ALELA DIANE: NOT ABOUT MY CAT, NO
Alela Diane comes from a town that was famous first for a gold rush and is famous now for its music, which tends toward the kind of thing that would show up on a brand new anthology of American folk. She shares a song on her new album To Be Still with Michael Hurley and speaks now before a show at Hollywood Forever. This interview by Thomas McMahon.
So your brother named you?
Yeah. My brother is three years older than me. So just before I was born, my parents and my brother were on a walk, and my dad was carrying my brother on his shoulders and said, ‘Hey, Ryan, what’s the horse’s name?’—referring to himself. And my brother was like, ‘Alela.’ And then both of my parents kind of listened to that name and were like, ‘Whoa, that’s a cool name.’ Then I was born, and they ended up calling me that, because a three-year-old invented it.
And you had a run-in with a bear not too long ago?
I did. I was driving home to Nevada City late at night, and I hit a bear. It totaled my Volvo, which was really tragic. Everybody who was in the car was all right. It was just one of those really surreal, bizarre experiences. After it happened, I stopped the car like—‘That was a bear. Did we just hit a bear? What the hell?’ It was not what you would expect to happen.
Did the bear pull through?
I don’t know. It did run off. If it totaled my car, I don’t think the bear could be doing very well, because Volvos are very sturdy, strong cars.
I’m told you have a pretty big following in France.
It’s the weirdest thing. It’s one of those mysteries. I’m on a record label over there, and they just—I think—promoted me in the right ways and for whatever reason, the folks over in France, they really latched onto it. I don’t know. It’s completely bizarre. I’ve done a number of tours over there and done all sorts of weird stuff in France. Before I wrote The Pirate’s Gospel, I went on this trip by myself. I went traveling to England and France. I had taken my guitar with me and was just kind of wandering around and staying at hostels and doing that sort of thing. And I kept having these weird déjà vus and strange dreams, and a lot of that was translated into most of the songs on The Pirate’s Gospel. So I wrote a lot of them while I was traveling around over there.
The new album, To Be Still, has considerably more instrumentation than The Pirate’s Gospel. Why did you decide to take that approach? Did it seem more appropriate for these songs?
I think it did, yeah. It was a number of years between my first record and this one. And during that time, I continued writing songs, and I ended up with this handful which became the new record. And they were just kind of requesting more instrumentation, and I had never tried anything like that. So it just seemed like the right thing to do, and it was something that I wanted to try, so I did.
The song ‘Age Old Blue’ has to do with your ancestors?
It does. I wrote that after I was hanging out with my grandma, and she started telling me about kind of the history of her side of the family. And specifically her father, who was a soldier. He was Canadian, actually. Anyway, it’s all about that. It was all these things that she told me, and I ended up putting them into that song.
What was it like working with Michael Hurley on that song?
It was really awesome. I met him before when I was living in Portland—then I moved back to Nevada City, and I just moved back to Portland again. It was really cool to be able to invite him to come and sing with me. It turned out that the drummer I worked with—Otto Hauser—he’s a friend of Michael’s as well. So before we started recording, we went out to visit him in Astoria because he lives there on the Oregon coast. So he came out, and I invited him to come sing on the record that next week. And it was really special.
How have your parents influenced your music?
My parents are both musicians, and they were always playing music around the house when I was a kid—playing old traditional songs. And I think that just impacted me a lot, having that much music around the house all the time. And it also made music a really comfortable thing. It was just something that was normal in my household. My parents were always singing, so for me, it was never something to be freaked out by or nervous about.
Can you remember one of the first songs you ever liked?
Well, I remember listening to Patsy Cline with my mom. And I remember I had this old tape of the Shangri-Las. My friend and I would always put that in my little tape deck and listen to that and sing along.
How does nature influence your music?
I think that it tends to play a big role in what I do, just because of where I’m coming from—growing up in a place like Nevada City, and we had a big yard. So I think it tends to creep into my lyrics a lot.
How do you like living in Portland now?
I really like it. It’s a beautiful place, and it’s a comfortable size of city for me. Because coming from Nevada City—which is a small town—Portland’s got all the stuff that for me is kind of neat to have in a city, but it doesn’t stress me out. It’s nice.
With you and Mariee Sioux and Joanna Newsom, there seems to be so much talent coming out of Nevada City, but it’s such a small place. What’s happening there?
It’s just one of those mysterious things. I mean, I think that Nevada City is a good place to place to grow up, and the schools are good there, and a lot of hippie-type people moved there and then had kids. The community—it’s just supportive of the arts. So all these kids that grew up there were just kind of encouraged to keep doing what they were good at doing, and a lot of that was creative things, whether it was painting or photography or making music. Mariee’s and my parents used to be in a bluegrass band together. I was listening to tapes of it the other night. I’ve always known that, but actually hearing the recordings of it—hearing my dad and Mariee’s dad talking on stage together is pretty cool. I have handfuls of tapes that I have to check out. I just started this exploration.
What was the name of the band?
They were called Flash in the Pan, like as a reference to gold mining.
Gold mining is a big part of the history of Nevada City, right?
It is, yeah. It was originally established as a gold-mining town, and it was the biggest town in California back then. Not the case anymore, obviously, but it was more of an established town than San Francisco during the gold rush.
So you’re going back for a visit?
Yeah, just for a couple of days. I’m gonna record a song at my dad’s studio. It’s for this very groovy project. It’s different artists recreating Songs for Beginners by Graham Nash. I was invited to do one of the songs for that, so I’m excited about it. It seems like a pretty cool thing to be a part of. I’m doing ‘There’s Only One.’
Is the song ‘My Brambles’ about your cat?
Not about my cat, no. I wrote that song, and then a short while later, I got my cat, and then I named my cat Bramble. So I do have a cat named Bramble, but the song is not about the cat.
ALELA DIANE’S TO BE STILL IS OUT NOW ON ROUGH TRADE. VISIT ALELA DIANE AT ALELADIANE.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/ALELAMUSIC.