ger/songwriter and librettist-the two descriptions are seemingly at odds with each other. “I’ve always had this duality of theater and music,” explains Los Angeles resident Johnnye Allee. “At times it’s been a struggle and other times it’s been a blessing.” With his solo debut,Unless It Isn’t, Allee reveals a stunning suite of songs that acknowledges his theatrical history and honors his metamorphosis into a modern-day troubadour.
Singer/songwriter and librettist-the two descriptions are seemingly at odds with each other. “I’ve always had this duality of theater and music,” explains Los Angeles resident Johnnye Allee. “At times it’s been a struggle and other times it’s been a blessing.” With his solo debut, Unless It Isn’t, Allee reveals a stunning suite of songs that acknowledges his theatrical history and honors his metamorphosis into a modern-day troubadour.
Originally from Scarsdale, N.Y., as a teenager Allee spent his free time exploring Manhattan until his family relocated to Los Angeles. “It was a life-severing moment,” he recalls. “I think it gave me a certain type of empathy…I was in love with a girl, had a circle of friends and was devoted to the theater. I’ve always been immersed in Broadway show tunes or modern folk: Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and Joni Mitchell-the music my parents listened to.”
In terms of structure, Allee notes that his touchstones are traditional. “The old timers…Frank Loesser, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart…they’ve totally informed me as songwriter. With this album, I was interested in honoring the history of American songs, but doing it in a popular vernacular and getting away from musical theater. Still, I’m a piano player. I’ve also been a huge jazz fan my entire life. People hear me at the piano and they think I’m a cabaret performer. So I thought, ‘Let’s throw in some guitars and hear what happens.'”
Rockabilly rhythms lift “Everything Will Be Alright,” and a deep D-tuned guitar casts a spooky shadow over the “Fire is Yellow,” a harrowing tale of murder and arson. On “Half on the Side of the Leaver,” a bluesy 3/4 groove slides a full helping of steamy Southern Soul across the table, while “I’m the Apostrophe” personifies the narrator as a mere punctuation mark. Allee’s signature song, “On the Kern County Line,” traces a poignant highway across the dusty panorama of rural California.
There’s a crow on a fencepost
Keeping tabs on a toad
As I roll down the road
Past the gas station sign
On the Kern County Line
“The trick is getting that kind of landscape with a minimal instrumental groove,” he says.
“I wrote the title, ‘On the Kern County Line,’ on a piece of paper and three years later found it. I’m very deliberate; the lyrics come first, but always with a melody attached.”
In addition to writing for the theater, Allee has an extensive acting résumé-dating back to his first Equity role at age 15. He was in the original cast of Chaplin with Anthony Newley and other plays and musicals, including Dandelion Wine, an adaptation of the Ray Bradbury novel. “Bradbury was the first person who told me about writing on scrap paper and torn out checks,” Allee recalls. “Everytime you take a role and do a play, the research opens up a whole world. I think anyone in the theater becomes worldly pretty quickly if they’re open. Theater is primarily about language-language and ideas. Because of all this, the language informs everything I do as a writer.”
The language also informs turns of phrase in titles: “Another New York Knockout,” “Texas to Tuesday” and “Hidden in the Crosshairs.” Allee relates that fragments of sound and disconnected phrases might spark a lyric or melody. “I hear things in the wind…maybe read a line in a novel.” And he quotes Saul Bellow’s line: “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.”
To fund his far flung artistic pursuits, Allee worked as a delivery driver. “I have the sciatica to prove it.” Cramps notwithstanding, Allee has been honored with ASCAP’s prized Sammy Cahn Award. Now, as a singer/songwriter, he marries the muse of melodies to the litany of language. “I kept writing songs in musicals for other people,” Allee concludes. “Then I realized I was making something I needed to put out here myself.”