Alela Diane on her new album, To Be Still
– by Shawn Conner
The first time I call Alela Diane, instead of the singer I get her voicemail. It turns out she was in an antique store in her adopted hometown of Portland, OR – she’s originally from Nevada City, CA – and had left her cell in the car.
A shop full of old furniture and curios is the perfect place for Diane, at least going by her most recent full-length, To Be Still (Rough Trade). (She released her debut, The Pirate’s Gospel, in 2006; this month sees the appearance of a “companion” EP with singer Alina Hardin.)
A forest would be another ideal setting, for the songs on To Be Still have a hushed, away-from-it-all quality. It’s a very good record marked by some absolute stunners – you won’t hear better melodies this year than those of “Dry Grass & Shadows”, “My Brambles”, the title track and “Lady Divine”.
At her best, Alela Diane’s songs can stand up against some of the best by the people (Vashti Bunyon, Judee Sill; I would also say Nick Drake) who have been cited as influences on her.
In this conversation, Alela Diane answers questions about the dental hygienist from Topanga Canyon who recorded a classic folk album, what’s in the water in Nevada City, and who’s going to look after her cat, Bramble, while she’s on the road.
Shawn Conner: Are you big into antiques?
Alela Diane: We just moved into a new house so we’re trying to find all sorts of beautiful furniture and things to fill the place with.
SC: Are there a lot of good antique stores in Portland?
AD: There are, the one we were in was just amazing. So much good stuff.
SC: Is Portland a place where you can still get that stuff relatively cheap?
AD: Uhm, it depends. We’ve been to some places which are more expensive. This one seemed pretty reasonable. And there are a lot of good thrift stores, you can still scour the actual thrift stores and find some neat stuff.
SC: It seems to me a lot of that stuff would be picked over by the Portland hipsters.
AD: It’s true. You just have to get in there with them and battle.
SC: So when you say “we”, you mean you and your cat, Bramble?
AD: No, Bramble’s not with me, it’s me and Tom, my man, and my bass player.
SC: So when you’re in Vancouver…
AD: It’s just going to be Tom [Bevitori] and I. He’ll be playing some bass and some acoustic guitar.
SC: Who’s looking after Bramble while you’re on the road?
AD: During the past year we’ve been gone so much we’ve just had a series of house-sitters. The girls who were recently staying here moved up from Nevada City so it kind of gave them a chance to get their feet on the ground and look for a house while they lived at our house for a month. And watched Bramble.
SC: Now what is it with Nevada City? Joanna Newsom’s from there too. Is there something in the water, like acid?
AD: Perhaps, perhaps.
SC: Maybe someone dosed the water supply back in ’69.
AD: It’s possible. I think it’s just a small community, it’s really close-knit, and a lot of creative artistic type people moved there in the late ’70s and then they all had kids. And the schools promote the arts. The schools and the community give children the push they need to pursue creative things. And it’s beautiful, really inspiring.
SC: So there’re lots of woods and outdoors-y places you can go to meditate?
AD: Yeah! Pretty much everybody who grew up there had a couple of acres and some land, and there’s a beautiful river there we would all swim in in the summer time. There’s just a lot of open space, and nature to experience, I suppose.
SC: There’s a mention of a river on your MySpace page. Where it says “Sounds like”, you’ve written, “The deeper parts of the river.”
AD [laughs]: Yeah.
SC: I like that, it saves me from having to try to describe your music. So I was doing my research and came across that record of covers you did with Headless Heroes, The Silence of Love, and one of the songs is “Hey, Who Really Cares” by someone named Linda Perhacs, whom I’d never heard of. She’s got a fascinating story.
AD: [laughs] Is she the one who was the dental hygienist? That’s pretty crazy, right? I kind of like those types of stories. Another one that fascinated me was the Vashti Bunyan thing, where she made some records back in the ’60s then completely stopped and didn’t play music for 35 years. I think Linda Perhacs is a similar story, she recorded some stuff back in the day and then lived a completely normal life.
SC: You played a few shows with Vashti, did you ask her about that?
AD: I haven’t really talked to her about that, but I have done a couple of shows with her.
SC: Did you know about Linda Perhacs before you got involved with that project?
AD: I think I had heard of her, but not too in-depth, no. And that project was funny, I didn’t choose any of the songs. I got this CD with all the songs and a few different ones we didn’t end up recording, and then I went down to L.A. and just sang the songs, and that’s all I did.
SC: Did you know most of the songs, or the artists?
AD: I was roughly familiar with some of the artists, but a lot of them, even to this day I still don’t own their records. Which is kind of crazy.
SC: Are you a records person?
AD: These days I mostly try to collect vinyl. And then I have an iPhone, that’s my digital thing, I put songs on there and on the computer. I tend to lose CDs and scratch them, so I’ve come to the realization that’s not the best way for me to listen to things. And I don’t really have a very extensive record collection anyhow.
SC: Now, so, you recorded To Be Still in Portland and Nevada City, where your dad has a home studio?
AD: Yeah, my dad has a studio down in Nevada City. I started To Be Still in Portland, then I took it down to Nevada City and worked on it over the course of year between touring.
SC: Were a lot of the arrangements instinctive or was there a lot of re-recording that went into getting just the right atmosphere?
AD: There was a lot of trial and error. We re-did a lot of stuff that was recorded up in Portland. I had a version of the record after I was done in the studio up here, but I wasn’t happy with it. I just kept re-working things and re-doing parts I didn’t feel were captured correctly and just kept doing that until I was satisfied. And now the record is as you hear it.
SC: It looks like the album’s gotten literally four-star reviews across the board [Diane’s Facebook page notes four-star reviews from The Times, The Guardian, The Observer, Mojo, Uncut, Time Out, and Observer Music Monthly], a lot of them UK publications.
AD: Yeah, it’s been going really well overseas.
SC: Why is that? It seems like the British really respond to American artists, uhm, Americana, uh… [reaching for words]
AD: I think there is sort of a fascination with American music. It is really different from how things are over there, I guess. Things have gone really well in France as well. It’s pretty mysterious how that happened. You also find a lot of artists overseas trying to mimic American sound, which is interesting.
SC: What can you tell me about this new EP?
AD: That was recorded in two days. Alina tours with me and sings harmony vocals. And so over the past couple of years we’ve developed a repertoire. And so we recorded a couple of traditionals, a Townes Van Zandt song [“Rake”], and then a few originals. It’s just the two of us, two guitars and two voices, very simple really nothing added, just two girls playing music together. I guess it’s much more raw than To Be Still.
SC: Does this mean since you’re touring with Marissa [Nadler] you might sing together?
AD: I don’t know. I only really briefly met Marissa, but it would be cool if that did end up happening. I think Vancouver is our second show so I doubt it’ll end up happening then.
SC: You two might hate each other. There could be a catfight onstage every night.
AD: Probably not. I highly doubt it. I’m generally am not that way.