-- --

Ten Months and 40 Minutes With Amy Rigby

Amy Rigby  (recorded August 12, 2000, by Marc Hirsh)

 There are few performers that I am willing to drive more than an hour to see. They include the Go-Go's (an hour and a half), Aimee Mann (three hours), and Sleater-Kinney (6 hours, but I was headed in that direction for a family event anyway). Add to that list Amy Rigby (75 minutes), late of the Last Roundup and the Shams, who has been called Songwriter of the Year by SPIN and Temp of the Month by Sony. Her two solo albums, 1996's Diary of a Mod Housewife and 1998's Middlescence, dare to bring up that bitter enemy of the rock and roll lifestyle, maturity, which has ironically resulted in some of the most exciting, heartbreaking and fascinating rock and roll of the past half-decade. It doesn't hurt, of course, that the music it's wedded to shows a wide range of all the right influences, from pure country & western and folk to classic girl-group pop to Beatlesque rock, all the way through to glam and punk rock. Her new album The Sugar Tree (Koch Records) comes out in September, and after ten months of back-and-forth e-mailing punctuated by long periods of simply letting it drop, I recently talked to her about life in Nashville, the dangers of being clever and questions that she's sick of answering, many of which I asked.

SCR: I guess we'll start off with a hypothetical question: if an incredibly lazy interviewer were to ask you to describe your music, what would you say?
AR: (Laughs) I guess I'd say... gosh... um... A combination of pop, rock and roll, country... I don't know, I'm not in the writing mode right now.

A lot of reviewers label you as country while others place you all over, some in pop, some in rock, some in alternative. Do you consider that a liability for what you do?
It probably is, but that's not really my concern. I would never change what I do.

I know you've been a longtime New Yorker, and from what I've read, you recently moved to Nashville. Why did you make that change?
Oh, I'd been in New York for a long time, and as most New Yorkers do, I was looking to find somewhere easier to live.


Amy Rigby -- http://www.amyrigby.com/

Photos #1-3 by Marc Hirsh; Lafayette, Indiana.

How's that working out?
It's working out really well. It took a lot of getting used to, and I miss the city in a lot of ways, but I think it really is making it more possible for me to keep playing music and make a living at it.

Is that what "Dirty Bridge" [from Middlescence] was about?
Yeah. I knew years ago. It just took me a while to actually get it organized.

Along those lines, are a lot of your songs autobiographical? A number of them seem like they come from experience, but I know there's always a danger in identifying the song with the singer.
Right, especially if the singer is a woman. (Laughs) I think that people do tend to do that even more with women than with male performers.

Why's that?
I think it's just some kind of standard, saying that they're men, saying that they're writers. I think it's harder for people to imagine that women can craft stories and songs out of their abilities rather than their inner emotion and experience. I think it's easier for people to imagine a man having the mastery of language and the ability to tell a story and really have it be his own. I get asked that a lot. And a lot of it is autobiographical. I mean, that is part of what I do, but a lot of it is based on things I hear and see.

You sort of revel in writing about issues that most professional musicians, especially rock musicians, go to a lot of effort to pretend don't exist, such as aging, parenthood, adult responsibility, and maturity in general. Do you feel any apprehension about writing about these sorts of issues or topics?
Oh, no, no. I guess I just feel like it gives me a challenge. I like to see what happens, you know?

Is it harder to write about those sorts of things than about other stuff?
Not for me. I mean, those are the things that capture my imagination, you know, the mundane, rather than the big, cosmic... (laughs)

How do you know what to write about?
Just a topic or a line that I heard somebody say just kind of captures my imagination. I'll just have a bunch of things stored up in my mind. When I start writing, it's just whatever pops out, really.

Amy Rigby What do you consider yourself first and foremost, a performer or a songwriter?
I guess a songwriter.

When I saw you play, and you may have been joking, you mentioned getting a big famous country star to cover one of your songs. Is that something that you're working towards, or was it just an amusing comment?
No, of course. Why wouldn't I want that? I think there's a place in the world for good songs, and I think a lot of the people who have larger platforms to speak from or sing from have had to choose what's given to them and what's sold previously rather than what might be of a better quality. So why wouldn't I want that?

Have you had any luck in that department?
I'm working on it.

When did you first get interested in music?
Well, I've been a big fan for a long time. I've loved music since I was a kid, but I guess I started to play, writing songs in the early to mid-'80s.

When did you start writing and performing for other people?
About the same time, the early to mid-'80s.

When did the Shams get together?
That was 87. I mean, we were together as friends for a long time. We sang Christmas carols for a couple of years before we actually started calling ourselves the Shams. They were part of my first group the Last Roundup that kind of left to do their own thing, but we all got back together as the Shams.

Why did the Shams stop being the Shams?
Well, we made a couple of records, and we all were working on our own projects, too. I wanted to concentrate on my own songs.

How long between that and Diary of a Mod Housewife?
It was all happening at the same time. I was working on my first album while the Shams were still going. I think the idea of bands once you're in your thirties starts to become a bit ridiculous, unless you're the Rolling Stones or something. The idea of being in a band together when you're adults who have responsibilities of their own, it just starts to seem kind of crazy.

Do you think that that becomes a liability for performing in general?
No, I don't. You mean adulthood? Adult responsibilities?

Yeah; a lot of your songs tend to sort of focus on the collision between the romantic notions of youth and the reality of adult responsibilities.
Well, I've come to see that, for certain people, playing music is a really good job to have, no matter what age they are. And it may not be that sanctioned by the society that we live in. People expect that you'll either be some sort of chart-topping artist that everybody's heard of or have completely relegated it to a hobby, where in fact there is a real middle ground where people out there are selling their CDs and playing shows, kind of like running their own small business, and that's just how it happens to be. So I've started to see that it really is easy, but you have to forget what everybody says about what you should and shouldn't do. I'm not just talking about people with straight jobs or your parents who say, "You should have this and that," but also people who admire you and say, "Why aren't you on this?" and "Why don't you have that?" and "You should be up there with Sarah McLachlan," or something. After a while, you have to say, "Look, I'm doing pretty good where I am." Of course, we all wish we had more, but I think my moving to Nashville has really helped me.

Has there been more support in Nashville for what you do than there was in New York?
Not by fans. Nobody goes to shows here. I really miss my New York fans. (laughs) I really miss there being an audience of people who are interested in the arts, but it just doesn't exist here. But it's more support from other people who are doing the same thing, who go through the same kind of problems and have to come up with creative solutions all the time.

Why do you think there's so little support from an audience in Nashville?
It just doesn't exist because it's an industry town. It's like L.A. They just don't have the type of people, or enough of them, who are interested in hearing something new. Plus, you take it for granted. People who live in this town take it for granted that there's amazing musicians playing every night of the week in clubs all over town, so it's good to know it's there, but you don't necessarily have to avail yourself of it.

But has Nashville made it easier to work rather than play?
Yeah, because it's an easy place to work out of. And I think in New York you can get satisfaction playing in the city. People are interested in finding new things. That's why they're there, that's why they're in New York. Whereas here, if you want anybody to care at all, you've got to just pack your bag and leave town on a regular basis.

Are you able to do that?
I am. It's harder in a way because I'm here alone with my daughter, but you find a way.

Amy Rigby I have a couple of questions about the last few records. It seemed like Diary of a Mod Housewife had a fairly uniform sound and texture, whereas Middlescence was so varied. You've got a bunch of different styles sort of bouncing off of one another on the album. Was that a conscious decision?
Yes. Actually, Mod Housewife was kind of recorded all over the place on tour, but my goal with that one was one certain type of music. With Middlescence, I was interested in other types of music that I was listening to and writing songs in different styles.

Is the new album going to continue in that vein?
Yes. I mean, I think it actually has a really unified sound about it. Maybe the sound of the vocals ties it all together. I got a great vocal sound that was kind of based more on how I feel like I sound when I play live. I can get the sound right, especially if I'm playing by myself. I feel like I can just speak real intimately, so I really try to just go with the sound. There's strings, there's pedal steels, there's crazy organs and pianos and horns, but I think it all blends together.

Was most of the new album written in Nashville or was it songs that you written before then?
Mostly Nashville. A couple were from earlier.

Are you working with Elliot Easton again?
No, just because I recorded it in Nashville, with a guy named Brad Jones. Which was also part of my inspiration for moving to Nashville. I wanted to live and make a record in the same place and I didn't want to do it in New York. And I thought it would be just tons of great studios, you know, cheap to live and relax. All manageable.

I've got my own theory, but I was wondering if I could hear it from you. Why was the last song on Middlescence ["Tonight I'm Gonna Give The Drummer Some"] unlisted?
Um, stupidity? (laughs) I mean, looking back now, I think that was a stupid mistake, and I'd never do it again.

Why's that?
Because I think it was one of the best songs on the album. Many, many people never found that song. I'm doing clever little things like that, and they have special limited appeal now, in retrospect. I mean, it felt in a way like it didn't really go with the rest of the songs, and so it's good they're kind of separated that way, but I just think I really shot myself in the foot with that, because in particular radio people loved that song. I just feel like it's one of those things that record geeks do and are into, but in the general scheme of things, I think, why be obscure? I'm obscure enough to begin with, you know what I mean? (laughs) But anyway, what's your theory?

Oh, just that, topic-wise, it was so vastly different from what was on the rest of the album that it was sort of held aside. While it did sort of look at the adult nature of relationships, you know, I thought...
Well, I think I did that with a lot of the other songs. I mean, that's what "Invisible" was about. I really think that was the subject matter of a lot of the other songs as well, about those sorts of needs. I think in retrospect it went just fine with the other songs.

Do you have a permanent band now?
There is no such thing. Even the E Street Band is not a permanent band, you know what I mean? I guess I get really aggravated because people ask me that all the time and it's just so impractical, so impossible. It's a real problem for any singer/songwriter who's constantly having to... There's no person out there I could afford to pay enough money that they would be completely devoted to me and play every single show, never mind three or four such people. (laughs) It's constantly a struggle. But people love to play my stuff. I can always find people, but never the same people. Not on the type of budget that I have to work on.

How do you pick who you play with?
I look for people that I like to be with and I look for people who I want to hear onstage, people who are going to entertain me and let me have a good time onstage. So sometimes I choose a person who maybe technically others might not think were as good as this guy, but if I just like the energy that they have, I pick them. And then it's like, okay, who can do it on any given day, or if there's three shows, maybe one person can do two of them but not the other. It's always unfolding. And you try to get people who actually played on the record, but some of them are already doing something else, and that's just the reality.

You've sort of created your own terminology for both of your solo albums, with "mod housewife" and "middlescence," both of which you've actually gone ahead and defined inside to prevent any confusion.

Did you create those especially for the albums, or were those things that you were saying and just decided to use afterwards?
They were written for the albums.

Amy Rigby Is there going to be something similar for the next album?
I definitely thought about it, but in a way, I picked something as plain as could be. (laughs) I kind of had to. I mean, I thought Middlescence was a brilliant album title. I can't tell you know many people just didn't know how to pronounce it, even though I gave the phonetic pronunciation.
Yeah, it's on the back.
You know, things like that can keep people from talking about your record because they feel like they're going to look silly by not saying it correctly. And, again, I just feel like obscurity is there already, I don't need to be more obscure, so I'm just kind of tired of cleverness, basically. You know, it just sometimes becomes tiresome, so I'm taking a break from cleverness, I think.

Is that going to be in your songs, too, or just on the albums themselves?
Unfortunately, I'll always probably be more clever than I should be.

Well, you do use cleverness and wit and humor in a number of your songs to push your point along.
I just want to communicate as effectively as possible. Cleverness helps me, but I don't want to leave that out because it's bound to amuse people you know.

On that note, you sang a song in Lafayette called "Cynically Yours," which was sort of the epitome of that. Is that going to be on the new album?
Yes. It had to be.

Why'd it have to be?
Because one thing that really bugs me in rock music and pop music is that everything has to be serious and everything has to be meaningful in a very serious way. And I think there's just not nearly enough... You know, some people will call them novelty songs, just sort of dismiss a song like that, but I think there's a place for them, and so I just have to have that type of song.

Well, I think the difference between novelty songs and a song like that is that your songs use humor to make a point, rather than just have the humor be there.
Right, that's a good point. All right. I think that's good, and the next time someone says "novelty songs," I'll use that as my defense. (laughs) Yeah, I guess that's what I feel, that humor can be used to make a point, and, you know, sometimes what better way?

What are you listening to these days?
I really like the album [This] by Will Kimbrough, a Nashville guy. He actually plays a lot of the songs on my record, but he has an album out and he is incredible. I like it, it's a great pop record. He plays a lot of guitar with Kim Richey. He's a great singer and a great songwriter. And my favorite record of the last two years probably was Fountains of Wayne's Utopia Parkway.

Why was that?
Just great songs, great singing, great production. Just songs that make you wanna dance around the room, but the lyrics are touching and funny and sad, and I think they're a good band.

I thought that "Prom Theme" [from Utopia Parkway] was one of the funniest songs that I had heard in ages. It's sort of like one of your songs, it sort of looked at the "magic night" and just totally deconstructed it and showed what it was.
Yeah, well, I also think that it was incredibly sad. You know, like, "This is it, this is as good as it's going to get. From this night on, it's all downhill." Or it's all uphill. So I love that, and... what else? I get given so much stuff, and that's what I listen to. I mean, every now and then I'll treat myself and go buy something. Like, I don't personally know Randy Newman, so I didn't get a copy of his new album (laughs), so I had to go buy it. But because I know so many musicians and singer/songwriters making albums, I get given so many and I honestly want to listen to all of them. Like that band Outrider that I played with in Lafayette, they gave me their CD and I thought it was so good. It's fun, because a lot of times, people that I'll play a show with will give me their CD, and if I have good memories and good feelings about that particular show, you know, the CD is a way that I can remember the night.

I could be wrong, but I got the impression that if you had a theme song or an anthem, it would be "The Good Girls." Is that off the mark?
Well, I love that song, and I'll always love to sing it. I think I've had at least a half dozen anthems, so I think that's one of them, but I would never choose that one over "Time For Me To Come Down" or "What I Need," you know? I love anthems, I really do, and I have a new one on my new album and I just love them and I'm always trying to write them. "Rode Hard," that's on my new album, that's kind of my new anthem.

My next question is one that I've had since SPIN magazine, January 97, regarding an award that you were given for Temp of the Month. What are the chances of any album in the future being called Temp of the Year?
Absolutely none. In fact, I've really made a conscious effort to put no songs on my new album that mention any kind of temp work or office work or being broke. I just don't want that to be what people associate with me. I mean, I'm glad that I'm able to sing those kind of songs, and I think that people really do appreciate it, but as Ray Charles says, he doesn't have to be busted to be able to sing that song. He knows how it feels, he doesn't have to live his whole life being poor to be able to get that feeling on stage, and I guess that's how I feel about temping. I don't want to have to live that out for the rest of my days to be able to get up and sing about it.

Do you regret that ever having been mentioned in the press?
Oh, no, not at all, not at all. I mean, it's definitely like a big part of me, and it will always be, unfortunately, but I don't wanna feel like I have to keep going to a temp job or people won't believe what I say about it, they won't believe that I know what I'm talking about. And I don't wanna have to write about it if I don't feel like it. END


All contents © 2003 Space City Rock, unless otherwise credited.