Call it psych folk, freak folk, new weird Americana, or what have you, Alela Diane has made one of the prettiest albums of 2009, To Be Still [review]. It’s both soaring and tender, music clearly written from the heart. Now Diane speaks to Webcuts about her musical roots, her home and some of her many influences.
You grew up in a musical household, what did that entail? Was it the quintessential church choirs and family music recitals or something a little more subtle?
My parents always played songs around the house. My dad would have the guitar in hand: strumming something, picking a tune, jamming a jam. My mom was the voice, she was always singing! She’d go for walks out on a wooded trail and sing for the trees and sing into mine shafts. I joined the choir from a very young age, and so began singing that way, hearing all the different parts together. The music my parents played was not formal at all — no sheet music, no rules — just making sound for the joy of it.
Along with your upbringing, what artists or composers have influenced you the most in both your playing and songwriting?
Lately it’s been going back to discover songs and artists that most folks have always known. It’s hard to say exactly who I draw from creatively as I am self taught and tend to just stumble upon things randomly. But, that said, there are many artists who I look up to: Neil Young, Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Fleetwood Mac, Kate Wolf. So many true hearts to hear in song.
Joanna Newsom was instrumental (pun intended) in your first solo performances. Where had you met each other?
We grew up in the same small town in Northern California. We went to the same schools and swam in the same river. In a place like Nevada City, I think it would be impossible to not know each other.
Along with Ms. Newsom, there is a burgeoning American folk scene within the indie music community, and it’s really difficult sometimes to categorise it. What would you name your sound, exactly? It’s got a very classical flavor and yet it’s still undoubtedly contemporary.
I suppose it is some sort of modern folk. There are so many different directions song has taken these days and categorising music has become quite a muddy pool to navigate. My songs — they just are what they are and I do what I do — whatever you want to call it, the song remains the same.
You recently moved from your native California to Portland, and considering the spectacular music scene there, can we assume this was a musically-motivated move, or were there other intentions? The mild summers, perhaps?
Summers in Portland are amazing! There’s a lot of sunshine, it’s hot, and there is even a river you can drive out to. People think it’s rainier than it actually is. But anyhow, I moved North for love, and for my love for the North, and because Nevada City was feeling small.
All joking aside, the entire American West Coast, including California and Oregon has some incredible nature walks and hikes, and I’m sure you’ve been exposed to this. Your music has an unmistakably earthy feel to it, and I wonder if the scenery ever affects this? For example, do you let the natural beauty assist your composing, ala Beethoven?
I am from a beautiful place full of pine trees, water and natural things. This is what I sing of, because it’s where I have come from. For me to sing about growing up in the ghetto would be a complete fraud. It’s my belief that the best music comes from true hearts and true places. It should be authentic.
What were some of the big differences going from your early, self-released material to having a studio and slicker production? Because, essentially, the music seems to be largely unchanged, so does it help having the advanced production or does it just complicate things?
Advanced production? Not quite. Both records were made with my Dad, at his home studio and although there are more sounds and instruments on To Be Still, it was still just me and Pa pretending we knew what we were doing and recording some songs.
So, hypothetically, you’ve been asked to play Saturday Night Live. What are the two songs you’d play and why?
I’d probably play “White as Diamonds”, because it is fun to perform live and “The Rifle”, because it is close to my heart.