When Amy Helm came home to record her new album at her father Levon Helm’s barn studio in Woodstock, New York, she was ruminating on progress. The singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist spent the five years or so leading up to What the Flood Leaves Behind—due July 18 via Renew Records/BMG—touring, heavily, while serving as a single mom to two very young boys. Now nine and 13, Helm looks back on that time as both “triumphant and amazing” and “difficult and disappointing.”
“Balancing that with being a single mom and wondering, and worrying about my boys and wondering, and worrying about my career and all things that people hold in the balance as working parents,” Helm tells American Songwriter over the phone from her house in New York, delighted by the break from Zoom.
“I think a lot about that experience,” she continues. “It shifted things in me the way it does for anyone—becoming more patient with my kids, gaining a bit more confidence about how I wanted to sing a song, getting a little better at organizing the grocery list before I leave for tour, all of those little things.”
As a founding member of folk group Ollabelle and player in The Midnight Ramble Band, the barn hosts a familiarity for Helm. However, her stage comfort from countless live gigs did not translate into the studio space. The experience in that room humbled her.
“As intimately as you know a place as a live venue, the process of making a record and stepping towards the microphone when the tape is rolling, there’s no audience and you’re trying to convey a story in the best way you can,” she says. “It is such a different energetic place.”
She points to a certain frequency in the room that she and producer Josh Kaufman (Taylor Swift’s Folklore, Bob Weir, Bonny Light Horseman) experienced that became “the tuning fork for the entire album.” Helm credits the history there. Yet, she identified a mystic experience among her session players—including Phil Cook (keys, harmonica), Michael Libramento (bass, organ, percussion), Tony Mason (drums), Daniel Littleton (guitar), Stuart Bogie (saxophone), Jordan McLean (trumpet) and her son Lee Collins (congas).
Levon Helm Studios, Kaufman says, is the kind of place that can “make a believer out of anyone.”
“He has such an incredible compass,” says Helm about her producer. “And his ability to keep the truth of the song right on track, I felt such simpatico with him. Our chemistry was just immediate from the day we met, seamless. We would finish each other’s sentences practically and had a very clear Instinct and gut reaction to what was feeling honest.”
The titular sentiment, derived from the album opener “Verse 23,” suggests these songs are a response to the lethal tide of COVID-19 that washed over our global population, and the residual devastation left in its path. Yet, What the Flood Leaves Behind was recorded in January of 2020.
Penned by Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor, the song serves as a proper lyrical entrance to her strengthened soundscape. A lyrical couplet within the track struck Helm as she listened: What the flood leaves behind / Is what we’ve got to make.
“The melodies, the songs, and the things I wanted to say came from a place of knowing where I’d been and where I was standing a little more clearly, as a mom and as a musician,” she says. “Just a little more self-trust.”
As a co-writer on seven of the 10 tracks, Helm relied on instinct to deliver something true, knowing intuitively what songs would resonate here. Under Kaufman’s guiding hand, the artist shaped her songs with arrangements, filling in lines of verse, turning a phrase or chord underneath the chorus to point towards her true North.
“Cotton And The Cane” conjures up the haunting vignettes of an unconventional childhood. Born into an American music legacy, the song details her upbringing at the hand of her father, the drummer of The Band, and her singer/songwriter mother, Libby Titus, who was married to her stepfather, Donald Fagen (Steely Dan). She wrote the song with Mary Gauthier, whom she feels has a “profound gift as a generous and loving collaborator.” The lyrical lamentation pays homage to “the village of brilliant and talented people who were also wrestling with the grips of addiction.”
“If you grow up around alcoholism and drug addiction, in the wreckage of that, it can be such a shaky thing to talk about,” says Helm. “It can be so vulnerable and I had never really done that before, so it was powerful to trust Mary’s good faith and trust myself enough to get those words out and to sing it.”
They began performing the song, as what Helm describes as a “wannabe Allman Brothers rocker.” When that no longer felt right, the team pressed on, trying to find the tune. They re-harmonized underlying chords, slowing it down to meet the message. The introductory organ transcends space and time to summon the “sacred songs” and family secrets contained within for so many years. Lyrically, she chronicles poignant flashbulbs throughout —Heroin / I’m locked out again—a painful first attempt to permeate the past.
“As soon as we started playing it in that room I could feel that we had found the song,” says Helm. “I felt like we revealed what the song is supposed to mean and you can hear the lyrics differently.”
Early on, Helm considered recording this album on a vacation-style retreat in the desert of Mexico. But when she crunched the numbers, the more realistic side of the artist knew what she had to do.
“I don’t want to sound jaded, I never take for granted the access I have to this magical place my dad built,” she clarifies. “And I have to laugh at myself for my desert fantasy because this record called for this place.”
Had Helm recorded this elsewhere, these songs would not resonate with the emotional outcome she found within the hallowed walls of the barn. She teamed up with Taylor and another prolific storyteller, Elizabeth Ziman (Elizabeth and The Catapult), for “Renegade Heart.” The piano-driven ballad stirred something unexpected.
“I didn’t quite know what that song was about until I sang it. Then I really found myself in the moment, in that room, thinking so much about my brother who I lost to suicide about eleven years ago,” she says. “Something was coming up inside of me and grabbing my throat, the emotion of it, and I’m sure that a lot of that had to do with being home.”
A few of the tracks, like “Sweet Mama,” borrowed from friends and heroes such as Steve Salett, are a thoughtful interpretation of external narratives. Delicately, Helm reimagined the song Salett, a dear friend of Kaufman, penned after losing his wife to cancer, which left him heartbroken with young children.
His version, she says is “achingly beautiful.” Though Helm never met this woman, she was struck by the photo of her from Soundcloud link for the original song. Maintaining the vision of her, Helm delicately transformed the sorrowful tribute into an uptempo rock n’ roll feel. As an artist, she took careful creative liberty filling into the subject to imagine what her response might be from the other side.
“I was imagining how she would feel in singing it, thinking of her beautiful face from the picture,” Helm explains of the process. “My intention when singing it was to have this triumph. The idea that ‘this is untenable, but it’s going to be okay.'”
“Carry It Alone” (co-written with Zach Djanikian and Erin Rae) and “Terminal B,” though topically ranging, were both bred from her finger-picking exercises on the mandolin. The celebratory brass on “Calling Me Home” echoes the joy evoked through “Breathing.” With reverence for her roots, Helm purveys a transcendent family tradition with a nuance found only on sturdy ground.
“I don’t feel such an arrival in my performances as I do a surrender, and being okay with what is still coming into focus for me as a mom and a friend, a musician and a person,” says Helm. “Frankly, I am loving getting older and I think that young people aren’t told that enough. It’s powerful. It’s awesome to feel more in your skin. It just keeps getting better and better.”