. I sang on the latest Last Town Chorus CD. I sang on They Might Be Giant’s records and on several Silos records. I did a beautiful song with Walter Salas-Humara on a Silos record called The Only Story I Tell. Some people tell me that’s how they first heard me and became a fan. And of course I had Parlor James with Ryan Hedgecock in the 90’s but those CD’s are locked in Sire’s vault. Oh, and Davie Scott and I are co-writing and singing an album together. We’re halfway done and very excited about that.
LC: Did it bother you when some of the media were less than kind about how you sing? I remember this or that magazine bitching about how they thought it was too nasal…
AA: Oh, I should start a collection. Nobody has a clue as to how to describe it. But nasal, yeah that’s a common one. It used to hurt me but people just don’t know how to listen to something that’s different. And natural. It’s just the way I sound. I was in a cab talking once and the cab driver said “Excuse me, are you Amy Allison?” It’s my real voice.
LC: Let’s talk about the new album Sheffield Streets. Who’s on it, can you name some songs, in fact it’s out today, June 16!
AA: It’s just out on the Urban Myth imprint I’m glad to say. This guy Dan Bryk who runs it is so nice and a great singer/songwriter. I did that song of my father’s with Elvis Costello and Dave Alvin sings on one of mine. I had great musicians on it, all based in LA. Don Heffington who produced it is a really great drummer and knows so many great players and they all love him. Some song titles: Calla Lily, The Needle Skips, I Wrote a Song About You, Mardi Gras Moon…..
LC: Is my new favorite Come Sweet Evening on it?
AA: Yes it is.
LC: How about Dream World?
AA: Yes, and Van Dyke Parks plays accordion on that!
LC: How about The Ballad of Amy Winehouse, which is up on your myspace?
AA: No, that was a joke. Don wanted to put it on as a bonus track. He says it sounds like an old field recording which I think was the idea.
LC: How did that song come about? Two girls drinking wine in the afternoon and then decide to write a funny song about smoking crack?
AA: Yes. How did you know it was the afternoon?
LC: I get the impression you got into the wine early…
AA : No wine was involved though. We were totally sober. My good friend Olivia who lives in Portland, Maine and I were in her house, and I was reading a Rolling Stone article about Amy Winehouse and I started screaming out “Blake Fielder-Civil, that’s her true love’s name, crack is wack and that’s a fact”……and we both started riffing on it in those voices and Olivia played guitar and we recorded it onto her laptop. We also did an Obama song. But we didn’t finish that one in time to record it.
LC: Do you ever get sick of people at your shows screaming out for songs you haven’t played in ages, for example, Drinking Thru Xmas, when it’s the middle of July in some hot club?
AA: No, I appreciate that. And I sing it no matter what time of year it is. I try and do all of them, and, as you know, I’m not afraid to screw up.
LC: Does the avidity of your fan base ever drive you crazy? Like, you can’t get a moment’s peace after you leave the stage?
AA: I don’t think it’s like that! I can handle it, believe me, I appreciate people coming up and saying nice things.
LC: Who are you listening to these days? Here’s a chance to big-up your favorite acts…
AA: I’m listening to the Urban Myth catalogue right now, and not just cause they took me into the fold. I love Lee Feldman, he’s been playing piano with me at shows and Chris Warren is great. I think they’re a fine group of artists. But truthfully I listen to mostly old stuff. Or nothing.
LC: I know you’ve done some touring in Europe, any plans to take the show on the road over there again?
AA: I wish. If I could afford it, I would.
LC: I know you lived in Sheffield in the UK, in fact the title track from the new album Sheffield Streets enumerates a whole list of streets there. Do you know Jarvis Cocker, or was this before Pulp got really big?
AA: No, I wish I knew Jarvis, I love him! And I love his songs, I’m a big fan. I think I was in Sheffield a little bit before Pulp got started. And I was just writing songs and keeping them to myself then. I married a guy from there – we’ve been divorced for awhile – and we lived in an area called Nether Edge. The name of my album as you know is Sheffield Streets and the CD package has pictures on the inside that I took when I lived there.
LC: What’s your take on how the music business has evolved, with the death of the major labels, especially since you used to be on one? Is the Balkanization of the mass audience a blessing or a curse?
AA: I hope it’s a good thing. It sure needed to change. I guess the dinosaurs have to die off to make room for humanity, right? Ha, ha. I don’t know, I don’t really think on that scale. All I know is I get a rash when I talk to most people in the “industry”.
LC: What’s next for Amy Allison, after the album comes out? What’s the next project? Would we ever get so lucky as to get a live album?
AA: I think that would be fun. But I’d probably screw it up and make a lot of mistakes.