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Light, Love and Lineage: Amy Helm Keeps Her Family's Fire Burning

Thursday, 27 September 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Ebru Yildiz

To some people music is much more than just a form of entertainment or artistic expression. On her latest solo album ‘This Too Shall Light’ Amy Helm, daughter of the Band’s legendary singing drummer Levon Helm and singer-songwriter Libby Titus, has not only crafted a beautiful collection of gospel-infused Americana gems, but also a record with a rich sense of heritage dripping from every note.

It’s perhaps no surprise that this album, the follow-up to 2015’s ‘Didn’t It Rain’, is heavily steeped in the history of American roots music. As a child Helm’s family introduced her to a wealth of artists and genres while teaching her to play a number of different instruments. She was even mentored by the great jazz musician Dr Aaron Bell while studying in New York and also received further tutelage from her stepfather, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen.  

Partially fuelled by her invaluable experiences, ‘This Too Shall Light’ isn’t just a record that sees Helm’s own artistic identity take flight, it also channels the singer’s wide-ranging influences and knowledge with a healthy passion and reverence for the traditions she’s helping to keep alive.

Recorded in just four days with producer Joe Henry, it traverses gospel, blues and country with the same panache and joy her father’s music exuded. Here, songs by everyone from the Milk Carton Kids and Blossom Dearie to Rod Stewart and Allen Toussaint are reinterpreted with the communal power and soulfulness of Americana at its most poignant.

After ‘Didn’t It Rain’ you said you hoped your follow up album would be full of original songs. What happened to those plans?

I did record some originals. At the end of the session, when we listened back to everything, one of them connected and I did leave that song – Heaven’s Holding Me – on the album. But the others? There wasn’t as clear a through line. We were going for a certain sound and feeling you get when you hear the songs and chose the ones that seemed to connect with this spirit of spontaneous music played with abandon.

In terms of that through line, the songs come from all over the place but cohere wonderfully well. You must have had a very strong vision for the album?

What I’ve discovered, since doing interviews and talking about the narrative of the album, is that happened by accident. Joe and I were choosing songs that related to a real sonic landscape, but also a vibe he wanted to create. We listened to an album called ‘Motel Shot’ by Delaney and Bonnie and, I keep coming back to the word abandon, it just sounds like they threw their stuff down in a room and gave no thought to anything but singing the song in the moment and moving on.

You can hear Leon Russell’s harmonies bleeding through a guitar amp mic. It’s very loose, unrehearsed and live sounding. That was the feeling we wanted to go for and we both started bringing in songs we thought would fit that. The first three Joe played me were Michigan, Mandolin Wind and Freedom For The Stallion and the list grew from there. Sort of by coincidence, we ended up with this thematic through line.

Can you tell me a bit more about not rehearsing the material before you entered the studio?

I was very unfamiliar with the songs. Joe had specifically asked me not to sing them too much, to get too familiar with them, because he wanted the spontaneity and the hunt for the song to happen in the moment.

Did that liberate you or did you feel vulnerable?

Both. I felt quite exposed without the confidence that comes from playing something live a hundred times and singing it so differently that by the 10th, and then the 60th, time your singing is in a whole other place. That confidence, I imagine, every musician and singer feels when they’ve really gotten their voice or instrument around the song.

At the same time it was liberating because it was so in the moment and so based on collaboration and finding the song, not through familiarity, but through the interaction of the other musicians. That was a different way for me to get familiar with a song, a different road to it.

Gloryland is a superb traditional gospel number. How many voices are on it and how many takes did you need to get that particular song right?

There are four voices, we sang it twice and ended up choosing the first take. I love that song. I’ve been doing it for a long time live and never done it with a woman singing the top part above me. Honestly, Allison Russell’s vocals on that recording, they just about kill me. It’s one of my favourite things on the record.

Can you put into words why singing gospel music and hymns means so much to you?

I love singing that music. It’s nice to interpret those lyrics, filter them through and let them mean something regardless of any kind of specific religious aspects. I think Gloryland, although it’s a Christian hymn, there’s something very resonant and true about it for anybody because it’s really about finding your way through grief and believing we go on to something else. Even if that’s a mystery.

Brian May and Dave Grohl have previously said that, when they were in the studio after both Freddie Mercury and Kurt Cobain died, they could almost feel or hear them guiding what they were doing. Is that something you experienced after losing your dad?

I have experienced that, yes. I’m very grateful to have that and think, having played music with him for so long, I can almost hear him telling me a better way to phrase something. Or at least I hope I’m hearing it because...what a singer. I mean him and, of course, Richard Manuel, who is one of my favourite singers and one of the most underrated.

He’s one of the greatest soul singers of his generation, honestly, and not always recognised as such. I think we also imagine our musical heroes guiding us through a song and get that feeling of them standing over our shoulders and pointing us in the right direction.

Do you feel any responsibility to keep his legacy alive and pass on his music, and what you learnt from him?

I really do. It’s funny, I just got off tour for three weeks and was reflecting how much holding on to and continuing his legacy is becoming more and more important to me with every passing year. It’s a really special thing. I travel and meet younger musicians all the time who, his music meant so much to them, and if I can pass on even one word of encouragement that I know he would have passed to me, it just feels so important. I’m very grateful to be able to do that and I take it more seriously with every step.

Which beliefs of his, specifically, are becoming more important to you?

For the working musician to honour him or herself, to stay grounded in what’s joyful about it and to feel encouraged. It’s a very difficult industry and growing more and more difficult. It can be discouraging and the ride can feel manic at times. You can be the toast of the town and you can be making no money and hoping 20 people show up to your gig.

You can ride every angle of that and it’s so important to keep ourselves lifted up. It comes back to community. Musicians have to support each other, respect each other and give each other the encouragement to keep going, follow your art and answer the call. I do believe music is a calling for people. Nothing else really satisfies but to play.

Did you ever think about doing anything else or was that calling too strong?

I tried other things because I was afraid to commit to it. I knew I could sing and knew nothing felt as good as singing and music, but everybody has a different temperament and understanding of themselves at different ages. I was shy and needed a lot of extra time to listen to other players and singers and absorb stuff. I did go inward and did a lot of quiet study, in my living room, by my turntable, with music, because when you have a parent who’s in music and famous there’s a blessing and a curse to it.  

One of the good things is it can open up a lot of opportunities, but they were coming at me quickly and I felt nervous about that. So, I wanted to make sure I knew where my voice lived in my body and what I wanted to say. Then I’ve been blessed to be in groups like Ollabelle and the Midnight Ramble Band where I could discover that in my own time.

You and your father worked very closely on his wonderful ‘Dirt Farmer’ album in 2007, after his throat cancer treatment. Having that shared experience must have very important to you at the time and, looking back, even more so when you reflect on it now?

Absolutely. That album was so ‘meant to be’ and my dad and I had discussed that for a decade before we recorded it. He had been wanting to record those songs and document that part of his musical education. That was a really special experience for everybody and also, of course, his voice was returning to him during the process of recording that album.

That had its own spiritual aspect as well. There was something very profound about listening to him recover his voice and sing the songs he had learned as a child and a young teenager wanting to become a drummer. It was a significant and inspiring time.

You’re always asked about your father’s influence, but how did your mother help shape your musical identity?

She listened to very different music. First and foremost, the stuff she was playing for me when we were riding in the car to school was Dolly Parton, a great soul singer named Brenda Russell who I love, not many people have heard of her, and Laura Nyro, Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt. So I got my ‘serious female singers’ rounded out by her for my musical education. That’s one of the strongest things she gave to me.

You have two young sons as well. Are there any signs they may join the family business and keep the Helm dynasty alive?

My 10-year-old is really showing signs. In fact, I’m sure if I told him he could skip school, get in a van and play gigs he might shout with joy. He loves drums and loves singing. My little one loves singing too, but my 10-year-old is definitely showing a lot of interest so that’s been exciting. We play music a lot around the house, so that’s been really nice. He’s a singing drummer, who knew?

Fans are desperate to know what the current situation is with Ollabelle and if a new album is in the works?

Yeah, we have discussed a new record and everybody really wants to do that. It’s just a matter of timing because everybody’s so busy and has kids and whatnot. There will be an Ollabelle project some point down the road. I have no doubt.

Will you be playing any shows in the UK?

I’m actually hoping that in January or February I may be heading your way. It’s something I’d love to do because I’ve only ever played once in London, six years ago.  I never came over there with ‘Didn’t It Rain’ and, even with Ollabelle, we only did one or two shows. American roots artists rave about playing music in the UK because they feel the responses from the audiences are stupendous. So I’m excited about it.

‘This Too Shall Light’ is out now on Yep Roc.

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