Of all the neo-flower children strumming acoustic guitars and lumped together under the “freak-folk” banner, Alela Diane might be the most grounded. Sure, her warbly alto twang is a tad on the theatrical side, but she marries it to full-bodied folk arrangements of a decidedly retro nature, more closely resembling outfits like Pentangle and Fairport Convention, which roamed stages 40 years ago, than contemporaries like Joanna Newsom (a childhood friend) and Devendra Banhart. Prior to her performance at the 7th St. Entry on Wednesday, Nov. 18, Diane talked with The A.V. Club about her musical dad, small-town roots, and why her fans shouldn’t be too surprised if she ends up chucking her music career to be a log-cabin mother.
The A.V. Club: Much has been made of the fact that you and Joanna Newsom both hail from the same small town—Nevada City, California, population 3,000. How did Nevada City shape your artistic perspective?
AD: Growing up in a town like Nevada City definitely opens the gateway in terms of pursuing a life in art and provides a very nourishing creative environment. A lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s not a lot going on. As a kid I would be out in the yard building fairy houses with walnut shells. [Laughs.] We entertained ourselves by doing things off the beaten path, and there was a lot of open space in which to do it. It also helped that our school had really good art and music programs. All of the kids were encouraged to be creative. Even just the setting was inspiring, being surrounded by pine trees and rivers. It’s much more inspiring to me than urban and suburban places.
AVC: Living in Portland now and touring cities most of the year is probably quite a change of pace.
AD: I think about this almost every day now, just because of all of the touring. Today was a perfect example—just spending most of the day stuck in traffic. To be honest, being in cities every day is not the way I ever imagined I would be living my life. All of the experiences I’ve been inspired by and written about, those things aren’t really happening in my life right now, and that worries me. To be sure there are moments of beauty here and there but being on the road is mostly just draining. For that reason I’ve already decided I’m going to take about six months off at the end of this tour to just try to become a regular human being again. All of that has pretty much fallen by the wayside the last couple of years, which definitely has me concerned—not just in terms of being grounded as a person but also creatively. If I’m going to be an artistic person, I also need to have the time and space to actually live.
AVC: You can always tell when songwriters have spent too much time on the road. Their new songs all end up being about what it’s like to be a performer.
AD: That’s so true. Touring constantly disconnects you from the people who are listening because all of the sudden you’re writing about things they don’t understand. These days artists aren’t really given the proper time and space to be creative. I’m going to demand it because if I keep working this hard on the road I won’t have the space to make the music and I’ll end up quitting altogether and having children that I’ll raise out in the remote wilderness. Those are my more extreme thoughts on tough days. [Laughs.]
AVC: Your lyrics mix imagery of nature and everyday rural experiences with elements that are more dreamlike. How do your songs reflect your real life?
Alela Diane: Almost all of my songs start with a tangible story based on something specific that really happened. The songs still have a dreamlike aspect to them, because my dreams are really tied in with my reality. I also write a lot about stories passed down from my mom about people in our family’s past. That’s my way of pursuing fantasy rooted in something real. Reality and fantasy in my songwriting are always recklessly intertwined.
AVC: So far your father, Tom Menig, has been your most consistent musical partner, producing both of your records and playing lead guitar in your band on most tours. Is it ever awkward having your dad in the band?
AD: It’s really all I’ve ever known, and over the course of time it's just become so obvious that the partnership works that I wouldn’t ever want to change it. My dad is an amazing guitar player and I don’t think I could find someone who is both as talented and easygoing as he is. He’s easy to travel with and always has a positive attitude, and ultimately that’s really more important the musical side of things. When you’re on tour, it's togetherness pretty much all day every day so things like being able to get along become the most important thing pretty quickly.
AVC: Is it fair to say your parents are your biggest musical influence?
AD: Definitely. Growing up with musical parents, the only music I really heard as a child came directly from them. They liked to sit around and play together; my mom would sing old bluegrass tunes and my dad would play guitar. We didn’t have a big record collection, because at any given moment my dad would have a guitar in his hands so that would be the sound you heard. I’m sure my mom sang while she was pregnant with me so I think a preference for simpler, more traditional music was instilled in the womb.