Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sunday Spotlight - Alyssa Graham

I know, I know, it's been a while since the spotlight has shown brightly in these parts. Forgive me and I'll make it up to you somehow, starting with an interview with singer/songwriter Alyssa Graham. Alyssa first studied piano, saxophone and guitar before even graduating from high school, after which she co-founded a jazz/rock band named Blindman's Holiday which toured extensively. She later went on on her own and recorded her debut self-titled album in 2005. At the end of this month (the 29th to be precise), she'll be releasing her second album, Echo on Sunnyside Records. Alyssa was kind enough to take some time to tell me about her musical adventures, her personal travels, the love of her life, and the second track from the album, Pictures of You. As always, questions in black are mine, text in red is hers.


Pictures of You was the first song written for Echo. My long-time love and creative partner Doug Graham co-wrote the song with Jon Cowherd. Doug wrote the lyrics one night around 3 a.m. in our apartment. He and I were overwhelmed at the time, and desperately wanted to get away and disappear together on one of our journeys. I grew up traveling, as my parents were very adamant about exposing me to the world and different cultures. When Doug and I started dating, we made a pact that if we were going to spend our lives together, we had to explore the world together. We’ve been to dozens of countries, including Nepal, China, Argentina, Morocco, and Mexico, where we lived for six months. In Peru, we hiked four excruciating days through the Andes to see Machu Picchu at sunrise, and in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala, we were lucky enough to be granted a private "meeting" with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Of course there were musical highlights along the way as well, like the Naxi Orchestra in Southern China, the Gamelan in Indonesia, Fado clubs in Portugal, the Tibetan ritual orchestras and chants, and seeing Rosa Passos and Doris Monteiro perform in a small record store in Rio de Janeiro.

These are of course the “big moments” that make for great stories, but the "little moments" are often the ones that I think about the most—that special romance and friendship we share out on the road. I think that's what Doug and I were longing for when he came in and sat on our bed with his guitar that night, woke me up, and played this incredible tribute to our love and life together. We brought Jon in to compose the music, and he was able to capture the essence of the lyrics and create a song that truly took us around the world. Though it’s in the style of Bossa Nova, it really allows the listener to be wherever he or she wishes at that moment. Our video of "Pictures of You" showcases some of the photos we've taken everywhere we go. We take our old Minolta and lots of lenses, and the photo albums that detail our travels are our most valuable possessions.

And three questions for Alyssa:

1.) You tackle some classic, yet diverse, covers on this album. You lead off with Simon and Garfunkel's America, later Sting's I Burn For You, Joao Gilberto's Izaura to close the album (which he also chose to close his), and finally your interpretation of the Billie Holiday track Involved Again that never was until you brought it to life on this album. How do you approach classic songs like this to add your own touch? When you recorded these, were you at all nervous that fans of the originals would be overly critical of your work?

First of all, let me compliment you on knowing your Joao albums. I just put a list together of “Music You Should Hear” for and Joao’s 1973 album Joao Gilberto, featuring Izaura, is certainly on my short list. He is my musical hero.

Each cover song on “'Echo' is part of the overall story I had to tell. I grew up listening to Simon & Garfunkel. I didn’t choose “America,” it chose me. It was the only way to begin the journey that eventually became 'Echo.' While recording “America,” I was able to jump on that Greyhound bus, I was counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike (where I grew up), and I certainly was whispering to Doug, “Douglas, I’m lost…” though indeed I knew he was sleeping. The great Paul Simon wrote this exquisite song, but for those 6 minutes, the story was my story. This is often how each track develops. Of course you want people to have a positive and emotional reaction to music you write or interpret. However, I have to create in a vacuum, be true to myself, serve the music, and hope that people connect to it. Each song on 'Echo' is filled with a sense of hope, as am I. Literally, Hope is my middle name.

2.) In writing about your own life, you mentioned all of the wonderful world music that you've experienced around the globe. How have you taken this wide ranging influences and incorporated them into your own music?

The musicians from around the world (including the U.S.) that have influenced me are not necessarily recognizable in my own music. They are artists that I think have been groundbreakers in their own way (including numerous musicians I don’t know by name, but witnessed their playing on my travels.) They are musicians like Joao Gilberto, Bob Dylan, Amália Rodrigues, and Ali Farka Touré that give me permission in my own music to do whatever I want. Musicians like Bob Marley, Elis Regina, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Ravi Shankar who allow me to break the rules, to explore and experiment, and find new ways to communicate my story through music. Musicians like Milton Nascimento, Bjork, and Miriam Makeba, who are fearless, whose stories erupt with each song. Like all of these musicians, I have my influences and I want to credit them for a lifetime of inspiration. However, when people hear my music I want them to feel like they’ve heard something new and unique - something only I could have offered.

3.) I can't get over that you had a personal meeting with His Holiness! I had a chance to hear him speak in Boston at what's now called the TDF North Garden (a huge arena), and even in there his magnetism, wisdom, and aura were tangible. I can't imagine interacting with him face to face. What words of wisdom did he share with you?

From left, Alyssa's brother Andrew, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Alyssa, and Doug Graham

I can’t get over it either! In 1995 my brother Andrew, Doug, and I journeyed to India. I had been working at Snow Lion Publications (Tibetan Buddhist Publisher) all through college and I was very involved in Ithaca with the Namgyal Monastery (the North American Seat of the Personal Monastery of His Holiness the Dalai Lama). Dharamsala was high on my list of places to visit. We spent several weeks in the beautiful small hill town of McLeod Ganj in Northern India, where His Holiness currently lives in exile. When I got word from our Tibetan friend and host that we were granted a private meeting with His Holiness, I was speechless… so was she! We met with him in his private residence in what can only be described as a large “living room.” It was just the four of us and his translator (though he speaks perfect English). He sat with me on the couch holding my hand (tight) for about 30 minutes while we spoke about politics, spirituality, and humanity. As you so eloquently put it, his magnetism, wisdom, and aura are incomparable. As I was/am very concerned with the plight of the Tibetan people, I wanted to know how young Americans could help. His message was simple; WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. LOVE, BE TRUE, and BE KIND. My life certainly changed that day and I am so grateful for the time we spent together. (see photo)


At this point, I'll put aside my jealousy (both at her world travels and especially her time with His Holiness) and comment on the album as a whole. Simply put, it's elegant, simple, and refined. It's the kind of classy that doesn't need to have to make lots of noise or draw attention to itself to convey it's sophistication. You can sense Alyssa's musical experience and experiences without them hitting you over your head. As mentioned above, there are a handful of covers here, recognizable, but personalized as well. The track that Alyssa talked about, Pictures of You, is really a beautiful love song that would be an appreciated addition to any love mix for your significant other. Enjoy the following, then look for the album on the 29th.

Visit her website, her label Sunnyside Records, and become her friend on MySpace.


Simon & Garfunkel - America : Bookends

No comments: