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

Pop Music Critic

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.

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