Actress Alicia Witt Finds Her Voice in Music

The TV and film star unveils her full-length studio debut album, produced by Ben Folds.
Alicia Witt
Revisionary History

To film and TV viewers, actress Alicia Witt is a very familiar face who has amassed numerous credits since her debut in David Lynch’s 1984 sci-fi epic Dune at age seven. Since then, she has appeared on many television programs, such as Cybill, Friday Night Lights, House of Lies, and Justified — and films including Mr. Holland’s Opus, Vanilla Sky, and 8 Seconds. Yet perhaps not many people realize that before acting, Witt was a very young accomplished pianist who participated in national and international competitions. Although music had been a part of her life along with acting, it was only several years ago that she made a serious concerted effort to fully pursue her musical ambitions.

“For me, it was something I just didn’t really work up the balls to do it in public until about seven years ago,” the Los Angeles-based artist tells PopMatters, “something just clicked for me and I realized I had to do it. It’s something I wanted to do since I can remember, since I first started playing classical music. I wanted to play my own songs with a band. And then I just had that moment of realizing if I don’t make this happen, it isn’t going to happen.”

After releasing an EP in 2009 and a live record in 2012, along with performing shows, Witt has recently released her full-length debut studio album Revisionary History. Its melodic and buoyant sound harkens back to the works of Elton John, Billy Joel, Carole King and other piano-rock artists. This music is accompanied by Witt’s expressive yet eloquent singing voice, which recalls Broadway at times . “I’m so excited to finally have this out,” she says. “I feel like it’s been so long in the making. It’s just been a long process and I’m so excited to finally be able share it with people.”

Recorded in Nashville, Revisionary History was produced by fellow singer and piano player Ben Folds. She first met Folds about three years ago in the Music City where Witt was scheduled to perform at the famed Bluebird Cafe. “We just started talking and we ended up writing a couple of things together via email and phone,” she recalls, “and we ended up going to the studio the following year. Of all the producers I’ve worked with, I would say he is the most collaborative, and the most driven by what is going to make the song most truthful… not about whether it’s an idea he came up with or whether it’s going to make him seem more important as a producer.”

There are definitely elements of autobiography on Revisionary History, especially in documenting the trials and tribulations of relationships. The lovely and tender ballad “Friend”, which opens the record, captures the common dilemma of falling for someone who doesn’t reciprocate in kind. “There’s reasons your intuition is telling you ought to keep it just as friends,” she explains. “He might be feeling pulled toward something else, but you kind of know better deep down. That song means a lot to me.”

A few of the album’s tracks were inspired by the end of relationships, such as on the country-ish “Blind” and the ebullient and uplifting rocker “About Me”. The back story for the latter song came from a misunderstanding involving Witt and her then-boyfriend, an aspiring musician. She cites a particular line from “About Me” that expresses what she was going through at the time: “And I won’t shut up / I like the sound / Say what you want, but I’m not gonna fall.”

“I was like, ‘Okay, this is pathetic,’” she recalls of that period. “I pretty much wrote all of “About Me” that night. I don’t think I made many revisions, it was a pretty fast write because I was so fucking angry. I was like fuck you, and it was all about him and thought about how much we had discussed his precious music career, and how much he looked down on mine. And I think I decided that night that I was really going to go for it, no matter what.”

While the music on Revisionary History is dominated piano-dominated pop sound, there are some stylistic divergences. “Down” marries both piano pop and rap featuring the vocals of hip-hop artist T.O.N.E-z, who is best known for his work on the theme song for the TV series Justified, which Witt appeared in. “[It] was very strongly influenced by my storyline on Justified,” she says. “I recorded most of that song in L.A. at a studio and T.O.N.E-z recorded his part at his studio in Brooklyn and then it all got put together and mixed and the gospel choir and the drums were laid down in Nashville.”

Then there’s Witt’s duet with Folds on “Pasadena”, whose sound is a hybrid of ’60s lounge pop and Burt Bacharach and Hal David; it originally appeared in the 2013 movie Cold Turkey, which features Witt. “The whole movie has a real faded ‘60s feel to it. The house was once the most glamorous place around and now it’s kind of faded. So that was Ben’s idea to write a song that felt very much like it would’ve been at home in that era, too.”

The title of the record borrows a line from one of the tracks called “Consolation Prize” — based on the idea that whenever we tell a story, it’s inevitable that it will be revised and is never as simple as we remember it, she explains. “I feel that there are songs on this album honestly that might have never seen a studio version if Ben hadn’t produced them. I’m so grateful that Ben came along and put his special magic on it.”

Witt, who hails from Worcester, Massachusetts, played piano when she was seven and studied classical music; she practiced on the keys as much as four hours a day. Her early influences included such artists as Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, along with a mix of her parents’ musical preferences: ’40s and ’50s music, such as Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond and Anne Murray. “The combination of those just really drove me really to wanting to write songs that were structured in that sort of classic verse-chorus-bridge way,” Witt says. “ It wasn’t much later when I discovered rock, because they weren’t listening to that – like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. So my early influences were very much more simple piano or guitar driven songs.”

Having performed in piano competitions, Witt faced the realization that becoming a classical pianist would have meant being very dedicated and applying to Julliard at 12. “I was more focused on pursuing acting at that point,” she says. “In the back of my head, though, I always saw myself doing my own music and playing to audiences just like I’m doing. But it wasn’t until that turning point about seven years ago that I had the flash of realizing that I had to just do it and go for it. Otherwise, it wasn’t going to happen.”

In her late teens, Witt moved to Los Angeles for her acting career. To financially support herself, she played piano bar at the Wiltshire Hotel for over two years where she took requests from patrons. Although it was more like providing background music as opposed to showcasing her original material, she says of the experience: “It allowed me to be creative and to use my imagination even though I wasn’t the center of attention, and it wasn’t quite what I wanted to be doing musically. But it was a skill that I had and it let me be in my own world and think about what I wanted to do as an actor and think about any auditions that I had coming up and that sort of thing.”

In contrast to a typical actor’s Hollywood career that is usually handled and managed by other people, Witt has been building her own music profile in a grassroots, DIY manner; her Live at Rockwood record was funded through Kickstarter… “I’ve been doing it all myself,” she says. “I know exactly how to set up a tour, and how to be the tour manager… even work the merch booth, if I have to. It’s been very hands-on the very opposite of my other career and I love that. It’s given me an opportunity to get to know not only the indie music biz but also the people who come to the shows and buy the music.”

Witt hopes to do more dates to support the album and already has a stockpile of new songs. “It’s so much fun to play at these record release shows not only the whole album, but then also to play people songs that I’m really excited about that they haven’t heard before. “ As far as whether she prefers music over acting or vice versa, Witt sees those endeavors benefiting of each other. “They’re both equally addicting and equally fulfilling,” she explains. “The fact that I have been making music in this way for such a shorter time than I’ve been acting doesn’t feel relevant in terms of how much I love one or the other because I have been playing music as long as I have been acting. Just not quite in the way that I’m doing now. Now it feels it’s right. I can’t imagine my life without one or the other.”