We’re psyched for your Charlotte show next week. Have you ever played here before?
I was racking my brain trying to figure that out. I know I’ve played in Asheville but I don't have a recollection of playing in Charlotte. If I have, it was a probably an opening slot for Blitzen Trapper or something like that ten years ago. It’s a distant, distant memory. It may not even be a memory [laughs].
I do interviews occasionally and hear that response a lot. You’re not the first to say you don’t remember Charlotte.
Well if I have been there, I haven’t really been there. I was in a room that had no windows in a basement. So that doesn’t really count anyway.
So this Tabor gig will essentially be your first Charlotte show. How did you get it set up?
I met Scott Avett over a decade ago. Twelve or thirteen years ago, I opened some shows for The Avett Brothers. Scott and I have remained in loose touch over the years. They just played in Portland over the summer, so I saw them then. Shortly thereafter, Scott thought of me and hooked me up with Martha who invited me to come out [to Tabor] and play.
Scott will be doing an artist talk the same day as your set.
Exactly. I think we’re going to do a few songs together as well, which should be exciting. We have to sort them out, but I’m going a couple days early. We’ll have to figure out if we’re able to perform the songs in front of people, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out.
You released a new album this year called Cusp. It was five years in the making, and during that time you became a mother. Twice! Were you writing songs during that whole period or did you take the time off to focus on your kids?
I took some time off for sure. Probably over a year after I had my first daughter. She’s almost five now. My previous record About Farewell was released right before my oldest daughter was born. I think I was pregnant when it was released. There was definitely a lot of down time after that.
I did a collaborative project in, I think, 2015. I wrote with a guitarist, my friend Ryan Francesconi. I wrote the lyrics and the melodies, so for me it was like making half a record. It was much more low pressure and less work than a full solo record.
I started writing the songs for Cusp mostly at an artists’ residency in January 2016. I wrote most of the songs within a really short period of time. I was really reflecting on the previous two years. My daughter was two at the time, and I was reflecting on the journey of motherhood up to that point. I kept working on the songs through the spring, fine tuning them. Then I got pregnant again and recorded the album while I was pregnant with my second daughter. The album is very intertwined with the experience of parenthood and the journey of pregnancy.
My second daughter was born, and I was planning to release the album shortly thereafter when she was six months old. But I had a really complicated birth with her. It was actually a near-death experience for me. That freaked me out enough to put off releasing the album. So I released it when she was a year old. I was like, “Okay. She’s one. I’m ready to get back to it and put all of my energy into music again.
I’d read about that experience. It’s fascinating to me that you had two kids, you had the scary medical complication, and on top of that you’re writing songs. And then there’s “the machine.” You gotta get the studio booked and the musicians hired and the label and the PR efforts. Was it hard to get all of that going after you’d been through so much?
I have a manager, so he was doing most of that arranging. Of course, I had to sign off on everything. You know, it was difficult but anything after that point, I was just thinking, “You know what, this isn’t a big deal. I’m just glad to be here.” [laughs]
That has helped a lot recently. I’ve done some longer tours this year, and touring has its challenges. Especially at the level I’m touring. You’re in a van. You drive all day long. It’s really exhausting. It’s not at a level where things are all taken care of.
You’re not staying at the Ritz.
Yeah. It’s hard work. But even that. Leaving my kids at home. Going on tour for three weeks. Doing that hustle. I was still very much thinking, “I’m still grateful for this experience.” I have a new gratitude for life now that is really beautiful in a lot of ways. I’ve been able to look at the bright side, even when things are hard on tour.
Most of Cusp is about motherhood. The song that sticks with me most is “The Threshold,” a song about looking backwards and looking forwards at the same time. Is that something you do often?
I do. I try not to. But I think that’s a big piece of the life experience. We’re always trying to live in the present moment, but we’re wondering, “What’s going on tomorrow?” Or “My vacation’s coming up.” Or you’re sort of rehashing what you’ve already been through. “The Threshold” is an acknowledgment of that. We’re all grappling with who we used to be, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. It’s an interesting way to live because really all we have is they day that’s right before us.
It’s so hard to live in the present, but if you can, it’s liberating. Lots of anxiety is removed.
My wife and I had our first child last year, and the line “see our children grown and on their own” is devastating to me. Our son is already almost two years old. It’s going by so fast. At the same time – I get so excited thinking about what’s in store and who he’ll grow up to be. In the song, you sing “In each I see a vision of something I hold true.” Is that the answer to this dilemma?
I don’t know. Where you’ve come from does hold weight. It’s the path that’s brought you to where you are. At the same time, thinking about the future and imagining things that are light-filled and good - I think that’s important as well.
Are your visions for the future full of light and good? Or has that changed?
They are. In the song, I’m musing that when our kids are grown, I’m going to get a house by some water and look at the ocean or a lake all of the time. That’s going to be nice. [laughs] I could do that now, but we’ve chosen to have a very urban life in Portland. And it’s wonderful. I’m very happy where I am and where we’re choosing to live our life, but I like knowing that it doesn’t always have to be exactly as it is. And I’ve gone through enough in my life to know that there are these definitive chapters of life where everything does change. I’m not desperately waiting for the future to get here. It’s a happy thought to know that when the time is right, we can make a big change and it will be amazing.
You had a musical childhood. Was there ever a record or a singer that led to an “a-ha” moment for you? One where you heard it and said, “That’s what I want to do.”
As a kid there was a piece of me that thought maybe I could be a musician. My parents were playing in a lot of bluegrass-type bands. My mom would sing. My dad played guitar. They sang harmony together. I like that, but we didn’t have a big record collection. We’d listen to the local radio station, and my parents would play music a lot. I remember listening to Patsy Cline with my mom in the kitchen and thinking, “Wow. This is cool.”
But I didn’t decide to become a musician early one. It’s something that took me by surprise. I did come from a musical family. I did sing in the school choir. But I didn’t think I had it in me to write songs. When I was nineteen, something shifted in me and I started writing. It wasn’t until then that I realized this is what I wanted to do.
What’s the first record you ever bought?
I remember that I got Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill for Christmas and I was so stoked. And my early listening on my own was Jewel, and Sarah McLachlan, and that type of thing. And let it be known, I think the first album I bought for myself was Hanson. Because that’s my generation and I was a total fan girl. Not a very hip answer, but that’s my answer [laughs].
We must be about the same age because I was into all of that music too. I was actually thinking about Jewel the other day. I was listening to this new record by Rosali, this great record that she put out earlier this year. I was driving down the road listening to it and was thinking, man, she’d hate for me to say this, but her record reminds me a bit of Jewel. She was all over the place when I was in middle school and high school. Such a big star at the time.
All of that was happening in like a five-year window.
It was so different back then. Whatever was on the radio or MTV was what you had to listen to.
That was the only outlet that showed you what you should be listening to.
There were no blogs. No Twitter. No hip artist recommending a really obscure record on social media.
When I look at your recording career, a couple of artists jump out at me. I was wondering if you could talk about them?
Michael Hurley. I met Michael over a decade ago. He’s from the Portland area. I think he usually resides in Astoria, which is a couple hours outside the city on the Columbia River. I just love his music. It’s so special. The song “Light Green Fellow.” That whole album Armchair Boogie. All of his music, it transcends many decades. He’s maintained his sound over that whole time. I love that. I love the song “Oh My Stars.” He sang on my album To Be Still, this song called “Age Old Blue.” I haven’t seen him in a while. He does play in Portland fairly regularly. This is reminding me I need to go see him. I’ve done shows with him in Portland and Scotland. Probably in 2008 or 2009. I’ve known him for a long time, and his music is very dear to me.
Her voice is one of my favorite voices. I first discovered her through her work with Fairport Convention. The album she sings on - Liege and Lief. I love that record so much. I wrote my song on Cusp “Song for Sandy.” It’s about how she died really young. She died when her daughter was less than a year old. It’s a really tragic story. After I became a mom, I couldn’t help but write about that thought. The song is about leaving your kid alone and only the songs are left behind. And then after the album was recorded, that’s when I almost died in childbirth. And I was like “What? I wrote this song already.” But thankfully it didn’t happen to me. There are a lot of strange, synchronistic things that tied into everything. It’s very weird.
So that project is interesting. [NOTE: Alela Diane covered “Nobody’s Baby Now” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for as part of Headless Heroes in 2009.] I didn’t choose that song. That album was curated and I was invited to be the singer on that project. All I did was sing. I was given the songs. So, I’m not familiar with his music. Which is weird because I should. Everyone loves Nick Cave. I don’t know why I’ve never gone there or sought out his music. I’m sometimes a bit of a lazy musician. I don’t know about the things you should know about a lot of the time.
I remember buying a Bad Seeds record when I was a kid because I’d read about it in an alt-weekly or something. And it was too scary for me.
Too dark or something?
Yeah. I was more into The Grateful Dead and stuff like that. And this record was dark. Almost industrial sounding. You’ve gotta be of the right mindset.
Is there an album of his you would recommend?
I’m no Nick Cave expert by any means and really the only album that I know is the record that “Nobody’s Baby Now” is on. It’s called Let Love In. It’s got this really creepy picture of Nick on the cover. There’s this song called “Red Right Hand” on it that’s so good. He’s actually got a tragic story too. But we’ve talked about tragedy enough for today.
Last question: do you have a favorite North Carolina record?
Probably The Avett Brothers. The most obvious choice [laughs]. I love the album The Carpenter. That’s a favorite of mine. Do you have a favorite?
I’d have to say that Hiss Golden Messenger is the North Carolina band that really captures everything that’s good about the music in this state. They released two back-to-back albums. The first was called Heart Like a Levee. The follow-up was called Hallelujah Anyhow. The albums work together as a pairing - don’t know if you’re a Grateful Dead fan - but the two Hiss records have this Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty thing going where it’s basically a double album. You have to listen to both to get the full picture.
For the record - my dad was and still is in a Dead cover band. He has been for the last twenty-five years [laughs].
That’s phenomenal. What are they called?
The Dead Beats. They play a lot around northern California. And they do this big Jerry’s birthday bash in August.