'Critics' Choice CD' - The New York Times,
'Artist You Need To Hear' - Marie Claire,
'New & Noteworthy' - iTunes,
'Songwriter of the Week' - American Songwriter,
'Moody... Wide-open and raw' - Paste Magazine,
'Elle's Music Choice' - Elle Magazine,
'New & Notable Artists' - Amazon,
'Media Mix "What You'll Love" - The Washington Post,
'Critics’ Choice: Best Of 2008' - Jazziz Magazine,
'Publisher’s Top Pick 2008' - All About Jazz
After a packed performance at The Bitter End in New York, singer/songwriter Alyssa Graham was sure she was on the verge of a breakthrough. At the show’s conclusion, she was approached by a major-label A&R rep who wanted to put her in the studio to turn out a demo. Graham enthusiastically agreed, and as far as she was concerned, her meal ticket was about to get punched.
But the devil was, as they say, in the details. During each recording day, a label flunky would show up to coach Graham on which famous singers she should be emulating. Then, after tracking three songs, a meeting followed. The agenda? Choreography. As Graham puts it, “They wanted me to dance, and I mean that both literally and figuratively!”
“I basically walked out of that meeting, never looked back and decided to go study jazz at the New England Conservatory,” she recalls. “It really was a moment of clarity for me and thus, my ‘big break.’ I realized then that I had to make a choice—between being the artist I wanted to be or being the creation that the industry could make of me.”
Graham has been aiming for authenticity ever since, peeling back the layers on a quest for her truest voice. It’s a road that’s led her to Lock, Stock & Soul, her latest outing and one that bravely dispenses with many of the jazz trappings that flavored Echo, her Sunnyside Records debut. While Echo was focused on travel—indeed, it functioned as a musical travelogue—Lock, Stock & Soul represents coming home, a full circle return to Graham’s longtime musical loves: Neil Young, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan and others capable of delivering heartfelt emotion in the simplest of packages.
As befits the ’60s and ’70s artists Graham names as touchstones, the approach to recording Lock, Stock & Soul was something of a throwback. Overseen by producer Craig Street, sessions were largely tracked live, with all the musicians gathered in a communal circle, without even isolation booths to prevent sound from bleeding over. Feel and raw emotion, rather than airless perfection, was the goal.
“When I met Craig and started speaking with him about the record, he said, ‘My records usually have hairy armpits,” Graham recalls. “And I said, ‘Yes! That’s what I want!’”
Street even resorted to a bit of trickery to get the vocal results he wanted. As Graham explains: “He told me I was just doing scratch vocals. Then, after we finished tracking, he said, ‘OK, we’re done.’ So I asked, ‘Uh, so when do we overdub anything I might want to re-do? And he said, ‘No, no, it’s done.’ Then he said, ‘Do me a favor. Take it home. Listen to it. Live with it.’ And he was right! Because there was no pressure on me, because I felt part of a creative ‘hangout session,’ because I had no expectations of myself for those few days we were in the studio, he got a performance out of me that was completely relaxed, real and kind of innocent.”
The result is an extraordinarily whimsical vibe full of delicate melody and plush sonic detail, that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from LA’s Laurel Canyon in the height of its early-70s heyday in terms of songwriting, performances and overall mood.
The songs range from the quirky art-pop of “Exploded View” to the country-flavored duet with Jesse Harris, “Watching The Sky.”
Street also used his connections to assemble the right band, which features formidable artist MeShell Ndegeocello in a beautiful understated support role, playing bass. Two members of Ndegeocello’s regular band—guitarist Chris Bruce (Sheryl Crow and John Legend) and keyboardist Keefus Ciancia (Elton John and Iggy Pop) and drummer Michael Jerome (John Cale, Richard Thompson)—also contributed to the sessions, while Austin’s Davíd Garza, a noteworthy artist in his own right, provided mysterious, floating backing vocals.
When beginning to plan her next record, Alyssa and her longtime musical partner and songwriter Doug Graham (together often referred to as The Grahams)—who also serves as her regular guitarist—pored over their record collection. They were fans of the work Street had done with Cassandra Wilson (New Moon Daughter), Chris Whitley (Dirt Floor) and k.d. lang (Drag), so they reached out to him in the mistaken understanding that he was based in Los Angeles. Instead, it turned out that Street was living in Ithaca, N.Y., which happened to be where Alyssa and Doug had previously lived and gone to school. “I said, ‘this is meant to be,’” Graham recalls. “Ithaca is like the motherland for me and Doug. It’s a wildly inspiring town where we will always return because it’s so much a part of our history both personally and artistically.”
So the trio spent a leisurely three months in Ithaca, doing pre-production for Lock, Stock & Soul. Part of that process was developing more material to take into the sessions at Woodstock, N.Y.’s Dreamland Studios. The Grahams had 10 songs they were proud of, but Street insisted on a number closer to 25 to hit the studio.
So in addition to the original 10 the Grahams continued to write and produce new material in Ithaca while they also sought out kindred songwriters. Before hitting “record,” they ended up with contributions from Garza (who penned the title track), Bryan McCann, Delaney Jones and, serendipitously, the Grahams’ friend and former college buddy Jesse Harris, known for his solo albums as well as his work with Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Melody Gardot and others. (Street had reached out to Harris unaware that he and The Grahams were old friends.)
As a result of bringing Lock, Stock & Soul to life, Graham realized an artistic epiphany—ultimately, what matters in terms of both songwriting and performance is truth and authenticity, not technical sophistication. As Graham muses, whether choreographed dance moves or complex jazz chords, if it doesn’t serve the song, it’s a distraction.
“We explored so much great music together during the making of this record. Everything from Johnny Cash to The Kinks to Francoise Hardy and Ryan Adams. One of the things Craig reminded me was that it’s all about what the song means—the emotion it brings out in you and how you connect to it,” Graham notes. “He really got me back into writing music. If you notice, on Echo, I didn’t write or co-write any of the songs, but on this I wrote or co-wrote many of them. Since then, Doug and I have written a ton of songs that’ll be on the next record.”
“Working with Craig was amazing in so many ways, but that was the biggest gift he gave me—restoring my confidence in writing songs of my own without feeling like they have to be bigger or more complicated.”
“As Doug and I have focused on the music we want to be writing and performing, we’ve found that people definitely respond to raw emotion. They don’t need the trapeze and the pyrotechnics, the dance moves or the striptease. We just want to be honest, tell a good story and connect.”
And as Lock, Stock & Soul makes its way into the world; you can bet she’ll be doing just that.