Alyssa Graham (The Extended Interview)

There are few voices that stop me in my tracks. You know, ones that you fall in love with the first second you hear them; ones that make you wonder where they had been all your life. Alyssa Graham has one of those voices. She has the songs to go with it, too. In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve heard another song this year that has instantly affected me like “‘Til My Heart Quakes,” the lead track from her new release, The Lock, Stock & Soul EP. It was like hearing Ray LaMontagne’s “Jolene” or Iron & Wine’s “Passing Afternoon” again for the first time — it tugged on my heart and found a home. And I’m never letting it find another.

I feed off emotion, and, while I realize that there is more to music than affecting you on a deep, personal level, without it, well, I’m a little lost. Call me sentimental, but Graham’s music has always hit the spot for me where I’m feeling most alive, and The Lock, Stock & Soul EP is her best work to date.

Produced by Grammy winner Craig Street, and recorded with musicians such as bassist Me’Shell Ndegeocello, guitarist Chris Bruce, and keyboardist Keefus Ciancia, Graham’s four-song EP is part of a larger piece of work that will be released in 2012. For now, though, a glimpse of what is to come is more than good enough — it’s golden.

Recently, I had a chance to speak with Graham over the phone about the recording of The Lock, Stock & Soul EP, Neil Young, and realizing her vision for her new songs. Enjoy.

How are you doing?

I’m well, thank you!

Well, I’ve been listening to the EP, and there’s something about these songs — I was reading something you were saying where songwriting was very important to you on this record. And, I think it shows.

Oh, thank you! I can’t take all the credit, of course — there were other songwriters on the project. You know, it’s interesting because one of the things that I really feel like I explored — and I would have to really give credit to Craig Street on this — is really getting back into songwriting. I went through a period where I was writing lots of songs, and then I went into a period where I just hated myself as a songwriter, and I just stopped. And everything I would write, I just needed it to be perfect — and what’s “perfect,” I have no idea!

I was just scared of writing for a long time. And Craig really encouraged me, and reminded me that songwriting is all about your heart and soul, and you just have to put it out there, and if people respond in any way — positively or negatively — it’s getting response that matters, like just by you saying that it affected you in some way. Songwriting is something I’ve come to love again, and I give a lot of that credit to Craig.

What was it like working with Craig? He’s produced so many great things, he’s won a Grammy. I always wondered if you had a vision for these songs before you met Craig. Once you started working with him, how did that change?

I actually honed in on Craig particularly for this project. I wanted to sort of take back the music a little bit. I had an amazing experience working on Echo with the group of musicians we worked with and Jon Cowherd as a producer, but I sort of felt like I got lost as a songwriter. And as far as the vision, it got a little bit out of my hands. It was great, but for this project, Doug (Graham) and I really wanted to get back to our roots and what was comfortable to us.

And so, we made a list of the few producers that we liked and thought could bring to life the music and sound we were looking for, and Craig was on the top of that list. It was just coincidence that a friend of a friend of a friend knew him and put us in touch, and it was also coincidence that he and his family live in a town that Doug and I spent like five years in, which is Ithaca, New York, a little upstate New York oasis. It’s this thriving art community, and this huge inspiration to us in our lives. So, we already had him at the top of our list, and then we found out he lived in Ithaca, and we thought, “wow, it’s just meant to be.”

We had some of the songs written, but what we did was we talked to him, and we gauged his level of interest, and we went up and met with him and brought him an iPod. And we put on that iPod maybe five songs — not songs that we wanted to put on the record, but just a sound that we wanted, a big amalgamation — there was Brazilian music on there, there was a lot of Neil Young, Nick Drake — just an overall sound that we wanted to accomplish. And we gave it to him, and we said, “listen to this, and here’s the songs we’ve already written, and this is what we want the album to sound like.” And he just got it right away. So we packed our bags from New York City, we moved up to Ithaca for three months, and we spent that time with him writing and working on the cohesive sound of the record.

You know, I always wondered — is achieving a certain sound — is that more through how you record it, or the tone of the guitar, or something like that? How do you get something to sound like you want?

I think it’s all of it — I think it’s the material you write, of course, and the musicians you choose. Again, I have to give Craig credit. He has this amazing mind; he’s one of those people that you could talk to or say something under your breath or in passing that has something to do with your vision of the project, and you just think he didn’t hear you, but he heard you! And three weeks later, he’ll get the exact, perfect musician to play that part and you’ll be like, “Whoa, how did you know?” And he’ll go, “Well, you said it three months ago. Remember, when we were sitting over coffee?” And you’re like, “You were listening to that?”

So, part of it is having the songs, and having the vision for them, and part of it is having an amazing producer that really, really digs deep into what you want the project to express. And Craig is an interesting producer, because a lot of the time he’s just sitting back and listening. And you’re kinda like, “Give me some direction, give me an idea here.” He forces you to come up with it on your own, but he gives you the path to get there. He’s amazing.

Sounds like it! You know, the last record — would you label it as jazz?

That’s a really good question. What would you label it as?

I struggle with that — to label music. I have no idea what to say.

Well, that’s good. An open mind is good.

Well, the reason why I ask, I guess, is that this EP is not jazz at all.

No! It’s not jazz at all! The whole record is not jazz at all. I’ll give you the background on that, but to answer your first question, I think Echo was too jazz for the pop world, and too pop for the jazz world, and I don’t know exactly what it was! (laughs) It was a window in time, it was the music we wanted to express at that moment. And the songs were really personal, and we worked with these amazing jazz musicians, and I had just finished studying at the New England Conservatory, so I was really excited to use the jazz influence that I got there.

I just think artists and music are continuously in motion, they’re continuously growing and changing, and a lot of listeners don’t like that. I mean, sometimes I don’t like that when I listen to a new Neil Young album. I’m like, “Wait a minute, where’s On the Beach? Why doesn’t this sound like On the Beach?”

Great record.

Yeah, it’s my favorite record on the planet. We can talk about that later! (laughs) But, I think that it’s an artist’s prerogative to go in a different direction. As far as this record, unless you’ve read about me in the past and know that I have a jazz background, there is nobody in the world that would label this as a jazz record!

I’m glad you said that, though. There are some times when I want an artist to sound the same.

I know. And it’s hard, because I’m not just an artist, but I’m a music lover. But if someone told me that I had to sound the exact same on every record, I would stop making records.

Do you feel you have full creative control?

I don’t want full creative control! Part of making music is collaborating. Part of making music is the incredible back and forth you have with other musicians. And my partner, Doug Graham, we’ve been writing songs together forever, and we’ll sit in a room, and I’ll write a song, and he’ll go, “That line sucks!” And I do the same thing to him. Honestly, I get so pissed off, but it makes you go back and listen to the line again and take account of what he’s hearing.

I think that total creative control just makes you a control freak, it doesn’t make you a better artist. That’s just me. I’m not saying that there aren’t the people who write the songs, who play all the instruments, who produce the album, and engineer the album — there are people who do that, and the record comes out great. But part of what I love about making music is the collaboration.

And that’s how you grow as an artist, would you agree?

Absolutely. We went up to Ithaca with about ten songs, and we wrote about another ten songs while we were up there, but one of the artists that Craig brought to the table…he played us something by this artist — Davíd Garza, he’s just a musical genius, the doll of Austin. And one of the amazing things was Craig bringing him to the table, and us being exposed to his sound, and working with him on this project. He brought such an amazing voice to Lock, Stock & Soul. But bringing other artists that I didn’t know before to the table that I now am so connected to and feel extremely bonded with musically, spiritually, and just as a human being — I mean, that’s an amazing thing that doesn’t happen all the time. So, Davíd was a great gift that Craig gave us.

Is there a certain danger in that, as far as maybe you start to think, “Wow, I really hope this happens again some day.” Or, do you just live in the moment?

As far as being exposed to other artists?

That, and maybe just having your vision realized the way you wanted it to.

Totally! (laughs) You know, you finish a project, and it’s like giving birth! I mean, I’ve never given birth, but it’s like giving birth and you just can’t imagine that your second child is going to be as good as your first child. (laughing) I’m a second child, so I have all that baggage to overcome. But, I think that that’s true — I think the project you’re working on at the moment is the love of your life, and you can’t imagine falling in love again that hard. But, you know, it’s like any great love that ends — you pick yourself up and you move on and you find a new path. I loved working on Echo, and that was a great project, but for me, right now, I’m just living in the world of Lock, Stock & Soul, and it’s just so magical for me.

When I first heard it, the first song, “‘Til My Heart quakes,” it really affected me. It felt personal. I don’t know if that’s what you intended, but…

I’m totally with you, man. That song is like…it’s like aching. Even when I listen to it — it’s hard to listen to yourself sing or play or whatever — but that song, it just attacks. Probably on stage, that’s the song I love playing the most. All of the vocals that were recorded were sort of — we were all in a room sitting in a circle, literally, with no isolation or anything like that. It felt like a bunch of friends sitting around in a circle playing music together. And that was just one of those moments where everybody felt the aching of that tune.

I feel that when I listen to it.

Good! You’re supposed to feel something. I think one of the brilliant things that Craig did, although I was mad at him at the time, was he just said, “Just sing the songs, we’re not going to keep these vocals necessarily.” And he ended up keeping I would say 95 percent of the original vocals. And when you listen to the songs, they’re not perfect at all. I have to say, coming from the last album where everything was very perfect — I’m not saying I’m perfect or anything — but I’m saying, everything was meant to be perfect on Echo. On this record, everything is intentionally…there is no perfection on it at all.

That’s the Neil Young rubbing off, I think.

Yeah, and that’s the beauty of it, and that’s why I love Neil Young. That’s exactly why you and I just talked about On the Beach. It’s that imperfection that’s so fucking beautiful!

Purchase The Lock, Stock & Soul EP on iTunes now!

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