Singer/songwriter Alana Amram talks about her music, Vince Martin, Pete Seeger and David Amram

"I have no hopes and fears for the future of music - people will always play music.  The business is stupid and was stupid before too, it is just backwards in a new way." 

Alana Amram: The Gem of New York

Hailing from upstate New York, Alana retreated to her imagination in the isolation of the countryside. The daughter of esteemed composer David Amram and actress, writer Lora Lee Ecobelli, Alana was born into an opulence of modern American culture. Touring extensively with her family to gigs around the country, she was a born road musician and writing stories as young as 5. In her teens, her interest in NY underground music and art had her running away to the basements of Rock & Roll clubs and DIY art spaces throughout the changing NYC landscape in the 90's. 

It inspired her to attend SUNY Purchase art school to pursue her dream of filmmaking. Alana began performing in bands on bass and became immediately enamored with the craft of songwriting. As a guitar player she was heavily influenced by the sparse and daring styles of Hubert Sumlin, Willie Nelson, and the underrated rhythm playing of Emmy Lou Harris. Her demos led to an EP release on Zealous records. With the release she formed her band the Rough Gems. She took the name from a Kerouac quote..."Look for the diamonds in the sidewalk."  and Walt Whitman "one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest."

Amram released Pained Lady in 2010 on her own label Alanasaurus Rex. The record featured her diverse friends and David Amram. She toured throughout America. As a follow up in 2011, Amram chose to pay tribute to one of her song writing heroes, Vince Martin. Her 4th record - Spring River - will be released on Kingswood Records in the fall. She has played along side with Pete Seeger, Peter Rowan, Abigail Washburn, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Janis Ian, Ha Ha Tonka, and many others. She is also a filmmaker and bass player in a variety of bands and performance art groups.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Alana Amram sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I started writing poetry, singing and banging on instruments as young as I can remember. I learned about different folk music traditions the old fashioned way - through the folks all around me! I was very lucky to be surrounded with amazing musicians my whole life who were always jamming in our living room, backstage or in hotel rooms on the road as I traveled around with my parents. I had a very difficult time learning music theory when I started to study classical music. I loved the freeness of jazz, but was overwhelmed by its complexities.  I would start improvising my parts on the oboe in middle school orchestra class and soon realized that I was bumming out the woodwind section.

Meanwhile I would spend hours making weird sounds on the guitar and piano.  I was drawn to immediate sounds that cut through form and went right to expression. I found a whole new set of sounds as a teenager when I sought out rock and roll and punk records from the local record store (I could not afford CD’s - the LP’s were $1!)  As I got older and my collection of music grew, my appreciation expanded.  Eventually, it came full circle and I was listening to blues, folk, jazz and country music again. It is all connected anways. I am influenced equal parts by music, and my life’s experiences. I write to fit the lyric.  It makes it hard to put my music into a genre and I suppose that would be my philosophy. I tell the story through sound and lyric. I do what I think sounds exciting. I think beyond label, style and form - but recognize and honor all those things in the makeup of my work. 

"I want to travel the world supporting myself with my music, so I can learn more, see more and play more - I will find a way." Photo by Mats Bakken

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently for your songs?

Struggles for money, struggles for love, struggles with my own mind - but also the good times, the wild times - ecstatic experience all around. My relationship with nature - which is very intense - is endlessly fascinating.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The most interesting period of my life is always now. Best and worst moments of my career seem to be often be the same experience. The opportunity incredible but the expectation and aftermath always a little tormenting. 

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The best jam - The protest march, lead by Pete Seeger from uptown Manhattan - after a gig at Symphony Space to Columbus Circle. He was on 2 canes and we marched 30 blocks together and all sang old protest songs. I was with my family, the brilliant Chapin Sisters, and a bunch of 20 year old kids - I can’t explain that experience - but it changed my life.

Every time I am on stage with the Rough Gems - my amazing band - at Union Pool in Brooklyn has seemed to be an amazing experience.  Taylor Floreth, James Preston and Philip Sterk - my musical brothers constantly blow my mind. Union Pool has been the bands’ NYC home for the last 10 years and something magic always happens on stage there. Whether it be a local legendary singer in their 70’s coming up and singing with us, or the whole audience jumping up on stage, or getting fireworks shot at us while we play- it never lets us down.

There was a residency at the Rod and Gun Club in Brooklyn where I thought it would be a great idea to cook dinner for the whole audience.  I stayed up all night making 15 pounds of lasagne. I was so tired and in such an obscene food coma when it was time to play that I barely made it through the set. The next one, our drummer Taylor - a real chef - made chili. We were more nervous about the food going over well than playing. It was the most stressful 2 shows of our lives.  We decided to cancel the idea after that.

"Best and worst moments of my career seem to be often be the same experience. The opportunity incredible but the expectation and aftermath always a little tormenting." Photo by Mats Bakken

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

“Tell the story.” - David Amram

“It is just music.” - A guy in a bar I worked at

“You are monkeys swinging in the trees” - H.R. at a Bad Brains reunion show

What do you think is the main characteristic of Amram’s personality that made him a popular musician and person?

I don’t know what makes people popular. I know my father is charismatic, brilliant, positive, the hardest working man in music, a beautiful, honest, soulful person who loves playing music with his whole being.

Do you have any amusing tales from your music experiences with David Amram? Which memory makes you smile?

People don’t know he is one of the funniest people that has ever walked the earth. His comics are some of the funniest drawings ever made - they normally come on birthday cards - but occasionally he will bust one out when he is bored - generally during lectures. I was encouraging him to make a full time habit of painting but he kept giving away the stuff in the gallery as color Xerox’s.

What's the legacy of David Amram in the case of music? Make an account of the case The Beats & David Amram?

That is not up to me to make a case for. I like the “Beat” writers - but honestly find the whole institutionalization and historical perspective on the whole scene contrary to the text. It is about living it, not studying it. All that discussion is so painfully boring and the books and poems aren’t. So I would just say read and listen to it, if you feel like it.

"I know my father is charismatic, brilliant, positive, the hardest working man in music, a beautiful, honest, soulful person who loves playing music with his whole being." Photo: Alana & The Rough Gems with David Amram and Vince Martin

Are there any your memories from the Beats friends of David, which you’d like to share with us?

Some of those people really believed in their own myth and kinda seemed creepy and full of shit, especially through the eyes of a teenager. Some were inspiring too and totally incredibly kind people.  I believe people are people - everyone has a story - so while some were really brilliant, they could still be a drag - some were just performers putting on the show. I don’t believe in hierarchy. People get on the high horse and start believing they are icons and then other people think they are. The real icons are those moments and textures in the text- the photographs, paintings or lyrics in a song that move you.

Are there any memories from Vince Martin which you’d like to share with us?

Vince Martin and I became friends when I wrote him to say I was a fan of his music. I went to visit him in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn and he took me to the best Italian deli in the world. He came to see me play in the East Village and brought me a meatball sandwich from that place. It was the sweetest, most thoughtful thing anyone could do.  All I can say is you need to interview Vince. That man is a force of nature and has stories that are unreal. 

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

I miss the clothes. They had better clothes in the past. haha. I miss the fanzines and the discovery of new music feeling like a lightning strike. I think Youtube is the greatest invention of popular culture. I have no hopes and fears for the future of music - people will always play music. The business is stupid and was stupid before too, it is just backwards in a new way. I want to travel the world supporting myself with my music, so I can learn more, see more and play more - I will find a way. I am lucky to be on an incredible record label called Kingswood Records. They are supportive of music and film for all the right reasons. They are non-conventional, creative and contributing to a greater good!

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

LIBERACE MOVIE!!!  Amazing.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues and Metal with Folk and continue to Jazz and Rock n’ Roll music?

GOSPEL!

"I started writing poetry, singing and banging on instruments as young as I can remember. I learned about different folk music traditions the old fashioned way - through the folks all around me!" Photo by Robin Romano

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

Probably my dreams which are really far out and weird or the surreal stuff I see when I meditate. But maybe something boring like me painting a house or working some job and scratching lyrics on the back of receipt paper. Maybe that would inspire people not to give up and know that you can be creative all the time…. you just got to slip it into the cracks of everyday life and then soon all the concrete shatters.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Either ancient Egypt inside the temples - that ancient culture is very mystical and fascinating to me, dinosaur times - because I want to know what color they are, I think I would like to see the whole last moments of Jesus thing, to know if that actually went down the way they say it did - since it has changed the world as we know it, but no one would believe me if I did say I saw that... 

How you would spend a day with Woody Guthrie? What would you say to Janis? What would you like to ask Dylan?

I would spend a day with Woody Guthrie hopping trains.  I would say to Janis if I can I borrow her first band.  I would ask Dylan if he wanted to ride motorcycles.

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