Writer of the Week: Alyssa Graham

Videos by American Songwriter

On  Lock, Stock and Soul, award-winning jazz artist Alyssa Graham indulged her rock side, with the help of guests like Jesse Harris, David Garza and Meshell Ndegeocello. We asked the multi-octave singer, who has recorded covers of Paul Simon, Sting, and The Grateful Dead, about her musical heroes, her approach to songwriting and more.

Tell us about your new album.

The new album is called Lock, Stock & Soul and was produced by Craig Street. It features some beautiful and generous musicians including [co-writer] Doug Graham, Meshell Ndegeocello, David Garza, Jesse Harris and others. The album was recorded live in 4 days at Dreamland Studios in Woodstock, New York (appropriately). We worked for a few months in pre-production with Craig up in Ithaca, New York and then these fine musicians and I sat around in a communal circle at Dreamland with little to no isolation and recorded the record. We slept in cabins in the middle of the winter (and a snow storm), cooked our meals together and took long snow covered hikes with Eloise the dog. Those are the facts.

As for the personal experience, Lock, Stock & Soul is what I like to call a perfectly imperfect record. It is meant to be a moment in time in which a live communal experience was recorded. We weren’t concerned with bleed or interested in overdubs we just wanted something real. It took me a long time to let go and accept the imperfections about my voice and music but when I was able to do that, under the guidance of Craig Street, I was able to embrace the beauty and authenticity of imperfection. It makes a huge difference as an artist and a music lover to experience something real and untainted. You feel part of something. I think Lock, Stock & Soul is like that. We’re so used to hearing glossy and perfect recordings these days, we wanted to do something more raw and emotional, just be in the moment. Maybe it’s like a “sleeper hit” as I think it takes time to appreciate the rawness, vulnerability and imperfection of this record… perhaps it’s not something we’re used to as music lovers of the 21st century.

Who are your songwriting heroes?

Honestly, anybody who has the courage to write a song and put it out there should get a lot of credit. It’s not an easy thing to do, to be completely exposed and allow others to, not only get a glimpse inside, but also judge. Songwriting is so intimate and I truly applaud anyone who is willing to go there and give it a shot. Personally, I of course have my favorites and those that have been an enormous inspiration for me. The first and most important is Neil Young. Doug and I grew up together listening to Neil Young and there is no artist past or present that affects us in quite the same way. The connection we have to Neil Young encapsulates our childhood, or introduction to music, our heartaches and most important our love affair. We wouldn’t be the artists, or the people, we are today without the influence of Neil Young. The first Neil Young record I ever had was On The Beach that album is still my absolute favorite collection of music today… closely followed by Harvest.

There are however, many other songwriters I love and respect and that have and continue to influence me including of course; Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Francoise Hardy, Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground, Paul Simon, Cole Porter, Carole King, The Band, Antonio Carlos Jobim, The Kinks and also many “contemporary” songwriters such as; Thom Yorke, David Garza, Laura Marling, Ray Lamontagne, Ryan Adams, Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith, Bon Iver, Sam Beam and so many more. Not to mention, living and working in NYC there are so many beautiful and talented local songwriters we get to enjoy. It’s an amazing experience to be a part of the thriving NYC music scene. We’re lucky enough to be constantly surrounded by a plethora of great artistry… last week alone we heard, Anoushka Shankar, Herlin Riley and Rachael Yamagata. All in one week in one city, that’s a treat!

When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?

Well, first thank you for saying or implying their good, now I really never know. I’m too close to them, as you can imagine. It’s sort of how everyone thinks their kid or their dog is the cutest most perfect thing (I certainly think that about my dog), songs are like that too. I played piano as a kid but I didn’t actually start writing until I started learning guitar in my early teens. Songwriting seemed to come naturally once I picked up the guitar, I had something to say and the guitar allowed me to say it. Looking back, I would say my first handful of songs were really really bad. However, they were also extremely honest. As a kid it’s easier to be honest than as an adult. So, though my earlier songs may have been a bit simplistic or immature they also had the power of innocence, which made them truly honest. At the end of the day, I still think that’s what makes a good song. As an adult I’ve had to learn to allow myself to be honest and raw with my songwriting. The songs that succeed in doing that are the keepers and the other 99 I throw away.

What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.

The first song I remember writing in completion (as I wrote a lot of songs I never finished) was called “Forever Friend.” I was in maybe 8th or 9th grade and I had just started learning guitar. I wanted to surprise my friends, who didn’t know I started playing guitar, with a song I wrote about them. It was really sappy and I felt like such a dork playing it but it was really how I felt about my friends and particularly my best friend Katy. Here are some of the melodramatic lyrics I remember, “See we’ve had our differences, but we end up standing tall, I know you’ve always had your doubts but I’ll always catch you when you fall…” I’m hoping my songwriting has improved since then!

Doug on the other hand had a great first song that we still sing around the house from time to time called “Shells.” I was so impressed when he played me this song that he had written when he was in 6th or 7th grade (when by the way we already knew each other) as it talked about far away lands and merchants. Only problem is it took place in the desert and there aren’t many shells in the desert. Some of those lyrics, “Riding through the desert on my way to Sahara, I ran into the merchant who sold me this guitar. Before I got to Bagdad I was playing real well I knew a few chords and I played them to some shells.” Awesome huh!?

What’s your approach to writing lyrics?

My approach to writing songs, music and/or lyrics, has changed considerably over the last several years. I used to, “believe in the magic” so to speak. Don’t get me wrong writing a good song does take a little bit of magic but it also takes a lot of dedication, creativity and hard work. There is an HP commercial with Gwen Stefani as the spokesperson and she is talking about how you can’t just turn creativity on and off, it just sort of comes out. She goes on to say, “You never know when it’s gonna happen, but when it does… it’s like magic.”

I’m not saying this is wrong, just that I’ve changed my methods to reflect the advice of American painter Chuck Close and I’ve been way more successful. The advice is simple, “Inspiration is for amateurs.” You can’t sit around and wait for inspiration, if you, “wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.” Only an amateur sits around waiting for the magic while the rest of us go to work. That is the approach I’ve adopted, just show up every day and work and great things will happen.

What percentage of the songs you write are keepers?

I have thrown out way more songs than I’ve kept. For many years, I stopped writing all together. I was never satisfied with my songs and so I would continuously abuse my trashcan and it just got so brutal that I stopped. I started to depend on Doug and other songwriters to pen the songs for me. I got lazy and gave up. Now I write all the time. I would say about 90% of the songs I start writing I will finish but only about 10% of those are songs I will record or perform or ever play again. But again, the process is bound to produce some gems and that’s why the process is so important. If I can get one song I’m really satisfied with out of every 9 or 10 I write… Hell, that’s good work!

Do you have any standards for your songs you try to adhere by when choosing them for an album?

This is actually another thing that Lock, Stock & Soul taught me or reminded me. An album doesn’t have to be everything but the kitchen sink. Doug and I pretty much exclusively listen to vinyl now but of course over the years we’ve listened to a lot of Mp3’s and we forgot for a while that it’s nice to have a thematic and purposeful piece of work to sit down and absorb. Nowadays, most people listen to music on iTunes or on their iPod or iPad and that’s amazing but what it lacks is the experience of sitting down and listening to a complete story. You can jump around from song to song from artist to artist from genre to genre so, it doesn’t matter if all the tracks on an album belong together because chances are you won’t listen to them together or in a specific order.

The beauty of working with Craig is, as experimental and unique as he is as a producer; he’s a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to the experience of listening to music. He reminded us of how we used to listen to a record and how amazing and powerful that was. Now, when choosing songs for an album I think about how the body of work sounds and feels as a whole rather than how people today will probably listen to the songs as individual tracks. If we record 15 amazing tracks and only 12 of them sound right together as a body of work than only 12 of them will go on the album. So, when a recording session is complete we’ll sit down with the tracks and listen as a whole, anything that jumps out as not serving the greater body of work gets cut. I guess that’s my only standard.

What sort of things inspire you to write?

There’s a place up in the Adirondack Mountains that Doug and I often go to write. We try and spend as much time as we can together with our dog Eloise in the woods up there. Hiking, biking, camping… whatever small piece of the outdoors when can take in. This is most often where we get our inspiration. For Lock, Stock & Soul we actually moved up to Ithaca (a magical town filled with outdoor adventure including the famous gorges) and rented a house in the woods. We spent everyday writing, recording and hiking or biking in the Buttermilk Falls, Shindagin Hollow, The Plantations or The Wild Flower Preserve. We went to the local farmers market and bought fresh and organic fruits and vegetables and cooked a lot at home (which is something we rarely do in NYC). The experience was perfectly inspiring. Certainly lots of things inspire us to write including different travel experiences, our love affair (including our good and bad days), New York City, and of course other artists and musicians, particularly the ones that are so different from us in our local scene and abroad. However, one day in the mountains is the best possible inspiration.

What’s the last song you wrote or started?

I just finished a new song with a dear friend of mine, whom has written with Doug and I since we were all kids. He wrote the lyrics on this one and I wrote the music. It’s called “Cathedral Pines.” It’s a folk tune about “holding” your lover too tight and pushing him further and further away in the process and then what’s left behind in the wreckage. I’m really happy with this song and I love playing it live. I can’t say that about every tune I write.

What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?

I think I’m most proud of “He’s A Lover.” It turned out exactly as I envisioned it. I wrote “He’s A Lover” as a tribute to Doug and his amazing capacity to love. However, I really wrote it as a thank you to him for all his patience and support throughout the project. He has such an amazing sense of calm when I’m a lunatic and he always keeps me focused on what matters the most and what’s real. He’s A Lover allowed me to say all the things I wanted to say to him but never had. At the same time, I’m very proud of “Tidal Wave.” It’s a song that Doug and I wrote together and it was the first success I had since my prolonged “writers block” which occurred for the previous two to three years! Doug wrote this beautiful and lush music and graciously allowed me to contribute the lyrics. He was so encouraging and helpful and because of how we accomplished this together and because it was the song that broke my “dry spell,” I am extremely proud of this track.

What’s a lyric from the album you’re a fan of.

“Who’s to tell, who’s to know, it’s all the same
Reborn undead decayed anew; I’ve lived at least four lives with you
Drip drop away, splish goes the rain
Add a splash of heartache you’ve got yourself a cry day
I’ve seen your kisses come and go, I’ve watched your heaven ebb and flow
More than you will ever know
I have loved you lock, stock and soul.”

Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?

For me it’s probably easier. After my battle with writers block anything seems easier. Truth is, as a writer you go through phases… or I have. As a kid I wrote songs that were honest but really immature, then I started writing more mature/complex songs but I was so conscious of pleasing the listener that I think they seized to be honest. Then I had the worst thing happen when I wasn’t able to write at all for two to three years. During LS&S, and still now, I feel like someone opened the floodgates and everything is just pouring out, honest and raw. Who knows, maybe I won’t be pleasing the listeners and maybe the songs have again gotten simple but they are definitely honest and that’s gotta be the right direction. Who knows what the next phase will be but I’m game.

Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?

Not really. For me, everything I write has a melody so it would pretty much be futile to try and write poetry or any kind of prose with the intention of just enjoying the written word. Doug calls me his “Little Jukebox” because I’m always singing, so if I’m writing words, it will 99% of the time, consciously or subconsciously, be attached to a melody I’m already humming. Not to mention my brother, Andrew Foster Altschul is an award-winning novelist and he’s always correcting my grammar and spelling (mostly just to f*** with me.) It’s clear there’s only room in the family for one musician and one author.

What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?

Music is such a subjective thing and such a personal experience. I would never presume to know what one person connects with and why. What I can tell you is, more often than not, the songs people comment on are always a surprise to me and what’s more of a surprise is why they have connected to that particular song.

What do you consider the perfect song?

That’s a difficult question and of course very subjective. There is of course no way to define a “perfect” song but there are academic ways of breaking it down… does it tell a story? Does it make you tap your foot? Does it offer a sense of symmetry? Does the verse compliment the chorus and visa versa? Is the bridge purposeful or is it unnecessary? Is the melody memorable? Does the chord structure make sense? There are a million ways to judge a “perfect” song but at the end of the day, it’s all about how that particular song makes you feel. I would have to say the most perfect song I can think of at this very moment is “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney or Lennon-McCartney. I think in it’s simplicity and longevity it has proven to be at least one of those “perfect” songs. However, please remember that for me, the imperfections are what make things more beautiful and more interesting, so I would gravitate toward a song like Neil Young’s “Love In Mind” or Nick Drake’s “Time Has Told Me” when seeking “perfection.”


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