Singer-songwriter Alana Amram pays tribute to a true cosmic cowboy
Touring in support of her new album, Snow Shadows: Songs of Vince Martin, which arrives in stores today, singer-songwriter Alana Amram came through Cleveland last night to play to a sparse crowd at Wilbert’s, a small music venue located downtown. After her show, which featured her fine backing band, the Rough Gems, Amram took some time to hang out in her van and talk about what led her to put out an album of tunes by Martin, a cosmic cowboy most famous for collaborating with singer Fred Neil (who wrote the Harry Nilsson hit “Everybody’s Talkin’”). She’s touring for the rest of the month, and we’ve posted the dates at the end of the interview.
When you were playing tonight, you made a joke about your New York hardcore days. What was that all about?
Well, when I grew up in upstate New York, my dad is a musician so I grew up exposed to all this incredible jazz, world music and folk music and stuff, so of course, what’s going to happen when I’m a teenager is that I go to a VFW and see all these kids banging on instruments and just freaking out and I’m like, “Yes!” This was in Broome County, New York. So it was just raw energy and I was so excited. I got a Minor Threat record and I became obsessed with it. I would sit in my room and listen to it over and over again because I hadn’t ever heard music like that before. From that, it turned into me doing to hear all these New York hardcore, ska and punk shows. This was pre-Internet, around the 1990s and there was an interesting music thing going on.
Did you play music then?
I tried to play Ramones songs. But at that point, I was really interested in writing and I ended up writing a lot of short stories. But then I ended up going to film school.
And you finished?
No, I didn’t graduate. I dropped out my last year because I got really into playing in bands. I started playing in this band called Blue Sparks and we were doing kind of good in the city, whatever that means. It was right before the Strokes.
At what point did you start pursuing your own music?
I would always play guitar and write songs but I would play them for anyone because it was a secret and I was too shy. I didn’t want to be a sensitive singer-songwriter. I was afraid I wouldn’t look tough. It was a big concern for me for some reason when I was in my early twenties. I was more interested in being on stage slamming beers and playing bass. That’s totally dumbass twentysomething thinking that I’m still shaking off in my thirties.
So when did your first record come out?
I had an EP that came out and the 7-inch came out at the same time in 2008. The 7-inch was on Noiseville, which was a punk label. The EP was on Zealous, which folded. In the meantime, I recorded Painted Lady, which came out in 2010. It took like a year to record because we recorded at the studio after hours. Right as that was about to come out, we recorded the album of Vincent Martin songs.
What inspired you tackle his catalogue?
I walked into a record store and heard Fred Neil playing and I was like, “What is this?” I then bought everything I could from Fred Neil. I was just obsessed.
And Fred Neil led you to Vince Martin?
Yes, because they did a record together. A friend of mine said, “Hey, you should check out this record, If the Jasmine Don’t Get You, the Bay Breeze Will.” I heard it, and thought it was awesome. I wrote him an email through MySpace.
You eventually met him, right?
Yes. He was like, “You live in Brooklyn, right?” I was like, “Yeah.” So he started coming to my shows. I didn’t know any of his shows at that point, but I knew “Dolphins” by Fred Neil so I would have come up and sing that and some Bo Diddley. It was great. It was super fun. It was a fun part of our show where people would wander up on stage. It was a Rough Gems thing where we’d have 10-15 people on stage. But it started getting too insane and I didn’t know what was going on. It’s like when you’re a skinny chick but you think you’re super fat so you wear all these clothes. I was insecure and didn’t want to let my songs shine through. Now, I’m playing with a more minimalist set-up and it lets the lyrics and songs stand on their own.
It turned out that Vince knew your dad, right?
Oh yeah, he told me he knew my dad 50 years ago and that they played at the Village Gate or somewhere. Maybe it was the Gaslight.
What do you bring to the Vince Martin songs?
That’s a good question and no one has asked that in all the interviews I’ve done. That’s kind of interesting. I think that where Vince and I connect is that there’s this sense of urban isolation and that’s the way I feel living in New York City. I love it in some ways and hate it in other ways. It’s the whole idea of being alone in the crowd and that’s what Fred Neil’s thesis was, too, in “Everybody’s Talkin’.” It’s that feeling that New York does to you.
What about being a woman who’s singing songs written by a man?
It’s weird because a lot of the stuff that Vince has been through with women, I have been through with men. A lot of Vince’s experiences with drugs and addiction are things that I have been through, too. So we have these sort of similarities. I don’t want to say parallel lives because I was not hanging out with Gram Parsons and Fred Neil getting high on some weird drug that doesn’t exist anymore. For me, it was a lot more depressing. It was in a basement with some dudes I didn’t know. There’s such an accessible theme to his music that I feel the same way about Hank Williams. A woman can sing, “I’m So Lonesome I can Cry” or “Cold, Cold Heart.” Those themes are so earthy and straightforward.
The songs on your record are alternately folksy and wildly psychedelic. Is that the case with the originals?
I think so but in a different way. The original stuff is psychedelic for then. There was a big influence of Indian music coming in. World music is starting to blend in with folk. He has the Nashville Skyline backing band backing him on that record so it’s like straight up country. It’s psychedelic in that sense. I think we’re a little more in the ear of having heard bands like Spaceman 3, and I don’t want to say them because I am not the biggest fan. But psychedelic has progressed and it’s more noise influenced now.
Are these songs all on Vince’s albums?
Some of them have never been recorded. And he forgot he wrote, “Joe Panther,” which is one of my favorites. I played it for him and he was like, “That’s really good. I did write it.”
So what do you have planned for the future?
I want to record another record of my material. I’m still really interested and I want to keep breaking into other people’s songwriting because I think it’s a really cool thing. There are lots of songwriters I’m really interested. I’m writing a lot right now, too, so I want to do a record with one or two covers.
What’s the Van Dyke Parks connection?
It’s so cool. Van Dyke had worked with Mark Sebastian and John Sebastian who were on the Vince Martin record. Mark’s idea was the get the old team back together, so we sent Van Dyke Parks the rough mixes, and he sent back from sheets of paper, and Mark went into the studio with a conductor and string quartet. I was like, “What?” The first time I heard it, I was like, “Holy shit! What the hell!” I wanted to turn off all the other music and let that be the song. Van Dyke Parks is one of the coolest guys. He’s awesome. He’s seriously one of my heroes. But I’m hoping with this record that people become more aware of the movie about Vince and more aware of Vince’s music. That’s the goal of the record. It’s great because I get to play all the songs but Vince is like family so I want him to get some of the credit he deserves.
9/20/2011 Chicago, IL – Martyr’s
9/21/2011 Rock Island, IL – Daytrotter session
9/21/2011 Des Moines, IA – Vaudeville Mews
9/23/2011 Laramie, WY – Coal Creek Coffee
9/26/2011 San Francisco, CA – Knock Out
9/27/2011 Los Angeles, CA – Bootleg Theater
9/29/2011 Pioneertown, CA – Pappy & Harriet’s
10/12/11 Knoxville, TN – Blue Plate Special session