Bukka Allen – Keys to the doors
It’s really no surprise that Bukka Allen grew up to become a musician. The eldest son of revered Texas songwriter/artist Terry Allen and multitalented playwright/songstress Jo Harvey Allen, he was raised in a very creative atmosphere. “There was always music in the house,” he says. “There was always people around doing things all the time when I was a kid.”
Although Allen began playing piano at an early age, he remembers that he was never pushed to sit and play. “Music was always something that was natural rather than something that you worked toward,” he says. “So in that sense it was definitely encouraging. The encouragement was always there, but there was never any pressure. All the decisions that were made were my own.”
Allen attended college at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston in the mid 1980s and moved to Austin after he graduated. When he arrived in Texas, he immediately became a fixture as a sideman and bandmate to several Austin artists, including Will Sexton, Kris McKay, Alejandro Escovedo and Beaver Nelson. The real turning point was when he played a few shows with Joe Ely, whose lead guitarist at the time was Ian Moore. When Moore left Ely to pursue his own interests, Allen joined his band and has stayed with Moore for the last five years.
During that time, though, Allen was writing his own songs and preparing to make his own record. The result, Sweet Valentine, which Allen recently released independently, is a song cycle of sorts — a remarkably fresh, deeply spiritual collection of mood pieces that combine his distinctive piano work, haunting vocals and simple yet perceptive lyrics.
“When I went about making this record,” he says, “I was thinking more in terms of a whole, rather than fragmented pieces. I really wanted to make a record that would pull in the listener and take them on a continuous journey, where everything was intertwined. A lot it is loosely based on what has happened to me personally as well as some friends of mine. It was inspired by things that were real in my life at the time. Once it was finished, it put a certain amount of closure to certain ideas and things that I had been going through. Certain doors closed and certain doors opened up.”
As to the luminous quality of some of the songs, Allen associates that with the nature of his chosen instrument. “I write everything I do on the piano,” he says. “It’s the most natural for me. I think that when you start comparing artists and their writing styles, piano as compared to guitar, the avenues are a little bit different. You can always find a way to express yourself. But harmonically and melodically, the instruments offer different things. You don’t see very many singer-songwriters on piano, and when you do see one, it’s different structurally and harmonically.”
When it’s suggested that at times Sweet Valentine recalls some of the darker work of Randy Newman, Allen replies, “I love Randy Newman and Warren Zevon, too. Newman’s arrangement techniques are amazing, but a lot of the things you hear on my record that are similar stylistically come from writing on the piano.”
Sonically, Sweet Valentine is miles beyond most self-released efforts; when pressed as to why he’s not yet associated with a record label, Allen comes up with an insightful reply. “I knew I wanted to make this record for a long time. While I was trying to put it together, I was involved with a lot of different artists that were making records, and there was always something that they were disappointed with. A lot of that was due to the control that the label had over what they were doing.
“I just decided to save the money and do it exactly the way I wanted to do it. There were quite a few personal sacrifices made to make it that way. Number one was going broke doing it,” he chuckles. “But I really feel that it’s something I can give to people and have some pride about it. We’ll see if I can land a label deal at some point or another, but at least I have it exactly the way I want it.”