Singer strikes out on her own
AMY HELM Aug. 19, 7:30 p.m. | Pitchfork Social, Salt Spring Island Tickets: $35 at pitchforksocial.com We should probably get the famous father out of the way first.
In Amy Helm’s case that would be Levon Helm, the nowdeceased singer-drummer for The Band, and one of the most beloved figures in American roots and rock music. The connection was strong between them, with Amy serving as part of Levon’s many solo endeavours, including the popular Midnight Ramble band that grew out of weekly performances at Levon’s home in Woodstock, N.Y.
But even as she kept one foot in the family business (her mother, Libby Titus, was a respected singer-songwriter in her own right), she’s also been building a musical resumé on her own, most notably as part of Ollabelle, the versatile New York folk ensemble.
For decades, Amy has been content to work within a group dynamic, but with last summer’s Didn’t it Rain, she struck out on her own, finishing an album she had started in her dad’s barn studio years ago (Levon died in 2012). Her debut pulls together the many musical threads in her life, with Levon playing drums on three tracks, Ollabelle guitarist Byron Isaacs co-writing most of the album, and a wide range of Midnight Ramble players adding parts. Most importantly, Didn’t it Rain features her new band, Amy Helm & The Handsome Strangers, which ended up going in long after the genesis of the project to recut a number of the songs.
Amy, who still lives in Woodstock, spoke about her new album and her dad.
It’s almost traditional for the offspring of famous musicians to be snapped up almost as soon as they’re of age, but it seems like you’ve been very careful about building your career.
It’s funny you say that because there were people who wanted me to get into it right away, but I stayed in local bands in New York so I could let myself be an 18-year-old singer who was sometimes good and sometimes awful. It has to be even tougher for kids these days, because there’s this thing about being a star rather than being a musician. The industry is now structured in that way.
After working as a backup singer and multi-instrumentalist for so many years, did you just reach a point where you needed to do something of your own?
I think I needed to because part of me was afraid to stick out. I needed time to stand within a collective, listen and learn, get my education, but then I had to step out. I had never done a gig under own name when I began recording the album, and that’s a new universe for any musician. It’s a different identity and set of demands, and I had to grow into it. That’s why it took so long to finish. I got quite a bit stronger from writing and demo-ing songs between the Midnight Ramble and Ollabelle.
How large does your dad’s legend loom over your own career, and does your own respect for what he accomplished outweigh the occasional frustration for having to constantly answer for it?
When you have a parent who is famous, you will never have the luxury of getting up and having total anonymity with an audience. When it’s a small club and you’re a sideman you might, but not often. It’s one of those things that can’t be helped. They’ll project onto you the second you walk on that stage, even if they love you for what you do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not easy when you’re trying to grow your craft. On the other hand, it opens doors. I’ve never taken that for granted.