Recording artist Alyssa Graham talks jazz, Jersey and Whitney Houston

The Current's Mark Lewis introduces ARC to iTunes' "New and Noteworthy" artist Alyssa Graham at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco on March 17.

Have you ever heard of Alyssa Graham? If you haven’t – you’re probably not alone. Here’s your chance to discover an artist on the cusp of notoriety. In an exclusive interview with ARCurrent.com, singer-songwriter Graham sits down with Mark Lewis on March 17 at San Francisco’s Hotel Utah. Following the interview, Graham took the stage at the Hotel Utah. For a critique of her performance and to find-out whether it was loved, loathed or “Missed the Mark?” – Click here for a full review.

Alyssa Graham: So you are from what college?

The Current: I’m with The Current which is American River College’s student-run newspaper. We’re located in Sacramento.

Oh in Sacramento? You drove here from Sacramento?

Absolutely.

Are you kidding?

Not at all.

Wow, I’m flattered!

I was very impressed with your album that Cami and Samantha [Graham’s public relations representatives] sent to me.

Oh cool. Wow! I didn’t know you guys drove that far or we would have had like, I don’t know, welcoming presents.

No, no, no [Laughing]. Just taking the time to speak with us is very much appreciated. Let me start-off by congratulating you on being named one of iTunes’ “New and Noteworthy” artist a couple years back. How has that designation affected your career thus far?

I think that it’s just one of those little sweet nuggets you can use as part of your press campaign (laughing) basically. As far as in working with iTunes and being considered a breaking new artist, there’s just no comparison. Having iTunes backing you as an artist is something that didn’t use to exist in this industry. They’ve been incredibly supportive to me with both my new record and the last record. I think that the great thing about iTunes is that they really care about musicians. They actually listen to the music. I think they’re not stuck on promoting just Britney Spears or I don’t know somebody like Madonna. I think they really want to help the new artists that they profile. It’s helped my career and it’s given me a platform where there might not have been one otherwise. Having been chosen specifically is really flattering and I’m just really grateful to be recognized for this record by an industry giant that supports independent and up-and-coming artists.

Just curious, how do they [iTunes] go about doing that? Do you submit something to them?

No, it’s totally random. I didn’t find-out until midnight on the day “Echo” was released. What happens is the record is released by the label on a Tuesday and by Monday at midnight I discovered that I’d been chosen by them and given that “New and Noteworthy” designation. So at midnight the night before January 31, 2008, everybody was like ‘are we up, are we up?’ We kept refreshing the page to see if I’d been chosen and I think probably hundreds were released the same day as ours. It was such a great feeling because we were like ‘There we are… Yay!’

I’m interested in understanding how exactly you got put into this specific jazz genre of music.

Oh f***. You know, I’m not comparing myself to Norah Jones because she’s sold billions of records, but I think when Norah came out with her first record, “Come Away With Me,” I didn’t think that it was a jazz record but it was on “Blue Note” and “Blue Note” sets the standard for jazz so people immediately associated her with jazz music just because she was on “Blue Note.” I think a similar thing happened to me. I released a record that was really singer-songwriter-ish musically but we did have a jazz band performing on it and there were a lot of jazz instruments and a lot of jazz-improvised harmonies in the arrangement. It also happened to be released by a small jazz label called “Sunnyside Records.” It could have been called a singer-songwriter project with a jazz band behind it but really the closer was having it on “Sunnyside” which is known for featuring jazz musicians like Chris Connor.

You mentioned the singer-songwriter aspect of your music. There was a period when you just got sick of writing songs and you put down your pen so to speak and said you were going to stop writing for a bit but you co-wrote most of the songs on your new album “Lock, Stock & Soul.” What changed? Where did the inspiration come from?

That’s a very easy answer. The inspiration was Craig Street who produced the record. There was that period you mentioned but it wasn’t quite writer’s block because I could write – I just wasn’t satisfied with anything that I was writing. I’m like a control freak, perfectionist and total “Type A” personality. I was just never satisfied so I would never see a song through to its final formation. When we went into production with Craig Street, he said to me every day “’Tomorrow morning I want you to have a new song for me’” and I would be like ‘No, I don’t write songs anymore’ and he’d respond “’Yes you do, yes you do.’” A comment I remember from author, Isabel Allende, said that “’Inspiration is for amateurs’” and I think that’s what it was for me. I think that you just get up and go to work. I had to let go of that need to perfect everything and just get up and sing and write and work for a certain amount of hours. I just dedicated myself and stopped holding on so tightly to everything. It just started flowing more easily from there. It’s like any other job – you get up and you write. Some people sit around and wait for inspiration and as Isabel Allende would say – “’That’s for amateurs!’”

That’s so interesting because I recently read an article in Rolling Stone about Elton John. He has a reputation for being really senile but he did kind of what you just described and sat down for two straight days and had 18 songs written which he then recorded in four days.

Yeah and I think musicians do that a lot, when we’re not recording albums we little by little write music throughout the year. When you’re writing an album it’s like any other job – you get up and you show up. Somebody else said that “’You show up, put in the energy at a certain time every single day and you make music.’” People see that one Gwen Stefani commercial where she says “’creativity is not usually there but when it happens it’s like magic.’” That’s bulls*** [Laughing] – sorry! I mean there are magical moments in writing music but if you sit around brainstorming all the time, you’ll write one song every… who knows how many years? You’ve got to just show up.

You mentioned Craig Street, the Grammy winning producer of your latest album. Did enlisting him help to alleviate some of the pressure of having to write those perfect songs?

Working with him alleviate the pressure?! It made it worse [Laughing]. I mean – I was in a different mindset where I was kind of able to let go of that need for perfection but working with Craig was really interesting because he’s a really talented writer himself. He doesn’t ever take credit for any of that or put out his own music so you wouldn’t really know. As part of the process he would arrive every morning with a new song and say “’Well I wrote one – why didn’t you write one?’” And he would have this brilliant song.  He’s always had this element that is just pure genius. So it was both inspiring and a bit frustrating because he was also writing along the way. I think it’s easier to write when you know you’re not putting out a record and here I was just getting back into writing and every day he would be like “’I want you to write a song’” and half the songs he wanted me to write were just to get myself back in the practice of songwriting. He wanted me to just keep believing. He would play me a Willie Nelson song and tell me to write a song like Willie Nelson and I’m like ‘Okay’ and the next day he would come in with a great song totally like Willie Nelson and my song would be an Alyssa Graham song with a little Willie Nelson inspiration sprinkled into it. So I don’t think it made it easier working with a Grammy winning producer as far as writing. I think other things were easier like I didn’t have to feel fully in control of all the planning and all the musicians that were chosen for the recording process. You know, I kind of decided to sit back and allow myself to feel comfortable in his hands.

Control-wise did you take a more active approach when it came to composing the new album?

With “Echo” I was in a writing funk but I don’t feel like I had writer’s block. I had this control freak thing with “Echo” so I was never happy with my songs. Doug did most of the writing with our producer on that project. On this project, again thanks to Craig, he really wanted my voice. Not just my literal voice but my voice to be on there as a writer and he really encouraged me as I co-wrote a lot of the songs and wrote some of them by myself. Doug and I wrote a lot of the songs together. It felt good and now I can’t stop. Now it’s like a faucet you can’t turn off. We’re playing three new songs tonight that I wrote just last week. It’s great! He [Street] turned on some kind of switch in me that’s made me take more control instead of observing this abstract voice that goes into these projects.

Regarding your current single “’Til My Heat Quakes” – I was listening to it and this is my interpretation but I get a sense that it’s about losing love or the process of losing love. Am I on the right track?

I think it’s about letting love in and getting out of it everything you possibly can while always sort of knowing that you’re going to eventually lose it. It’s that sort of encouragement to enjoy life while you have it. Enjoy the moment. Don’t worry about the fact that it might not last forever because it was worth it while you had it. I think that’s the moral of the story with that song.

Oh and the video…

Isn’t it beautiful?

Goodness yes!

We just shot another one in Los Angeles for the next single which is where I performed last night.

Who came up with the concept?

I got in touch with a director Greg Gold through another director that I knew and we talked for a while and I could just tell he would be right for the project because we had very similar tastes in music and imagery that we eventually incorporated into the video. During the making of “Lock, Stock & Soul,” I became really obsessed with French music and musicians from the 1960s. So I said to him [Gold] you know I think I know how we should shoot the music video for “’Til My Heart Quakes.” Doug and I wanted to keep it really organic and really focused on our love affair. We’ve been together our entire lives. We grew up together, we play music together and now we spend every day together. I wanted it to be something romantic that shows the essence of enjoying love while it’s here – even if you know it’s going to [Pauses] – well I don’t think our love is ever going to disappear – but there is always that chance that it will disappear. The video was shot in black and white at the Fillmore with that kind of 1960s French theme. We just wanted to do something that was really honest and organic and I believe that it shows when you watch the video. We could have had an actor play Doug’s role but why? I’m in love with him so why not have Doug play himself in the video? Greg loved the idea and he ultimately came up with all of the shots and the cinematography that you see. I am really happy with it.

What’s next Alyssa? You mentioned that you recently shot a video for presumably your next single?

Yeah, it’s the second single off “Lock, Stock & Soul.” It’s one of those little pop songs called “Round and Round” that has the feel of a folk song. The video was also directed by Greg Gold and it’s crazy spectacular! All I can say is it’s fantastic. It has all these different colors; it’s insanely abstract and creative! You should see it – it will probably be done in about a month. It’s going to blow your mind! I just saw some of the footage and I’m like ‘Are you kidding me? This is sick!’

Is the title of your album, “Lock, Stock & Soul,” a red herring in any sense? Are you trying to branch-out of just being a jazz and soul musician?

No, it’s funny because everyone’s like ‘people are going to think you made a soul record’ and I said ‘Not when they hear it and not if they know me at all!’ We chose that title because we felt like me getting back into writing and Doug and I doing a lot of the preproduction in this intense format with Craig and doing the recording live in a circle with very few do-overs and stuff like that just gave the album the title. I just felt like here it is – this is lock, stock and soul and this is everything I’ve got. It’s all of me. My entire being – take it or leave it and it just happened to be a good title. That’s how I felt at the end of the recording session. I felt like I gave my all to you and there’s tons of beauty on the record. Even in the imperfections – my voice cracks, my pitches aren’t perfect in certain places but it’s who I was in that moment in time.

You’re one of the few artists who has a multi-octave voice some would same is similar to Whitney Houston. Did she have any kind of influence on your career?

I wouldn’t say that she’s influenced my career because she wasn’t singing the kind of music I loved growing up. I liked folk music a bit more. That being said, there’s no musician or singer out there that can sing like her. Her voice was just one of a kind. Has she influenced me? Sure! Her amazing vocals – you can’t help but not be inspired by Whitney’s voice. I would say that I was more influenced by Neil Young who has one of the crappier voices [Laughing] yet he sings with more heart than anyone I know.

You’re from New Jersey. With all the touring and press – do you miss your home state at all?

Don’t tell people that [Laughing].

Oh? [Laughing]

I grew up 10 minutes outside of New York City so I like to say I’m from New York man [Laughing].

I know it’s such a cliché question but I want to know what your advice would be for upcoming singer-songwriters.

It’s actually not cliché because my answer is not what people expect. My answer is to f***ing run [laughing]. No but seriously my answer is that music finds you. It’s in your soul. It’s in your heart. For the people who really care about music – there’s no turning back. You really have no choice in the matter. If you can be something else and be happy then do it. That’s my advice. People who think being a musician is easy and all about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll – they’re not even close. There have been many times when I said to my parents growing up ‘I wish I could wake-up and be a doctor or a teacher because those are less difficult.’ With those professions, there’s a clear path – you go to school for four years and then you go to medical school and then you do your fellowship and then you’re a doctor. I don’t know if you’re a good one – but you’re a doctor! With music – you’re just going to struggle your whole life no matter what. You’re never going to be satisfied with yourself even if you’re playing Madison Square Garden. It’s a constant emotional struggle. My advice is if you can do anything else, try [Laughing]. If music has bitten you and this is who you are and it’s your soul – then put every single thing you’ve got into it. My biggest comment to musicians everywhere young, old, or whatever is to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Put your heart and soul out there so people can give a s*** or not give a s***. If you allow yourself to be vulnerable and put those emotions out there you’re going to reach an audience.

What are your tour plans look like for your foreseeable future? Our little city of Sacramento would love to get a chance to see you live.

We will get there – I promise!

Fantastic Alyssa, thank you again for spending the time to speak with us.

Thank you Mark.

A special thanks to The Current’s Jessica Maynard for helping transcribe the extensive interview which was edited for space and syntax. Also check-out Graham’s music video for “‘Til My Heart Quakes” by clicking on http://www.alyssagraham.com/videos/index.html.

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