JIM WELTE. Writer. Editor.

Alela Diane: All in the Family

 | published on October 28, 2009

Photo courtesy of Alela Diane

Alela Diane Menig grew up in Nevada City, CA, a former gold-rush town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The tight-knit community, anchored by a main street that has changed little since its heyday in the mid-1800s, is a haven for hippies and creative types, and its schools place a heavy emphasis on the arts. Alela spent her youth taking photos and painting, getting good grades, singing in the school choir, and occasionally heading out to see her dad, Tom, perform as the leader of the DeadBeats, a Grateful Dead cover band in which she says he “still shreds on the electric guitar.” But despite musical parents and a father who seemed to have a guitar in his lap at all hours of the day and night, Alela (“a-LEE-la”) was rarely inspired to write songs and play music.

And then her world got turned upside down.

Soon after Alela headed south for college in San Francisco, Tom and Suzanne Menig split up, a heartbreaking event that unleashed a torrent of unforeseen songwriting talent in their daughter. The songs were melancholic, focused primarily on the break-up and its aftermath, with her parents selling the home Alela grew up in and her mom moving to Santa Cruz. The creative outburst turned into 2006′s The Pirate’s Gospel, an album of lingering folk that announced Alela Diane, the name she records and performs under, as a formidable songwriter with a remarkably rangy voice. The album soldAlela Diane: Photo by by Julien Bourgeois well in the US, and unexpectedly took off in France.

“It just turned everything upside down,” Alela, now 26 years old, says of the break-up. “That’s when it became obvious that I should be doing music. It was a fork in the road, and it changed everything.”

Alela spent the bulk of 2006 on tour in the US and Europe, finding catharsis from repeated performances of those songs. But a funny thing happened: As time passed and the pain of her parents’ break-up subsided, her writing bug didn’t recede with it. She holed herself up in a cabin in her hometown with her cat, Bramble Rose, and put pen to pad, this time writing about the stillness of domesticity and the beauty of natural surroundings. While her first batch of songs had titles like “Something’s Gone Awry” and “Can You Blame the Sky?” new ones emerged called “The Ocean”, “The Alder Trees”, and “Dry Grass & Shadows.”

Alela’s sophomore effort on Rough Trade, aptly titled To Be Still, hit stores on February 17th. “Forwhatever reason, I can still write,” she says. “I think it just unlocked something in me.” The gloom doesn’t subside entirely, though, as the album’s opening lyrics attest: “There are things that I’ve seen in my head / While I’m sleeping in bed / That do not wither in the morning light.”

With her fluttering voice and folksy disposition, Alela has drawn comparisons to both Joni Mitchell and fellow Nevada City native Joanna Newsom. While those are fitting, Alela is something of an anomaly in modern music, in that she doesn’t have a lifetime’s worth of crate digging to influence her sound. Although music was ubiquitous in the Menig household, Alela’s parents had a limited record collection, and her touchstones are the songs that her mom and dad would sing together. “My biggest memory is of waking up and hearing my dad play guitar and then falling asleep to the sound of it as well—he was just always playing,” she says.

Now living in Portland with her boyfriend and To Be Still bassist Tom Bevitori, Alela is closer than ever with her mom Suzanne, with whom she frequently butted heads with as a teenager. “Everybody has come to terms with it,” she says. “This is how things are now.”

As for Tom Menig, he is the central force in her emergence. Alela recorded both albums at her dad’s home studio in Nevada City, and when she decided to expand her sonic palette on To Be Still, she called on many of his old friends, including pedal steel guitarist Pete Grant, an occasional member of the DeadBeats. Veteran folk singer Michael Hurley sings on duet “Age Old Blue”, and Alela’s childhood violin teacher, Rondi Soule, plays guitar and cello. While the extra instrumentation adds layers and flourishes, the most potent addition is percussion.

“The songs were just requesting more,” Alela says. “I recorded one song with drums a couple of years ago and it was such a neat experience. I hadn’t really realized how much that can add to a song. After that, I was hooked, and my dad would bring in friends of his to play.”

Alela clearly revels in her musical partnership with her dad, particularly because it comes without the potential awkwardness of “creative differences” that arise with collaborators you haven’t known your whole life. “If something didn’t work, we would just throw it away,” she says. “It’s my dad, so if something isn’t working, I can just say so. I wasn’t going to offend anybody.”

Listen: Various Tracks [at myspace.com]

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