Folk singer Alela Diane Menig splits most of her time between Oregon and California, and that’s worth paying attention to because of how frequently a sense of place plays a defining role in her gorgeous songs. Her sophomore album To Be Still, released last month on Rough Trade Records, depicts the artist’s surroundings just as vividly as it depicts the songwriter.
“[My songs] definitely are informed by geography,” says the 26-year-old Portland, Ore., resident, who performs under the name Alela Diane. “Right now, I’m on tour so much that it doesn’t matter where home base is so much. But I definitely write about the things that are happening in that time of life, or reflecting back on dreams. Wherever I am, my songs will be shaped by the places I am.” “Dry Grass & Shadows,” for instance, is one such tune. The haunting, lilting song expresses hope for a return to a lost, yet still attainable, countryside, with Alela Diane cooing over light banjo and guitar. Her rich voice keens like that of Californian neofolkie Mia Doi Todd, though not quite as stylized.
And on To Be Still, Alela Diane expanded her musical palette, growing beyond the basic acoustic guitar and vocals of her 2006 debut The Pirate’s Gospel. She credits the album’s recording process with influencing the sounds. To Be Still’s main tracks were recorded over two intense weeks at a studio in Portland, but then Alela Diane and her father spent additional time tweaking and recording at his home studio in Nevada City, Calif.
“I was able to add more to it,” she says. “There’s a lot more instrumentation, and it just gave me the freedom to really get the album to where I wanted it. Because we could just do things when there was time rather than worry about a time crunch. Working with my dad back in Nevada City, it was much more casual. We could do things when it felt right, rather than when we had to because the studio was booked.
For me, that works a lot better, knowing that I could wake up one morning and not be creative if I didn’t have to be. There wasn’t that pressure there.”
Unfussy violin slides through songs like “Take Us Back” and “White As Diamonds,” with world-weary yearning— “I’ve a friend who lives out by the river’s mouth, he knows the fiddle’s cry is an old sound,” she sings—relayed through Alela Diane’s thick timbre. It’s tough not to think of American folk singers like Karen Dalton and Joni Mitchell as she hums seemingly simple melodies with passion to burn. The album feels fully formed and focused, qualities that emerge almost by accident.
“When I went into the project, I didn’t really have a clear vision of what I wanted, and in a way that was challenging and posed some hurdles along the way. But, at the same time, it was cool to be able to add things—to realize ‘Oh, that’s not what I want,’ and then take them away until it just became what it is. I didn’t have a clear picture, and that was because before this record, I was just used to playing the guitar and singing,” she says. “I never thought about the fact that adding percussion and drums can make the song become anything. It can go in any direction with percussion. You could add a hip-hop rhythm, or y’know, some kind of Latin American beat.” Alela Diane seems to always return to her initial folk roots. “Age Old Blues,” another geographically illustrative number, conjures thoughts of the English folk revival of the ’60s, where singers like Sandy Denny let their voices inhabit the rolling hills and slowly stirring dreams alike.
That song’s a duet with iconic singer Michael Hurley, whose plaintive creak offers a lovely counterpoint to Alela Diane’s pastoral lilt. Her songs ache for pastoral settings and days past; they’re not just backwards-looking due to their nostalgia; they’re maybe all the more urgent because of it. CW