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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