Amazingly talented and hauntingly beautiful singer-songwriter Alela Diane did me the pleasure of answering some questions about her music, her family, and…the disappearance of our dearly departed planet Pluto.
Naturalismo: So you’re going to be playing with Michael Hurley at this Sunday’s Arthur event in Santa Monica. How does it feel to be playing with such a legendary performer? Was your song “Clickity-Clack” at all inspired by Hurley’s seminal “You Get Down By the Pool Hall Clickety-Clack (Sister Song)” from his First Songs?
Alela: Michael Hurley is a good friend of mine. I am very honored to know this man! We love eating late night grilled cheese sandwiches together & I hope to have this opprotunity after our LA show on Sunday. I had never heard his ‘pool hall’ song when I wrote Clickity Clack- must have been a strange coincidence. We met no more than 2 years back- I gave him a cd at a show he did in Portland. Since then we’ve done a number of shows together and crossed paths in all different cities. He sings on my new record too- he is my favorite folk legend & I am so lucky to know him & sing with him too…
N: How has the recording process been for your new album? Does the recording process feel different from The Pirate’s Gospel?
A: The recording process has been a lot more involved. It is like the songs are my children- and have had to be sure I bring them up right. It has been a delicate and careful project, where as the Pirate’s Gospel was just thrown together. I recorded really quikly and that record is what came about. This time I am taking my time and being very detail oriented. I am very happy with how the new album is coming about. I think I raised these children well & can’t wait for them to go out there on their own.
N: Speaking of The Pirate’s Gospel, that album was sparse for the most part, with a few exceptions: banjo on the titular track, slide guitar on “Sister Self”, etc. Are you going to continue expanding the sonic palette of your next record with additional instruments and guests?
A: There is definately more going on with the new record. More instruments and more friends are involved. It is very exciting to bring the songs to life in this new way.
N: For you, is songwriting a personal process – rife with introspection and solitude – or does the presence of collaborators inspire you more?
A: I’ve mostly worked on songs with only the company of myself. I love playing the songs with other folks & seeing what they bring to the table, but the writing generally comes from solitude. Perhaps in the future this may change?
N: Where is the new album being recorded? Do you feel the location of recording or songwriting can affect the mood of an album or songs, respectively?
A: The new record started off in Portland, and then I brought the tracks down to Nevada City and have continued work on it at my fathers studio. I have realized that I need time to get things just so, and because of this, I’ve chosen to work in the comfort of my dads studio. The setting in which I record definately affects how the project sounds for me. While working on this project, I always had my dad uncover the windows in the studio- so that I could watch the wind in the branches and feel like I was still a part of what was going on outside. I am very sensitive to my surroundings-
N: In the digital age, it is becoming harder and harder to define what “folk music” is. Historically, a culture’s distinct folk styles were borne out of their isolation from outside influences – typically anonymous music that was an expression of the life of the people in a community. Today, it is impossible not be exposed to other styles. Pete Seeger once said that he “Wanted to turn back the clock to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.” Can “folk music” survive technology, or does technology perpetuate it?
A: I think that it probably goes both ways- For me, I definately have heard plenty of outside music.. but generally- I am not much of a music listener. When I am at home I usually prefer the quiet. I can’t do much while music is on, because it demands my attention. So I do other things- and listen to my cat purr and to the sound of the outdoors. Perhaps I am sheltered in this way- but I think it does help me to write songs that are the sound track to the life I lead in the place I am.
N: Many songs on The Pirate’s Gospel refer to family members: “The Rifle,” “Sister Self,” and “Oh! My Mama” just to name a few. How has your family influenced your work thus far?
A: Family has played a large role in my being a musician. My parents were always singing songs around our house. Rather than having a record on, my dad would have the guitar in his lap. I remember muting the strings while he was playing- I’d say “Dad! You aren’t listening to me! How can you play the guitar and talk to me too?!” He’d keep noodling- even with my little hand covering the strings- preventing sound from echoing past the sound hole. It was very natural for me to play music to- I fell into place that way. My songs tell stories, and as it turns out- I have a lot to say about my family.
N: Listening to “Oh! My Mama,” it seems that your Mother played a key role in encouraging your musical development. Based on your experience, do you feel that music is instrumental (pun intended) to nurturing self-expression and creativity in children? What would the world’s societies be like today if every child learned an instrument?
It seems that every child wants to sing- but that most of them get scared out of it much too early. Kids need to be encouraged to use music for expression. My mom and my dad both encouraged me to play music. It was a part of everyday life in our household- and so I was not afraid of it. I wish that more children were as surrounded by music as I was growing up. It is good for the soul and of course very nurturing for kids and all people for that matter!
N: What artists have you been listening to recently? Any suggestions for us?
A: I absolutely love the music of Kate Wolf. She speaks for California- and more folks should know her songs.
N: Do you think Pluto should be made a planet again?
A: Did they take him away from us? It is going to be hard to erase Pluto from all those science books. I think Pluto can be the planet of our hearts. He’s pretty small right? I’ll just put him in a locket around my neck.
[download] “The Rifle” – from The Pirate’s Gospel (Holocene)