Portland-based singer-songwriter Alela Diane has never been shy about using her personal experiences for lyrical inspiration, and this holds true on her otherwise career-reshaping new album, Alela Diane & Wild Divine. What’s impressive on the 10-track release isn’t just her eye for detail, it’s also her ability to turn brief chance encounters into mystical-seeming works of art. Take “Elijah”, in which we meet a dark-haired young maiden named Madeleine in the south of France with a young kid and a flair for such statements as “the wood of the olive tree is too sacred to burn”.
“With ”˜Elijah’, I was in an exotic villa in France, and I totally met a girl named Madeleine who had a son named Elijah,” Diane says, on the line from the Rose City. “The names in that song aren’t even fictional. I don’t know if I’ll ever see that girl again, or if she’ll ever hear the song and know that it’s about her. What happened was that I filming a video there on this sort of crazy night where I met this girl who made an impression on me. There was a fire going, and she was putting olive branches on it but was kind of spooked out by it because of some folklore she had heard about the wood being too sacred.”
While she hasn’t stopped walking on the weird side where her lyrics are concerned, Alela Diane & Wild Divine finds the outgoing 28-year-old changing things up musically. Diane’s first two records, The Pirate’s Gospel and To Be Still, had her lumped in with the freak-folk flock, and not just because she was raised in the same small California town as Joanna Newsom, whom she counts as a friend. Where those outings had no shortage of quirks and tics, Alela Diane & Wild Divine is a more accessible affair, with the singer and her newly acquired band leaning heavily toward dusty alt-country and sun-bleached ’70s MOR.
Diane sees the album as a something of a statement, namely that she’s no longer a solo artist but instead part of a full-fledged group, which happens to include her dad (Tom Menig) on guitar and husband (Tom Bevitori) on multiple instruments.
“Before, I would collaborate with my husband and my dad in the songwriting process, but the songs were mostly written by me, sitting in a room,” she says. “What happened this time, though, was that, once I started rehearsing them with the band, each one would take on a different identity. I’d present what I had, and they would take it somewhere else.”
Sometimes the result would be a work of quiet beauty like “The Wind”, which is underscored by haunting mandolin. Sometimes Diane and her band would plug in and rock out, as evidenced by the juke-joint–blues rave-up “White Horse”. And sometimes the end product verged on magical, with “Heartless Highway” bridging Dave Brubeck jazz, muscle shoals R&B, and ’90s-era alt-folk.
Alela Diane & Wild Divine ultimately suggests that Diane is truly starting to find her own voice, which makes sense considering she didn’t think about a career in music until she was almost into her 20s. The reason for her late start? In what sounds like the basis for a pretty great future song, she was too busy being ashamed of her music-loving family.
“When I was about 12 my dad started a Grateful Dead cover band,” Diane remembers. They’d rehearse at our house every week, and it was hugely embarrassing to me in high school because I was a straight-A student trying to be normal because my family wasn’t very normal. I remember this hippie kid at my school coming up to me one day and going ”˜Yeah, so I took mushrooms with your dad at the concert the other night.’ And I was horrified.”