No one would have been surprised had Amy LeVere named her most recent standout effort “All Hell Breaks Loose” rather than the cryptically less descriptive Stranger Me. It would certainly have been appropriate given the “fun and games” that LeVere has experienced since the release of her critically acclaimed second album, Anchors & Anvils.
LaVere’s life has been roiling since the release of her last album, with the breakup of a long-term romantic and musical relationship, as well as the death of an artistic mentor. She was originally planning on making Stranger Me with her Anchors & Anvils producer, the legendary Jim Dickinson. When he passed in August 2009, in addition to grieving one of her greatest mentors and champions, she was back at square one in the recording process.
Add to that the departure of her guitar player, Steve Selvidge, who left to join The Hold Steady and a difficult breakup with boyfriend/drummer Paul Taylor, and you begin to glimpse the emotion behind songs like “Damn Love Song,” “Tricky Heart,” and “Cry My Eyes Out” from the stellar new album.
And you get a deeper, impassioned understanding of what makes the album so special.
In advance of her Sept. 8 show at Tucson’s Plush, the talented musician spent some time with knotmove.com talking about the new album and her unique musicianship.
As you might expect, even with the inherent challenges, recording the album was therapeutic for LeVere.
“Well, I think the recording process was. The actual recoding of it in the first few days was unsettling, just ‘cuz there was so much uncertainty going in and of course, working with my not so far away ex-boyfriend, you know?”
“But, it definitely became a very, very fun project – as soon as everyone got very comfortable with what the project was gonna be and just how much fun we could really have with it and the dedication and effort everybody was putting into it.”
“And you know, Paul and I pretty quickly – it became really clear that we were approaching the project with real love and respect for each other and it became something of us re-defining our relationship in a really positive way and it turned into an amazing experience.”
The recording process proved to be a two-edged sword for LeVere – harder in some respects but in other ways easier.
“It was a little bit of both. I mean, it was easier in the sense that I never questioned the craftsmanship of what the rhythm section was gonna be. You know, we played together for six years so – I mean, we have an extremely symbiotic way of playing together.”
“So, you know, prior to suckin’ it up and calling him in on the project, I mean I was really unnerved about what that was gonna be. Paul knows my playing and how I would want things approached from the drums and he gave me a hundred and ten percent so, that was really easy.”
“Some of the subject matter of the material you know, much of which was ‘bout him. There were definitely some…some shaking twinges and some things. And at other times, it was hilarious, you know – sort of laughing, being able to laugh where we were at certain times the songs were made and how dramatic it was when it was happening. Now we can look at it with new perspective.”
Without question, the best albums are those where the listener can feel what the songwriter is trying to say. LeVere’s message comes through loud and clear on Stranger Me.
“I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve done, really. I’ve said it again and again, but Jim Dickinson you know, he made a big impression on me and he always said ‘Don’t make an agenda driven record.’ And I think he meant don’t make a record for a specific result.”
“And so, I definitely kept that in mind. But if there was an agenda, it’s just because it was myself in my record. There had been such time between other records, I could just feel the outside just pressing in on me, about ‘This better be good.’ And it was just so overwhelming.
“I just kind of gave the whole thing the middle finger and thought, ‘If I’m not just honest and don’t love what it is, I will have no satisfaction from it, regardless of how it’s accepted in the world.’ So, I can say with utter confidence that I definitely made that record for myself and for that reason, I love it.”
There’s no doubt that listeners love the record as well, whether it be the songwriting or the incredible musicianship. Intriguingly, LeVere’s favored instrument is the upright bass. And although it might not have been her first “weapon of choice,” the second choice was a charm for LeVere.
“I think initially, it was probably mostly because of my limitations with playing the guitar. I was never around an electric bass that I picked up and went, “Oh, electric bass.” I just happen to live in this house that several other musicians were in the room there were two upright bass players.”
“And I picked it up and having very basic knowledge of an instrument – a string instrument, I just took so quickly to the upright bass. And I found that in time, just for me, I think I write more creatively on the bass than I do on the guitar. It’s one note at a time (laughing).”
“And you don’t have something strapped over you like an anchor. You’re just dancing with something and you’re balancing it and if you feel insecure, you can hide behind it. For me, it couldn’t be more natural. I really just took to it. I don’t know how else to explain it.”
“I pretty much went from knowing the basics to learning a lot of classic country tunes and blues tunes and things like that. But I pretty much went from picking it up one day to months later, starting to sitting in on lower Broadway and Nashville with other and bands.”
Many musicians can name off guitar players, electric bass players and other similar influences. You have to really work at it to come up with an upright bass player influence, though.
“Oh, man. You know, if anybody, it would still be one of the guys that lived in the house with me at the time, who I give most credit to ‘cause he was by far the most supportive. I mean, it was his bass that I picked up and started goofin’ off on him.”
“He was the one that insisted that my right hand was magic and that I needed to stick with it. But when I listen to the lyrics and hear the lyrics – I just like a story teller first and appreciate a good story.”
“So, for me to even try and concentrate to what a bass line is doing and separate that from whatever the song is talking about is really challenging for me. So, I don’t really follow what other bass players are doing.”
If you are in a “visible” profession, there will invariably be people that say really good things about you and people that say – well, not so good things about you. I asked LeVere if she’s experienced enough to ignore both the laudatory things and the bad things.
“Well, funny you should bring that up. Because as much as I’d like to say that I was above all of it, when someone gets something wrong in a story, be it the progression of the chain of events.”
“Or they mention over and over that Craig Silvey produced my record and produced Arcade Fire record, but he didn’t. He engineered their record. Little, little things that aren’t quite right. That stuff doesn’t bother me at all and it kind of makes me laugh from time to time.”
“Really, when someone says something negative about me, if it’s an opinion, that’s fine. I don’t have any trouble taking that because I can always rationalize in my mind that they’re just wrong (laughing). Or you know, there’s no accounting for taste or it’s not everybody’s bag of tricks, you know?”
“And the nice stuff is nice. And of course, I get forwarded a lot of that from my fellow musicians. I don’t open it you know, at all unless it’s basically re-forwarded to me by a friend, like ‘great article,’ then I might take a moment to look it over.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone’s taste not accounting for the talented performer’s music. And even though it’s just my opinion, if you miss Amy LeVere tonight at Plush, you’ll be missing one of the music events of the year…