"Tin Smithing is basically for your country and for Frank"
It's all aboard the ark this week as Hammersmith songwriter Alessi Laurent-Marke aka Alessi's Ark continues her latest Irish tour. The multi-lingual singer opted to keep the acoustic in the case preferring instead to take a slightly more electronic approach with third studio album The Still Life which features both digital beats and synths, a departure from the more-organic folkie sounds heard on previous releases Notes From The Treehouse (2009) and Time Travel (2011). Backed by New York singer Cal Folger Day, will play three Irish dates including a visit to Cork's Cyprus Avenue on Thursday evening. Early last week I interrupted Alessi for a mid-practise chat about the upcoming tour, musical spiderwebbing, kid's books and Galwegian taxi legends.
The G-Man: Afternoon Alessi! Whereabouts in the world are you right now and what are you up to?
Alessi: I'm very good thank you. I'm just over in my bandmate's house as we have just been practising. I'm just changing rooms as she's doing some errands but you don't need the backstory of everything I do but that's what you seem to get I'm afraid.
I'm really looking forward to your Cork show, especially as Cal Folger Day will be accompanying you on your tour. Cal played at one of the last G-Man presents... gigs so I can't wait to see the two of you.
Fantastic, I'm looking forward to it, I've never played with Cal before so that will be a real treat.
As the summer comes to an end and Autumn comes in, it's sometimes hard to let the sunshine go and embrace the melancholy of darker days but this is often how great creative changes happen. What is your favourite season?
I would say I like the Autumn the most. Spring is beautiful and full of hope and in Summer it's nice to feel the heat if you're lucky. I know in the UK and Ireland we are not spoiled but we did have quite a lot of sun this year. We've had a good run! I love the Autumn and I love the colours of the leaves changing and I also like layering up. If we meet in Cork you'll realise I don't go anywhere without at least five layers. I don't like drafts: I like being tucked in. Also I like how brave nature is, the way it all battles through the cold and survives Winter. I think that's very encouraging and it's something I take comfort from. It's very constant, it's the one thing we can rely on. Autumn is my favourite for sure.
How do the seasons effect your levels of creativity?
I am definitely symbiotic. I am more inclined to stay inside and draw more when it's cold. I feel like that accompanies a lot of the songs, which may be informed by drawings or vice versa. Lyrics will inspire drawings and I do a lot of sewing when it's particularly cold. I write a lot of words in bright weather but might not put it to music until it's colder. In Summer, I am quite inclined to be out seizing the moment, walking around with a notebook writing things down and then when you have to be in for long periods of time due to the cold to actually put melodies to the writing. You kind of have to catch the moments when you get them.
Alessi enthusiastically requests I forward the address when I tell her about Vibes & Scribes, a local independent art supply shop located on Bridge Street in Cork.
Some songs on your new album, The Still Life have warm folky tones and songs like 'Veins are Blue' have a kind of nu-country leaning to them. With artists such as Angel Olsen and First Aid Kit coming to the fore in recent times, why do you think so many people have such a strong affinity toward these music stylings?
I don't really know where my music sits but I'm definitely aware of those ladies. I guess people like honest songs and maybe can relate to it more easily, it not being too otherworldly. Maybe it's a kind of genre that you can really wrap yourself in, that doesn't really belong to a time so maybe it's enduring for all seasons.
I'm not super well versed with Angel Olsen nor First Aid Kit but from what I hear it is a warm sound so maybe people just want that. In this time when things are so unsure, to put on music that they feel like they've known for a long time, there's kind of a familiarity with that. I feel like The Still Life is less in that vain but there are a few songs like 'Veins of Blue' and 'Pinewoods' that kind of have that feel but for the most part it's moving away and maybe entering a more modern or even machinelike sound, like 'Tin Smithing' with more metallic sounds layered up. I did want to strip myself from acoustic instruments this time around so I hope this album is well rounded. It's nice to stay with sombre country leanings but a different feel as well. I hope that comes across.
What kind of records could be found laying about the house at home when you were growing up?
My mum and dad both really love music and they listened to different kinds. My mum got me into Graham Nash and from him I discovered Neil Young and she was really into David Bowie too so I listened to a bit of him. My dad listened to quite a lot of punk and The Jam is his favourite band, so quite a lot of mod music too. Then there are things we all liked like soul. When I was around 12 or 14 I discovered bands like Modest Mouse and Bright Eyes and that whole community was revealed to me. That's when I started writing a fanzine [Brain Bulletin].
I guess my parents spun the web initially and from there I started to discover sounds that I really liked and then I started sharing music I liked with them, so it's quite nice how it came full circle with my family like that. Secret Machines, White Stripes... Autolux were a mind melting band for me 'cause I started playing drums. That was the first instrument that I played and I remember thinking "woah". Carla Azar: she was everything, a rhythmic goddess.
In terms of albums that had the carpet swept from my feet, when my mum loaned me Songs for Beginners, Graham Nash's first record when he parted ways with The Hollies was a record that really moved me and I got really excited. I hope that answers your question!
I love the idea of a historical 'web' of music that is constantly spinning. Every time you hear little bits and pieces the web continues to grow..
Yeah, and a while ago I toured with O Emperor and I still listen to their music, I think they're brilliant. And they're Waterford slash Cork aren't they? Really good men, I hope things are going well for them. And I toured with Villagers too. I love their record. I try to stick my head out and not always listen to things from the past.
Villagers are up for a second Mercury Prize actually. It was such a proud feeling to witness the buzz generated by an Irish band at End of the Road when they played one of the main stages back in 2012.
Yeah, fingers crossed! I played with them in Philadelphia and I was just knocked out by how far their sound has come. I adored touring the UK with them around the time Becoming a Jackal had come out. And then I saw them again in America. Those guys just astounded me. I've got nothing but respect for them and they are very funny too!
Speaking of the evolution of a band's sound, you partnered with Andy LeMaster for The Still Life. Why did you feel he was a good choice as a producer for your latest record?
I really admire Andy and I loved the records he has done in the past with Azure Ray and Maria Taylor. I love what he's brought to Bright Eyes' records as well, I think he's a tremendous bassist. I remember thinking very highly of him when I was recording [Notes From The Treehouse] in [Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis' studio] in Omaha. I just thought of him in my brain as someone who is immensely gifted and I'd seen him playing live and thought "is there anything this guy can't play?", he's so versatile.
When I decided to make The Still Life, I knew I wanted a co-pilot to work with the producer cause Time Travel was one where I tried to steer the ship a bit more. For The Still Life I definitely wanted a co-pilot but I thought Andy would be a long shot. I was in Athens [, Georgia] for three weeks and we had one day off near the end of the record so it was quite strictly regimented. He was just brilliant, a fun and warm guy. He definitely understood that I wanted to create a different sonic landscape. I didn't play much acoustic guitar on this record, predominantly electric guitar and stripped it of other sounds too. There's quite a lot of strings on Treehouse and Time Travel so it was nice to venture into the digital age: old keyboards but still keyboards, fun synths and constructed beats.
Bringing it full circle was our friend in common Jake Bellows who's from Omaha and one of my favourite human beings and musicians. He's just brought out a new album on Saddle Creek called New Ocean. I got to meet Jake when making Treehouse. He sings on 'The Horse', and 'The Asteroids Collide' so I was really happy to make music with him again. It was third time lucky as we wanted to collaborate before that so it was brilliant Andy and I had this friend in common. When Jake came for a few days to help and add some guitar, it was brilliant. It was like the three musketeers!
What kind of pressures did you feel of being the sole captain of Alessi's Ark and what pressures does that bring with it?
I guess I just wanted to try a few different sounds and rather than focus on the one, which isn't a bad thing. For Time Travel I was able to dip in and out, it's very different with songs like 'Run' or 'Blanket', it tends to jump around a bit. With The Still Life I wanted a more focused sound and I feel like Andy helped me to consolidate ideas and have one feel across the album or at least home in on a palette of colours so there's a clear journey for the listener. It was good to have someone like a sounding board. On Time Travel there were a lot of great musicians around me but there was nobody I really felt like I could look at and think, "we got that. We nailed that sound". It was so good to run ideas past Andy and know we were on the same page. It was a pressure off my shoulders. It's a different kind of pressure as it feels like with an album you have this kid to look after by yourself so you're quite protective of it. I think I'll probably start playing just as Alessi, so that the idea of the Ark doesn't confuse people, I don't know if it does but I hope it makes sense to them.
Honesty of course is integral to a good working relationship between producer and artist. Was this there from the beginning or did the relationship take some time to get to that point?
Yeah, he was honest from the start and I really liked that. I know I'm pretty sensitve - as you can probably tell from my songs (chuckles) - but he was always polite and just told me from the get-go when working on the structures of songs. For the most part we were on the same page. If there was anything he wasn't sure about I was probably the first one to bring it to the table anyway but I felt like we were parallel for the most part. He's an honest fellow anyway and his delivery was very kind. There was never really a situation where I was like "I'm off to get my coat"!
And what inspired The National cover on the album?
I was contacted by the Yellow Bird Project, an organisation that create different projects like colouring books or song covers with independent bands where they home in on a charity they really care about and create a fun product like a National or Sam Amidon t-shirt and all of the proceeds go to a charity of the musician's choice. This organisation got in touch with me a while ago and asked would I be interested in curating a poetry book and doing some illustrations so I started on that. One of the people behind it said they were also thinking of doing a covers record so people who had previously had something to do with Yellow Bird are covering one another.
The producer/musician Nick Nell who I got to know while doing Young Colossus was the guy I was playing and recording 'Sans Balance' with at the time and I was going over to his house to play music so we had a routine going so I mentioned to him that there was a compilation that's going to be put together. I showed Nick the list of musicians that I had to choose from so he said maybe The National['s 'Afraid of Everyone'] would be a good song to cover. I thought the song was really powerful and beautiful so we thought it would be a fun idea to go a dancier, atmospheric way with it. Nick is very good and understood that so we wrote that idea out. After making the rest of the record in Athens it felt like a good addition, covering different sonic bases that Andy and I hadn't covered and drawing more from 'Big Chicken'. Sorry, not big chicken. that's what I have in my head. I mean the song 'Whatever Makes You Happy' which kind of draws on almost a reggae beat and then rave has quite a prominent beat. It didn't fall totally out of the blue. That's why that cover was flying about and found a home on the album.
How would you feel if the The National heard it?
I'd hope they'd enjoy it and that it makes them move. I always find it interesting when a woman sings a song written from a man's perspective. I like the image of him with his child on his shoulders while I'm listening to the song and I always envision this strong man. I hope they would appreciate how maybe the delivery from a girl makes it feel differently. If anything, it was just fun to hear that guitar part played as I like that riff very much!
You refer to the project with Young Colossus. Recently I've been fascinated with books on the development of young people, with parents having to be so careful of what they put on front of an impressionable child? Like children's books, they can't just be about you know, .. a stupid duck or something. I read a lovely book when in Dublin recently. We just spotted it in the window and it was about a bear out in the woods who had lost his magical tree star leaf. Various different animals come across the upset bear and one of the animals is really shy and is getting ignored at first whilst one of them is really boisterous and in the end it turns out that the bear just wanted the leaf's magic which would allow him to have friends to play with which I just thought was kind of heartbreaking.
Oh yeah? Beautiful... Well it is such a formative time isn't it? There are definitely books that left such a positive impression on me that I still think of now. It was really special to be involved with something like Young Colossus. I've got quite a few stories that I want to make into children's books and make music for so it's funny that quite a few people have started doing this, venturing from one project to the next drawing more on the visual side of things bringing the two worlds together. I loved the books where you had the cassette and at a certain point it would go "doo-dah-dah-DOOO" and you would have to turn the page. It's very important to project good ideas. I love Shel Silverstein's books, they always have layer after layer of truth and wisdom. Young Colossus is quite a psychedelic story and might not be super-easy to follow for a tiny one but from all the colours and sounds it's a good experience.
Young Colossus is definitely going in the present basket. Out of nowhere I've become the one buying all the little cousins books for Christmas...
Oh wow. That's fantastic! I can't wait to come to Ireland, you have got the best accent in the world. It's one of my favourite places in the universe. I can't wait!
I blush and move on quickly...
We're about three quarters of the way through the year, how has 2013 been to you so far?
I am. I look forward to playing until the end of the year so it's a nice way to round it up. I look forward to these tours. I really enjoyed the tour i did in the uk with the band and the tour in the U.S. with Sam Amidon who's a really interesting gifted writer and performer and incredibly funny too. Sometimes you don't really know how to react 'cause he's a one man tour de force. One minute he's doing press-ups on the floor and the next he's singing a really fragile beautiful old song. That was a great experience. To see different places and play some festivals.
I hope the record comforts people and I really enjoyed working with who I did. I feel proud of the artwork aspect too. I had never done the artwork for a complete album. Happy with The Still Life I hope it carries people through. I made an exclusive EP for this tour. I went out and did different versions of songs from the record in an ice house in Birmingham in a private park called Moseley Park. This is a little spin off of The Still Life which I will be selling on the tour. The reverb in the chamber is amazing. Apparently people used it like a larder over 200 hundred years ago. It's basically a well that we climbed down on a long ladder and set up and recorded. Hopefully you can't hear exactly how cold we were. It's like we were in a cold bath. It's been really lovely to meet people along the way too. I like the communicative side of touring and being able to meet people and talk about ideas and things. It gets a bit solitary on the road so it's good to talk!
So nearly half a dozen dates in Ireland on the way. Away from the stage, do you have a to-do list when you visit?
I have a t-shirt that I wear really happily that says in irish 'I prefer the omelettes.' (Is fearr liom omelettes if I am not mistaken) From a restaurant called Elephant And Castle in Dublin. It's quite faded as I wear it so much. It's not essential but I might investigate and buy a new one when I'm there.
There's a gentleman that massively inspired 'Tin Smithing' called Frank Feeney, a taxi driver that I met when I was in Galway. We speak on the telephone every now and again and write letters. Two Summers ago I went to a friend's wedding in Galway and I met him on the street and he drove me back even though I didn't have much money on me. I was a bit concerned we wouldn't get to the wedding ceremony on time but he assured me it was fine. He showed me around Galway, where he had grown up. I am hoping to catch up with him. He's quite amazing. From a taxi ride he inspired me to read about Irish crafts and the history of your fine people. That song is basically for your country and for him. It would be great if I could track him down.
Upcoming tour dates:
- 1st Oct: Balor Arts Centre, Balybofey (Donegal)
- 2nd Oct: Whelan's, Dublin
- 3rd Oct: Cyprus Avenue, Cork
- 4th Oct: Spirit Store, Dundalk
- 5th Oct: Dolan's, Limerick
For more on Alessi's Ark visit:
- Alessi's Ark and Cal Folger Day play Cyprus Avenue Thursday 3rd October 2013
- Tickets are priced at €10
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