To Be Still (2009), is the first record Alela Diane released with a wider-known label. She’s been touring a lot between 2006 and 2008, not only on her own, but also supporting for acts such as The Decemberists or Iron & Wine. She released a vinyl EP titled Songs Whistled Through White Teeth in 2006 (Names Records, UK). On this record, there are four songs that would later make it onto To Be Still. She also took part in collaborations, e.g. with the Grass Roots Records artists from Nevada City.

Still the family ties were strong: the album was recorded by her father, who is also listed as a producer alongside Dan Elkan and Alela Diane herself. I read somewhere that an earlier version, recorded in Portland, of the album existed, but she wasn’t happy with it and relocated the work to Nevada City.

Michael Hurley, an American folk veteran, provided harmony vocals on this magical song from To Be Still: Age Old Blue. Again, family is a topic, in this interview with L.A. Records Alela said in 2009:

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.

Other than most songs on To Be Still, which have a rich instrumentation, Age Old Blue only features guitar, a banjo, and a bass. The vocals, and especially the harmonies by Michael Hurley, make Age Old Blue very special, and my favourite from the album. A moving reference to homesickness and nostalgia.

(higher hills do not provide for hearts made of corals and moss / where rain won’t flow beyond the stream and water is captive to the well)

Alela Diane - The Alder Trees (To Be Still, 2009)

A very happy and concurrently thought-provoking song. This is a narration of a walk on “paths fashioned of mud and snake skin” under age-old trees, giving rise to reflections on the generations of ancestors. Alders are associated with a variety of legends and myths, as well as traditional medicine. To me, the bond with nature and connection to heritage speak loud from this song, and the whole album.

I really like the laid-backness (is that a word?) of this tune, it flows along like a happy little creek. The picking patterns of the guitar and the banjo, plucking the rhythm of a brisk walk. Alela Diane sings her song with great flexibility. I’d say she arrived at a stage where she, alongside her lyrics, perfectly handles her voice as the main characteristic of her musicality.

And, on a different note, what about the ladies who weren’t allowed to sing”? This verse is definitely some food for thought.

 

I can hear the elders whispering in words so sweet and low / The alder trees are listening to songs been sung before / My friend and I collecting skeletons of leaves / Making tiny piles, and sifting through the weeds / Wind blows the tiny green, helicopter seeds / Oh, wandering in days unfolding / With paths fashioned of mud and snake skin / I think about the ladies who weren’t allowed to sing / Sewing all their pretty rows of thread instead of seed / And what about the black braided sisters of Mariee? / We sat upon their grinding rock as children used to be / Beneath the knotted pine at the garden’s edge / Oh, laughing! Little girls clapping / And ghosts weaving our hair to baskets / I can hear the elders whispering in words so sweet and low / The alder trees were listening to songs been sung before / My friend and I collecting skeletons of leaves / Making tiny piles and sifting through the weeds

Alela Diane and Tom Menig - Bang Bang (live in Paris, 2011)

Here’s something I just found. And I learned something, too - I thought this was a Nancy Sinatra song, but it is actually a Cher single from 1966, written by Sonny Bono. Nancy Sinatra published a cover version in the same year.

Alela Diane - Clickity Clack (The Pirate’s Gospel, 2004)

In this song, someone walked “clickety clack” all over someone else. A fabulous song, so intense, dark and melancholic.

The stuttered verse

And how do I
Oh how do I
How do I
How did I
How can I
How will I
How did I
How can I pick up and go

makes me think of searching for words when being really disappointed by someone. You try to say something but nothing makes sense, so you start a new sentence, with the same result. In the end you become so trapped that the only way of coping seems to be walking away, letting your shoes have the last word.

And when I turn my back
And when I turn my back
I’ll twirl my little skirt
And it’ll be my shoes instead of yours
My shoes instead of yours
My shoes screaming back
Click clack clickity click click click
Clickity clack
Clickity clack

In Germany, when you clock-off after work, you have Feierabend. It very roughly translates “celebration evening”. I think The Pirate’s Gospel is an a-ok Feierabend-tune, plus I have a soft spot for banjos.

Yo-ho, Yo-ho-ho, I love it! It also gets slightly faster, like a pirate party. Or is that just me?

Happy Feierabend!

Alela Diane - Pieces Of String (The Pirate’s Gospel, 2004)

The Pirate’s Gospel was recorded not long after Forest Parade. Alela Diane wasn’t happy living in San Francisco, where she went to college. So the Forest Parade is about this phase in her life, she’s going through a break-up (The Snow), misses her family life (Red Tin Roof), and has big questions to ask.

She then took her guitar and went travelling through Europe, and a lot of the songs for The Pirate’s Gospel were written on this voyage. She says it was life-changing and liberating to do something like this on her own, and being far away from home. It gave her the strength to uncover hidden capabilities. One of these capabilities, I think, is to write meaningful lyrics about everyday life, or picking up an interesting detail from normal people’s lives, spinning and telling stories around them.

One of these stories on The Pirate’s Gospel is “Pieces Of String”. The picture of the grandma, who has a little bag labelled “pieces of string too small to use”, is adorably quirky and a bit odd. I know from my own crafting that it is always useful to keep strings of wool to be able to repair a hat or a sock later, but pieces of string too small to use? This is a very frugal habit to have, and I spent some time thinking about this grandma and her little bag full of threads. I also like the passage where Alela sings “If I had 10 or 20, I’d have a choir of little children sing along”, and actually she’s accompanied by two children, 8 and 5 years old.

There are a more instruments on this album, rather than just a guitar as on Forest Parade; there is a piano, a banjo, a mandolin, and much more backing vocals. Her father Tom Menig, who would later quit his job in order to tour around the world with his daughter, recorded the songs, and provided vocals and slide guitar. Other additional musicians, such as Mariee Sioux, appear.

And Alela uses her amazing voice so much more! She sounds increasingly liberated and animated (Oh! My Mama), as if she started to release the energy she gathered during her journey. Originally self-released in 2004, this album was re-released by Holocene Music in 2006, and, with a revised track-listing, in 2007 under Names Records. The album won the Rough Trade shops album of the year 2007.

Alela Diane - Unravelling (Forest Parade, 2003)

I love the alternating, stirring rhythms of this song. If you know Alela’s voice as it sounds now, there is an astonishing difference. She already sounds beautiful, but is far from the range, depth and timbre she has developed since. It’s very raw, as is the whole record that is Forest Parade. The lyrics are very narrative, yet to me there is foreshadow of what will become the poetic, pictorial language packed with profound emotions and imagery of nature.

Lovely weather here in Southern Norway – better get out and enjoy some sunshine! See you tomorrow to listen to The Pirate’s Gospel.

About Alela Diane

Alela Diane Menig grew up in an artistic family, her mother a painter and musician with a temporary love for Mexican folk songs, her father playing in a Grateful Dead cover band. Alela didn’t write music before she was 19 and moved out of her parents’ home to San Francisco. Her voice, or the stunning development of it, is something I’d like to touch upon here. As she mentions in this interview from 2011, the unravelling of her voice was a process, and when she made her first album, The Forest Parade, she hadn’t found it yet. The discovery of her own voice continued throughout her musical journey. To follow this process, I will go through Alela’s albums in chronological order. She published 5 albums plus an EP (with Alina Harding).

  • Forest Parade, self-released, 2003
  • The Pirate’s Gospel, self-released, 2004; Holocene Music, 2006 (revised track listing); Names Records, 2007 (UK re-release)
  • To Be Still, via Rough Trade Records in North America and Japan, via Fargo in France, and Names in the UK (2009)
  • Alela & Alina, Rough Trade, 2009
  • Alela Diane & Wild Divine, Rough Trade, 2011
  • About Farewell, Rusted Blue, 2013

The first two were self-released or published and re-released under smaller labels, before she got signed by Rough Trade and released the album To Be Still in 2009, and followed up with an EP featuring Alina Harding. Alela Diane & Wild Divine was published in 2011. The relationship with Rough Trade ended shortly after she started recording her latest album, About Farewell, in 2012. Alela mentions different expectations as the reason for this, apparently the label wanted to continue the band-array from Alela Diane & Wild Divine. However, due to her split from guitarist and husband Tom Bevitori, she didn’t see a possibility to continue this concept without the complete band. She also says that writing and recording About Farewell was cathartic in dealing with the break-up, and finding back to herself, hence the album had to be done the way she began to make music - just her and her guitar.