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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

Week 28 — September 3, 2018

In Conversation

Alela Diane Singer-Songwriter11 minute read

Alela Diane is an American singer-songwriter. Her gorgeous melodies and intricate, often deeply personal lyrics have found her many fans. From her debut The Pirate’s Gospel to her fifth album Cusp, released this year, Diane’s output has been consistently powerful. Here she discusses motherhood, physical limitations, privacy, and looking back over the span of her career.

Rosalind Jana

Interview Rosalind Jana

RCould you start by telling me where you are at the moment? 

AI’m at home in Portland, Oregon. It’s pretty hot here – miserably hot – but it’s early, so it’s not too bad yet. 

It’s really hot here too. I’m currently at my desk with the window open, looking out over my neighbour’s garden. Anyway, to start talking about your music, I was actually introduced to your work by my wonderful housemate a few years ago. We’ve listened to it together in a caravan in the woods, we’ve listened to it on a houseboat, we’ve listened to it a lot whilst cooking in the kitchen. How does it feel for you looking back over the span of the albums you’ve made so far? 

Well each one marks such a different and particular time in my life. They’re like little time capsules. My music is always personal, for the most part… I’m working really hard on re-releasing The Pirate’s Gospel on vinyl right now. I kind of kept some distance from that album for years because it was like, “ah, this was the first album I made, and all these people like it” – but I didn’t feel like it was a reflection of who I am now. It’s crazy that that’s what people know of me. But it’s been fun to listen to it from a different place in my life and really appreciate it for what it is, like this young person who’d never made music before… I never knew anyone would hear that record. So to hear it and be amused by it and appreciate it for the raw, innocent thing that it is – it’s been good. And it’s been healing for me to be like, “you know what? This record is cool.” 

Also, I’ve been looking though a bunch of extra songs that were never released, that I recorded around that time. We’re doing a two-vinyl record – and the second LP will be songs that have never been heard. And they’re not great, but they’re interesting, and cool to hear the process… Some of them I don’t even remember singing. 

It is extraordinary – because you’re always looking back with the vantage point of having made more, and created more, and having finessed what you want to be doing. I feel like I’ve had that too, where I haven’t necessarily wanted to take ownership of various bits of writing I did quite a long time ago, but I think it’s so good to be kind to your past self too, to go, “she was doing the best that she could do at that point – and if she hadn’t done that then, I wouldn't be sitting here looking back on that now...”

Yeah. It’s all part of the process of bringing you to where you are now. I think for me, the biggest challenge has been that my first record did gain the most success that I’ve ever had, so it’s strange to be compared to your former self that you actually feel you’ve grown beyond. There are some great songs on my first record, and it’s a great record, but I know I’ve written better songs since then. It’s interesting to be compared to this thing I’m not that proud of. It's weird. 

That sounds quite discombobulating. Let’s talk about the new record, Cusp, which is so beautiful. You recorded it while you were pregnant, and I know you’ve talked about this elsewhere, but do you think that motherhood has changed your approach to creating music? 

It definitely has, just because my life has changed so much since becoming a mother. The way that time works has to be different, because I can’t just create on a whim any more. It has to be very intentional and deliberate. In order to write Cusp I had to go away for three weeks. I wrote the record at this artist’s residency where I was tucked away in this little cabin in the woods, and it was really wonderful to be away from my home life and then reflect on those very deep changes that had happened… You hear that on the record. It’s definitely written through the lens of motherhood. That’s in most of the songs. 

It’s felt as a very strong thread, and presence. With that mention of the cabin, do you think there is a particular relationship between creativity and solitude? Is that something you’ve sought out before, or is it just that it’s practically more necessary now? 

Well, for me I always create in scenarios of solitude – even if I’m sitting by myself in a coffee shop surrounded by people… It’s this inner solitude that has to happen when I’m writing lyrics. I’ve written a lot of songs while in transit: on trains and on airplanes or sitting in the back of a van on tour. And it’s more of a tapping into that inner world, even if outwardly I’m not completely isolated like I was at Caldera, the artist’s residency…

Pretty much no other people can be in the house when I’m writing the music part. There’s a lot of noise that happens, and squawking, and trying to find the melody – and that’s something I don’t enjoy when other people can hear me. So I definitely need solitude for that part. And that’s been really hard, lately. I feel a bunch of songs brewing inside of me, yet I keep on trying to escape upstairs to write, and then I can hear my kids screaming, and everyone can hear me… We’re turning our shed into a music studio for me in the coming months [laughs] as an attempted solution to that problem. I need four walls that aren’t attached to the house.

That sounds very wise. My parents are authors, and my mum’s study used to be on the landing – which was terrible, because me and my brother would always be like, “mum! mum!”. She’s finally got her shed in the garden now… A bit too late, given that I’m not living there and my brother’s very self-sufficient, but I’m glad she’s got her space. Thinking further on this, it feels like there’s been a really rich dialogue happening around motherhood in the last few years – in books, in articles. Did it feel important to be any particular part of the conversation within that? 

I think when I wrote the album and put it out there, I realised that there were also a lot of people out there talking about that, and it wasn’t really something I’d been aware of. But it’s been an honour to be a part of that. I think that what’s happening is that women are standing up for themselves and putting it out there that motherhood is really hard work. It’s also such a complex, character-changing, life-changing experience that deserves attention – and a very deep well for creativity in writing and in music. There needs to be space for that.

Also, just the juggling of roles in being a creative person and also being a mother, and the challenges of that juggle, and that struggle to balance everything – you can create a lot of interesting material from that. Letting there be space… and appreciation and respect for that is important for women’s rights. 

Absolutely, and it also plays into a much larger conversation about the whole span of reproductive rights – especially at the moment, it feels like, as you said, something necessary to talk about in its complexity and difficulty… So the album’s name is Cusp. I love that word. All the edges and tipping points and tensions held within it. And I know you had a near-death experience during childbirth. I was wondering if you’d be willing to talk about that, and its impact on the album? 

I wrote Cusp before that period... Then I got pregnant and recorded the album. And all the songs had already been written – but on the album I’m reflecting, say, in ‘Song for Sandy’ I’m talking about a mother leaving her child behind. I think it’s something you think about when you have kids, because once you have them you have this desire and this deep need to be their protector, and to see them grow, and make sure everything’s okay. It’s this kind of momma bear reaction. And you hear me grappling with that on the album, for sure. 

I feel like the title… I chose Cusp after Oona was born. She was born on February 20th, which is a cusp in astrology. I was born on April 20th, which is also a cusp. I’m referencing that in-between stage of pregnancy – that brink… 

Also, strangely enough, the album was being finished the weekend I gave birth. It was being mixed, and I was supposed to be in Los Angeles. I was 34 and a half weeks pregnant, so it was kind of on that line of, “should I be travelling? It’s hard to say”, and I had the gut feeling that I should not go to Los Angeles… but I was also wanting to finish it before I had the baby… So I wasn’t there when the record was mixed, which is what it is, but instead I had the baby unexpectedly that weekend. So it was like the record and the baby being born, all of it so inherently linked, that it was very synchronistic and weird – and that’s how the title tied into that experience. 

It was after my close call – I had HELLP Syndrome, which is a very life-threatening, horrible pregnancy complication with high blood pressure and a failing liver and blood that won’t clot, just this horrible constellation of things, and in addition to that I hemorrhaged really badly and had to have a blood transfusion… so it was really scary, and I felt that edge so much… I waited a year to release the record after that, because I was just like, “no, I’m gonna be at home with my baby for a year,” as you can understand… 

But when I did put the music out, it gave me this really powerful appreciation for everything that I’ve been doing and am able to do now. I think in the past, various aspects of my music career I took for granted, or didn’t know how to appreciate or enjoy, and this time, going on a press trip or doing interviews all day, or even just the travel… I was glad to be alive, and happy to do all of that. And I think that has remained true in day-to-day life, even when things feel particularly trying, whether it’s with touring or cooking ten meals a day – which is what it feels like sometimes – it’s hard, but I feel like I got a second chance. I feel able to move forward with a more positive approach to life, which I think is really invaluable.

I think there is often something extraordinary that can be borne out of terribly difficult physical circumstances. It’s a very different thing, but when I was 15, I had spinal surgery. I spent a long time on my back, and having to slowly start walking again, and I think that often when you’re in the midst of things you just need to get through it – but afterwards, there can be those moments of realising that being close to your body’s limits and boundaries can bring a lot out. 

It really does. After that birth experience, I was pretty much in bed for four weeks, and my mom was here waiting on me and bringing me food. When my energy finally did return, I was just so grateful to feel like a normal human being again. You don’t really take that for granted. You try not to. And I’m sure you felt similar, once you could walk again. 

Completely. Could you tell me more about what touring feels like now, comparatively? You said it feels like it’s a very different beast, in some ways… 

I think in the past, I was always like, “touring is so hard”. I mean, I always enjoyed the concerts, but the shows are such a small piece of what touring actually is. They’re one moment in what’s a lot of schlepping around, carrying heavy stuff, sitting all day in a moving vehicle, eating weird food all the time, never quite feeling like your body is being treated well. It’s really taxing, physically. And that is still true, but I think in the past I’d really obsess about that, but now that I’m touring and leaving my kids at home… the fact that I can now sit in a van by myself for six hours and read a book or write on my laptop — I never get that at home! 

So it actually feels like I can appreciate it a lot more, and treat it as alone time even if it is exhausting sleeping in a different hotel bed every night. That’s hard. But I think I’m more appreciative of the whole experience – and being able to go do concerts, and have people across the ocean appreciate my songs, I feel that really deeply. I’m just grateful that I still have an audience and can keep doing this. 

You used to tour with your dad, too. What was that like, in a very different family context? 

Yeah, touring with my dad was really wonderful. Playing music with him is really special. But I think also at that time I was touring with my first husband and a bunch of other rough-and-tumble dudes, and I was… surrounded by a bunch of people who were drinking too much and smoking too much. I don’t do those things personally, so it’s a kind of strange juxtaposition and I don’t think it was always the best decision for my music – but it was just the people I was surrounded by. 

I mean, I loved playing music with my dad – and I still do that from time to time. When I play in California he usually comes and sits in with me. But for this last record and the last tour in April and in November when I come back to the UK and to Europe, I’m having two other women with me. And that feels like a much better fit to me, personally and musically. The feminine energy of having them on stage with me is quite a contrast with the band I used to have. 

Sounds like an interesting departure. And who are the musicians and artists who’ve meant a lot to you recently? 

Lately, gosh… there’s so many. I feel like I don’t discover as much music now because I don’t have as much time and space to be casually browsing and listening… but an influence and someone I appreciate deeply is Sandy Denny. I listen to a lot of older music, sort of classic 70s singer-songwriter music. My friend Heather Broderick, who I tour with, she has a beautiful record called Glider, and she just recorded a new album that’ll be out next year and is going to be incredible. I’ve heard all the rough mixes. So there are some contemporary women right now that I think are doing really important work. 

Another friend of mine, Kasey Johansing, put out a record called The Hiding, and I’ve been really loving that. 

To circle back to your music, I was wondering — even with this interview here, you’re always tight-roping these very interesting lines between the personal and the public. Do you feel like that’s something you have to renegotiate? You write a lot about your personal life on your albums, is that something you’re very conscious of, in terms of having boundary lines? 

I mean, I’m kind of an open book. I’m not incredibly guarded with my personal life. And I don’t know what that’s about. It just feels more natural for me to be who I am, and that comes across in my music. There’s no shtick. I write songs about my experience in life, and I think it would feel pretty inauthentic trying to hide who I am, when my music is putting it all out there already. 

I feel like I have to think about that a bit when I’m posting on Instagram. You know, everyone’s seen my kids and that is what it is, but I’m conscious of not only posting pictures of them. With things like that, sure, I grapple with it a little bit. But it’s a unique time right now where everyone is putting out some version of themselves, and I think what I’m always wanting to have come across is just being authentic in myself.