Premiere: Alela Diane’s ‘Cusp’ Is A Stunning Folk-Piano Document Of Motherhood

Jaclyn Campanaro

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An Alela Diane album is like a cloud; her music carries a sort of heaviness with it, shadows move in and out of spare, delicate melodies, and even when they venture toward the joyful, a sense of the somber always lingers. There are plenty of sunny moments on her fifth full-length album, Cusp, but they are fleeting, and often obscured by darkness. Maybe the Portland songwriter has always been able to convey the stark, sharp beauty of the grey Northwest where she lives, so yes, if Cusp is like a cloud, don’t let those who praise the light deter you from the effects of a shadow.

Written after the birth of her first daughter, and recorded just before the nearly traumatic birth of her second, Diane’s new album is firmly about the experience of motherhood, a position that is still precarious when it comes to the intersection of music and culture. It’s a role that women who are creative — or hell, those who desire to work outside the home in any capacity at all — still feel may inhibit their careers. So often, women who create music and art or perform onstage are expected to be young, single, and sexually available, and Diane wanted to directly set her experience as a mother in contrast to that.

“This music is about motherhood,” she says firmly of Cusp. “Even just by saying that, it feels like people will write you off. It’s like you’ve suddenly lost the charm of being youthful and even attainable — you’ve been commoditized as available. There is not a big place in the music industry for 30-something women with kids making music. Maybe we can create that space.”

Cusp was written during Diane’s residency at Caldera near Sisters, Oregon in January of 2016. Though her work has always been in the slower, folk vein, this record is a shift from guitar to piano — an aesthetic choice that was prompted by something as small as a broken fingernail. Embracing the stateliness of piano is an ideal choice for Diane, whose voice has always contained a shimmering elegance that gives even the simplest line a feeling of dignity.

Today we’re premiering the exclusive stream of the singer-songwriter’s record, which you can find below, along with an email conversation between Diane and I about the record, her residency, and making space for motherhood.

Cusp references the birth of your daughter and watching her grow up several times, drawing your own mother into the equation. Motherhood seems like a surprisingly underexplored theme in music, what was your desire in writing about that relationship for this record?

I’ve written from a personal narrative perspective throughout my albums. Since the birth of my daughters, I have entered a new phase. Motherhood is all-encompassing and has shifted my perspective on the way I live. When I sat down to write these songs, I couldn’t help but unpack my experience as a mother.

One of the last solo records you did, About Farewell, was much more focused on the dissolution of something and letting go, whereas this one is about being at the start of a new process. There’s resilience and importance on both sides of that spectrum, but how did the songwriting feel different for these two albums, and was there any sort of overlap between the extremely sad/end and the extremely content/beginning?

I think of my last solo album, About Farewell, as the bookend to my twenties, and to that chapter of life and music. Cusp is very much the beginning of something else, and was created out of a much more settled time for me. As far as my writing process goes, things haven’t changed all that much in the way that I write. The biggest change is that I have to be much more intentional about when I write now that I have children. I have to carve out space to create, whereas before I could write a song whenever I felt like it. I tend to write about and process my life through my songs. Although my life has completely changed and is much more settled now, I explore the uncertainty of this life on Cusp, but from the perspective of a mother, which is different than who I was before.

I am such a fan of Ryan Francesconi and was so thrilled when you two put out a joint album in 2015! Can you talk a little bit about Cold Moon and how it came about? How did you pivot from that collab back into your own solo work for Cusp?

After the birth of my daughter in 2013, I was unsure of how to approach my own music again. When she was about one, I ran into Ryan at a mutual friend’s concert in Portland, where we both live. Ryan hadn’t made much music recently, and we got to talking about where we were at creatively. I was feeling drawn to do something with music again, but I was not feeling ready to make a solo record. Ryan was in a similar headspace, and a few days later he asked me if I’d like to try to make something together.

He sent me a bunch of intricate guitar parts, and I wrote words and melodies while listening to tracks at a coffee shop. It was very freeing for me to write lyrics about something beyond myself. We met up once or twice a week to work on the songs together and recorded Cold Moon at Ryan’s house over the course of a few months. After touring Cold Moon in 2015, I finally felt my own songs quietly waiting to be written. Shortly thereafter, in January of 2016, I went to an artist residency and penned Cusp. It was with ease that I got back in touch with myself, and discovered that I had a lot to say about motherhood.

Around the time of Alela Diane & The Wild Divine, I remember you were touring with both your partner at the time and your father — it seems like family has always been easily incorporated into your work. Does that feel like a natural, subconscious fit or is it something you specifically try to incorporate?

It was very wonderful to tour with my family back then. These days, I tour with my friend, Heather Woods Broderick, and have been making my records without my father. My dad is an amazing musician and always has fantastic ideas, but after working with him for almost a decade, I became curious about what my own ideas would be without him around. About Farwell and Cusp were both made more on my own, by following my own intuition rather than anyone else’s (be it my father or a producer, as was the case with Wild Divine.) That being said, I do think it would be great to bring my dad along for a tour another time, it is very special to travel with him and to perform together.

I know the birth of your second daughter was complicated and came right in the midst of finishing up this record, can you talk a little bit about how those two events intersected and what that felt like?

This album very much touches on the intersection of birth and death. I wrote a song about Sandy Denny, who died shortly after the birth of her daughter. I wrote “Émigré” about the international refugee crisis, and the loss of life in pursuit of safety and freedom. I recorded these songs while pregnant with my second daughter, and as the album was being mixed, I unexpectedly had to deliver her five weeks early.

I had blood transfusions and things were very close to the edge, I nearly lost my own life. I remember lying there in the hospital sending prayers up to whatever spirit may be up there. Oona was born on the cusp of Aquarius and Pisces, February 20th, just as I was on the cusp between life and death. All of these events felt strangely linked, and have been humbled by it all. I am left with a serenity and a joy of life after nearly dying. I appreciate each day so much, and I am glad I am still here to sing these songs.

Jaclyn Campanaro

Balancing motherhood and personal artistry has been an ongoing discussion since… forever? What are your thoughts on how the two fit together, particularly in 2018 when conversations about actually leveling the playing field for women in the workplace — whatever it may be — seem to be swirling more than usual?

It is an art form all its own to balance motherhood and creative work. It’s hard. Motherhood is a full-time job, and one you need to be wholly present for when you’re the one on duty. I have to be very deliberate in how I use the little time I have in order to create. For me, I find that I can do my best when I take time away to work on my music. I cannot do both at once. I’ve just been on tour for two weeks without my children, it has been very hard to leave them, but it has been so wonderful to connect with my music and share my songs again.

When I get home, I will just be mom. I’ll be with them 100%, besides the 10 hours a week that I have childcare so that I can work. I think it is important for women to be able to pursue their work and their dreams even if they have children. I want to show my daughters that the choice to have a family is not contingent upon letting go of or losing yourself in it. I think it is also so wonderful for my girls to build a close relationship with their dad. It is a beautiful thing to know that they are in such loving hands while I am away.

There is a really intimate feeling to this album, even when it is a track that reaches big, dramatic peaks like “Song For Sandy.” Can you talk a little bit about the recording process and who played on it with you?

This recording process for Cusp went very easily. I worked with a friend of mine, Peter Murray, who produced the album. He had a very wonderful way of helping to support my vision for the songs, without inserting himself too much. We had 6 days at Flora, a beautiful studio in Portland where we got the basic guitar, piano and vocal tracks. We did overdubs in a few different places. Ryan Francesconi wrote string arrangements, Heather Woods Broderick wrote a flute arrangement, Peter Broderick did strings on “So Tired,” and Klara and Johanna Soderberg of First Aid Kit sang backing vocals on “Ether & Wood” when they were in town to record their new album. Everyone who played on the album was a friend or friend of friend; it turns out that Peter and I both know a lot of really talented musicians. John Askew, who helped produce About Farwell, engineered and offered great input along the way also.

This sounds like your most piano-heavy album to date. What drew you to that instrument after such a focus on guitars with Ryan? Was it part of the set up at your residency?

While I was at the artist residency at Caldera, I broke my thumbnail, which I use quite a lot while fingerpicking. There was a piano in the main lodge there, so rather than play guitar poorly with my broken nail, I began playing piano. I had a bit of a breakthrough with the instrument and found it very relaxing to play. I began writing songs on it, and it provided a welcomed change to the way the songs sounded.

My favorite song is the final one, “Wild Ceaseless Song,” which seems in a way to call back the Wild Divine. What do you think is the sense of wildness that tracks through your work, even two albums that are so disparate and coming from such different places?

“Wild Ceaseless Song” was the first song I wrote after [my first daughter] Vera was born, but the last song completed for the album. I unearthed it, figured out how to play it on the piano, and changed some of the lyrics. This song does feel like a more classic song of mine, it imagines a future generation after I am gone, it looks back and forward, something I’ve done quite a lot in music. I’ve always been fascinated by the movement through time, through ancestry, the way that nature transcends a human life, and I do touch on these things in “Wild Ceaseless Song,” just as I’ve done on earlier work.

How do you think your daughter will feel later on when she’s a bit older and can listen to this record about her early life? Is that something you held in mind while you were writing and recording?

I hadn’t thought about what she’ll think later on while I was writing, but my hope is that this album will conjure sweet memories for her, and show her how much I love her.

Cusp is out 2/9 via AllPoints. Pre-order it here.