Allison Moorer on Leonard Cohen in a Theater and Hayes Carll in Her Living Room
There were plenty of valid reasons for the five-year gap between Allison Moorer’s acclaimed 2010 album Crows and her new album Down to Believing.
“Well, I’ll give you the list,” she says when I ask. “I became a parent. I toured in Steve Earle’s band while getting my sea legs as a mother and trying to figure out how to be in a family, be the kind of mother I want to be and still be an artist and have that still be my center.
“Then my marriage fell apart, and my son was diagnosed with autism. I moved from New York to Nashville and then back to New York again. I wrote a memoir, and I wrote notebooks full of songs. Sometimes life takes over,” she says candidly, “and without life, we have no songs worth listening to.”
The powerful songs on Down to Believing signal a successful comeback for Moorer. who says the album is about family and relationships. She married Earle in 2005, though they have since split up, and she devotes much time to their son with autism, John Henry.
“[This albuum is] an important work to me,” she says “because I finally gave myself the freedom to let it all out and not care how naked I felt. It was a huge step for me.”
The album “almost feels like a culmination of sorts for me personally,” Moorer says. “I feel like everything I’ve ever learned through making every record I’ve ever made came together on Down to Believing. Song to song, I see it as a cycle. It tells a story and has a beginning, middle and end. I’ve tried to do that on every record I’ve ever made but haven’t always been successful. I think the songs are, on the whole, the best, most personal and straightforward I’ve ever written.”
Moorer isn’t as definitive about the best concert she has seen.
“I’ve been lucky enough to see many artists stop time with their brilliant performances,” she says. “It’s hard to say which has been the best. I’ve been so lucky that I’ve had so many amazing teachers and sat at their feet. But if I have to pick one concert, It would be Leonard Cohen at the Beacon.”
At that show at New York’s Beacon Theatre on Feb. 19, 2009, Cohen performed 26 songs, including three encores.
Bob Boilen, who reviewed the concert for NPR’s website, wrote that the show was “historic and a knockout.” Cohen’s voice “was in fine form, and his stage presence is so graceful and passionate that you may rethink all those other great shows you’ve seen by younger artists.”
Cohen revisited “a body of work that’s more than 40 years deep and full of songs that have inspired every generation of songwriters since: “Dance Me to the End of Love,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Chelsea Hotel,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Suzanne,” “Hallelujah,” “I’m Your Man,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Boilen wrote.
Cohen injected “new life into his old classics” and performed them “with a talented band of musicians, including his collaborator and singer Sharon Robinson, as well as his other backup vocalists in The Webb Sisters.”
Boilen was particularly smitten by Javier Mas, who played banduria, laud, archilaud and 12-string. “Mas’ performance on a variety of stringed instruments gave Cohen’s sound a European flavor and reminded me, at times, of a sound I heard in Portugal, called Fado, a bittersweet style of music filled with longing and yearning.”
Moorer remembers that Cohen “was absolutely nothing short of totally generous.” He was “absolutely intentional about what he was doing and absolutely elegant in every way.”
She also may never forget another great performance in a more personal space.
“Hayes Carll sang ‘The Magic Kid’ for me one night in my living room and it brought me to tears. When Hayes’ voice breaks when he’s singing about something he cares about, I think anyone with a soul is moved by it.”
Moorer believes that a Neil Young concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in January 2014 was a show that most influenced her as a musician. Young did a four-night solo stand at the historic venue and performed mostly his hit songs from the 1970s. He also covered Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death” and two superb Buffalo Springfield songs he wrote, “On the Way Home” and “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong.”
Moorer realizes, of course, that other musicians’ live performances have also influenced her.
“I’ve sung backup for my sister, Shelby Lynne, who is a masterful singer. I’ve learned a lot from singing with her, and watching Steve Earle up close for years taught me a whole lot about performing solo.
“I think one can learn from a myriad of experiences,” Moorer says. “I once burst into tears at the the Art Institute of Chicago while staring at a Toulouse-Lautrec watercolor. It was a night after I’d watched the Grammys on TV in my hotel room nearby on a night off. I wondered why there wasn’t a band playing to celebrate the painting as it was much more moving and relevant to me than anything I’d experienced on TV the night before.”