wears the trousers magazine

alela diane: song of the travelling daughter
September 2, 2009, 9:54 am
Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: , , , , ,

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words in edgeways with alela diane

With a scuffed and dusty aesthetic straight out of postcolonial American literature, Alela Diane possesses a voice meant to be heard on crackling vinyl, every slight inflection evoking a cinematic description of West Coast windblown grasslands or a distant mountain idyll. It’s a voice that unfurls with mottled purpose; sometimes as steady as the flow of sap through the xylem of a hundred year old sequoia, at other times an almost yodeling cry of lyrical romance, but always filled with nuances, the true depth of which might go unnoticed in this age of electronic, clinical digestion of music.

Alela’s first release on vinyl was the limited edition 10” EP, Songs Whistled Through White Teeth, issued in December 2006 – a swift and low-key addendum to the second pressing of her first ‘proper’ album The Pirate’s Gospel, a label release that, on its third time out, turned the Californian singer-songwriter into a star. Four of these home-recorded songs ended up, in much more orchestrated terms, on this year’s reputation cementing To Be Still, the double LP pressing of which is a thing of crisp and faintly aromatic beauty.

Vinyl purists will no doubt be glad to hear that Alela considers herself among their number, having pretty much ditched CDs altogether and consigned her iPod to tourbus listening. When Wears The Trousers catches up with Alela over the phone from her current home in Portland, Oregon, she’s excited about a new EP she’s put together with touring partner Alina Hardin, a slim, shy, dark-haired girl with an airy tone and songs of a similarly folkloric disposition. Accordingly, it will cater primarily to the wax-faithful while also making waves in the intangible realm of MP3s.

To be honest, she seems a little surprised that I want to focus on the EP rather than the album (“You haven’t even heard it yet!” she laughs), but having spent roughly 90 hours of this year listening to To Be Still and attended two concerts, I feel like I’ve formed a very personal attachment to those songs, probably full of ‘incorrect’ interpretations, and have no need for shading in their background any further. As Alela sings on her freshly hatched song ‘Dusty Attic’, released last month as part of a three-song digital package, I’m ready for the new age.

While the Alela & Alina EP doesn’t quite represent an epoch for its more experienced half, it promises at least to be something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. A cover of Townes van Zandt’s ‘Rake’ takes care of the latter two in one fell swoop, and Alela graciously sings a bit of the song down the phone when my memory fails me. Ah yes. The one about the dying bon vivant who realises too late that his selfish deeds will go unforgiven when he’s gone. It’s one we haven’t heard from a female perspective before, and an interesting choice. Elsewhere, the old is represented by a pair of traditional folk songs (‘Bowling Green, ‘Matty Groves’), and these rub shoulders with two new Alela originals (‘Amidst The Movement’, ‘I Have Returned’) and one from Alina (‘Crying Wolf’).

“It’s a very, very sparse record. It’s just the two of us on vocals and two guitars. Very simple,” explains Alela. “It’s really the first time that Alina has played much guitar, and especially recorded guitar, because when she’s on stage with me she just sings. It was really good for both of us to play the guitar together. We also experimented with using a 12-string guitar and also a Nashville-tuned guitar [a clever way of tuning a 6-string guitar to give a 12-string effect]. So it’s something different.”

Recorded in just two days in the short downtime between tours, the EP marks Alina’s first official release, with only a few other scattered tracks in existence. At five years Alela’s junior, Alina was initially just a peripheral figure in Alela’s hometown life back in Nevada City, California, where she famously attended high school with the likes of Joanna Newsom and Mariee Sioux, and not so famously with Alina’s older sister. “Alina was very small at the time, like, 13 or 14,” Alela laughs. “And then some years later, when she was older, she came to visit me up in Oregon and told me that she’d written some songs. She was very, very shy, but she played these songs for me and I was just totally blown away. Shortly after that, she started singing backup vocals for me and, yeah, we’ve been travelling around since then.”


Anyone who bought the Rough Trade Shops’ special edition of To Be Still and received the Calm As The Owl Glides compilation curated by Alela as a bonus will have already heard Alina’s best-known song, ‘Cotton White’. Compared with Alela’s earthy, more vibrant tones, hers is a gossamer voice that wafts right through your cerebellum like a magician might pull a flirty, lightweight fabric from your ear. Not that she can’t summon up more gravitas if required. A favourite of the recent tours has been their version of the traditional folk song ‘Matty Groves’, in which both raise their voice for a rousing clap-a-long number. (The EP version, Alela says, is a more sedate take on the song.)

Once again, Alela handles the production herself – a method that works well for her and one she isn’t planning on altering any time soon. “In some ways I think it would be really interesting to work with a producer, because a really good one tends to notice your best parts and helps you bring them out on the record. But I don’t how I’d do in that context…” I ask if that’s just a subtle way of admitting that she’s a bit of a control freak. “Probably!” she laughs. “I tend to have a lot of input and a lot of…opinions. I don’t like it when anything feels like it’s getting out of my control. Especially when it has to do with my music. I just feel like, you know, it’s mine!”

It’s always funny to watch how Alela interacts on stage with her backing band, mostly because they’re not just any old bunch of guys: bassist Tom Bevitori is her boyfriend, and second guitarist Tom Menig is her dad. Their show at London’s St Giles-in-the-Fields church back in March had a classic example of father–daughter dialogue, with Tom dispensing advice like “You need your capo for this one” and Alela flinching back with “I know!”

“He always mentions things like that. He’s just looking out for me, but sometimes it is just a little bit annoying I guess!” she laughs. “I need to learn not to embarrass my dad on stage. It’s not very nice. My dad is always in a good mood. He’s really easy to be around, doesn’t boss me about at all. Very easygoing, and it’s nice to have that support around. It helps to keep my feet on the ground somewhat. Everything else is so crazy and all over the place.”

What about touring with her mum, who’s also a musician? “I don’t know. Touring with my mum might make me a little crazy. But if ever I had children and was still touring, I’d probably bring my mum along to take care of them!” she laughs, quickly adding, “But that’s way down the line. That’s not happening yet!”

With Alela back in Europe this month for another leg of her epic run of performances, which finally comes to an end for this album cycle in October, it seems like a reasonable time to reflect back on the year’s highlights. Aside from a rare day off spent at Stonehenge, she has trouble pinning anything down (“It’s all gone by so quickly!”), but eventually settles on this year’s Primavera Festival in Barcelona. “My show wasn’t the highlight,” she giggles. “But watching Neil Young later that night was the highlight. That’s the most fun I’ve had all year. I got a little bit drunk [free Jaegermeister shots in the VIP area took care of that] and watched Neil Young – and both of those are things that don’t happen very often.” She didn’t get to meet him though, sadly. “I wasn’t that privileged after all I guess,” she says with a practically audible shrug.

Having spent so much time on the road, Alela has barely had any time to settle into her life as a Portlander – she moved to the city almost a year ago – and although everyone is quick to include her in the area’s thriving music scene, she admits that so far it’s been hard to really meet people. “Usually when I’m in town I’m scrambling to get everything together to leave again,” she laughs. But there’s good news on that front. As soon as Alela and her boyfriend get back from Europe in early October, they’ll be moving into a new house they just bought together, and Alela plans to have a well deserved rest once that’s over. “It’s really, really exciting,” she fizzes. “I can’t wait to paint some walls!”

Knowing Alela, she won’t rest for long. “I’ve written all these lyrics while I’ve been on tour this year,” she admits. “So it’ll be really nice to be able to just settle into the new house and actually write some music! One step at a time.”

Alan Pedder
The Alela & Alina EP is released through the new Names Records imprint Family on October 5th on limited edition numbered 10″ vinyl and digital download.


EP cover4

Alela & Alina EP
A1 Amidst The Movement
A2 Bowling Green
A3 Crying Wolf
B1 Matty Groves
B2 I Have Returned
B3 Rake

Catch Alela and her crew at the following venues later this month:
09.09.09 Junction, Cambridge
10.09.09 St George’s, Bristol
11.09.09 The Gate, Cardiff
12.09.09 End Of The Road Festival, Dorset
13.09.09 Phoenix, Exeter
16.09.09 Town Hall, Birmingham
17.09.09 Shepherds Bush Empire, London *

* with The Leisure Society and Laura Gibson


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[…] alela diane: song of the travelling daughter September 2, 2009, 9:54 am Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: 2009, alan pedder, alela diane, alela hardin, interview, music […]

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[…] alela diane: song of the travelling daughter September 2, 2009, 9:54 am Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: 2009, alan pedder, alela diane, alela hardin, interview, music […]

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[…] Alela Diane spoke to Wears The Trousers a few weeks ago, we quizzed her all about her upcoming EP with touring partner Alina Hardin (out October 5th), from […]

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