Playing music is in Alana Amram's genes. The Putnam County, New York native is the daughter of the jazz songwriter and playwright Lora Lee Amram. Her father is classical composer David Amram, who has worked with Charlie Parker, Pete Seeger and Leonard Bernstein, among others. WNYC recently caught up with Alana Amram, 31, to discuss the journey that led her to Bushwick, Brooklyn, and to making Painted Lady, her first full length record. The album was produced, engineered and mixed by Jesse Lauter in his West Side studio. It features ten original tracks and one cover, which was written by her friend, the Americana folk musician Vince Martin.
What was it like growing up on a farm with musical parents? My father’s background is in classical and jazz, but he also is involved a lot in folk music, so there were all sorts of musicians coming over and hanging out at the house when I was growing up. I would always be asking about music and would always be included in the music in some form or another. Whether shaking a maraca on stage or singing and running around banging on pots and pans, there was always music all around us.
Any good stories from the road as a kid? Before I started school, I was traveling a lot with them when I was a little kid. My earliest memories are of being down in Austin, Texas at the Kerrville Folk Festival and getting to hear some of the greatest singer songwriters perform. I remember hearing Townes Van Zandt singing and just experiencing an incredible connection to that type of music.
Besides your parents, what were other early musical influences? I grew up in a really conservative town, so I got really interested in subculture and punk rock and collecting records. So when I was 15 or 16, I started catching the train down to New York City and exploring the music scenes. I’d go to hardcore and punk-rock shows, basically any shows that I could get into. I loved rockabilly and it was this underground music different from the underground music I had grown up with. I loved the high energy and the younger people involved. It was really wild.
How did you discover Vince Martin? I got pretty heavy into Greenwich Village, urban, folk musicians who I felt that I could really relate to a lot of their stories. I ended up moving down to New York City and here I am, kinda this country kid isolated, trying to find my way. And I’m playing in a bunch of rock and roll bands, everything’s loud and crazy. And then I discover Fred Neil. He did that song “Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me,” the theme from Midnight Cowboy. That led me to finding Karen Daulton who eventually led to Vince Martin. Now, he’s my really good buddy and I’m really lucky to get access...to this cannon of songs that have been lost and kind of hidden.
Download Amram's cover of Vince Martin's "Snow Shadows."
What can you tell us about this album, Painted Lady? The Painted Lady album is a collection of autobiographical songs of over about the past ten years of my life. I was touring with different rock and roll bands and going through some pretty heavy things that 20-something year-olds go through and just trying to figuring myself out—trying to figure out how to deal with love and excess. (Laughs) Excessive use of substances, and coming to grips with a lot of stuff along the way. “Cream Sherry” is about a trip out west on a Greyhound bus back when I was drinking heavily. The lyric, “I bought a ticket to nowhere, and all I could think of was home,” that was pretty much the deal. I was just wandering around figuring out where I was going to go, and all I could think of was home. But I didn’t want to be there either.
How do you describe your music and musical style? Well, I’m confused because I’m in a little bit of a weird place. People ask me and sometimes I say singer songwriter. But then I cringe a bit. Then I say country, but I live in a city, and one in the Northeast. So, to some people, that’s completely unacceptable, and what country music has become is so far from the country music that I love. Folk is definitely an influence also, and classic rock. I guess Americana is a pretty good one, but I’m not really sure where I fit in. I’m a storyteller and I think that’s the main thing.
Alana Amram performs on Tuesday night at 10 P.M. at Union Pool in Williamsburg. If you can't make it to the show, you can get a flavor of the album by downloading the twangy ballad, “Cream Sherry” or "Snow Shadows." Amram's next album, due out next year, is a cover album of Vince Martin's songs that features Van Dyke Parks on strings.