Life finds its way – Alison Krauss and ‘Paper Airplane’
A conversation with Doug Heselgrave
Alison Krauss is one of the greatest singers in modern country music and needs no introduction. A performer since she was little more than a child, Krauss’ career has been characterized by her personal and musical integrity. I recently caught up with her on the phone in New York City on the day ‘Paper Airplane’ – her first CD of original music since the multiple Grammy winning ‘Lonely Runs Both Ways’ came out in 2004 – was released. Long time fans will continue to enjoy the amazing musical interplay between Alison and the incredible musicians in her outstanding band, Union Station, but don’t be surprised if this dark and mature collection of songs wins over legions of new listeners who usually don’t enjoy country music. It is truly the most musically challenging and rewarding release of her already impressive career. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
DH: Hi Alison. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me. Your record came out today, so you must be really busy.
AK: Oh, it’s no problem. We’re in New York now and we’ve done a TV show, so it’s a bit crazy. I apologize if there’s a lot going on around me. My friend just came in and she’s going to have a baby. I just had a look at her stomach. Forget about the record, this is so exciting. (huge laugh)
DH: This isn’t the first time you’ve done the promotional whirl. You’ve been in the music business ever since you were a kid. Does this ever get old for you?
AK: That’s an interesting question, but no, I don’t think it does. We only get together every now and then and we have a very relaxed recording process. It’s always nice to be with the guys. We’ve all known each other for so long at this point, so we’re a bit like an extended family. And, as far as publicity goes – y’know as far as talking to people like you – as long as everyone’s nice you know, everything is fine. (laugh) You know it’s only if I talk too much and my singing suffers that I worry about it.
DH: Now, you’re not going to remember this, but I met you once when you were about fourteen.
DH: Yes, I used to work running performer hospitality at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and you came to play there and I think Vancouver was your first time playing outside of the States.
AK: Oh my gosh! I remember that so well. That was a huge deal for me. At that time, I imagine I had to ask my parents if I was even allowed to go and play.
DH: I remember the director of the festival telling me that when he called you were doing homework and you weren’t sure if you’d be allowed to go. I’m so glad your parents let you come.
AK: That was one of my first big shows. I truly remember it.
DH: Speaking of being young, you’ve made the transition from being a bit of a child prodigy into being an adult performer quite seamlessly. At least from the outside it appears that way.
AK: I’ve always been part of a band and that’s really helped. The spotlight has never been just on me. It is funny though that I’ve been in the business long enough that it’s sometimes funny to hear old recordings that I made early on in my career. If I think about it, I feel lucky to realize how much music I’ve had the chance to make in my life. Goodness. I’ve enjoyed this time I’ve had.
DH: Is it hard to keep a balance in your life? By that I mean you’ve won so many Grammys and received so much attention. Does it ever go to your head? How do you keep track of the real Alison?
AK: Well, I’m very lucky because most of my life is my private life. I am just living a life like everybody else. Music is something I’m not thinking about all the time though I do love it. I do enjoy the studio and playing concerts. There’s something in my personality that doesn’t always like to think about one particular thing. But you asked if I have to work to achieve the balance. Well, sometimes I have to stop things and take stock if things are getting too crazy, but that doesn’t happen too often. Most of the time things work out just right, but sometimes something comes along to stop me and I get sick.
DH: I’ve heard you get migraines. I sometimes get them, too and it’s an interesting thing when I look back I can always tell why I got sick. It’s as if they come along to tell me I’ve been doing too much and not taking care of myself properly
AK: I would say they humble me a bit. Someone told me one time…. that if you have a recurring problem, it usually serves a purpose.
DH: Do you think migraines serve any purpose however unpleasant? I remember reading something that the classical composer, Hildegard von Bingen wrote about how they gave her visions that she used in her work.
AK: I think everything contributes to your work, so whether or not you can put your finger on what anything is or what input it has, it has an effect. Everything in our lives does. It’s pretty cool that she could point it out or identify the contribution migraines made for her. I think everything in life finds its way into whatever creative form you explore. You know, I don’t mean to sound cosmic, but these things show us that life is really good and that you need perspective sometimes.
DH: True. Let’s talk a bit about your new CD. As far as a complete artistic statement and a well-conceived album, I think it’s the best work you’ve ever done.
AK: Thank you very much.
DH: It’s really quite beautiful how all of the songs go together. I don’t like the term ‘concept album’, but it really seems like there’s a consistent emotional tone humming just under the radar on all of these songs. Was this conscious in any way?
AK: Well, I don’t go in with a definite idea of how things are going to turn out. I don’t have a definite concept. Some folks do, and I have when working on somebody else’s record, but for me it’s always been a case of looking back and seeing it. If you’ve been following what you feel, a concept will develop. Whatever it may be and whatever it is, it’s a reflection if you’re being true to yourself.
DH: This is a biting, hurting album at times. There’s a lot of commitment. Are these songs that you felt you had to sing?
AK: I feel like I did have to take on all of these songs. Paper Airplanes was a song I had to do or I would not have been happy. I needed that song to come along. I would be devastated somehow if a song like that couldn’t have been on the album. I knew it was out there. It is such a true song. Everything about it is so direct and so beautiful.
DH: It sounds as if it performed itself. Can we use that song as an example of how you work in the studio? How does a performance like that come together? To what extent do you lead the bad or give direction? Do you ever tell Dan, Jerry and Ron what you’re hearing and what you’d like them to play? How does a song take shape?
AK: Well, everyone contributes. Jerry might make a suggestion on the arrangement and then things kind of fall together. It was a very natural and unforced experience. We’ve known each other for a long time. I think for me this is the most arranged song on this record was ‘’my love follows where you go.’ It was very structured compared to some of the others. My last record was less consciously arranged than this one.
DH: When you say arranged, do you layer tracks in the studio or play live? How do you like to work on a song?
AK: Well, mostly the tracks are all cut live. The instrumental performances I mean. My singing I usually do separately.
DH: They sound like live performances. The band has such great intuition and they’ve got that looseness that you can only play with if you’re able to be incredibly precise when you have to be. It’s hard to explain, but the flow on this record is great.
AK: It really does sound wonderful and I’m very proud of this one. It was a tough time physically for me and emotionally for me. It was tough and we all hung in there.
DH: Tough because of how you were interacting with the music, or tough because of other things?
AK: No, I mean physically I was hurting. I was going through my own tough personal time so that has a lot to do with what you choose to sing. I am always only interested in singing what is true for me.
DH: On that subject – ‘Dimming of the Day’ is a song I know from an old Richard and Linda Thompson record. Your version is really wrenching even though you give it a different emotional landscape than they did. It’s a tough song.
AK: Oh yeah! I heard that song from T Bone Burnett. He played it for me when we were putting together another round of tracks for ‘Raising Sand’. I thought it was just beyond beautiful and insanely – you know – as people react to it. I knew that I had to cut it, but I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off.
DH: – or technically?
AK: All of it. I don’t think three or four years ago, I would have been able to pull it off. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. It never made it because I didn’t feel like it was going with the other things we were cutting at the time.
DH: I can see that. ‘Raising Sand’ was a different kind of record than this one.
AK: Yeah, and I didn’t want to do that song as a.. .anyway. Let’s not get into that. It wouldn’t have been right then, but I kept thinking about it and then I started to think of how well it would fit in with the song ‘Paper Airplane’ on the new record. It was a natural pairing.
DH: It wouldn’t have been the same, had the same true emotional resonance if it got the T Bone treatment
AK: We did cut it, but you know when I think about the song, ‘Paper Airplane’, it’s about 3 o’clock in the afternoon in its feel. ‘Dimming of the Day’ is like it’s the next morning and she didn’t get to have him at night after waiting all night. It’s a continuation of that story. I mean, to me it’s a natural progression and they go so well together.
DH: You’re subtle. There’s a lot of wrenching emotions in the song, but you don’t overtly go there. Technically, it’s a killer because there are such long phrases with so many notes to hold. There’s a lot of subtle, fluid changes even in a single lyric. You make it sound effortless and it’s a song that imposes diabolical demands on the singer.
AK: The track was a first take and I can’t remember if it was late at night, but I think most of the vocals came from the fourth time I sang it through. It was really tough. I find it very difficult to even talk about that song. It’s so – the epitome of the last place a woman wants to go. I don’t want to be that honest in my life. A woman always wants to hold onto a bit of pride. There are so many things in that song that if you’ve lived, you really know. It’s really a bit too much to take on at times. I sang that song in Scotland for a TV show and I was playing with this fiddle player and her notes really got to my heart and when I sang ‘ I need you’ and she played along, I wondered what had happened to her and if she was feeling it, too. God, even talking about that song makes me sad.
DH: Yeah, it’s a career defining performance. I felt like a total mess after hearing it on one level – while a whole other part of my brain was amazed by the technical aspects of how you sang it. Is this something you’ll be singing live?
AK: I think I’ll sing it. I hope so. There hasn’t been a time I’ve sung it that it hasn’t completely worn me out, but I hope that’ll change. What a testimony. Not only for Richard Thompson who wrote it, but for Linda who could sing it. It is really something very true.
DH: Without belaboring the point, it is truly one of the greatest songs ever written and recorded. I’m going to be coming to your show in the Comox Valley in July – so maybe it’s a good time to ask you about your tour. With such a huge repertoire, how do you choose what to play?
AK: We choose things from our whole time together. We try to switch it up a bit from night to night and play special songs in places where we know people want to hear something in particular. We start rehearsals at the end of May, so we’ll put it together then.
DH: Before I go, and you may be sick of talking about this, but singing with Robert Plant… This is for my interest. A few years ago, I heard you and your brother Viktor’s version of Big Log, did you and Robert ever sing it together?
AK: He didn’t want to do that one. I think that was too much of a reminder of an emotional time. That was a true song for him about a relationship that he didn’t want to revisit. That’s what I remember and understand. He just didn’t want to go back there.
DH: Do you have any songs like that?
AK: Ones that I don’t like to sing for emotional reasons?
DH: Or artistic ones.
AK: No, I still like the songs I’ve recorded. There are a few I recorded just for fun that don’t really work at any other level, but even the early stuff I can look back and realize those were good songs that were important to me at a certain time. I still like to sing a lot of them. I imagine at a certain point, some of the songs on this record might be a bit too much to sing all that often. I can mark what all of them mean to me and I might not always want to go into that anger or whatever emotions come up with them. There was a lot going on for me emotionally and in my life during the recording of this album. (long pause)
DH: Well, I hardly know you, Alison – so I won’t ask you to go into anything too personal here.
AK: (big laugh) Oh, that’s ok. I love all of the songs.
DH: And you sound great. I’m really looking forward to your show in July.
AK: Come and say hello when we’re playing in Comox. I’d like to put a face to your voice.
DH: Good luck with everything. You’ve got a great album.
AK: Thank you very much. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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