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June 15 - 22, 2000

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Merrie Amsterburg's Little Steps

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Merrie Amsterburg may never recover from an experience she had as a teenager when she realized that one of her favorite love songs was addressed to a dog. "You remember `Shannon,' that really pretty song that sounded like the Beach Boys?", she asks over a drink at the Lizard Lounge. Unfortunately I do; I even remember that the artist was Henry Gross. "Right, and I used to love that song so much, until I found out he was singing about a fuckin' Irish setter. There you go -- ruined. And that affected me deeply" -- she says this with a laugh. "But that's why I don't like explaining what my songs are about."

On one level, Amsterburg doesn't have to explain what her songs are about. On her much-praised debut, Season of Rain (originally on Q Division, later re-released on Zoë), they were largely about loss, loneliness, and survival. On the new Little Steps (Zoe/Rounder), they're about all of the above, plus the willingness to move on, accept love, and come back to life. The details ring true enough that one assumes they have a base in Amsterburg's own experience -- she allows that they do but figures she's already revealed enough in the lyrics. What's important is that the songs really aren't about her. They're about whatever the listener happens to be growing through. Turning personal specifics into universals is one of the oldest and hardest tricks in the book, and it's the definition of what great pop is about.

What's unusual is that Amsterburg has been embraced by adult-contemporary radio, a medium that usually deals in gentle reassurance and easy answers. Even a great A/C writer like John Hiatt has offered his share of the latter: quit drinking, get married, drive South, and live happily ever after. It didn't have to be that way: Season of Rain sported a creative sound, half acoustic strings and half keyboard loops, that wasn't far from Beth Orton, Aimee Mann, and even Stereolab territory -- but it came out around the time that alternative radio lost interest in subtlety. She wound up playing Mountain Stage instead of Lilith, touring with Indigo Girls instead of the riot grrrls.

In all likelihood, Little Steps will also bypass the trendier outlets and go straight to WBOS, but the approach is even more eclectic. Working again with producer Mike Denneen, Amsterburg goes for a lush and melodic sound but takes an unusual path to get it. One of her favorite on-stage instruments, the bouzouki, isn't used this time; and the guitar parts are kept spare and evocative (guitarist Peter Linton has been her musical partner since the late '80s, when they played together in the pop group the Natives). But the heart of the instrumentation is a lo-fi keyboard sound that comes in part from tape loops Amsterburg made at home.

The rhythm on the title song was provided by her washing machine, of which she notes, "I've been wanting to record it for a while; it has a drone to a B-flat." Other exotic touches include a vintage organ bought for $35 at a garage sale and the trumpet that she used to play in her high-school-band days. She also points out that if you listen to the second verse of the title song, you can hear a vocal cameo by her parrot, who likes to sing along with washing machines. But the indie-style production ensures that nothing gets in the way of her voice. When she turns a lovely Bacharach-type tune on "Heart in My Head," you wind up grateful that nobody did the obvious and hired an orchestra.

That voice remains a remarkable one, drenched in aching and longing. She has a few vocal tricks -- a slight quiver here, a catch in the throat there -- that a lesser singer might overuse, but she's smart enough to save them for the most emotionally loaded moments. One such moment came last Thursday at the Lizard's disc-release party for Little Steps. After wrapping up the set with a couple of relatively upbeat numbers, she encored with "Atmosphere." Easily the most painful song on the new disc, it's an understated ballad about feeling the presence of a deceased loved one. If this were a Cat Power show, it would be the perfect occasion for the singer to break down in tears. But Amsterburg sang it with her eyes wide open and focused straight ahead, as if she were staring down a ghost.

"I've come close, but I've never lost it on stage. There are some songs that I have to rehearse enough so I can distance myself from them -- `Atmosphere' is one of those. But I think it has something that a lot of people can feel -- after Season of Rain I heard from a lot of people who'd been through a loss, and they told me it had helped them. So sometimes you just have to put things out there, because that's really what it's all about -- communication and moving people, so they don't feel so alone.

"There's a reason why I don't talk much between songs during live shows. Sometimes you go within so much that you don't know what to say when you come out. It's very close to the feeling you have when you wrote the song: the feeling of connecting with something and trying to decipher it. Usually I can still make those connections when I play something live. If I don't, then it's time to give that song a rest."

There was a time that Amsterburg did more upbeat pop. One number from that era, "My Romeo," appears on Little Steps reworked into a samba. The song was originally on one of the Natives demos that prompted Kiss main man Gene Simmons to sign the band to his label (that deal fell through because Simmons ultimately decided to scrap the label and take Kiss back on the road); the new version stands out as one of the few straightforward love songs she's written. "The Natives version got caught in record-label hell; I wasn't free to re-record it until five years were up. It's a song I always wanted to do, and it's a good one for me -- one with no unhappiness at all."

Still, she admits that she gravitates to darker material. She's even found dark corners in something as lightweight as the Police's "Walking on the Moon," which was covered on the Season of Rain reissue. "There's still a certain longing in that song that I can relate to." And she adds that her new album's agenda is more upbeat than it might seem. "When sad things happen, you wind up thinking of your responsibility to be the best person you can possibly be. And so a lot of songs on this album are about being responsible for your actions, having a clear vision of what you do. If you're not focused on what you want, you're probably going to wind up getting what you don't want."

What Amsterburg wants isn't necessarily pop stardom; she's a private enough person to have been weirded out by some of the attention she's gotten. "I want people to know about the music, that's my lot in life; but I do value my privacy. It still surprises me when I get recognized, especially if it happens when I'm walking around Jamaica Pond at seven in the morning. Most of the people I've met have been pretty cool, but there have been a few strange ones -- people who feel they're already involved with you and want to be intimate, because they think they understand who you are. There was one guy in a thrift shop who slipped me a note saying he wanted to meet me somewhere. That's as far as it got."

The most uncharacteristic thing she did may be putting a glamorous photo of herself on the cover of the new disc. In the past she's held off from showing herself on the sleeves, partly because she knows enough female songwriters who've had stalker problems. But this time she consented to a photo shoot that involved more than an hour for the hair braid alone. Tell her the result looks rather sexy and she responds, "Well, that's one way of interpreting it." Not the one she prefers, however. She was out to catch a sense of openness that would suit the title track. "The photo was meant to be very direct; it was the photographer's idea to put my hand in my shirt, but I think it worked. I think it represents the song well -- it's about facing the future and whatever it has to offer but not being fearful of it. It could be a love song, or it could be one of those mystical Sufi songs that refer to God as their love. Which is really what I was going for, with the lines about `taking small steps to your temple door.' "

So there you have it: within the context of a romantic and air-playable song, she's snuck into the spiritual territory usually reserved for the likes of Richard Thompson. "I could be lying, though," she says with a laugh. "It's really about an Irish setter."

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