Nevada City native Alela Diane has already made quite a splash with her just-released album, To Be Still. The record was released on her new label, Rough Trade Records and she was written up in the illustrious Mojo as one to watch in 2009. Alela's music sounds fresh and true and it rings with evocative references to nature, life and love. Her voice commands attention with its bold and warbling tones and her songs intertwine tales of days new and old. To read my review of Alela's album, click here, and for images from her Amoeba instore back in 2007, click here. For our recent chat, read on.
Miss Ess: Was there a lightning bolt moment when you were young and you realized how important music was for you? What albums/artists were important to you during that time?
Alela Diane: I think I always knew I loved song and melody. I remember being small and hearing my dad’s guitar through the wall as I fell asleep. I’d crash out on random couches as my folks finished up band practice. I remember listening to Patsy Cline with my mom, singing along… always singing along. As I got older I branched out into more ‘popular’ music of the time and went through my preteen obsession with Hanson: I was not completely sheltered from pop culture, as it turns out. I began to write songs & play the guitar at 19. And shortly thereafter, when I was working at a breakfast café in Nevada City, I realized I was a lot better at singing than I was at filling water and coffee-- so I stuck to it.
ME: Your parents' musical abilities clearly had a huge effect on you growing up. What artists that they loved have impacted your own musical consciousness?
Alela: More than listen to records at our house, my parents were the ones actually playing the music. They’d sing old traditionals – song like ‘High On a Mountain” and “Bowling Green” … That and my dad has been in a Grateful Dead cover band for the past 15 years. They rehearsed at our house every week, so I am pretty up on my “Fire on the Mountain” & “Truckin”… But there were some records too: Kate Wolf and Paul Simon and mostly the local hippy station KVMR fm-- with some pledge campaign to fund local radio & save the Yuba River.
ME: When did you discover that you could sing with such range and expressiveness and write so gorgeously?
Alela: I’ve been singing forever-- but it wasn’t until I moved away from home at 19 that I actually started playing the guitar & writing songs. It was a short time after that when I knew I had begun doing what I should be doing.
I feel like Nevada City has had such a profound influence on both your music and, really, all the musicians' work that come from there. I can speak for myself and say I find it to be a fantastical place. Can you talk a bit about Nevada City, what it means to you and what about it you carry with you, though you don't live there currently?
Nevada City is the kind of place that stays in your bones. It’s beautiful and magical, and will always be my home. It’s all wooded in pine trees and community. It seems that the music I make very much comes from there; it’s the reason I sing about trees & water all the time. I recently moved back North to Portland knowing that I can always return to the California hills.
What was the process of being signed to Rough Trade like for you?
They must have stumbled upon me somehow, and so we sorted some things out. I am really happy to be working with the strong group of folks at Rough Trade. I am in good hands, thank god!
Where do your songs come from? What is your writing process like, especially since you wrote much of this album on the road?
I actually wrote most of To Be Still before I was a wanderer. I gathered the songs from my day to day life in Nevada City & up in Portland while I was living a calm life with my man and man cat. I also tend to write about stories passed on by my mom and grandma. Songs usually arrive in fleeting moments-- they can never be planned for. It is something that happens randomly-- all of a sudden I’ll be playing guitar and then the melody arrives and the words do too. On the road there is not much time to be alone, and so it is rare that I stumble around with the writing of a song. I write words when I am out in the world, but my melodies mostly wait on the outskirts, until I can come gather them… In that stillness I’ve been known to speak of.
Since you wrote this album a while back, do you already have a backlog of songs for a new album?
I have been writing here and there-- putting the collection in my pocket until it is time to record again….
How did recording some tracks at your dad's studio affect the way the album turned out? Did it bring your more comfort and openness to be there? Or was it a bit intimidating? What sort of particular challenges did it bring?
Recording with my dad is really wonderful. We have a very natural and comfortable process in the recording studio. Working with him allows me to have a lot of control. We bounce ideas off of each other and experiment until things just sit in the right place. I can work at my own pace there, which is calming and allows me to be creative when it feels right, rather than when we have studio time booked.
You are taking on quite a long tour in support of your new record! How is touring for you?
Touring is always an adventure-- every day on the road is its own realm. So many moments and memories strung together -- completely connected and disconnected at the same time. I love seeing new land and getting little glimpses of how folks live in different places. I am happy to be singing the songs again and again, which is what I love doing, but it is crazy realizing that most of what we do on the road is very far away from the making of music. So much of it is trying to feel at home in strange surroundings, and doing my best to remain grounded while eating bummer food and having all the normal rhythms of life turned upside down.
Are you touring with a band now? Who is it comprised of?
I am on the road with a band of family and friends at the moment. I’ve brought along my dad, Tom Menig, who seriously jams the geeetar and the mandolin. On bass is my darlin’, Tom Bevitori. Benjamin Oak Goodman plays the drums and Alina Hardin contributes beautiful backing vocals.
Having those wonderful people with you probably makes it all feel a lot more like home. Tell me about making your new video for "White As Diamonds!" How does it feel to be on camera? And where are you in it?
We made that video up outside of Portland, Oregon deep in some woods. I worked with a very creative guy named Ryan Jefferey, who came up with a concept that I really liked. It is a bit strange accepting the camera – I think my approach is just to do my best to ignore the thing and hope for the best!
What was it like touring through France with Mariee Sioux? Are you so happy to be together on the road? I love how you guys are so adored there! What places are your favorite to play when you are over there?
Touring with Mariee is so much fun! We never run out of things to talk about, and it is a constant crack up. Mariee and I are pretty much sisters, since we’ve been friends for as long as we can remember. It’s lovely to be on the same route as her-- otherwise, it feels like whenever I am in California she is in France and vise versa. I’m pretty into the south of France myself: it is warmer down there.
Will you and Mariee ever write together?
Mariee and I wrote a few songs together back in the day, and I’d say it could definitely happen at some point down the road… but we are really on our own paths right now, and have no such plans in the moment. There are so many projects left to be done, and I love singing with Miss Mariee.
When you sing together the interlocking of your voices sounds so effortless and natural. I love hearing you two sing. You bounce between locations -- how does this inspire your work? Will you be staying in Portland indefinitely now?
Nothing is really permanent these days-- it is a big jumble of here and there-- and all of it affects what I sing of. I tend to move away from Nevada City knowing very well that it will always be my home and I can move back… I love it there. I love it up North, and there are so many places left to discover.
I can tell by your songs' subject matter that you enjoy silences as much as music. What sounds in nature do you love the most?
I’m partial to the bird song and the rush of the river, that and the wind.
What have you been listening to lately?
The tour van as of late has been mostly full of the sound of the open window and Ben talking… A cd got stuck in the player, and some a-hole stole my Ipod in Canada. I need to come upon some new jams...and perhaps invest in a new personal listening device, for the road at least.
What's your favorite Michael Hurley song?
Probably “Light Green Fellow” or “Fat Mama” or “The Werewolf.” He has written some songs, that guy. Come to think of it, we were listening to him in the van from somebody else’s Ipod.
I love the song on your album, "Age Old Blue," where the two of you sing together. He really adds his own idiosyncratic touch to it. Ok, so what is your favorite Neutral Milk Hotel track?
I am terrible with song titles-- but I will say that senior year in high school Mariee and I would repeatedly cruise in her Volvo to the In the Aeroplane Over the Sea record, again and again. Windows down down down to the river.
Name an album that means a great deal to you that you think more people should listen to.
Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention or Songs for Beginners by Graham Nash…and Mariee’s record [Faces in the Rocks].
What has been your best find at Amoeba?
Hmm…. It has been too long since I’ve had a hunt and gather at Amoeba!! I recall picking up a really solid Kate Wolf collection…that was a good find for sure.
Thank you for your time! All the best to you.