The girl from Nevada City took a circuitous route to finding herself, but things started to click after an on-a-whim jaunt to Paris. Alela Diane tells Jim Carroll how her simple, home-grown start has matured into a fuller, richer sound – and why she loved
IT USED TO BE a boomtown, Nevada City. During the California Gold Rush, prospectors would come down from the Sierra Nevadas in the hope of striking it rich. So many came that Nevada City was the largest town in the state for a spell.
These days, Nevada City is a sleepier town – and its population is searching for a different kind of gold. Over the past couple of decades, the city has become home to a huge number of artists and musicians, including minimalist composer Terry Riley, harp-playing folkie Joanna Newsom, and Devendra Banhart accomplice Noah Georgeson.
It’s also where Alela Diane grew up. Diane’s star has been very much on the rise on the back of two excellent albums, (2007’s The Pirate’s Gospel and this year’s To Be Still). Initial word-of-mouth recommendations about her emotive sweep of shanties, ballads and campfire folk tunes have given way to bigger tours and a growing media profile.
Today, Alela Diane is talking to The Ticket from a hotel in France. The tour is a far cry from her days singing and playing guitar on her porch.
“It’s a small, beautiful town,” says Diane of Nevada City. “When I was a kid, my parents’ generation were involved in all these creative and artistic things. My mom is a painter and my parents were both in bands, so there was this circle of people their age who were always doing gigs in town.
“Every person I know in Nevada City my age is an artist of some sort. They might be casually making music or playing gigs, but a big problem is that they never leave Nevada City. It’s a problem because while they make amazing music, there’s no way for it to spread around if they don’t leave.”
It wasn’t until Diane left for college in San Francisco that she took up playing music and writing songs in earnest. “I always sung in choirs and stuff so I knew what to do with my voice. Occasionally I’d try to write little melodies or make up silly rhyme songs, but nothing clicked.
“Even in high school, I never liked what I created and didn’t think it was working out. It just didn’t feel right. But when I moved away, all these changes happened in my life and suddenly I had something to write about.”
One of those events was her first trip to Europe, an expedition she made on something of a whim. “That’s a good way of describing it,” she laughs. “It was crazy. That was me realising I had to do something drastic and different in my life other than studying in San Francisco.
“I had a little bit of money set aside and decided to do something different. I booked a flight, arrived in Paris and wandered around for a few weeks on my own. I didn’t speak a word of French. I knew nothing, not even how to say ‘hello’ or ‘thanks’ or ‘good evening’. And I didn’t have any friends or family in Paris either. Crazy!”
Diane had brought her guitar along, so the holiday produced many of the songs which turned up on The Pirate’s Gospel. The album was recorded in her father’s home studio (“we recorded everything really quickly and, looking back now, it was a little thrown together”) and the simplicity of the recordings amplified the appeal and allure of Diane’s voice and her quasi-vintage folk tunes.
When it came to recording To Be Still, however, Diane decided to take her time.
“The recording process was a lot more involved. It was a far more delicate and care- ful project because there is definitely more going on. More instruments and more friends are involved and I’ve brought the songs into being in a different way.”
It’s an approach which has paid off. Bolstered by fiddle, mandolin, banjos, bass, drums and cello, Diane’s songs are now stronger and carry much more melodic weight. Her voice is still a big factor, a set of pipes that will remind you of a young Sandy Denny or Karen Dalton, but the songs are now as much a part of the attraction.
She believes that everything that has happened in the last few years has added confidence to her arsenal.
“For me, the difference between the two albums comes down to what happened in the years between them. I’m in a different time in my life and I’ve become more comfortable with playing the guitar and writing songs which will be heard by more people than just me and my friends and family.
“I’m more experienced now with what comes with being a musician, and I suppose that means I’m more comfortable with the process. It just doesn’t feel foreign or alien any more to spend my days doing this.”
That confidence also allows Diane to say yes to projects, such as the Headless Heroes album. Headless Heroes is a band put together by New York A&R man and Mark Ronson accomplice Eddie Bezalel, to do covers of songs by Nick Cave, I Am Kloot, Jesus and Mary Chain, Jackson C Frank, Daniel Johnston and others. Diane sang on the album.
“It was really interesting how that came about. Eddie just found me on the internet. He found my MySpace page and liked my voice. He chose all the songs, so it was presented to me as ‘these are the songs, this is the idea, are you interested?’.
“At first, I thought it was weird because I didn’t play a role beyond singing. But the more I thought about it, the more I figured I liked the songs and it was something different, so I went along and sang the songs.
“Yeah, I think I’d like to do more of that.”
Voice of reason: Alela Diane is the latest offering from Nevada City