is an artist I’ve written about before, a singer-songwriter with enchanting natural gifts who has long deserved a bigger audience within her home country, the U.S. Instead, the singer was gifted with an adoring fanbase abroad, and has become a darling to audiences in France, Belgium and the U.K., where she’s treated like the vocal superstar she is.
Ultimately, it always comes back to that voice. Alela Diane’s voice is a chameleon, wrapping itself around music structures that have undergone considerable evolution since her self-released 2003 debut Forest Parade. She first tackled old-school, maritime-inflected folk on The Pirate’s Gospel before breaking through with richer instrumentation on the album that is still my favorite, To Be Still. One of these songs caught me completely off-guard in the closing credits of Telltale Games’ PC game version of The Walking Dead, resulting in probably the only time that a videogame has made me cry. But that’s to Diane’s credit—there’s just something about her alternatively strong and wavering voice that is perfect for projecting both a sense of serene beauty or wistful regret. That duality has continued to be present on her last two, sonically opposed albums, Wild Divine and About Farewell.
Now, though, Diane’s life is changed. Now, she’s a mother. She’s a seasoned performer, one who seems to have readjusted the expectations she once held for a musical career.
Enter Ryan Francesconi, a Portland-based composer of instrumental guitar music and Balkan folk artist. After the two met at a show, an unexpected synthesis began to take place. Francesconi, not quite knowing how to progress in his work, started sending guitar pieces to Diane. The singer, feeling a similar lack of traction, began to compose words to accompany those guitar parts as her own way of reapproaching the musical scene. The result is Cold Moon, out today via Rusted Blue Records/Believe Recordings. Its eight tracks fuse the avant-garde, thoughtful guitar picking of Francesconi with Diane’s naturalist, poetic lyrics. We caught up with the two via a phone call to Portland.
Paste: It sounds like this record was a way of tackling a certain sort of malaise or apathy that you’d been feeling musically.
Alela Diane: To some extent. For me, after my daughter was born I just didn’t have much time and wasn’t ready to dive into the writing process of an album on my own. Ryan and I ran into each other at a show and were both wanting to do something different and inspire ourselves in a new way. It was a fresh path from what I’ve done before, and maybe that’s why it unfolded pretty easily, which was awesome.
Paste: What were you feeling, as a new mother? Did that change the way you were thinking about songwriting?
Diane: The demands of being a new mom and not having any time to myself were a new challenge. Last winter, which is when we started working on this project, she was a year old and I was just getting to where I was ready to have some time for myself to get creative again and ease into that. I would go down to the coffee shop and listen to the recordings Ryan was making of his guitar parts.
Paste: Ryan, you had said you were also at a standstill in writing more instrumental music. How did the first bits of progress being to be made?
Ryan Francesconi: From my perspective on this project, writing half the music was much easier than writing all of the music, and that helped. It became much less pressure because it didn’t need to be a totally complete thought and I needed to leave space for Alela’s voice. I was able to write most of the album in about a week, as opposed to if I was just writing instrumental music, I might suffer over a single thing for a month.
Paste: Alela, when you heard those guitar parts, how did they make you feel? What was your reaction?
Diane: My initial reaction was that they were very beautiful, but I had no idea how to add something to them that would make them better. They stood alone and were great to listen to, a great soundtrack to winter. I listened to them everywhere. It took me a while to get inside the guitar pieces enough to figure out what I had to say that would feel appropriate on his composition. That was very different from sitting with my guitar and writing my own songs … I had to reflect more. It forced me to write about things that were a bit broader and more observational than just my own experiences.
Paste: When you write in that sort of way, following a musical prompt, do you go back afterward and not entirely understand the path you took?
Diane: I think I knew what I was writing about, but it was tapping into something different for me. Ryan and I also talked about what he was feeling when he wrote some of the pieces. Sometimes, I was able to take a little bit of his story and weave it into my story.
Paste: Ryan, what were you hoping Alela might find in those guitar parts?
Francesconi: I think an important part of the collaboration was that we didn’t have any expectations of what we were going to do with it … or whether anything would come of it at all. I had no expectation of what she would say; I wanted to leave it completely open. At some point, we reached a certain threshold where we knew we wanted to share it with people. I don’t think either of us rejected anything the other contributed.
Paste: Each person you’ve collaborated with in the past has had quite a different skillset. Is there some common thread of the artists you’re drawn to?
Francesconi: It’s just about friends, really. I don’t think there’s that many professional relationships, it’s personal relationships. If a collaboration comes up, it comes up. I don’t seek it out, but if it happens I’m glad. And for me it’s happened a lot.
Paste: Alela, as someone who’s wanted to see you live for a long time, it’s hard to miss that you seem to play a lot more shows in France and Belgium than the U.S. How did you build such a European fandom while living in the Pacific Northwest?
Diane: It’s just one of those strange things that happened in my life. My music career really took off in Europe and I’ve never had an easy time creating a large fanbase in the U.S. It’s been great to go to Europe and perform at beautiful venues there and have people appreciate my work, but I’ve also had some frustrating tours in America—10 people in the audience in Iowa or something like that. These days it’s not really worth my effort and time to drive across America in a van, which is unfortunate because I know there are a lot of people who would come to the shows.
Paste: What will stick in your mind from the experience of making this recording with Ryan?
Diane: It was really nice for me to be able to focus on the vocal melodies and words, which is probably the thing I’m best at doing.
Francesconi: You can say the same for me; I could focus on the thing I’m best at doing. At least for me, it was by far the easiest, most simple record I’ve ever been able to make.
Diane: Me too, actually. It was exactly what I needed.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he can’t praise the quality of Alela Diane’s voice enough. You can follow him on Twitter.