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12 Alela Dianeby Anna Caitlin9
Nine Songs
Alela Diane

Alela Diane returns in October with her just-announced sixth album, Looking Glass. She talks Alan Pedder through the nostalgia that surrounds the songs that have shaped her.

07 September 2022, 12:00 | Words by Alan Pedder

Rooted in the past from the start, the music of Alela Diane has always had a touch of age-old mettle and awe.

In the years since The Pirate’s Gospel, her candidly simplistic, hearty debut, Diane's poetic, time-worn songs have become increasingly fine-spun and nuanced. Picking up where 2018’s elegant Cusp left off, her sixth album Looking Glass – out next month – is another quietly transcendent collection. Produced by Tucker Martine and with sublime arrangements by Heather Woods Broderick, it’s slow to burn but all the more captivating for it.

Diane may be a traditionalist in many ways, but her magnetic, dusk-cloaked voice and the piercing intimacy of her songs keep any threat of stagnancy at bay. What I love about her writing is its flashes of wrought-iron will, a toughness and refusal to be cornered by sometimes inconvenient truths, both home and universal. Yes, she can be misty-eyed and sentimental, but there’s a strength in that side too.

Looking Glass is, in a way, her third album in a row about thresholds and what they can teach us. 2013’s About Farewell was a glossary of goodbyes – of leaving and being left – while Cusp was more existentially-minded, in part inspired by a near-death experience in childbirth. Looking Glass draws even closer to home. As she describes in today’s album announcement, Diane views it as “a portal to past and future, and a reflection on all that lies between.”

Chatting over Zoom from her Victorian fixer-upper in southeast Portland, Diane is feeling good about the new record. “I’m excited to put it out, I’m proud of it,” she says. “If it goes well, I could paint the exterior of my house. Like, that’s my mark for success. Then I really will have arrived. Big dreams, you know!”

We’re here, of course, to talk about the songs that have soundtracked her life, but end up spending almost as much time talking about the songs and artists that she left off. There was no room for Judee Sill or Joni Mitchell. No room for Neil Young either, though his Harvest Moon is “the only CD I have had in my car for probably five years now.” She describes a recent roadtrip where she, her husband and two daughters went mostly off-grid and Harvest Moon was all they had to hand. “Nobody gets sick of that album,” she affirms. “It’s just so good.”

She tells a funny story about performing a Neil Young cover on French TV with the band Moriarty and being joined backstage for a dressing room rehearsal by the iconic Annie Lennox. “It was one of those times where I was like, 'That was a real thing that happened?'” she says, grinning. “Lenny Kravitz was in the studio that day too. It was a very weird, very cool moment in my life.”

Another name conspicuous in its absence is Hanson, the Oklahoma long blondes behind the evergreen “MMMBop”. “I was a huge fan,” admits Diane. “I still know all the words to that song and most of the other songs on their first album. My bedroom walls were plastered in Hanson posters when I was in junior high, maybe verging into high school a little bit. I only had Hanson posters, and maybe one of Leonardo DiCaprio.”

We talk a lot about her school years and growing up in the Northern California “creative little utopia” of Nevada City, the same small town that her friends Joanna Newsom and Mariee Siou were raised in. “There were emerald waters to swim in, everyone’s parents played music, and we thought the world was harmless and beautiful,” she says, smiling at her own naïveté.

Diane says her Nine Songs selections were written off the top of her head but there’s certainly a thread of nostalgia here. Several of the tracks are by artists she has covered other songs by, like Northern California folk hero Kate Wolf, the much-revered Townes van Zandt and Ola Belle Reed. The songs by Fairport Convention and Jackson C. Frank are ones that she has recorded her own versions of, one as a duet with Alina Hardin and the other on the sole Headless Heroes album, The Silence Of Love.

Much of the nostalgia she speaks of comes from music she associates with her parents, who were part of the folk and bluegrass scene in and around Nevada City, and who would sing and play together in the family kitchen. “Those songs are so deeply rooted in who I am,” says Diane. “They’re a part of me, a part of why I became a folk singer, and why I started writing songs that are sort of old sounding.”

“I'll Be Here in the Morning” by Townes Van Zandt

Townes’ music wasn’t something that I knew when I was growing up. I think I discovered it when I was in my early 20s, around the same time that I started my music career, so he’s kind of just been there alongside me since then.

His music has really been a staple in our house, and I think that’s been consistent for, gosh, 15 years maybe. I keep returning to him, and specifically the self-titled album that this song comes from. It’s one of those albums that never gets old, and this song in particular is one of my favourites. I even had it as my cellphone ringtone, back in the day, or maybe it was on my answering machine at one point.

For me, this song feels like home. I love the fingerpicking. I love the imagery. I think the song has that vibe of there being a constant energy that you return to even in the chaos of life, even though there’s this wind that blows you and you can’t really control what’s going to happen. I love the idea of this person continuing to show up, even when everything else is a mess.

It’s one of those songs that has always resonated with me as a musician. Touring is this really wonderful thing I can do but it's also fairly dysregulating. The ability to come home and show up for the people you love, and to keep a constant awareness of what home is, is very important to me.

“High On a Mountain” by Ola Belle Reed

My parents were in bluegrass bands so I grew up listening to them playing music in our kitchen. A lot of folky songs too. This song, “High On a Mountain”, is one they used to sing together. I heard their version of it long before I ever heard Ola Belle Reed sing it.

The story goes that one day my mom was standing up on the kitchen counter putting cans away or something and she heard this song playing on our community radio station in Nevada City. She jumped off the counter and rushed to the tape player so that she could record it, and then she learned how to sing it from that recording. She wrote down all the lyrics and my parents would perform the song. It’s funny, because it’s not an album that we ever had. My mom just heard that song and knew she needed to listen to it again.

I came to the Ola Belle Reed version in my 20s, I think. By then the internet had become a place where you could properly research things and discover original versions of songs, and that’s how I found it. When Ola Belle sings it, it sounds like she’s bringing so much wisdom to the table, reflecting on the past and the loves that were lost. My parents got divorced when I was 20 so, for me, it has this bittersweetness to it. It’s a deeply nostalgic song for me. It reminds me so strongly of my childhood.

“Across the Great Divide” by Kate Wolf

I remember when I first moved to Portland in 2005, when I was 22, I got a Kate Wolf CD one day and when I put it on the player I realised that I somehow knew all the words to it. It was really spooky, because it wasn’t an album I had any conscious memory of listening to. I called my mom and asked her, ‘Why do I know this music?’ and she told me that she used to listen to that record when she was pregnant with me, and when I was very young. It’s like it was some kind of pre-memory; I just knew the songs.

I think Kate Wolf’s music has always been a part of me. Then when I started consciously listening to it in my early 20s, I really resonated with it and she became an important influence and inspiration. I’ve chosen “Across The Great Divide” just for the nostalgia of it. I haven’t broken it down in a sort of scientific way, or come to deeply understand what it is about the song that I love. There’s several of Kate Wolf’s songs that I love deeply; the melodies, the guitar playing. Maybe it’s just that this one pulls at my heartstrings the most.

I think my parents met Kate Wolf but I don’t think they knew her well, since they were only in their early 20s when she died, when she was slightly older than I am now. I think they probably crossed paths. She was like an idol to them in the California folk community.

My dad loosely knew Nina Gerber, who was Kate Wolf’s guitarist. He reached out to her and told her I was a big fan, and she ended up working with us on To Be Still. She even played Kate Wolf’s guitar on the record, which was really special. Did I get to hold it? I think I did!

“Metal Heart” by Cat Power

I discovered Moon Pix when I was about 18, so a few years after it was released. This was when I was in high school, before I started playing music. My friend Mariee Siou and I would drive around Nevada City in her old, beaten-up Volvo and we’d listen to Moon Pix over and over. Nevada City is a small town and there wasn’t really anything to do at that age, so we’d sit in a parking lot and listen to songs with friends. I vividly remember doing that with Mariee; we’d chat and cry and listen to “Metal Heart” and be like, “This song is so good! This song is amazing!"

Fast forward about a year and a half, and Mariee and I had both started to learn how to play guitar and write our own songs. This was right out of high school, when I was 19, and I remember how important Cat Power was to me at that time. She demonstrated that you didn’t have to be a very accomplished guitar player or instrumentalist to make really beautiful, emotive music, and that gave me permission to be a shitty guitar player and still write, and to not be shy about that. With Cat Power at that time, playing guitar is not necessarily what her skill was. On Moon Pix, her parts are very simple and yet the music is so powerful and effective, so listening to that record was really formative for me.

Before Cat Power, I was listening to a lot of other ‘90s singer-songwriters, like Alanis Morissette. I think I got the Jagged Little Pill CD when I was in eighth grade. Then, in early high school, I was listening to people like Jewel and Sarah McLachlan. When I started listening to Cat Power, it was around the same time that Mariee and I were also discovering Elliott Smith and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. The cooler, more underground indie stuff, or so we thought.

Mariee actually ended up making an EP with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, about 10 years ago. If she had told her high school self that she was going to do that, she would have exploded.

“Friendboats” by Mariee Siou

Mariee and I have been friends since we were toddlers. We became friends because our moms were very close, and they are best friends still.

She’s about two years younger than me so we didn’t go to the same grade schools, but we would see each other all the time at get togethers and potluck dinners. My parents and Mariee’s dad were in a bluegrass band together for a while. And later, we ended up at the same high school. So she’s one of my oldest, dearest friends. She was also a huge Hanson fan, by the way. I'm just gonna throw her under the bus too.

I chose “Friendboats” because it’s one of the first songs I remember her sharing with me. When we started writing, she and I would share songs with each other, and I think we were both really surprised at each other’s newfound talent. All through high school we were more into visual art so it’s kind of surprising that this is the path we both took. So, yes, this song is really special to me. It’s a reminder of where we both started.

“Friend of the Devil” by Grateful Dead

My dad is in a Grateful Dead covers band called The Deadbeats. I think he joined that band when I was 11 or 12, and they still do a Jerry Bash every August to celebrate Jerry Garcia’s birthday. It was just a couple of weeks ago.

They would rehearse at my family’s house one evening a week. On those nights, this Grateful Dead music would be echoing through the night sky and come in through my bedroom window and I would sit and listen to it.

“Friend Of The Devil” is a really obvious Grateful Dead choice but it’s one of the best and one that I have always loved. Any time I see my dad’s band play, this song in particular feels so nostalgic to me. I just feel a deep knowing of this song and that’s why I chose it.

“Matty Groves” by Fairport Convention

I always wished I could rock out as hard as Fairport Convention, but that’s never really been in my wheelhouse. I don’t really remember how I discovered their music, but again they were a band that I came to in my early 20s. Maybe I found one of their albums at a thrift store. Though I think my dad had mentioned them to me, because he always knew the cool, old music.

I love the whole of Liege & Lief, the album that "Matty Groves" is on. That was my introduction to Sandy Denny, who has been a major inspiration to me. She’s another one of those talented people, like Townes van Zandt and Kate Wolf, who died way too soon. I’m a little ashamed to say this, but I don’t always do the deepest dive on every artist that I love. Like, I loved Sandy Denny’s solo albums but I don’t feel like I’ve heard everything she’s done. And maybe that’s good, because then there’s always more to discover later.

I have this fascination with these ‘70s artists that rediscovered and brought really old songs to light. I’ve always enjoyed that tradition. Lately, another band that did that was Bonny Light Horseman. I absolutely loved their first record. I thought they really made those old songs their own and I’m excited to open for them for a couple of shows in October.

I chose “Matty Groves” because, to me, it’s one of those classic, very old folk songs that’s been passed down so many times and gone in all kinds of directions. Of course there are way older versions of the song than the Fairport Convention one, but theirs is the version that I loved so much I wanted to make my own version.

“Blues Run the Game” by Jackson C. Frank

This is another song that I’ve covered, with Headless Heroes. This song has that classic fingerpicking style that I love and always return to.

I think I discovered this song around the time that I started to tour a lot. It has this lyric “Catch a boat to England, baby / maybe to Spain” and I kind of associate that with my never ending travels at the time, and because of that I fell in love with the song.

Jackson C. Frank is another artist who had a tragic life and left us with a handful of really good songs. I think his life fell into disrepair after that first album, which is super sad. I had a compilation CD of his repertoire and “Blues Run The Game” is really the standout.

“Fruits of My Labor” by Lucinda Williams

I need to do a Lucinda Williams deep dive, on account of this song in particular. I only came across it about two years ago and when I heard it I was like, ‘How did I not know about this before?’. It’s kind of a perfect song, in my opinion, in that gritty Americana way that really gets to you. The way her voice gets so gravelly. The vibe of it is everything that I would hope for in this kind of song. So, yeah, I need to do the deep dive. I’ve started getting into Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.

I am fascinated by these established women artists who maybe broke through at a slightly older age than others and continued making music. That story of longevity is always fascinating to me, especially now I have about six months left before 40. As I’m getting older, there have definitely been moments where I’ve been thinking, 'Okay, do you just keep doing this? How does the music industry continue to sustain a woman as she ages, and what does that look like?' I don’t know the answer yet, but it’s definitely something I think about.

I’ve been doing music for 20 years now. I have a lot of records out, I’m not the new girl on the block anymore. There are so many talented young artists coming up who are making folky music, and trying to find my place as time moves on is something that I ponder.

Music shouldn’t be a disposable industry. Of course, there’s always something inherently fascinating and incredible about artists coming out with their first record in all their naïveté. That youthful perspective is beautiful and for some people my first record is still their favourite thing that I’ve done, which is fine. But I think there’s also a really important place for people who have been around for a while and the wisdom they can offer. What do they have to say?

Looking Glass is released 14 October via Naïve Records

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