Allison Moorer Talks Hard Road to New Album, ‘Down to Believing’
Allison Moorer took the path less traveled to her new album, Down to Believing.
In a marketplace that's dominated by lighter, more entertaining fare and driven almost entirely by singles, Moorer has crafted an emotionally raw and powerful album that need to be experienced in its entirety to fully appreciate the scope of the work.
The album sprang from a difficult time in her own life; her son with Steve Earle was diagnosed with autism three years ago, which inspired the wrenching "Mama Let the Wolf In," while the end of the couple's marriage provided fodder for several other songs, including "Tear Me Apart" and "If I Were Stronger." The first single from the project, "Like It Used to Be," is currently in release.
The result is an album startling in its emotional intensity, but what's truly interesting is the dichotomy between Moorer's lay-it-all-out-there songwriting and her rather quiet demeanor in conversation. She was polite, funny and surprisingly soft-spoken for a person who performs in public for a living when Taste of Country caught up with her recently for the following wide-ranging interview about life, music and how her son is helping her see the world in a new way.
How did the ball get rolling on a new project? What was the first track that made you think, 'Okay, this is gonna be an album'?
I'm a staff songwriter for Warner Chappell, so I was writing all along, because that's what I do. I guess the first track that we cut that sort of clicked with me and Kenny Greenberg, who produced the album, was "I Lost My Crystal Ball." We went in the studio one day in February 2013 and we did a session that had "I Lost My Crystal Ball," "Tear Me Apart," "If I Were Stronger" and "Down to Believing" on it, and all of those songs ended up on the record. So I guess it was then that I knew, 'Okay, yeah, we're doing something. This is real. This is happening.'
When you come to that realization, do you write differently with yourself in mind than you would if you were just writing songs under contract?
I can't help but write about myself. That's just how I do it. So every song that I write I think has some element of me in it, even if I am writing with someone else in mind. The stuff just seeps in. I think they're all about me.
Did you deliberately set out to write about the end of your marriage, your son's diagnosis and more personal things of that nature in this collection?
I don't think I was deliberately doing it. I think I can't help but do it. I just write, as I said, they're all about me in some way. Some not so blatantly ... But they're definitely autobiographical. I think that's what a writer does. Even if you completely change the characters, even if you completely change the scenario, it's just gonna end up being about you. We're self-centered people. [Laughs]. Can't help it.
You could argue that all art has to have some personal basis, or it really isn't art.
Well, I think it's the artist's job to reflect back to the world. It's holding up a mirror to allow the possibility of finding a common experience. It's how we do that. That's why art is non-negotiable. That's why when I hear they want to do away with arts money, or they want to take arts out of schools, whether it be through a music program or visual arts or whatever, I'm just incensed, because art is such a big way that we as human beings understand ourselves and understand each other. It's such a vital part of life.
It's the artist's job to reflect back to the world. It's holding up a mirror to allow the possibility of finding a common experience.
I don't know what we would be — we would not be where we are as a society if we had not been making and consuming art from day one. It's where we find out about ourselves. It's where we make discoveries about the world. It's just indispensable. So the role of the artist in a world is hugely important.
Do you feel as some other artists do that that's being devalued across the culture in terms of downloading and piracy, and all of the other issues that content creators are struggling with right now?
I'm sorry that music is being devalued the way that it is. That's a real disappointment. I think there's a real disconnection that happens when people consider a person who makes music for a living. They see us onstage, and our job is to make it seem like it's not work. And it isn't, for that hour. Actually it is; it's hard physical work to get up onstage and do a show.
What they don't see is all the blood, sweat and tears, time and investment that it took to get there, and they don't maybe understand what it is to write a song, how hard it is to write a good song. The time it takes. You get lucky sometimes and one falls out, but a lot of times, 23 hours is spent living with the impetus to do it. It's a full-time job. It's not as easy as it looks, I'll just put it that way. So I think that's one of the reasons why music has been devalued so, because it's our job to make it look easy. It's not easy.
Why did you choose "Down to Believing" as the title song for the album?
Because it just sums up the whole thing for me. You've got to get up every morning and decide if you believe or not, and that goes for any relationship and anything that you're doing. That's what it's about. This is a record about relationships, and as far as I can tell, every relationship is about getting up every day and deciding whether you're in or out. You have to do that every day.
Were you trying to tell an overall story? This isn't necessarily a concept record, but you could read into it that all of the songs are interrelated. Was that a deliberate thing in choosing a track listing and the order?
There's definitely a theme that runs through the record, and it is that of relationships and family and love. The beginnings of things, the endings of things. Just figuring things out. And I'm an artist who needs to have a theme. I've never been interested in making a record with just a bunch of songs on it. I've gotta have something to say. I've gotta have a statement to make. So I wasn't gonna make a record until I had something to say, and this is what I ended up having to say. [Laughs].
That's doubling down on being an album-length artist in a period of time where singles are driving the industry. Does that present a conundrum for you in terms of, how do you market that and how do get around that singles-driven mindset?
I just can't think about marketing. It's not my job. I'm happy to let other people think about that, because, gosh, I've got enough to do. [Laughs]. I can make records, I can go out and perform them, but I have no idea, other than try to connect with people, how to make somebody think that they need to buy something. That's just not where I excel. So I have to leave that up to others.
Do you do that with singles choices as well, or do you have a strong idea about what you want to release?
I have my opinion on what I think would make a good single, but my bottom line is, it's my job to love every song on the record, and whatever they choose as the single is whatever they choose. That doesn't mean that I don't give my opinion and my input, but at the end of the day it's not going to matter to me, because if I don't love it and believe in it, it's not going on there anyway.
You said in another interview that rather than recording in a bunch of clustered sessions, the recording of this album was spread out over time. How does that approach change the way that you listen to the songs in progress or the way that you make the record?
With the exception of my first record, I've always gone in and cut the record all at once, because I live in New York and I was recording in Nashville for the most part. I had to go back and forth. And when I started recording, what I was doing was cutting demos for my song publishing deal. I didn't even realize I was making a record. I would go in and cut some stuff, live with it a while, then go in and cut some more stuff. We chose from about 22 songs for the songs that ultimately ended up on the record, just because I'd been writing a whole lot.
I actually liked doing this album that way, because it gave me time to think. It gave me time to come up with that theme, it gave me time to figure out what it was that I had to say.
You mentioned Kenny Greenberg earlier. What does he as a producer bring out in you that another producer might not, or that you might not arrive at yourself?
He just knows me really well. I think he knows what my strengths and weaknesses are. He also really loves to hear what I have to say, and I find that really refreshing. You don't always get that. [Laughs]. He's an excellent musician, his producer skills are great becuse he's open, and he wants to try stuff. I just trust him implicitly. I've known him for so long. I really love him as a human being, and we bring something out in each other that I love. We make a sound when we get together, and it just felt right to make this record together.
There's a really interesting song on the album called "Mama Let the Wolf In." What was going on inside your head in writing that?
It is a song about parenting. It's about the guilt involved in parenting. It's about feeling powerless to protect my son. He was diagnosed with autism just before he was two years old, and I think whenever your child goes through something hard, you feel like you should be able to protect them from it, or you certainly want to. And when you can't, it's infuriating. It's maddening. It makes you lose sleep. It's hard to comprehend. It's hard to watch. It's just an emotional response to something really tough happening.
Autism is such a widely misunderstood — I don't even want to call it a disorder, it's really just a spectrum of behavior. What would you want people to know about your son that they might misunderstand about a child with autism?
Well, there's no doubt that people with autism are different, and they are special. But that does not mean that that's not a good thing. As my friend Rosanne told me, 'Honey, it's a spectrum, and we're all on it somewhere.' I totally believe that. I have my issues and my things that are strange about me. I would never tell you some of the weird habits I have. [Laughs]. We're supposed to accept each other as we are, no matter what it is. This idea that we're all supposed to be alike and that we're supposed to function in a society as round pegs in these round holes, that's just not realistic. I have no interest in living in a world like that.
I know for a fact that my son is here to teach me many things.
So I think it's all about accepting differences and letting people be who they are. I'm an artist. I want to be who I am. I don't want to have to go be an accountant or something just because that's something that's socially acceptable. If I want to go make a painting and some people find it weird, so be it. The important thing is that people have the freedom to be who they are and live the way that they want to live.
I think, gosh, with the way that the autism rates are going, people need to get used to it. And that doesn't mean that we don't work on it. We need to figure out what's going on. But I think it's a lesson. I think somehow these kids are the canaries in the coal mine, and we need to figure out what we're doing to our planet, we need to figure out how we're living, we need to figure out how to be better. And I know for a fact that my son is here to teach me many things, and that's one of he things that he is teaching me: 'You know what, mama, I'm different, and you're different, and we're gonna be okay anyway.'
Going into the promotional phase of a record, how are you going to balance that and being a mom?
There is no balance, and anybody that tries to tell you there's a balance is lying through their teeth. [Laughs]. You just do what you can do. You do the best that you can do. That's all I can say.
Is there anything else that you want to say about this record, or anything else that you've got coming up?
I hope people love the record. Anything I can do to bring attention to it, I'm going to try to do, and otherwise I'm in the throes of a second draft of a memoir of my childhood, which I hope will be out in 2016. And I'm gonna keep making music and writing and I'm just gonna keep at it.
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