Gold singer

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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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

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