One of the many, many wonderful things about our music scene here in Portland is …
After bearing her soul on About Farewell, an immensely personal record largely inspired by the dissolution of her first marriage, Alela Diane was burnt out. On life, on touring, on writing. She needed a fresh start–both personally and creatively–and found each via a new marriage, the birth of her first child and a random backstage meeting with her friend, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi, that blossomed into her latest project. Diane took her new-found inspiration and used it to view the world through a different lens on Cold Moon, her and Francesconi’s gorgeously sparse October 16 release that stands as one of the most “of the winter” records I’ve heard. I spoke with the songwriter about her new outlook, how Joanna Newsom planted the seeds of her new Portland-centric project, and about “raging against the dying of the light” as a new mother in today’s world.
ELEVEN: How do you and Ryan (Francesconi) know each other and what is the relationship like? How did you decide to collaborate?
Alela Diane: Ryan and I met through mutual friends probably almost a decade ago–we were having a hard time articulating exactly when–but we met through Joanna (Newsom), she’s also from Nevada City, [California, where Diane grew up] and Ryan has obviously toured and worked with her a lot [and was responsible for the arrangements on Newsom’s Have One On Me]. I think that was the first thing: I would be at festivals in Europe and they would as well and we’d cross paths–this was probably nine or eight years ago, something like that–and he lives in Portland like I do and we’d see each other occasionally. I actually took some guitar lessons from him a couple of years ago. And then about a year ago our friend Lindsay Clark was playing a record release show and we were both there and we started chatting about where we were musically. At the time my daughter was about one and I was just not feeling ready to make another solo record, I just didn’t have the time or the energy to delve into that, but I was really craving something creative–I really needed something to do other than chill with the kid and go to the park.
11: I can imagine.
AD: Ryan had just finished things up with Joanna and then he and his wife Mirabai (Peart) had just made a really cool record (Road To Palios) and toured behind that… and he was just kind of run down after. When we ran into each other, he actually had not played guitar at the time in something crazy like six months for the first time since he was eleven years old or something.
11: Oh wow, that’s wild. It’s hard to imagine him not playing for six days at a time.
AD: Yeah I know! So he was kinda like “Yeah I could get into making some music again,” but he didn’t really want to just dive into something with just instrumental music–I think he was a bit disheartened with all that. So he emailed me a few days later and basically just said, “Hey, do you want to make some songs and just see what it feels like?” And I thought it sounded really interesting so in about a week he sends me about ten really intricate and really beautiful guitar pieces. At first I was a little overwhelmed like, “Oh shit! How am I going to do this? I have so little time and these guitar pieces are so much more beautiful and complicated than anything I’m used to writing a melody over!” So I just kind of listened a lot and then gradually words started coming. It was a really great outlet for me to have something to do other than be a mom. I would go to a coffee shop and listen to the songs on my headphones and write some words… and I think because his guitar parts were so good they gave me a different lens to frame things in–he really inspired me to go for different types of melodies and words than I had done before.
11: Well that’s interesting because it’s hard to imagine a better or more natural pairing than you two. Listening to the record it’s often hard to tell where your voice is ends and the guitar is begins–sometimes it feels like the guitar is following your vocals and other times vice versa. It’s very entrancing. Great headphone music.
AD: That’s awesome, I’m glad it’s coming across. It really was a unique writing process, and was really something different for me.
11: Which was probably invigorating…
AD: Absolutely. So after I listened to the guitar parts that were supposed to be rough demos–which, PS: were totally perfect–shortly there after we started getting together once or twice a week to work on the songs in person. That was last October when we started, and by February began to realize that we might have enough for a record–which was never our intent starting out–we just wanted to make some music and see how it worked out. It became clear early on it was easy for us to work together… and to be honest: that time in my life was so hectic that if I wasn’t feeling it even a little bit then I would have backed out, so it was really nice that it unfolded so gracefully. We recorded it at Ryan’s house, for free, and then we had a record.
11: That’s interesting because I was going to ask how long it took. So it was created completely in the winter?
AD: Yeah it was totally a project for the winter. At the time I only had about eight hours a week in which I could work on the record.
11: That probably helped in a sense in hindsight.
AD: It really did–it created a structure around things and it gave me something where I had time to work on this creative thing.
11: And you had to make the most of the little time you had?
AD: Yeah, and I made the most out of it and did what I had time to do… and I guess I had time to make a record [laughs]!
11: I guess so! Speaking of the lyrics, which are beautiful, I was kind of taken aback upon first listen by some of the darker lyrics on Cold Moon –considering that you’re in a great place personally with a new marriage and being a mom for the first time. Obviously having a kid is a very joyous experience, but it also has to be absolutely terrifying at times as well.
AD: Oh yeah…
11: Because there are a lot of lyrics pertaining to the end of, or death, of seasons–but also the fact that with the death of every season, a new one is born, which is cause for celebration. I think, on the surface at least, some people might be surprised by the lyrical content. How did these new experiences inform your writing this time around?
AD: There’s a rebirth, yeah. I think it sort of informed the life-cycle aspect of the lyrics. Having a child–I don’t think I’ve ever been happier–everything just sort of fell into place for me… but I have this habit of falling into this other place when I’m writing. Having Vera is the most “real” thing of my life… and I’ve always been one of those people who always wonders where we came from, why we’re here and what it all means, and having a kid has only amplified that. It’s made me think about how things are always in flux: seasons change and people die, what does it mean? There are a lot of those type of questions on the record.
11: That’s interesting because to me it almost sounds like you’re pondering these questions for her, or speaking to her on the record.
AD: I think I am, or as a result of her I’m really thinking about the juxtaposition of all the joy possible in life when at the same time there’s all this terrible darkness happening right before our eyes. That affects me really deeply. Also in Portland what’s happening now–they’re tearing everything down just to build it again…
11: My next question was going to be about this relating to Portland.
AD: Well yeah the end of that song “Migration” is about that. Witnessing the change of the times, in a lot of cases they are tearing down something beautiful and historic and replacing it with this disposable…
11: With nothing basically.
AD: Yeah! And it sort of brings to light all the other things that are wrong in the world and how often they happen–the waste, the pollution, use of plastic–that’s what that line “The backwards way we do things” refers to. None of it makes sense, we’re often doing things so wrong as humans… there is a bit of that on the record for sure.
11: It’s like you’re doing a Dylan Thomas thing on the album: a raging against the dying of the light type of deal. Sure, things might be pretty fucked, but let’s not give up on everything.
AD: [laughs] It just seems we’re in such a confusing time to be alive, and we’re just expected to just go to our jobs and just walk blindly through life without making any other choices or questioning anything, and that’s not the way it should be.
11: That dissatisfaction with the state of the world combined with still acknowledging its beauty: that’s what I got out of the album. It’s a quintessentially “wintery” record to be sure, but it’s a sunny, crisp Sunday morning on your porch, drinking coffee kind of wintery. The release date couldn’t be better.
AD: That’s exactly what it is. People cozying up with a coffee or tea and experiencing winter, the transition of the changing seasons and life in general. »
– Donovan Farley