Few things recall an era as quickly and clearly as citing "wood panel walls and shag carpet," as Deb Talan does in "Joshua Tree in the Headphones." She does so to set the scene of a very specific memory of being at her best friend's house, stoned and immersed in U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name."
But that scene is only the starting point for a story that goes much deeper.
"I'm a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (incest), so revisiting any part of my growing up has serious minefields," Talan says. "This song is partly shaped around the sense of being trapped at the end of high school, nearly free, but still under the auspices of our parents. For me, those feelings are inseparable from those earlier ones of being trapped in my family because I was being abused."
The tune comes from Talan's new solo record, 'Lucky Girl,' which has helped her reclaim her role as an artist after spending years identifying as a mom, a wife, a bandmate (in the Weepies), and a cancer survivor. Part of that reclamation necessarily involved facing some old demons, as she does so bravely and beautifully in "Joshua Tree."
"Everyone leaves something behind when they pass from high school into the larger world," she offers. "There's a sense of grief, but also relief and anticipation of something bigger, maybe better. For me, this song weaves together those different narratives and feelings. I hope everyone can relate to something in here. At the very least, it felt amazingly cathartic to write."
'Lucky Girl' will be released May 19 via Nettwerk Music Group and is available for pre-order now at iTunes and Amazon.com.
On her seventh studio album in 15 years, 'Stitch of the World,' singer/songwriter Tift Merritt has churned out another solid set of roots-infused tunes that reach backward, forward, and side to side. You see, Merritt has a lot of musical ground to cover and she does just that, from the throwback folk-country of "Dusty Old Man" to the bluesy jangle of "Proclamation Bones" to the ambient Americana of the title track. With support from Sam Beam, Jay Bellerose, Marc Ribot, and Eric Heywood, Merritt works through numerous styles and explores myriad themes, all with the deft skill and artistic insouciance listeners have come to expect from her.
Kelly McCartney: You've enjoyed comparisons to a lot of legendary artists and "Dusty Old Man" certainly echoes elements of early Joni Mitchell. What do you do with those sorts of comments?
Tift Merritt: I reference Bonnie Raitt's first album as an inspiration of that track. It's a great, breezy acoustic record recorded with some blues legends at a summer camp in north Minnesota. One of my favorite records. When people compare me to artists I look up to -- it is lovely and I'm grateful. But I'm also careful to look the other way. I like being a working artist. I have my work cut out for me. I think, especially in the Internet age, there is a lot of premature referencing of people whose work has made a mark. Time tells the truth about that kind of thing, not Twitter.
You wrote and recorded this album in a several disparate locales. And you recently headed home to North Carolina. How do the different pulses of those places find their way into the songs?
Landscape had some direct influences. "Wait for Me" and "Icarus" were both inspired by the incredible high desert plains in Marfa, Texas. "Heartache Is an Uphill Climb" and "Stitch of the World" were saturated with impressions from hiking the California coast. "Eastern Light" and "Something Came Over Me" are taken from the streets of New York City. I like really strong environments -- nature returns me to the essentials, and the energy and people-watching in cities always gets me going, too.
Having collaborated with Andrew Bird and MC Taylor, how does stepping out of center stage feel after so many years in that spot? And, now, stepping back up front, is anything different for you?
Collaborating and being a supporting player is such a great way to learn. The spotlight is a certain kind of muscle; it is always healthy to leave it. I really love being in bands and cheering people on and witnessing how other people bring their vision to life. It returns me, always, with greater clarity to my own work and why I do what I do the way I do it! Playing with other people is also great for your chops, not just your heart.
Watching you perform recently, it struck me in very clear terms how, despite the pedestals we put them on, artists are just normal people with cool jobs. From the artist's perspective, what are the pros and cons of a culture that fetishizes fame in the way ours does?
I don't think I am famous, but I do think fame can be destructive, as can performing for strangers each night. Traveling too much can be very lonely. I don't think being the center of attention is as deeply satisfying as people think it is. Doing good work is satisfying, giving of yourself is satisfying. I try not to think about the froth of what's of the moment; I try to think about how to be a working artist throughout a lifetime. What people don't realize is that it is very difficult to make any money as a musician these days and that is a complicated thing when you are a parent.
You aren't overtly political in your music, but anything can be a statement, really, as in "My Boat" or "Love Soldiers On." Do you see your role as a songwriter shifting at all to reflect the times we find ourselves in?
I did not write "My Boat" (which is based on a Raymond Carver poem) or "Love Soldiers On" for political purposes, but I certainly sing them that way now. The world has taken such a strange direction lately. I think my role as a songwriter is to remind people -- myself included -- of the beauty, compassion, and hope that remains in the world and help to grow that piece of ourselves in whatever way I can.
'Stitch of the World' is out now on Yep Roc Records and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com
Sean Rowe has spent the last few years on the road playing all sorts of venues: clubs, house concerts, barns, chicken coops, churches and more. His new album 'New Lore' was born from the strong connection Rowe has cultivated with his passionate fans. Rowe put out the call to his base via a Kickstarter campaign that made its goal in two weeks. The results delightfully surprised the Troy, NY native. "It was wild! I was really shocked and nervous, too. It's always a risky thing to do. With Kickstarter you have as specified amount of time, in our case it was 30 days. Otherwise, you don't get it. We were working off the fumes of being excited about the material and the hopes that we created a bond with the fans enough that they would wanna put their money down to make this record happen."
The record itself is a masterpiece with Rowe's dazzling songwriting leading the charge. His writing is strong enough to turn heads with lines like "But every time we fight/It's like a Newton's Cradle/We can't be the flame forever/Forever's not where it's at." If I'm honest, the line's song title had me Googling "What is a Newton's Cradle?" After the results popped up, I sheepishly thought "OH, THAT IS WHAT THAT IS." Wow! To compare fighting with your partner to a little metal desk toy that demonstrates conservation of momentum and energy and which was named after Sir Issac Newton is just beyond brilliant. Well done!
On this album, there are 100 more examples of gems like the one described above, but let's move on to what Rowe has accomplished sonically. He's been known to experiment with different styles and dynamics, but this time around he is reaching a new level. The usage of background vocalists, vocal reverb, horns, woodwinds, strings, etc. is a triumphant accomplishment. For a vocalist who's range is so deep (although Sean sings some sweet falsetto on "The Salmon!"), the instrumentation around him easily dances along. This album is riddled with intricate, interesting surprises that'll reel you deeper into Sean Rowe's fascinating world.
Late April is a little late for New Year's resolutions -- and we've blown right past Lent -- but there's never a wrong time to seek out new ways to improve your life and approach to the world. So if you're looking for a path to betterment, try this one: Every time you find yourself marinating in Internet grievances, or fuming in traffic, or otherwise tapping into your own personal Strategic Outrage Reserve, resolve to take a moment, don a pair of headphones, situate yourself in a quiet room, and soak up the music of Joan Shelley.
Each of the Kentucky singer, songwriter and guitarist's albums qualifies as a headache remedy, nerve tonic and comfort food rolled into one. Backed beautifully by guitarist Nathan Salsburg -- whose own solo acoustic instrumentals are peacefully enveloping in their own right -- Shelley's music mixes the sound and feel of down-to-earth Appalachian folk music, airier U.K. folksingers like Sandy Denny, and soothing conversations with an understanding friend.
Shelley's eponymous fourth solo album follows in the calming, tender tradition of its predecessors, in which precious little motion is wasted. It's her first project to be produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who brings in a pair of his own favorite collaborators -- his son Spencer Tweedy on drums, as well as guitarist James Elkington -- while sticking with a production aesthetic in which he helps artists strip their sound down to little more than the essentials.
For Joan Shelley, that means bathing her warm and inviting voice in gentle, intricately played acoustic guitars while otherwise framing her squarely in the spotlight. As on 2015's sublime Over And Even, the songs here are consistently gorgeous, from the album-opening tone-setter "We'd Be Home" through the ominous "I Got What I Wanted," the insistent "I Didn't Know," the dreamily piano-infused "Pull Me Up One More Time," the simultaneously sunny and wistful "Wild Indifference," and beyond. As befitting its title, Joan Shelley is the sound of an artist who knows exactly who she is -- buoyed by top-of-the-line collaborators, and still perfectly suited to songs that seep empathy and grace out of every impeccable note.
Joan Shelley eponymous album will be released on May 5th and is available for pre-order now at iTunes and Amazon.com
Some musicians churn out music as fast as possible - they're in the studio almost the day after they've released a new album, working on their next greatest hit. Amilia K Spicer is not one of those musicians.
Case in point: after decades spent in the music biz, as a producer and backup singer and instrumentalist (specializing in keys...of all sorts), she has only just released her third solo studio album. 'Wow and Flutter' is her best work, she says, both as an artist and as a producer.
'Wow and Flutter' is also a body of work several years in the making. Besides being in demand as a studio musician, Spicer also set herself a new challenge before this album: she stepped away from the keyboard bench to learn all sorts of new instruments (guitars, lap steel, banjo) and those new instruments kept inspiring new songs - a blessing and a curse, she admits.
And "inspiring" is not a bad way to describe the album. Sliding from note to note, letting the piano or organ or guitar or choose-your-favorite-instrument-here shine through in each track, Spicer's fearless, mellow alto shares intimate stories of characters who approach life with a hopeful, almost naïve optimism. The roadblocks of bad relationships and challenging environments ("Train Wreck," "Shotgun"), though numerous, aren't permanent, and Spicer's characters wade through with a gritty resolve, determined to make it through, to come out on top, and (as she sings in my favorite track), to "Shine."
'Wow and Flutter' is a compendium of influences; Spicer's "red dirt noir" sound comes from a childhood spent in rural Pennsylvania and an adult life split between the dichotomy of the bustling and tightly packed environs of Los Angeles and the more wide-open spaces of Austin, Texas. But whatever influences a particular song (rural life, for example, in "Harlan," or the hopeful fortitude in "What I'm Saying"), it's Spicer's writing that makes these songs come alive.
On my second or third trip through 'Wow and Flutter,' it finally hit me: yeah, Spicer's creating a catchy sound. Yeah, she uses interesting harmonies and instrumentation. And, yeah, her voice is compelling, in a laid-back kind of way. But the words she chooses, the tiny images - the tiny movies - she creates, with unexpected turns of phrase and the kind of poetry that tells a story you want to be a part of - that's where she really shines. And that is why 'Wow and Flutter' (and Amilia K Spicer) is an album (and a musician) you want to hear.
Whether we care to admit it or not, addiction afflicts everyone, in some way or another, because it comes in many guises. Even pursuing good health can turn can be addictive. To be sure, not being personally caught up in chasing a high, lightening a dark, or numbing a pain doesn't mean we are immune. And those who miraculously escape addiction's grasp no doubt know someone held by it.
With "My Portion,"I Draw Slow addresses the issue head on, begging love to hold the storyteller's hand. "With the rising sun, there's a hunger born again. Put out the flame," Dave Holden gently begs, offering his daily prayer for strength. He recognizes his challenges, sketches them in metaphorical visions. "The shortest road to the sunset doesn't turn," he sings, adding, "That's what I gotta learn. Every day."
Holden's sister Louise comes in to lift the choruses with harmonies that feel rather like his better angel tapping on his shoulder to remind him not to let the destructive devil drag him down: "Oh, love, you give me what you need. You take like a one-armed bandit. Oh, be my strength. Be my portion." We're all in this together, after all.
"My Portion" is the first single from I Draw Slow's new release, 'Turn Your Face To the Sun' due out on April 21 via Compass Records, available for pre-order at iTunes and Amazon.com.
April 19: Chestnut House Concerts, Lancaster, PA
April 20: Philadelphia Folksong Society, Philadelphia PA
April 21: Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3, New York, NY
April 22: Winter Village and La Tourelle, Ithaca, NY
April 23: Nelson Odeon, Cazenovia, NY
April 25: Davidson College, Davidson, NC
April 26: ISIS Restaurant & Music Hall, Asheville, NC
April 27: City Winery Nashville Nashville, TN
April 29: MerleFest, Wilkesboro, NC
April 30: Hill Center's American Roots Music Series, Washington, DC
Singer/songwriter John Craigie grew up in Southern California, which easily explains his breezy, bright folk-rock sensibilities. After graduating with a degree in mathematics from UC Santa Cruz, Craigie took to the road and the recording studio, which readily explains his existential musical explorations. Craigie's latest release -- 'No Rain, No Rose' -- finds him folding both of those components into one wonderful set of songs which he recorded in the old Victorian house he now calls home in Portland, Oregon.
Kelly McCartney: You're a California native, and a Portland resident. And your sense of place is all over this record. As a traveling musician, how important is having a set home base? Or does the road fill that role, to a certain extent?
John Craigie: For me, the road is home. Or, more specifically, the stage. When you are touring, the show is the one moment of the day that you feel at home. You are singing your songs, telling your stories, and playing your guitar. Having a home base was something that I avoided for years. That's what makes this record so special. I think my move to Portland was significant in the sense that it brought me out of my comfort zone, in the same way that traveling does for others. This record is the sound of a traveler dealing with a home base and using his time at home wisely. Bringing together the community that he found there and having them add to the songs that he wrote in that same house.
How did you decide to write a tribute song to Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who didn't get to moon walk?
My father went to school with Buzz Aldrin and was also friends with Neil Armstrong. I met both growing up and my father used to always talk about the space program. We talked about Apollo 11 a lot and about how most people don't know about the third guy, Michael Collins. I always thought about him and how fame sometimes comes so close to you but slips past. It stuck with me for a long time, until I finally let it out in song last year.
Is the secret to a throwback sound all about the production and performance or is there something in the songwriting and arranging that helps out?
It's in all of those things, for sure. It's all about what you're listening to when you write the albums and who you pick for your engineer. Who you tell them that you want to sound similar to. Mostly, it's in how you play the songs while you record them. Lots of people these days like to play it safe and multi-track so they can get the cleanest sound. One instrument at a time. But that's not how the people who I listen to did it. They played it all together in the same room. And that's what we did.
You play in all kinds of venues and situations. How do you shift what you do in order to win over whatever audience you're in front of?
I tend to feel out the audience during the opener, or as they are walking in. See how they are responding. Sometimes, it takes me a few songs and stories before I can get a read on them. But, in general, I just do my thing. It is what it is and it seems that, if you are honest up there and genuine, people will pick up on that. People have seen so much in entertainment, at this point. They don't need anything flashy or crazy. They just want the truth, someone to be honest with them.
Since your debut in 2003, you've released a record damn near every year, save 2006 and 2014. Is that a product of being super-prolific or of needing an excuse to stay on the road?
It's hard to say where the inspiration comes from. The songs are there, and I feel like getting them out while they are relevant to me, while they make sense. There's nothing worse than writing a song and then having to wait a couple years to record it and then maybe it's not how you feel anymore. Or sometimes I think it's like a shark. People say that, if a shark stops swimming, it dies. Maybe the shark doesn't even know that. Maybe he just really likes swimming. He's in a big ass ocean. What else is he gonna do?
John Craigie's latest album, 'No Rain, No Rose' is available at iTunes and CD Baby.
Sean Rowe joins Cindy Howes for a Guest DJ set on Folk Alley to mark the release of his new EP, New Lore. His fifth album was inspired and supported by a passionate community of fans cultivated through years and years of touring and playing house concerts. House concerts especially made it possible for Rowe to build authentic connections with his fans who generously funded the new album via Kickstarter. Rowe reached his Kickstarter goal within two weeks of the campaign's launch.
In his Folk Alley set, Sean shares some of his favorite songs by artists who have clearly inspired his writing and his performance style from Leonard Cohen to Nina Simone to John Lee Hooker. Listen for his selections and commentary in his hour-long Guest DJ set.
Audio for this Guest DJ hour is no longer available.