When speaking with Memphis musical stalwart Amy LaVere about her new album, Painting Blue (Nine Mile Records), I hesitate to pin it down as "dark." There are plenty of light, lovely moments on it. But there's no denying that, after tapping into the darker side of hopefulness with album opener, "I Don't Wanna Know" by John Martyn, she returns to that well again and again. "Waiting for the towns to tumble/Waiting for the planes to fall/Waiting for the cities to crumble/Waiting to see us crawl," she sings, tweaking the original lyrics subtly, setting a stage where even moments of love are framed by the shadows of a world confronting disaster.
"There's a real melancholy feeling to the record," I finally say, and LaVere can't help but agree. It was born of melancholy, though recording it ultimately helped her find a way out, as she adjusted to the joys of her marriage to guitarist and songwriter Will Sexton.
- Jaime Harmon
- Amy Lavere
"When Will and I first got together," she recalls, "there was this euphoria, and I went through this really weird transition period of learning how to be happy. Allowing myself to be happy. I was pretty depressed. It was around the elections in 2016, and I just wasn't creating or working. Anything I would write just seemed so trite compared to what was going on in the world. It took me a really long time to find my voice. It was working through being 45, I think."
Still, hopefulness crept into the album in unexpected ways. The song "No Battle Hymn," for example, seems to despair at the lack of unification among those who know something must be done. "No one's ready to admit we may be out of time," she sings, and, put so succinctly, it's a sobering thought. "That song kind of bummed me out for a while, until I wrote the very last line," LaVere notes. "When I sing 'We need a battle hymn in our hearts,' it's the last thing I say in that song, and I just happened to do that when we were playing it live. I fell in love with the song after I did that. It's not just the statement of 'We don't have one,' it closes with 'We need one,' like asking for one. It went from being a defeatist song to one with more hope."
But hope can cut both ways, as profoundly expressed in one of the most ambitious tracks on the album, LaVere's interpretation of Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding," with lyrics by Elvis Costello. Portraying the very mixed blessing of a job surge that follows a nation's return to war (in the Falkland Islands), the song's hope for decent work in the shipyards is always undercut with ambivalence over what's creating a demand for ships in the first place.
"I've been wanting to do that song since the first time I heard it," says LaVere. "But it's not the world's easiest song to play and sing. I actually gave up playing bass on it. Will had figured it out, and as soon as I stopped playing bass on it and could just focus on singing it, it became a real moment in the live show. I really get out of my head when I sing it. It's a very emotional song. And Rick Steff playing accordion on there broke my heart."
Indeed, the threat of a broken heart, whether inspired by lovers or crumbling cities, is a common thread to this collection. The much-needed love song to our city, "You're Not in Memphis," is a lilting, wistful paean to our trains and planes, full of soulful guitar hooks and spot-on organ fills, yet couched in a lament over a lover's absence. Even the record's most devotional song, "Love I've Missed," which conjures up love's euphoria, seems to lament the time wasted before romance entered the narrator's life.
The lament comes to a head with "No Room for Baby," the singer's blunt confrontation of the winding down of her biological clock. "I'm only gonna do it live one time at the album release show, and then I'm never gonna do it again," LaVere notes. And yet, for all that, the deft flourishes of musicality in the ensemble playing and the string and vocal arrangements make for an enchanting journey. "You once had the full color scheme," she sings on the title track. "Now you're painting blue on everything." And yet the result, like the album cover itself, is a thing of blue-tinted beauty.
Amy LaVere and band celebrate the release of Painting Blue Saturday, August 10th, at Crosstown Theater, 8 p.m., $20.