A Few Minutes With… Amy Helm
By Don Wilcock
“It’s always the hurricanes that make us the people we want to become,” says Amy Helm, who oughta know. The daughter of The Band’s drummer Levon Helm and singer/songwriter Libby Titus plays the Cohoes Music Hall on Friday night (April 22).
Her parents split when she was eight. She lived with her mom, who took up with Dr. John after the divorce. Steely Dan co-founder and lead vocalist Donald Fagen eventually became her stepfather. Beginning in 2004 she released three albums with Olabelle, an al-t country band that formed in the ashes the World Trade Center 9/11 disaster. Her first solo album Didn’t Stop the Rain was released last year, shortly after she divorced her husband, gave birth to her second son and marked the death of her iconic dad by taking up the organizing of his Midnight Rambles in Levon’s barn in Woodstock.
“The Midnight Ramble Band for me was all about just burning really, really hot for the duration of the gig,” she explains. “My dad basically lit a fire on that stage, and everybody had to step up to the microphone, put their fingers on their instruments and get ready to burn, and it was very much an experience of being inside of it, being in the moment, doing the song live. We never did capture that on an album. I mean there’s live albums that are good, but for me, the Midnight Ramble Band was all about learning how to be on stage and give it all you’ve got, doing it like it’s the last time you’re going to sing a song.”
She brings the same dedication to her touring band the Handsome Strangers. “I can give you an example just from my gig last night ’cause I finally got the second verse of ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’ with the little tilt that I wanted to get on a word. It’s taken me about three years of singing that song over and over again.”
Didn’t Stop the Rain is the yin to the yang of her 2006 Olabelle CD Riverside Battle Songs. While that release emphasized the more laconic driftwood influence of her dad’s Band, Didn’t Stop the Rain is very eclectic, but with a pervasive and percussive bite to it that puts her more squarely in the game with female singers like her friends Joan Osborne, Rosanne Cash and her mentor Mavis Staples.
She recut several of the songs on Didn’t Stop the Rain because she felt the energy of her live performances far eclipsed what she’d laid down in the studio. “There were some songs that had been written and then sort of demo-ed and then recorded. When they changed significantly in the year and a half of playing them live, it had to be done. So, that’s what I did, and the songs that I folded in were songs that hadn’t been written yet or that were songs I had stumbled upon that seemed to tell a certain story whether with their narrative or just musically, and I felt they were the important parts of telling the story of the album and had to be included.”
Getting back to Amy’s analogy about hurricanes making her what she became, she tells a story about her mom’s observation early in Amy’s career when she was doing a lot of background vocals. “I was heartbroken over some guy. I don’t even remember who it was. I just remember I was really down and really sad, and I had been called into the studio to sing some song for someone’s record. It was a blues song, and I played it for my mom, and she said, ‘God, Amy, can’t you keep that guy around just for the pain till you finish recording a bunch of songs?’
“She was right,” says Amy today. “You get good vocal takes when you’re getting your heart broken. I think it pushed Bob Dylan, but I think it would be fair to say that it probably pushes every songwriter, every performer that’s ever decided they were going to play music probably played their best when they were getting pushed through something painful.”
Music is the one thread that always gets Amy through the hurricanes. She remembers a childhood where mom was with Dr. John, but dad was his friend, too. “This was a generation that was living out the sex, drugs and rock and roll thing to its fullest. I definitely watched them all lose their way, and that is certainly was what it was like growing up.
“I had plenty of instability and chaos around me, as many people grow up with, and I can say very honestly that music is one thing that didn’t change in them, either. So, music was kind of like learning a song with mom, learning a song with my dad when he was around, being turned on to a Laura Nyro record by mom. Those were the things that were my tethers. They tied me to the ground, and they tied me to something I could believe in.
“I really believe music saves people’s lives, whether you listen to it, or you play it. I think it is a thing that pulls you through and makes you believe in something different than what you’re in the middle of, and I would say honestly that that’s how I felt at that time, and then I’ve had the feeling, the joy of watching people change themselves, and I watched people bring themselves back to center. Then I was left with the task of bringing myself back to center which becomes its own road. Serenity and recovery go a long way, and I’m grateful for it every day.”
It was the onset of Levon’s throat cancer in 1998 that brought Amy close to him. She began working with him on the Midnight Rambles in Woodstock and co-produced his 2007 Grammy Award-winning CD Dirt Farm with Larry Campbell. It was Levon’s first album in 25 years.
“Dirt Farm was kind of envisioned by my father and myself for a long time before we actually made it because the songs that were coming back to mind, that he had been taught in childhood, were kind of – he was beginning to teach them to me, and he would remember those, and we would talk about them, and we would talk about parents and family, and we’d take trips to Arkansas.
“It was always there waiting to be put in a good order, an album that touched on different parts of his musical thing, and as a heartbeat to that album, Dirt Farm, him being able to add drums to all of these old hymns and country songs, story songs that he had been taught. That was a big deal for him. It was a personal story and an envisioning that had become clearer over time, but he had always seen it. I can’t quite say Dirt Farm informed me, but I definitely can say I hope it informs my next one,” she says with a chuckle, “if I take things a little slower.”
For her Cohoes Music Hall gig, Amy Helm brings her Handsome Strangers band, who she calls “a rotating group of incredible musicians” – David Berger on drums, Jacob Silver on bass and Andy Stack on guitar.”
WHO: Amy Helm & the Handsome Strangers
WITH: Connor Kennedy & Minstrel
WHERE: The Cohoes Music Hall, Cohoes
WHEN: Friday (April 22), 8pm
HOW MUCH: $27 in advance; $32 at the door
ALSO: Amy Helm will be performing at 7pm tonight (Wednesday, April 20) at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock with the Woodstock Lonestars, an all-star group that also features Marcia Ball, Cindy Cashdollar, Shelley King and Carolyn Wonderland. Tickets at $25 & $35.
ALSO: Amy Helm is hosting an Open House at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock from 10am-2pm Saturday (April 23) in memory of her father, who died four years ago this week. Admission is free.
Superb interview. I’ve loved Amy’s work since I first saw her sing over a decade ago with her father. She’s a genuine talent.
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