Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Iconic Songwriter Amy Rigby Revisits a Lost New York in Her New Memoir Girl to City

Amy Rigby‘s new memoir Girl to City validates the argument that great lyricists are also strong prose writers. But beyond a stunning level of detail, that generalization is where the similarity between Rigby’s often outrageously hilarious, witheringly insightful songwriting and this plainspoken book ends. Instead, it’s a sobering and understatedly poignant portrait of an era in New York gone forever.

Rigby is humble to a fault. If there’s anything missing from this book, that would be more insight into her songwriting process. She’s a polymath tunesmith, equally informed by and eruditely successful with styles as diverse as Americana, honkytonk, purist pop and these days, psychedelia. As a lyricist, she’s a first-ballot hall-of-famer: it wouldn’t be overhype to rank her with Elvis Costello, Steve Kilbey, Hannah Fairchild and the most memorably aphoristic Nashville songwriters of the 40s and 50s. Rigby takes some pleasure in revealing how she wrote one of her most gorgeously plaintive songs, Summer of My Wasted Youth, in her head on her way home on the L train. Otherwise, we’re going to have to wait for a sequel for more than a few stories behind some of the best songs of the past thirty-plus years.

Beyond that, this is a rich and often heartbreaking narrative. The only daughter in a large, upper middle class Pittsburgh Catholic family, young Amelia McMahon (nicknamed Amy, after the 50s Dean Martin pop hit), grew up in the 1960s as a tomboy and evemtual diehard Elton John fan. Spared the ordeal of Catholic high school, she developed a highly refined fashion sense – she was East Village chic long before East Village chic existed – and although she doesn’t go into many details about what seems to have been a repressive upbringing, it’s obvious that she couldn’t wait to escape to New York.

A talent for visual art got her admitted early into Parsons, where she earned a degree she never ended up falling back on – then again, fashion illustration was basically obsolete by the time she graduated. Meanwhile, she haunted CBGB at its peak. Even then, her taste in music was eclectic and adventurous, from punk, to gothic rock, disco, and eventually pioneering feminist bands the Slits and Raincoats.

Auspiciously, she teamed up with a bunch of college friends to open the legendary Tribeca music venue Tier 3 – where she made her New York musical debut, as the drummer of the minimalistically undescribable Stare Kits. “It seemed unthinkable even a decade later that the streets of downtown could ever have been so empty at night, or that a Manhattan club could have such haphazard beginnings. But that was part of the beauty, although you wouldn’t have thought to call it beautiful, “Rigby recalls. Understatement of the decade.

Rigby reveals that she came to embrace Americana when she realized that country music was just as  alienated as punk. Now playing guitar (and percussion, and a little accordion), it wasn’t long before she and her younger brother Michael McMahon (who’s led the hilarious, theatrical Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. for almost twenty years now) founded one of the first New York urban country outfits, the Last Roundup. Maybe it was that group’s newfound embrace of country music – a genuine appreciation, rather than the kitschy contempt for it that would characterize the Williamsburg Americana contingent twenty years later – that shaped their individualistic sound. Even then, Rigby was flexing her songwriting chops.

What’s even more improbable than being able to situate a punk club in Tribeca is that it was once possible to (barely) make ends meet as a working musician in Manhattan, playing original music. Like those trust fund kids in the East Village now, somebody had to be subsidized, rigtht?

As Rigby tells it, no. Cruelly, inevitably, money is always elusive. When she isn’t gigging, she temps and temps, for a succession of bosses from across the boss spectrum. The plotline of her classic, cynical bargain-shopper anthem, As Is, has never been more resonant in light of her experiences here. She seems to have given up everything but her career to keep her daughter clothed and fed.

Misadventures with small record labels, well-intentioned but clueless enablers and wannabe enablers from the corporate world, with both the Last Roundup and Rigby’s successor band, the fetchingly ramshackle, all-female Shams, are predictably amusing. Her details of simple survival are every bit as bittersweet.

Time after time, she falls for emotionally unavailable older men. She mentions “dad’s putdowns,” in passing: this legendary beauty doesn’t even seem to think of herself as all that goodlooking. A marriage to drummer Will Rigby results in a talented daughter (future bassist Hazel Rigby). and doesn’t last. The author goes easy on him, maybe because she’s already excoriated him, if namelessly, in song. 20 Questions, anyone?.

Yet, out of that divorce, and the borderline-condemnable three-bedroom $700-a-month Williamsburg apartment at the corner of Bedford and Grand, she built a solo career that would earn her a well-deserved media blitz and critical raves for her solo debut, Diary of a Mod Housewife. That’s pretty much where the story ends, and a sequel hopefully picks up.

What’s most depressing about Rigby’s narrative is that it could never happen in current-day New York. She started totally DIY – she’d never played an instrument onstage before joining Stare Kits – and made her way up through a succession of small venues, then larger ones and all of a sudden she was playing the Beacon Theatre and touring. No such ladder of success exists here anymore: in fact, it’s working the other way around. All the rock acts that used to play Bowery Ballroom are now being squeezed into its smaller sister venue, the Mercury (a joint that Rigby used to sell out with regularity twenty years ago)

What’s left of the Americana and rock scenes, so vital in Rigby’s early years, now rotate through a handful of small Brooklyn clubs, playing to the same two dozen people week after week. With larger venues (and even some of the smaller ones) assiduously datamining so they can book only the most active Instagram self-promoters, the idea of thinking outside the box and promoting artists whose strengths are not Instagram followers but lyrics and tunes is almost laughable. All this is not to say that the typical club owner in, say, 1985, wasn’t plenty lazy and greedy. It’s just that laziness and greed, at the expense of genuine art, have been institutionalized by social media.

Throughout the book, this charismatic, acerbic, laser-witted performer comes across as anything but a diva. Maybe the Catholic childhood, the authoritarian parents and series of doomed relationships cast a pall that she’s still trying to get out from under. More than anything, this tale deserves a triumphant coda: since Diary of a Mod Housewife, Rigby has put out a series of consistently brilliant albums, toured relentlessly if not overwhelmingly lucratively and married another legendary rock storyteller, Wreckless Eric.

October 8, 2019 Posted by | Literature, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robin O’Brien’s The Empty Bowl: Full of Treasures

Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.

Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.

The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.

Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/21/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #861:

Amy Rigby – 18 Again

Everything Amy Rigby ever recorded is worth owning. She was ten years ahead of her time as a member of obscure alt-country pioneers the Last Roundup and then with the irresistible, irrepressible all-female country harmony trio the Shams before breaking out on her own with the landmark Diary of a Mod Housewife in 1996. So why did we pick this one, a greatest-hits album from 2003? Because the songs were so well-chosen. It’s got most if not all of the best stuff from her first three albums through the year 2000, along with some savagely good bonus tracks which have become big crowd-pleasers, notably the blackly funny murder-conspiracy ballad Keep It To Yourself. With her wounded, nuanced voice always on the edge of either crushing heartbreak or ruthless wrath, her love of puns and double entendres, purist pop sensibility and populist politics, she recounts the last delicious months before family and responsibility took over on the wistful, Beatlesque Summer of My Wasted Youth; delivers a withering sendup of marriage and its equivalents on Cynically Yours; peels the facade off her drunken cheating man with 20 Questions; catalogs the spirit-crushing struggles of a single mom on Raising the Bar, and those of the pink-collar crowd on The Good Girls; casts a scathing glance at guys who would insinuate that this diva is over the hill on Invisible; and offers one of the funniest yet most chilling looks at alienation in the lands far outside the comfort of city limits with Rode Hard. There is a happy ending here: in 2008 she married another first-class musical storyteller, Wreckless Eric, with whom she’s also made two first-class albums.

September 20, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review from the Archives: The John Kerry Fundraiser at Sin-e, 8/26/04

[Editor’s note – we’re still on vacation and raiding the archive for some fond memories. This is a particularly bittersweet one, from the days when every New York band, outside of Williamsburg, at least, was desperate to vote the Bush regime out of office…and for awhile it looked like it really would happen in 2004]

Randi Russo had organized this fundraiser for the John Kerry campaign, unsurprisingly drawing an A-list of New York rock talent who connected electrically with the audience: they may have been preaching to the converted, but this show left no doubt that New York is still a Democratic town. Literate songwriter Erika Simonian opened. Nuance is her defining characteristic, along with a deadpan, cynical sense of humor. The highlight of her set, for that matter probably the highlight of the night – at least from the crowd’s delirious reaction – was I’ve Got a Song (as in, “I’ve got a song, it goes FUCK YOU”), a kiss-off anthem that this time out took on extra significance when she dedicated it to Bush. Her band was tight, accordionist Paul Brady was incisive and captivating as always but the muddy sound mix sometimes deadened her vocals – the sound guy was obviously trying to fix it, with minimal results.

Paul Wallfisch of Botanica did three songs solo on his trust old Wurlitzer electric piano, one of them a Jacques Brel cover, before the rest of his band joined him for a spot-on, passionate version of The Flag (“When I stand and face the flag/I see my country wrapped in rags”), from their 9/11-themed album Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. They eventually did a stripped-down, careening version of the gypsy-punk title track from that album plus some more straight-ahead, rock-oriented new material. Guitarist Pete Min ably channeled their former axeman John Andrews’ reverb-laden parts and their new drummer locked with bassist Christian Bongers’ spiraling, melodic lines.

Interestingly, Melora Creager, frontwoman and first-chair cellist of goth-tinged chamber rock band Rasputina was the big draw of the early part of the night: the goth girls shrieked when she hit the stage, then exited en masse when she was done. Seeing her play solo for over 40 minutes was even more impressive than watching her with the band. She plays most of the leads herself and didn’t miss a beat while singing in her signature deadpan, vibrato-laden, oldtimey delivery. She went into character and stayed there, cracking everybody up: too many jokes to remember. The highlight of the set was her closer, A Quitter, an uncharacteristically direct account of teen suicide.

Russo would later release her set as the Live at Sin-e album (still streaming in its entirety at deezer after all these years). Happily, that recording minimizes the boominess that plagued her set. They opened with a bouncy, funky League of the Brigands, followed with a swinging cover of Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons, a marauding blast through the Middle Eastern-tinged antiwar anthem Live Bait and a gently mysterious, warmly swinging version of the janglerock hit Get Me Over. A rapidfire, scurrying version of Parasitic People contrasted with the hypnotic, Smog-like ambience of Shout Like a Lady (title track to her 2006 studio album), a snarling version of the embattled workingwoman’s anthem Battle on the Periphery and a clattering take of the usually hypnotic, strikingly optimistic Ceiling Fire to close the set on a high note.

Tammy Faye Starlite headlined. Backed by just an acoustic guitarist, the fearless satirist/actress/comedienne ran through a pointed, typically hilarious mix of songs and spontaneous riffage on the Bush regime. She’s a potent voice for the Democrats this time around (if they can stomach her genuine punk rock attitude and take-no-prisoners commentary). The big showstopper this time out was I Shaved My Vagina for This, one of the most amusingly feminist numbers from her country-flavored first album. Matching the ferocity of Amy Rigby to the uninhibited, stream-of-consciousness hilariousness of Lenny Bruce, it was a girl-power anthem that anyone could sing along to if they stopped laughing long enough.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Songs For You Until We Return

As regulars here know by now, Lucid Culture HQ is undergoing some big renovations and for that reason we have to leave this site more or less in limbo until about the middle of October  when we  return with more of the stuff you may have grown accustomed to: the NYC live music calendar, cd and concert reviews, Song of the Day and our Tuesday Top Ten Songs list. This will also serve as a test of sorts to see how much traffic we get while there’s not much going on here. In the meantime, here are the songs of the day that we’d scheduled to appear, a new one every day through October 15, 2009  as the countdown to #1 on the Top 666 Songs of Alltime list continues.  If this isn’t enough to satisfy your curiosity, look around a little, browse the index above and we’ll be back before you know it.

304. Joy Division – Walked in Line

“All dressed in uniforms so fine/They drank and killed to pass the time/Wearing the shame of all their crimes/With measured steps they walked in line.” Nazis as metaphor for conformity as a whole, stepping to a ridiculously simple, potent descending punk riff. An early, 1977-era song released on the posthumous 1981 Still lp, available in a ridiculous number of live and studio versions: peek around.

303. Dick Dale – Misirlou

The lefty guitar genius and surf music pioneer is Lebanese-American and probably heard this iconic Greek melody as a kid in the 50s. Nice to see him healthy again and back on the road. New York Greek party rockers Magges also do a tremendously fun version.

302. The Dog Show – If I Laugh Anymore I’ll Break

Blistering and catchy, sort of a cross between the Dead Boys and 50s R&B. One of the more obscure tracks here, this is on a rare ep by the NYC mod punks from 2003 or so and well worth seeking out, whether on a live bootleg (they exist) or otherwise.

301. Elvis Costello – Riot Act

One of Steve Nieve’s finest, most poignant moments in the band with all those hauntingly restrained piano arpeggios. From Get Happy, 1980; mp3s are everywhere.

300. The Grateful Dead – Days Between

Every now and then, Jerry and co. would pull out the gravitas and this is a prime, extremely poignant example from right before the end, an elegiac epic that in its dark, determined way might just be their best song. Not that it really mattered, but the Dead never released it during their lifetime as either a studio or live recording. So you need to go to dead.net or archive.org, where this 12-minute gem resides in several places.

299. The Go-Betweens – You Can’t Say No Forever

Haunting, percussive janglerock cautionary tale about the dangers of succumbing to the lure of marriage. An apt companion piece to the Fun Boy Three’s Tunnel of Love…and a million blues and country songs. It doesn’t sound much like anything the artsy New Zealand pop band ever did before or after. From 16 Lovers’ Lane, 1989; mp3s are everywhere.

298. The Rolling Stones – Black Limousine

A poignant requiem for a good time, Ron Wood’s warmly fluid blues solo one of his finest moments in the band over a neat hesitation-step series of basic blues changes. From Tattoo You, 1981; mp3s are everywhere, and don’t be shy about downloading it because like all major label releases, this one will never make the band any more money. Not that they need it anyway. The link above is a spirited live version from the tour of the same year.

297. Telephone – Au Coeur de la Nuit

The title translates as “heart of the night,” which to songwriter Jean-Louis Aubert’s credit transcends cliche here. One of the most iconic songs in French rock, it’s a blistering requiem, title track from the Parisian rockers’ 1981 lp. Which you can download all over the place; the link above is a careening live version from German tv.

296. Zager & Evans – In the Year 2525

OK, some of you may find this cheesy and over-the-top. But we think the 1969 one-hit wonder is spooky in a psychedelic California Dreaming kind of way. Whatever you think, the video above is hilarious – and it screams out for someone with a little more depth to cover the song and bring out all its apocalyptic angst. By the way, the song was a last-minute addition to the band’s first album (if you find it, pick it up, it’s rare). Available for taping off your favorite oldies radio station as well as all over the web.

295. Randi RussoWonderland

Arguably the iconic indie rock siren’s signature song, this is a bruised, towering anthem about being left behind. And the injustice and cruel irony of it. From her classic Solar Bipolar cd, 2000; the link in the title above is the considerably faster but still dangerous version from the Live at Sin-e album, 2005.

294. Amy Rigby – Rode Hard

Culture shock has seldom been more amusingly, or more poignantly portrayed: fearless big city girl goes south and she doesn’t understand the natives any better than they understand her. She might be jealous of their brightly lit homes and seemingly secure lives, but she’s not sure. And are there any eligible guys within a hundred mile radius? Is there one? From the Sugar Tree cd, 2000, which you could download, or you could get at her site, she’s an independent artist so none of your money will go to any sleazy record label exec.

293. Erika Simonian – Bitter & Brittle

Best song on the classic 2003 All the Plastic Animals cd by the NYC underground songwriter/chanteuse and Sprinkle Genies guitarist, grimly yet wittily contemplating a fullscale breakdown with one of her characteristically gemlike lyrics.

292. Elvis Costello – Love Went Mad

“Do you know how I feel? Do you have a heart, do you have a heart of iron and steel?” the King inquires with a savage amphetamine insistence. A fast, anthemic smash from Punch the Clock, 1983, driven by Steve Nieve’s incisively bright piano. Mp3s are everywhere.

291. Curtis Eller – After the Soil Fails

Apocalyptic opening track on the fiery NYC banjo rocker’s 2008 cd Wirewalkers & Assassins:

This time the dream is a Russian oil tanker

Fidel Castro and Cuban sugarcane

Richard Nixon’s having the same old nightmare

Jack Ruby’s black secret crawling up through the drain…

When the hurricanes finally take out New Orleans

And scarlet fever has finally left Philadelphia bare…

There’s a ghost that we remember hanging in the air

290. Ninth House – Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me

Catchy, swaying Nashville gothic existentialist cautionary tale: “I know all your secrets,” frontman Mark Sinnis intones ominously. From Swim in the Silence, 2000.

289. Elena Zazanis – Stingray

The highly regarded indie film actress is also a terrific singer and songwriter, with a powerful alto wail and a haunting chromatic edge that reflect her Greek heritage. For a few years during the early part of the decade, she led a first-rate, dark New York powerpop band and this is their finest moment, a towering anthem vividly depicting a surreal nightmare scenario that doesn’t end well. Never recorded, although live bootlegs exist.

288. REM – Find the River

Arguably their best song, about as far from their indie roots as they ever got, lush and anthemic with a string section. It’s about getting old, and failure, and death. “All of this is coming your way.” From Automatic for the People, 1992. Click on the video in the link above.

287. Latin QuarterTruth About John

For about a year the British rock press were all gaga over this lyrically brilliant, Costelloesque band who were one of the first to bring Afropop flourishes into rock. This is probably their most straight-up rock song, a bruising anthem about Albert Goldman’s hatchet-job John Lennon bio. From the Modern Times lp, 1985. The Pip Hoyle style organ solo out is luscious. Frontman Steve Skaith now fronts his own band, continuing to play and record intriguingly polystylistic, lyrical songs. The link in the title above is the stream at imeem.

286. Flash & the Pan – Restless

A few years after their legendary 60s garage-pop band the Easybeats had run its course, Australians Harry Vanda and George Young led this pioneering, truly extraordinary dark new wave studio project best known for their big 1979 hit Hey St. Peter. This apocalyptic number sets a haunting Middle Eastern melody to a fast, hypnotic dance beat, the lyrics as offhandedly disconcertingly as ever. From the classic Lights in the Night lp, 1980, more easily downloaded than you would think – the link above is a torrent.

285. The Room – Naïve

Best song on probably the best ep ever made, the Liverpool new wave legends’ 1985 release Jackpot Jack. This updates noir 60s pop with a jazzy tinge and haunting Hammond organ, Dave Jackson’s ominously breathy voice and characteristically biting lyrics. It’s also a great drinking song – who knew beer goggles could be so lyrical. Jackson and bassist Becky Stringer would carry on in the equally captivating Benny Profane and currently the Nashville gothic act the Dead Cowboys.

September 27, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 9/6/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Sunday’s song is #325:

Amy RigbyCynically Yours

This is the unpredictable, compelling multistylistic songwriter at her best, an uproariously funny but savagely insightful faux Brill Building pop song about selling out, relationship-wise. “You don’t suck, so I’m cynically yours.” From the Sugar Tree cd, 2000. The link in the title above is the full track at last.fm.

September 6, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Concert Review: Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 10/4/07

Strange things happen when you don’t see a band for a couple of years. Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. used to be a loose, improvisational unit playing old country covers. Good players, good choice of material, better than a lot of the competition, but otherwise pretty indistinguishable from the rest of the Pete’s Candy Store contingent. How times change. Fast forward to 2007: they’ve gone into a time warp and emerged in 1953, right before rockabilly took off. Now the band has matching suits, period set pieces with graphics and typefaces straight out of the early 50s and what sounds like cleverly scripted, faux-corny between-song banter. These guys put on a show and, mercy, they’re pretty darned good. Their originals sound like country standards from fifty years ago and the upright bass player swings like hell. He doesn’t push the beat like so many bluegrass and oldtimey cats do. The band doesn’t have a drummer but they don’t really need one. The lead singer (Amy Rigby’s brother, formerly of the Last Roundup) really has a handle on 50s hillbilly dance tunes, playing a lot of jazzy licks on his big beautiful hollowbody Gibson in addition to the expected country twang. And they’re funny: two of the originals they played tonight were titled Don’t Try This at Home (a bouncy, cornball number) and I Hate You (expansive and jazz-inflected, with a great lyric). And they clearly have a good time doing their shtick. See them at Rodeo Bar if you get the chance. You’ll get your money’s worth, no doubt about it.

October 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment