Saturday, June 4, 2011

Getting To Know Alela Diane

Alela Diane's third album, Alela Diane & Wild Divine, which was released last April, finds the artist continuing down her own path, while growing and branching out in her own engaging and naturalistic fashion. Ms. Diane declared her arrival with the debut of The Pirate's Gospel, while garnering more acclaim and prominence with and her follow-up, To Be Still. 

Ms. Diane was gracious enough to take me through her journey as a musician and songwriter, while retracing her steps through her discography, as well as sharing her experiences crafting her latest album. 

I'd like to start your beginning. You come from a musical family life, when did you begin learning music?

AD: Since I can remember, I’ve always been a singer. I was in choir from the age of 5 all the way through high school, and came up with little melodies from an early age. There were plenty of guitars around the house, and my dad taught me a few basic chords when I was 14 or so, but it wasn’t until I moved away from home at 19 that I really started to play the thing. That’s when I started writing songs.

Who were some of your early influences?

AD: My childhood was saturated with the music my parents would play. My dad would have the guitar and my mother was always singing. They’d play old traditional folk songs. Those are the first songs I remember, and I am sure they are much of the reason I began playing music in the first place.

Can you describe your working relationship with your father (and your band)? 

AD: My dad and I have a very easy way of working together. If I play a song, he’s suddenly playing along and it sounds good! There is something amazing about being able to play music with him, it’s like he intuitively knows just what to play. On tour, dad always has a positive attitude and has more energy than the rest of the band put together. It’s so nice to finally have found the right group of people to play with, it’s starting to feel like we’re breathing as one when we perform, that is something I’ve always wanted.

For newcomers to your work, can you describe your experiences writing and recording The Pirate’s Gospel

AD: The Pirate’s Gospel was written while I was on a solo journey overseas, with just a backpack and a guitar. While I was far away from all that I knew, I was able to reflect back on my life in San Francisco, and many of the songs came out of that experience. When I returned to the States, it became clear that I hated living in the big city, so I moved back home to Nevada City. My dad had just set up a recording studio, and so when I told him that I’d written a number of new songs, he was happy to record them. I think we captured 7 songs within an hour, and added whatever we thought sounded good. 

The biggest challenge for me was playing the guitar, because I’d really only been playing it for 6 months or so. It is a very playful and innocent record; we rounded up some kids to sing on “Pieces of String,” I used my choir influence on “Tired Feet,” and we stomped and clapped for the rhythm section on the title track. I think that The Pirate’s Gospel marks the end of my being a girl.

How did those experiences lead to and influence your writing and recording of To Be Still?

AD: For To Be Still, my approach in the songwriting process was fairly similar to what it had been on The Pirate’s Gospel, but I wanted to explore more sounds, which meant bringing in more musicians. I really had it in my head that I wanted drums and all sorts of other sounds, but I had no knowledge of playing with other musicians, so it was quite a learning experience for me. I embarked on the recording of To Be Still, when I was completely unprepared for the journey that it would be.

Can discuss your inspiration for your lyrics?  Who or what are your lyrical influences?

AD: I actually don’t read much – especially poetry, I haven’t read much poetry at all.  I think the main influence for the words is life itself. I write about the circumstances of my days or months, about people I know or have met, places I’ve been, dreams, stories passed along, and the things cannot be understood etc etc etc.

Who are your biggest musical influences?

AD: I love Fleetwood Mac, Fairport Convention, Jefferson Airplane,  Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, Cat Stevens, Kate Wolf– I’d say my inspiration lies pretty heavily on what was popular 40 years ago. The soul of music was very alive back then!

Was your writing process any different for the new album?

AD: I spent much more time crafting the songs than I had before. I’d write a song, and then tear it apart until it finally became what is on the record. I had most of the words written before the songs came to be. I also took a year off from touring and really had the opportunity to focus on my writing. I wanted to make sure that every word was the word I wanted to say, and that each chord was the one that took the song to the right place. 

It was also the first time I’d co-written any material. I worked with my husband Tom on a number of songs, and got some fatherly advice on a few chord progressions along the way too. It was liberating to be able to sing and write melodies when Tom was playing the guitar, and I think I was able to come up with some things that would not have come to be had I been playing the guitar. Also, I was using the piano as a tool to write on which definitely changed the feeling of writing and allowed me to come up with different thing. I really challenged myself with this record and kept pushing until I felt like the songs were what I thought they could be.

What is the biggest difference that sets the new album, Alela Diane & Wild Divine, apart from your previous albums?

AD: I think the biggest difference is that I’ve got a band now.

How collaborative are you with your band in the writing process?

AD: The writing of songs is a fairly intimate process, and I tend to write the songs before presenting them to everyone in the band. My husband and dad usually hear the songs earlier in the process and from time to time did collaborate with me to create the right chord progression for my lyrics and melodies. 

How did these songs come together and form the album?

AD: There are a few common threads that run throughout. The record holds a certain amount of darkness with references to death and the unknown, but is balanced by light and hope and good. "Rising Greatness" is a song that weaves those threads, and I think that all of the songs hold the sentiment of the dark and light, good and bad, loss and hope.  

I was writing about a lot of tragic things, but rather than fall off the ledge, I was looking at the good that can emerge from those depths. It’s difficult to pick out specific songs, because they all came out of a period of time that has written it’s name all over every one. I think that’s why they fit nicely together to form a record, the songs; they are like brothers and sisters to eachother.

How was working with producer Scott Litt? Can you describe your experiences working with him on the record?

AD: It was great to work with Scott. He had a way with getting us musicians to do things we’d never have thought to do on our own. He was very helpful in working with each band member to come up with the part that was going to play the right role in the song. Scott would have a vision for a song, and he’d take us wherever he needed to in order to pursue that vision. 

What was most challenging for you, and most rewarding for you making the new record?

AD: The most challenging thing was the mixing process, because we weren’t down at the studio while Scott was working on that part. It is such a crazy experience to listen to the songs again and again for the tiniest subtle differences…. It just gets weird and you think you are starting to lose your mind. It sucks to have to listen for imperfections and for things that you don’t like… But, it’s important to make sure that everything on the record should be there, and is sitting in the right place. If the drums were too loud on a track, Scott would say “I want to feel the drums, not SEE them.” Which explains the process perfectly, it’s a delicate one.   

The most rewarding thing about making this album is that when it was finished, I felt like I’d finally made a record that I was completely happy with.  I felt like we all worked really hard, and that it came out beautifully.

Can you describe your experiences as a Portland-based artist? What do like most about hailing from Portland? What is the music scene there like and how does it influence your work?

AD: Portland is an easy city. It has all of the things that a city should have, but it doesn’t move too fast. It’s beautiful and inspiring, and I think the relaxed nature of life here enables musicians and artists the time and space to get into their work. The rain is helpful too, because it keeps you inside, and is an excuse to write.  When the sun comes out, all of the people come out of their houses and celebrate.  

We’ve got some great friends in town, most of whom are musicians. It seems like most of us just get into our own sound, and support each other by going to the shows… That’s what the scene is to me:  it’s just about going to see your friends play when they play to show them that you care and to have a good time. There are so many side streets to the Portland scene though, and I am certain that there is a lot of music being made in town that I know nothing about…

What’s next?

AD: We’re headed out across America for the month of June, and have a few European tours after that. By the end of the year, I imagine I’ll be thinking heavily about what to do for the next record. It’s always onward.

What have you been listening to lately?

AD: I got the new Fleet Foxes record the other day, and it’s beautiful. It’s nice to hear some current music that is amazing and heartfelt.

Alela Diane & The Wild Divine will be hitting the road in June to support the new record. 
6/1: The Tractor Tavern  , Seattle, WA        
6/2: The Rio Theatre, Vancouver, BC
6/4: Mississippi Studios, Portland, OR
6/7: Hi Dive, Denver, CO            
6/8: Bottleneck, Lawrence, KS        
6/9: Empty Bottle, Chicago, IL            
6/11: Rivoli Cabaret, Toronto, ONT         
6/12: Il Motore, Montreal, QUE      
6/15: Space, Portland, ME         
6/16:  Brighton Music Hall, Boston, MA          
6/17: City Winery, New York, NY       
6/18: Knitting Factory, Brooklyn, NY         
6/19: IOTA, Arlington, VA         
6/20: Kings Barcade, Raleigh, NC          
6/21: The Earl, Atlanta, GA           
6/23: Bottletree, Birmingham, AL    
6/25: Stubbs Jr., Austin, TX             
6/29: Echo, Los Angeles, CA   
6/30: The New Parish, Oakland, CA         
7/1: Henry Miller Memorial Library , Big Sur, CA           

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