Laurie Levine’s new album: vulnerably optimistic

Singer-songwriter Laurie Levine treads the line between light and dark on ‘Six Winters’, an album that mixes intimacy with strong new direction.

Laurie Levine's new album: Six Winters

Laurie Levine’s new album: Six Winters (Courtesy: http://laurielevine.co.za/)

It’s a sun-drenched dusty stage that welcomes Laurie Levine at Oppikoppi, just one month after being awarded the Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award  at the 2011 Grahamstown National Arts Festival. The singer, songwriter and electronics-dabbling folkstress has twice been nominated for a South African Music “Adult Contemporary” Award, and she’s not stranger to the Bushveld festival either, but it’s a tough gig. On a stage set up to cater for a documentary film festival and the more genteel of the rock festival’s almost 20 000 pairs of ears, she presented music from her new album, “Six Winters”, her most intimate and confident yet. Amongst others in the audience is the album’s producer, Dan Roberts, and more than a handful of local music critics and fellow musicians. That’s a compliment in itself – these are people with a professional interest in, and understanding of, what’s being offered on the four other stages, and they have chosen to be here, to hear her.
For this interview, a few days later, the singer is in Eshowe, a few moments late for the call, but for the best of reasons – she got caught up in the sound-check for the night’s show, and ensuring that all was in order. She’s a little breathless, but enthusiastic to talk about the new work, “Six Winters”, released six years after her first offering. “My influences have really changed over the last few years,” she says. “I’m listening to a lot more alternative country music – the greats like Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss… We also worked very differently on this album, with the way that we did things in the studio. Also, I think I found more honesty in this album, I could let out more and show the vulnerable side – as well as a side that has become a bit darker.”
“Six Winters” has songs that balance the pain of recent painful personal experiences with intense and yearning beauty. “The songs are reflections of the last few years, and those have had some really dark things in them,” Levine says. “It’s also a very vulnerable album and, while vulnerability is sometime light, it can also be very, very dark. So the album goes from moments of hope and optimism to moments of darkness and despair. The dark side would not be there without the light, or without the space for light – the album has an interplay of light and shadow.”
Balancing the more serious elements of the new work, Levine’s characteristic playfulness is still in evidence – as is what can best be described as a stronger sense of self, both lyrically and musically. “I feel as though I have really started to find my voice with this album,” she continues. “It took me a long time to feel comfortable in the sound, but that’s been a big part of ‘Six Winters’, and I think I’ve really finally embraced that. On the last album, on a song called ‘Kites’, Dan Roberts and I started experimenting with sound a bit, and that turned into the basis for this album. Instead of going in with prearranged songs and a clear idea of where each one was going, we had the core and the skeleton of each, and we spent endless hours in his home studio experimenting with different sound. We could really explore and find a musical vision together, playing with different textures, different instruments, sometimes with loops. There was nothing planned about it, so we could be quite playful.”
Roberts is quoted as speaking about the balance of emotions and influences on the album as follows: “There’s a lot of pain there, but extraordinary beauty too. Laurie had also been listening to some old sounds, early dust bowl depression era and such, but at the same time we both love contemporary electronica, so we settled on what can be best described as a: ‘the future is yesterday’ approach. We put together a string ensemble: violin, cello, mandolin, banjo, baritone guitar, junk shop autoharps, accordion and piano and threw that into the ring with retro electronica beats – added some real percussion and ended up with a kind of Appalachian – loop station approach. There’s a pulse there, but a delicacy too. I’m really happy with where we ended up and I hope it gets the airing it deserves.”
Asked to highlight a song that characterises the development on “Six Winters”, Levine mentions “Oh Brother”. “It’s written in a a different voice, a third person story. Most of my songs are intensely personal, but this song is both personal and impersonal: it is told by a character, but I am speaking some truths through that character. I was sitting on my balcony with my guitar, and I found this really amazing chord progression. It felt Biblical, like an archetypical story and the song developed into a love triangle story, a thing of passion and betrayal and loyalty. The production we did for it has a very bass-heavy loop in it, quite electronic. We ended up in a place I’ve never gone before, musically, and I really like the way that it shows up a grittier side of me as a writer and a singer.”
Levine has always emphasised touring her music, and has criss-crossed the country several times with her music. She has also played at gigs as varied as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and the FORR Music Festival in Mozambique, and as an opening act for Rodriguez in London, and for Joe Jackson in South Africa. What is the response to the new material? “It’s still early days, but I’ve had some really radical responses, some passionate responses, which has been wonderful,” she says. “For me, the worst compliment is something like ‘It’s so lovely’ or ‘It’s so nice’ and all those really sweet words. This album has sparked more adjectives before and that is something that makes me very proud of what we’ve achieved.”
Laurie Levine launches “Six Winters” at a single Cape Town gig on Friday 19 August at Gatta Patat Cape Diamond Hotel (c/o Longmarket and Parliament Streets,  021-4612519, 8.30pm, tickets R60).
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