ALELA DIANE SINGS folk songs about big-bellied whales and rocky ground and tatted lace. Her new record is The Pirate's Gospel, a handmade, 15-track thing brimming with kiddy choirs, banjo, bare harp-like acoustic guitar, and Alela's big, echoing voice, which fills up a room and makes her, a guitar, and two mics sound like a stomping, shouting chorus.
The Pirate's Gospel is rooted deep in nature. Its stories are set in forests, on seashores, under trees; the imagery therein is lush, beautifully worded stuff. We hear about "returning to the hills/bringing buckets drawn from the wells" over gospel vocals and slide guitar on "Sister Self"; on "Mother's Love," Alela hums out a dark, shadowy blues line then sings, "can you blame the sea/'cause she's a flowin' in that water deep" and "is it the dirt that you envy so/'cause in it her strong roots still grow"; on "Oh! My Mama" she sings, "and when the birds sing in the morning/I'll be a mama/I'll have a daughter/I'll give her melodies/and she'll be my little bird."
I saw Alela (Ah-lee-luh) open for some friends' bands at Holocene last week and was damn impressed. Another thing that impressed me was when my dance-music-loving friend Adrienne came up after the set and told me, "I don't like this kind of music... at all... but her voice made me sit down and listen." As a big fan of music like this, how much does my opinion really matter? It doesn't. So, take it from my friend Adrienne; if Alela can win over an avowed house music lover who thinks nothing of forking over $20 to dance at Fez Ballroom, something is seriously working here. Alela is new to Portland. Give her a big welcome.
So, you're pretty new to Portland.
I moved up here in October! Just in time for miles of rain to fall all over our faces. I am very glad to have migrated north. I like that the seasons change, and it even snowed! I was collecting leaves in October, and now I stare at the pink blossoms. People here are friendly! And the forest is close.
What was Nevada City like? I've heard it's beautiful and really mellow and easy to live in. Why'd you leave?
Oh! Nevada City, California. It is stupidly beautiful and tiny. There is this river that we swim in during the summertime called the Yuba. Cool green water, river rocks, and actual nymphs. The land is covered in pine trees. It snows in the winter and is hot, hot, hot in the summer. The most musically and artistically creative people that I know come from there. I think there are crystals in the water or something. It is a town of dance parties on weeknights in churches, and making fires in log cabins. The forest folk are amazing, and I miss them. I left because it is just too small. The faces of everyone I knew in my entire life were staring at me every day: at the grocery store, on a nature trail, at the dentist, at the lake, EVERYWHERE! It made me a little cuckoo. And visiting is really exciting. I love Nevada City.
What was a typical day like in Nevada City?
A typical day in the summertime goes something like this: If I didn't have to work, I'd leave the cabin at around noon, and drive the three miles to town. All the other critters would crit out of their houses or riverbanks or barns and I'd see them "downtown." I'd get some free mate [tea] or iced coffee from my friend at the coffee shop, and talk to all the kids who showed up on the tiny street. After that, lots of the folks would gather for breakfast at Ike's Cafe. Then there would be a river adventure. If I wandered down the banks with a friend, it is likely we'd find 10 or 15 of our best friends already laying on the hot rocks and swimming in the pools. By night, everyone would meet up for drinks at the Mine Shaft. When last call came around, we'd loiter, and leave once we decided where the dance party would be. Then we'd DANCE!
Have all your shows been as well attended as the one I met you at?
I would say "no." Some have been filled out, some have been me singing to the bartender and some ghosts. I prefer living guests, but both are fine.
There's a lot of nature in your music. Was that more from Nevada City or does Portland do the same thing for you?
Nevada City was a childhood of building fairy homes with walnut shells and moss. Those memories will always inspire me, but I would not have chosen Portland if huge trees and rivers weren't close by. Wherever I am, I'll always collect leaf skeletons and pinecones and stones. I have an eye for them, on the dirt or on the sidewalk. I sing about what I find and what I remember.
Your record has a lot about traditional domesticity, which is rare in music made by young people—who are usually afraid of that sort of thing... or maybe they just don't understand it.
Domesticity is something that I've always known about through my mother, did a little of in the past, but became fascinated with it in the last few years. My mom is a seamstress who made me little dresses and doll clothes when I was a girl. She taught me how to stitch, and how to crochet. She made curtains for the house, painted the walls, and did the chores. We had goats and chickens! I have been thinking about this lately, and what hard work it must have been to keep house and have children. I'm nearly 23, and when she was this same age, she was married with two children to feed. My version of getting domestic is being at home with Bramble Rose, my cat, heating a kettle on the stove, sewing CD covers, and making a hat. I hold dear to me things that my great-grandmothers made with their hands. I think about the hours spent by these women, sitting in their houses making lace, baking, cleaning, and watching the babies. I honor these women, and the spirit of making and doing things.
You hand made the packaging to your record, The Pirate's Gospel. Will you be doing that for the next one or are you looking for a label?
It is hard to say if I'll be hand making the next record. I'd love to say that I will be, but it takes up so much time that could be spent playing guitar or going outside! I've made about 500 copies of The Pirate's Gospel with these hands, and these hands are getting tired. As for labels, it would be nice to not do everything on my own. It is hard to be a manufacturer, distributor, booking agent, and musician all at once. I am not hunting and gathering record labels, but they are welcome to knock, knock, knock!
What do the words "The Pirate's Gospel" mean?
"The Pirate's Gospel" comes from a night of rowing a canoe across a lake in the dark and singing gospel songs with friends. When we came ashore we had campfire sing-alongs with many hands clapping and feet stomping. The songs on the album could just as well be sung 'round the fire with everyone. Also, people are welcome to make copies of it and pass it around, which is considered "pirating."
You planning on staying in Portland a while?
I am very glad to be in Portland, so it seems I'll be here for some time, and I have no plans to leave! I am in the process of thinking about a new record, but I don't know where to begin. I've all these songs ready to be captured; I just need to figure out what the hell I am doing. I have a show coming up on April 6 at "The Funky Church," on SE Tamarack, which is a beautiful space that I am honored to be performing in. I have a few dates in California following that, but no big cross-country tours or European adventures. Maybe someday?