Amy Rigby w/Deanna Varagona
Sept. 28 at 12th & Porter
In 1996, Amy Rigby caused a sensation with her debut solo album Diary of a Mod Housewifethe culmination of two decades’ worth of playing alongside, becoming romantically involved with, and giving birth to the child of a rock musician. Then in 1998, Rigby followed up Housewife with Middlescence, in which she documented her life as a single mother pushing 40. The silence that greeted the record was unnerving. Even now, Rigby is bewildered by the lack of response, though she understands that she suffered in part because her label Koch Records was in turmoil at the time of her sophomore effort’s release.
Now Koch has been restaffed, and Rigby is ready with her third LP, The Sugar Tree, which she’ll be showcasing Thursday at 12th and Porter. Rigby can only hope that the record will find a niche in a market glutted by teen pop and rap-metal, but when it comes to selling her music, she doesn’t really understand the problem. “I think a lot of my songs are hits,” she says.
As the mother of a pre-teen girl, Rigby is well acquainted with the mysteries of Top 40 radio, and she has her favorites. She mentions, “that Backstreet Boys song, ‘I Want It That Way.’ It just has an inevitable feeling to it. And I liked that first Britney Spears single, but this new one, it’s like they just took the blueprint. You know, ‘This is how we built the first hit.’ ”
The Sugar Tree doesn’t follow any clear blueprint, springing from hushed, spooky acoustic ballads like the heartbreaking “Happy for You” to Lucinda Williams-style country-rock on “Rode Hard” to spry, jangly guitar pop on tracks like “Wait Til I Get You Home.” Then there’s the trademark Rigby wit, in wry put-down songs like “Better Stay Gone” and the cabaret-style “Cynically Yours.” The new album features 13 eclectic tracks that deal honestly and poignantly with the trace memories of faded romance, with boffo hooks and pleasing instrumentation. The Sugar Tree also marks the first time that Rigby has recorded in Music City since moving here from New York City late last year.
“Like most people in New York, I was trying to get out,” Rigby explains. “Nashville seemed like a good place to make a record.” The Sugar Tree was recorded in two weeks at Alex the Great Studios with producer Brad Jones. “He and I planned a bit,” Rigby says. “We’d just talk about a basic approach. What kind of musicians we wanted. What songs. He helped me shape the album, so that we didn’t have too much of one type of song.”
Rigby says that she writes fairly regularly, and when it’s time to take her collection of demos and turn them into an album, “usually, I’ll feel strongly about six or seven. The rest are ones we play with. There’s always songs to record.” Her process is rigid. “I don’t jot down things unless I’m actually writing a song. I find that once I write it down, the life goes out of it.”
What comes out is what comes out, whether it’s overtly commercial or not. “I don’t really worry about it when I write my own songs,” Rigby muses. “You know, ‘What if I changed something? Would it have a better chance?’ If you get a little bit ambiguous, it doesn’t sell as well. But sometimes that’s the reason for a song to exist, to talk about something that isn’t black or white.”
Not that there aren’t unambiguous pop-rock songs on The Sugar Tree. Rigby cites the raucous album opener “Wait Til I Get You Home” as “one of the more direct songs. And it doesn’t feel dishonest, either.” And then there’s the provocative and catchy “Balls,” in which Rigby castigates a man for his arrogance, and then admits that she wishes she had the same, uh...assets. “I turn it around and blame it on myself,” she explains. “People totally relate.”
But she’s realistic about the album’s chances of becoming a huge smash, admitting that she’d be happy if it just does well enough that she can tour a little. “I’ve lowered my expectations,” Rigby says. “I’ll feel fine as long as people know that it exists.”
Front and center
The East Tennessee-raised, formerly Nashville-based musician Deanna Varagona has returned home for a few weeks, to rehearse with her mates in Lambchop and to open for Amy Rigby at 12th and Porter. It’s a rare Nashville solo appearance for the affably twangy vocalist, who moved to Chicago several years ago, staying active in Lambchop from a distance. “I used to work for a music distributor as a traveling salesman,” she says. “I’d come down once a month.” Now she clears time in her schedule by working strictly as a temp, a lifestyle that she doesn’t exactly endorse. “It’s such a disposable industry. It’s hard to muster up the enthusiasm to say, ‘Yes, I’ll make those 400 collated copies.’ ”
What she does care about is her musicas a backup player for various indie-rock bands, as a contributor to Lambchop, and as a singer-songwriter with a powerful debut EP, Tangled Messages. Her unique passion is best captured in a song from Tangled Messages called “Take My Shovel,” which features the tame-looking Varagona letting out a full-throated growl to rival a Delta blues shouter. After years of singing backup and playing in support, Varagona can be forgiven for wanting to rattle the rafters a little. “I’ll sometimes wonder how someone’s gonna react,” she says. “But I’m that intense, and if I get a chance to find a way to express it...it’s liberating to me.”
That liberation extends to songwriting, which happens whenever bits of words and music pop into her head. Tangled Messages reflects the ephemera that’s built up over a decade of sitting in with the likes of Vic Chesnutt, Steve Wynn, and Butterglorythe spare melodies that stick with her when the whistle blows. “I’ve written a lot while driving,” Varagona says. “ ‘Running So Long,’ I was driving down to Nashville. The sun was going down, and I started singing, ‘Sun sinkin’ slowly, the shadows grow long’...and then I thought about how that feels. And then I had to pull over.”
Varagona says that most often the song starts with her singing to herself. The end result doesn’t always match what she had in mind. The songs on Tangled Messages, for example, have a stripped-down sound that wasn’t entirely by design. “I always want to find people to sing harmonies,” she admits. “But it’s frustrating. Part of it is budget, part of it is circumstance. I’ll be in, like, Athens, Ga., for a week with a tape deck, and it’s just ‘Who can I get?’ The singers that I know are busy, and I’ll start recording, and before you know it, you’re out of tracks.”
The spare, folk-based style of Tangled Messages has earned comparisons to Joni Mitchell, particularly due to tracks like “Naked,” which sounds like the work of a woman who’s spent hours listening to Blue. But this is actually not the case. “I have no Joni Mitchell records,” Varagona confesses. “I’ve always been kind of not very fond of female vocalists. You just heard more men growing up, and I guess I’m tougher on women. I want them to be better.”
It might also have something to do with Varagona herself being “one of the boys” in Lambchop. She says that the freedom of expression that she has in Lambchop feeds her own music, even though the methods are a little different, given that Lambchop’s music is guided by Kurt Wagner. But Varagona adds that “as much as you have to give him a lot of credit, it wouldn’t sound the same if Kurt said, ‘Here’s your part, and you play it like this.’ ” Instead, every band member has input, and Varagona points out the the result “sounds like nothing any one of us would individually do.”
For her show at 12th & Porter, Varagona says she may play all by herself, or “I may end up with some Lambchoppers onstage. But nothing’s planned. Playing alone does get lonely.” Reflecting on making the leap from the chorus to the lead, Varagona admits to being slightly daunted, but mostly bemused. She laughs, “I’m still kind of naive in my sideman’s view of the world.”
Franco's role in the action turkey HOMEFRONT is essentially his SPRING BREAKERS character without a…
I saw THE MANITOU at one of Nashville's long-gone downtown theaters in '78. Boy, was…
Thank you for this excellent coverage, Stephen! I was stuck inside the cube all day…
If you're looking for Prohibition-era gangster drama, the movie LAWLESS has been turning up a…
I just got done reading your article, and really enjoyed it, thank you. Here is…