The stranger in popular culture has often been a signifier for isolation. Amy LaVere’s life since the release of her last album has seen the breakup with a long-term love relationship and musical collaborator, as well as the death of a musical mentor, which resulted in a longer gestation period for this, her third album, Stranger Me (Archer). Under the circumstances, one could imagine the allure of emotional distance.
Or does she mean stranger, as in more idiosyncratic? By a purely musical definition, Stranger Me would certainly qualify. Always texturally rich and often employing dissonance and off-kilter instrumentation, it is her most exploratory work to date. Producer Craig Silvey, fresh from engineering Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning The Suburbs album, proved a perfect choice in helping LaVere materialize the music that was in her head. The resulting soundscape, alternately haunting and exuberantly defiant, creates a perfect backdrop for this collection of songs about frustration and feeling emotionally disconnected.
LaVere was originally planning on making this album with her second album, Anchors & Anvils, producer, the legendary Jim Dickinson. He had not been in good health for some time, and she felt that she may not have many more opportunities to record with him. “He was the one who really got me to believe in my own voice,” says LaVere. When he passed in August 2009, in addition to grieving one of her greatest mentors and champions, she was back at square one in the recording process. One of her first thoughts, after she was ready to begin thinking about producers, was Silvey. They met in London through a mutual friend at the BBC, hit it off immediately and he volunteered to run sound for her performance on Later With Jools Holland. Although he would make a point to see her when she was performing in London, he had yet to listen to her albums. When she contacted him to consider producing her, he further resisted the temptation to listen to the first two records, so he could approach the new recording with fresh ears and ideas.
LaVere experienced other upheavals last year, beginning with the departure of her guitar player, Steve Selvidge, who left to join The Hold Steady. Even more devastating, she and her boyfriend/drummer Paul Taylor decided to call it quits after six years. “There’s much love and respect between the two of us, but sometimes creative people aren’t good together when they never get a break from one another,” she explains. After starting the recording process without him, it was evident that she missed his musical contributions, so she called him, and he eagerly agreed to play drums on the album. “You can’t replace the magic that comes from all those years of playing together,” she says. The process of recording became a healing experience as they redefined their relationship. LaVere channels the heartbreak that comes with the end of a relationship in “Tricky Heart“and “Cry My Eyes Out,” an ethereal song that finds its protagonist driving late into the night hoping to find a song on the radio that will trigger a cathartic release.
Like Dickinson before him, Silvey encouraged LaVere to follow her own muse, even when (especially when) it led her to more esoteric choices, like the one to cover Captain Beefheart’s “Candle Mambo.” “When I was on tour for the last album, we went through a Beefheart phase in the van. My old guitar player said, ‘Now THAT’S a love song.’ And he’s right. I first became obsessed with the idea of just covering it live but we could never get it to make sense with the limited instrumentation of my band at that time. I wanted to present it in a way that would explore the drunken nature of infatuation and how distracting it is. This idea needed a messier bed to lie in. Recording it gave me the opportunity to realize that.”
Amy LaVere was born in Louisiana and moved around as a GM brat (“Dad moved around to open factories”), and the family eventually settled near Detroit, at least everyone but her father, who continued to travel for work. The family structure eventually gave way. She and her sister rebelled, and one of the ways Amy did so was by joining a band at age 14. Rebellion is still a potent theme for her, and she continues to defy and test love’s constraints, adding to the body count of the last album (“Killing Him”) with “Red Banks,” a sly turn on the blues/country yarn where the girl usually ends up getting it in the end. In “Damn Love Song,” she finally writes the love song that her lover has longed for, but it’s practically spit at him as she is walking out the door. “You Can’t Keep Me” is a insolent pop song that warns that she won’t be held captive in her relationship as a building cacophony of horns and Theremin joyously celebrate her imminent freedom.
LaVere brought together a group of musicians that provided the right aesthetic for the album. Her first call was to Rick Steff (Lucinda Williams, Cat Power, Lucero) whose love for all things left of center appealed to her. He brought to the recording process a fertile imagination and a repository of odd instruments, including toy pianos, organ, Buddha boxes and the Theremin. Guitar player David Cousar, whose style Silvey describes as “beautifully eccentric,” was her next call. Other musicians include Anchors & Anvils violinist Bob Furgo (Leonard Cohen), floutist/saxophone Clint Maegden (Preservation Hall Jazz Band), cellist Jonathan Kirkscey and violist Beth Luscombe (Memphis Symphony), trumpeter Nahshon Benford, saxophonist Jim Spake and bassist John Stubblefield (Lucero).
Stranger Me is the next step in the exciting evolution of Amy LaVere. — clearly more confident in her musical point of view, possessing more wisdom about what love is not and ready to embrace the ideal of the stranger, whatever its iteration.
Tom Lee Park