Everybody Ought To Know Amy Allison

Amy Allison, right, with David Scott. Photo courtesy of the artists.

“My dad’s work and mine has a unique sense of humor that runs deep: kind of existential and philosophical. There’s like some sort of self-effacing quality. I feel like my family has a real bullshit detector. We’re real. We don’t want to do anything that doesn’t feel honest.”-
Amy Allison

The daughter of legendary Jazz pianist and composer Mose Allison, singer/ songwriter Amy Allison has been a fixture on the New York music scene since the 1980s.  After more than a decade’s worth of critically acclaimed albums (five solo and two with her ’90s Indie Rock band Parlor James) Amy Allison has slowly gained a reputation mirroring that of her legendary father Mose Allison: an artist’s artist. Her 1996 album The Maudlin Years was ranked by none other than Elvis Costello as among the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and she excitedly declares that her new album, Turn Like The World Does is “like nothing I have ever done before.” On a sweltering summer evening in Brooklyn, she sat down with The Los Angeles Beat to discuss her music, her father, the Allison legacy and more.

What genres/styles of music did you grow up listening to and how/when did you become attracted to Country Music?

I listened to a lot of pop radio when I was a little kid.  My parents had various records that I liked. One was an album by Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson from the 30’s, called Lady Day. I really loved that record, and I love her as well. I was a huge Billie Holiday fan. I played flute and piano, and studied classical music as well.

I loved old movies, and listened to a lot of standards from the movies. I also loved show tunes.  I remember setting my alarm clock to be able to get up to watch some of those old 30’s musicals on television, because it was hard to buy a recording of that music.  I’d take my little tape recorder, and tape what I could from the TV.

I started listening to Country music in earnest when I saw Loretta Lynn on a TV variety show- the Mike Douglas show-when I was a kid. I looked for an album of hers for what seemed like months till I finally found one.

What were the main qualities of County music that drew you to it?

It was the honesty that I liked. It’s real authentic and emotionally direct.  It’s very economical and yet very evocative. I love the stories, and the humor of the word play. I also liked the singing styles.

I was exposed to such a vast array of styles and genres, being really conscious of everything that’s come before. From all of that, you carve out your own niche. I feel that there’s a common thread, but yet it’s all me. So, when people ask me, “What kind of music do you play?” in the beginning I might have said, “Country,” and then I might have said, “Country Pop”.  Today I feel it’s too hard to define, because the farther along you get, the more your influences combine and you become your own genre. I see myself as coming from very different influences.

How has your father inspired/influenced you as an artist and as a person?

He’s a very principled, hard-working and honest person, and he’s the same in his art. His style is totally him and unique.  I think he has completely carved a niche for himself that’s not really nameable. It’s a genre that’s a cross of different things. There are some people that can’t be nailed down, and I think that my father is one of them. I don’t think there’s anybody else doing what he does. He’s got such conviction about who he is, and he’s incapable of not being honest. He’s so focused, and knows exactly who he is, and what he is comfortable with.  I always knew that was the way to be.

As the daughter of the legendary Mose Allison, what qualities of your father and yourself would you like to see represented by future generations carrying on the Allison legacy?

My dad’s work and mine too has a unique sense of humor that runs deep: kind of existential and philosophical. I think that our use of humor is something that will be passed on. I think we both have a strong sense of individuality and just being humble: never showing off just for the sake of showing off.   I don’t have any kids of my own, but I do have nieces, and maybe they’ll have kids who will carry on.

Many of your peers and fans were delighted with your recording of “Was” (from the album Everything and Nothing Too). Having heard your father’s original recording (from his 1990 album My Backyard) as a comical and sardonic piece, it was quite a revelation to hear your interpretation: delicate yet powerful. Is there any chance of you doing an entire album’s worth of your dad’s songs?

I would love to do that. I would have to get some really good musicians!

As a songwriter noted for your thematic/narrative work, are most of your songs addressing  actual people and events?

Interesting question!  Nobody’s ever asked me that. I would say they are inspired by real people and events, but there’s a lot of embellishment and license taken. Mostly they’re just about the way I feel.

 What particular songwriting techniques do you use as a kind of creative guideline?

I don’t think in terms of a technique. I can see that my writing has changed. I think I’m more economical now. Lately, I seem to like saying the most with the fewest words. I gravitated early on to the Country idiom. I liked its emotionality, humor and simplicity.

Do you compose melodies primarily in your head or on an instrument?

I have always composed in my head. I play guitar now rudimentarily, but I’m not any good. Sometimes I’ll change a melody based on a mistake I make when I’m trying to put the melody in my head to chords. Or I’ll happen on a chord that I hadn’t planned on and that could change the melody. But mostly I complete songs in my head first.

Which comes to you first: the words or the melody? And is there a particular time of the day or evening that you do most of your composing?

That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of that.  Maybe in the morning. I used to compose on my way to work in the morning, but that was probably just because I had the time then. I’ve also come up with stuff at other times. It’s actually hard to say which comes first: words or melody. It’s usually sort of together. Even if it gets changed drastically there is something melodic in the words as they come up. I have written words and then put them to music, and I’ve put words to melodies, so I guess it just depends.

How do you ignite that initial “creative spark” when you begin writing a song?

I have no idea. I wish I knew, I’d take that pill every day!

Does it begin with a hook, a title or a chord progression?

For me, it begins with a word phrase that lends itself to a melodic phrase. I usually know right away if it’s going to become a song.

Over the years, you’ve made a remarkable progression from a singer to a song stylist.

That’s so nice! It’s nice to be called a stylist.

How did this come about, and was anything or anyone responsible for your transformation?

I think you just sing, and particularly when you write and interpret your own songs, you come up with a style quite naturally.

As an artist who has recorded for both major and Independent labels, what is your opinion on the death of so many major music labels and the subsequent emergence of “Indie” labels in their place?

I think the state of things is depressing, but that’s just the way it’s gone. The major labels were really pretty awful, but the fact that the industry is monopolized by a few big corporations is just how it is. I’m glad artists have more control now to put things out on their own. I think you need to be very DYI, not just musically but with marketing, and some people really have fun with it.

Do you think this has been a good thing or a bad thing for the current state of music?

I think it’s good, but it’s so hard to keep up with new stuff. Or we’re so overwhelmed that it’s hard to really connect with music in the same way we used to when we spent months listening to one record!

In recent years, many folks, including a number of notable recording artists, have expressed the opinion that the music business hasn’t evolved in so much as it’s devolved. What is your opinion on this observation?

I don’t really know. I do think it’s been dismantled. I don’t know what the new paradigm will be.

On your previous album Sheffield Streets, I’ve heard the title track has a fascinating true story connected to it. Can you elaborate on that? Would you tell readers more about that album; it’s a gem.

Thank you, I’m so glad you like it. I was married to a guy from Sheffield when I was young, and I lived there for 2 years in the early ‘80’s. It was culture shock for me, and I was depressed. The city was going through a rough time too, but I have to say I really miss that time and place. I feel like I’m always going back there in my mind. It was the end of an era. I did the album in LA with Don Heffington, who is a great and well-known drummer and producer. We did it really simple at his house. It’s funny that the Sheffield song was recorded in LA, huh?

For some years now you have enjoyed quite a devoted following in the UK. The British seem to connect with your music on an overall deeper level than do the American audiences. Do you have any idea why that is so?

I don’t know. Americans don’t appreciate their art like the rest of the world does. I like the UK a lot and feel very connected to it.

You have a reputation for intimacy with your audiences: actively engaging them in conversation throughout the entire performance and making yourself quite accessible to them even afterward.

Well, I’m always shocked and pleased that people come and stay and seem to enjoy it. So I’m very thankful. As for the intimacy, I’m kind of disorganized, so either the audience is with me or it’s a mess. Luckily, they are amused by it, lol.

Does this sometimes prove to be daunting, especially during those moments when you are on the run?

No.  People are nice and you thank them, but if you have to be going you just have to go.

I’m aware of the touring you’ve done in Europe to promote your albums. Are there any plans to return there again on tour in the near future?

Not at this time, but I would love to later. I have a new record out, one with David Scott from the Pearl Fishers. The title is Turn Like The World Does. He and I co-wrote and sang together on all the songs. I think the songwriting is very different on this last album than the previous ones. I’m hoping we can get something started with it. I would love to tour it. Davie is wonderful. It was real easy for us to work together. It wasn’t something that either one could have produced without the other. It was a true combining of our artistic strengths; a real collaboration.

We have so much respect for each other, and that makes us able to hear what the other one’s saying, and sort of add to it. It was very easy, and the sound of the record is very simple. David had produced a couple of my previous albums (Everything and Nothing, Too; No Frills Friend). Those were more Pop, but this one is more pared down. It’s definitely a more stark album. It sounds a little more folksy in some ways, but ethereal. There are also a couple of upbeat tunes on it.

Lastly, I’ve got to ask you about your voice. Your fans and the press continue to be intrigued with your unique voice. Why do you think that’s so, and has it helped or hindered your career?

I have no idea what the deal is with that. I guess my voice is just so very different sounding from most. I can’t even say what it is. People seem to love it or hate it. It’s one of those voices. Maybe it has hindered my career, lol!

“Introducing Amy”

“Was”

“Sheffield Streets”

“If You Go I’ll Melt”

“Why Must It Be?” 

Shirley Pena

About Shirley Pena

A native of Southern California, Shirley Pena began her career as a music journalist over a decade ago, writing for her websites "Stars In My Eyes:the Girlhowdy Website" and "La Raza Rock!" and progressed to creating various fan sites on Yahoo, including the first for New Zealand singer/songwriter Tim Finn. From there, she became a free agent, arranging online interviews for Yahoo fan clubs with various music artists (Andy White, John Crawford, Debora Iyall, John Easdale, etc.). She also lent her support in creating and moderating a number of Yahoo fan clubs for various music artists from the 1990s-today. As a music journalist, Shirley Pena has contributed to a number of magazines (both hard copy and online), among them:Goldmine, American Songwriter, the Fresno Examiner, The Blacklisted Journalist and UK-based Keyboard Player (where she was a principal journalist). A self-confessed "fanatic" of 1960s "British Invasion" bands, Classic Rock and nostalgic "Old Hollywood ", she also keeps her finger on the pulse of current trends in music, with a keen eye for up and coming artists of special merit. Shirley Pena loves Los Angeles, and is thrilled to join the writing staff of The Los Angeles Beat!
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