Interview: Singer-Songwriter Amy Helm Talks Touring and Songwriting

June 23, 2017 | by Jon Simmons

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Amy Helm | Photo by Jana Leon

 

Amy Helm was born into a world of music. Her father, Levon Helm, who passed away in 2012, was long-time drummer for The Band. Amy’s mother is singer-songwriter Libby Titus, and her stepfather is Donald Fagen, lead singer and co-founder of Steely Dan.

Her father’s passing in large part informed the writing of Amy’s first solo album, Didn't It Rain, which she released in 2015, featuring Levon’s final recordings.

I caught up with with singer-songwriter Amy Helm as she was preparing for months on the road touring across the US, a process with which she is familiar from touring with Ollabelle and her father’s Midnight Ramble Band. When I called, she was in upstate New York between interviews, and called me back after running into a corner store to eat a sandwich. Here’s our conversation.

“I'm the slacker in the van right now. But with this new Spire app, my reputation and my work ethic may change.” —Amy Helm

Do you record ideas while touring? If so, what techniques work for you to capture song ideas on the road?

I use the little voice memo thing on my phone if a melody or lyric pops in. I just sing into the voice memo recording, which is convenient because it's right at my fingertips, and I can do it pretty quickly, but it's inconvenient because I never disciplined myself to go back and label to any of them, so I have, as I'm sure many people do, hundreds of snippets of these things that don't sound particularly cohesive.

So what do you do with those hundreds of snippets when you have some free time? What's your process like after you've recorded a lot of ideas?

I'm honestly just discovering and playing with different processes right now because the songwriting thing for me is relatively new. I co-wrote most of my last album, Didn't It Rain, with Byron Isaacs. He's practically like my brother; we've played in bands together for twenty years, so there was a symbiotic thing that he and I could do with songs. Recently I've been challenging myself to write a lot more on my own, and also to co-write with other artists that I've connected with.

It was funny—I went back and listened to a whole bunch of snippets, and I discovered that I was singing the same melody in four or five of them. I was like, “Oh dear, that's peeking its head out like it wants to be something,” and I tried it in a couple different ways. One of them really popped, a sort of melodic idea—the other was much swampier, and then the other was more ballady and melancholy. So I found that particular snippet and sort of worked at it on the piano once I got home.

Did you conjoin those ideas into one song?

I think that I did, at least for now. I have to finish a bridge, and then if it sucks, I have to decide if I should throw the whole thing away and start over again, which is something I've been learning from really great, experienced songwriters. I've been writing a little bit with Mary Gauthier. I'm a huge fan of hers, and I admire her stuff.

She's a truly extraordinary wordsmith. I watched her come up with six or seven lines of lyrics that I would kill to ever have one of those lines come out of my brain, onto the paper. It was funny to watch her—very casually with so much grace—just completely trash these amazing lines of poetry and keep digging, keep going, and that was inspiring. I thought “God, if Mary's throwing out her stuff, then I better get brave and see what it's like to trash something that really doesn't feel right, that I worked so hard on, and start over.”

So when you're actually on the road, where do you find inspiration for songwriting? How do these ideas come to you?

I'm a mom and I have two young boys. When I'm away from them and that wonderfully happy but nonetheless relentless kind of schedule of being a full time mom, I get a kind of quiet around my head and around my psyche. It’s a different place to occupy, an unusual place, and so things kind of drift in for me. That's definitely changed since becoming a mom: the way I sit and that kind of quiet hum inside of the van has shifted a little bit for me. Thoughts will come in, reflections come in, or a feeling of missing them comes in, and then that will lead to another thought. Or I just let things sort of come to me—and they seem to when my mind is that quiet, and I'm not trying to remember to pack sweatpants to karate, or whatever it is I'm trying to remember for my boys.

Did your children make it into, Didn't It Rain, as song inspiration?

You know, that's funny, I've never thought about that. Certainly they make it into everything, in that my love for them has changed me so much. I'm sure every mother in the world would say the same thing.

A lot of the songs on Didn't It Rain were about my father, losing him. It was also about losing my brother, who died a few years before my dad did, and I think that that album was more about coming through grief for me.

Does traveling affect your songwriting, or location?

Yeah, location does for sure. Truth be told, I just love being on the road. I always have, and that's a barrier for being a mom. I don't bring my kids with me unless I'm going to be gone for a long time, so every summer I end up bringing them out with me, usually on a longer road trip, which is amazing, but it’s whirlwind. Certainly that’s it’s own blog—touring with kids. But I love traveling so much.

In a funny way, it's just where I feel the most myself, I think. If I didn't have kids, I would probably be on the road, I would probably be one of those people that came home for a few weeks year. I love the kinds of muscles that you develop musically, and the collaborative intensity that can grow with a band. It's just such a great, amazing thing.

So I would say that traveling, in that way, inspires me, just because I love it. I love being in motion.

Location does, too. It's always such a cool thing as a traveling musician. You leave the East Coast and you head down South and it's spring time already, and the daffodils haven't even pushed up yet in New York, and yet you're seeing these beautiful magnolia trees and all these things down South. So that's always cool, to go into a different climate and culture.

I love planning my road trips, I love getting into it. I love discovering restaurants, and the good little truck stops, and the good jewelry. Man, I dig it.

What tips would you have to simplify the recording process, even if it's just for demos?

I'm afraid I'd be bullshitting if I tried to answer that. Anybody who knows me who might read this would probably giggle because I am one of those ladies—I'm forty-six, but I honestly feel like I'm 100-years-old with the phones, and the apps, and the technology. I'm so lazy, I turn to all my friends that are under thirty and I ask them to help me, turn my phone on practically, so the first honest answer to simplify anything I would say ask someone under thirty.

I always rely on the expertise of any of my audio engineering friends who'll do me the favor and spend the time to explain something to me. Maybe I need Spire.

At what point do you make a decision that a song is done and you can record it?

I'm just learning how to do that as well, honestly. I'm never sure if a song is done, and then I just kind of take a deep breath, and I show it to the guys I'm playing with, and we try it live.

In March, I did a bunch of gigs at Lizard Lounge, Rockwood Music Hall, and a few other clubs. I called it a Woodshed Residency. Trying a song live always gives a really clear perspective on where it's at. It's funny, you can rehearse a song and play it ten times in rehearsal, but all of a sudden, you do it in front of an audience, and you realize that the bridge needs to be twice as long, or you realize that solo section needs to get shortened, or you realize that the third line in the second verse doesn't connect to the rest of the song.

Where do you write songs?

I've been writing a lot at home, after I get the kids to sleep. I'm sitting at my house strumming our mandolin. Sometimes hotel rooms are good, you know? Hotel rooms in the morning can be good for writing. On the road, for sure. I don't get much done in the van, though some people do.

An extraordinary musician and bass player, Jake Silver, who's a friend of mine, has been playing some shows with me. He sits in the back of the van to type on a song, his laptop open, and he works for hours at a time. I buy snacks and offer snacks to people and talk endlessly about anything but what work I should be working on. I'm the slacker in the van right now. But with this new Spire app, my reputation and my work ethic may change.

Into a tech wizard overnight.

Yes, could you imagine? Oh my god, people would be stunned.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add about staying creative and songwriting, and capturing ideas while touring?

The idea of being in motion can be a really inspiring way to speak, physically and mentally. Spiritually, you're kind of striving ahead, striving for the next gig, striving to make the set a little bit better the next night.

Touring can also be lonely, and it can be exhausting, so I think you have to lean in. Stay striving for something, and don’t get bogged down with the business at home. That can be a really good place to center yourself when you're on the road.

Catch Amy Helm on tour.

Be ready to record your song ideas when they hit. Download the Spire app, a free, multi-track recording app for iPhone.