With the joy of performing in her blood since the age of six, Amy Helm has spent many years from childhood to adulthood to parenthood trying to prove herself. The fact that she has kinfolk hero ties to legendary drummer Levon Helm of the Band carries a few pluses (and minuses).
Now that the daughter of the late, great rock ’n’ roll pioneer-musician-actor is a single mom raising two kids while transforming from a team-playing band member to a soulful solo artist, the established singer-songwriter still gets scared but takes an “incredibly triumphant” stance while fully living up to the Helm name.
The latest proof of her efforts is What the Flood Leaves Behind, a glorious, genre-blending 10-song collection that will be released Friday (18 June) via Renew Records/BMG. The third studio album of her solo career marks a return to Levon Helm Studios, the famed music property on 18 acres in Woodstock, New York, that not only included the family home but places for her father to record and perform the celebrated Midnight Ramble shows in the space known simply as “the Barn.”
“I hadn’t recorded there in a very long time,” Helm said over the phone from her Woodstock home the afternoon after completing a Memorial Day weekend of shows with special guests Nicki Bluhm, Chris Thile, and the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman. “And it was very humbling to return to that room and be reminded of the truly magical resonance that this particular room has for music.
“It just has an acoustic design and feel that makes music easy to play and easy to listen to. It’s easy to listen to other people and listen to your own voice and get the reflection of whatever you’re playing or singing from the wood and the bluestone that make up this really small, intimate, special room.”
If Levon were alive for his 81st birthday on May 26 (celebrated during Amy’s recent shows), what would he say about his only child’s latest work?
“You know, I think my dad would say that anything that I tried, that it was a great job,” Helm exclaims with a laugh. “He was a great; he was a very supportive dad. He would dig it. He would be proud of me for making a record.”
Of course, one doesn’t have to be related to Helm to appreciate her introspective songs, sweet soprano, and precise instrumental accompaniment that were made for such a special place just a ten-minute drive from her home.
She also points out that What the Flood Leaves Behind “feels a bit more personal in some ways” than her previous two solo albums that began with 2015’s Didn’t It Rain, which was recorded earlier at the Helm studio, where her dad played drums on a couple of tracks and was listed as executive producer.
That was followed by 2018’s This Too Shall Light, the John Henry-produced, gospel-filled record of mostly covers that included Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind”, the Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan” and the title track, written by Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. “Mike” Taylor and Josh Kaufman, two names that figure prominently on Helm’s present project.
“I wrote or co-wrote a majority of [the songs on the new album],” states Helm, who backed her prime-choice voice by playing mandolin, piano, and drums. “Because of the nature of the material, I think I entered into the performances of it just with a different intention because it was stories that were mine. And also I think that the experience I’ve had as a touring musician working my ass off, frankly, raising two kids as a single mom, has been incredibly triumphant and also sometimes really challenging.
“And I think that holding those two things in the balance for the last four or five years before making this record informed my landing back home because I just had different things to say. I felt I was in a different place and I kind of distilled all of those experiences into my singing and maybe was singing from a slightly different place. … Just having a little bit of a better idea of who you are and what you want to say.”
Some of the tunes involved collaborations with like-minded, seasoned singer-songwriters such as “wonderful” Mary Gautier (their writing of “Cotton and the Cane” was actually finished “probably four years ago”), Elizabeth Ziman (the Catapult’s frontwoman is “a total genius,” Helm declares) and Erin Rae (finishing lyrics on “Carry It Alone”, a Zach Djanikian-Helm cowrite). Yet Helm’s earlier association with Taylor and Kaufman also paid off.
“Josh and I had met at a Leonard Cohen tribute in New York City [in 2017], connected briefly and had a great, kind of instant chemistry and wanted to work together,” offers Helm, who enlisted the Brooklyn-based, multitasking musician (with resume references ranging from Bob Weir to Taylor Swift), to produce What the Flood Leaves Behind.
She brought Kaufman and Taylor to Woodstock in 2018 “and the three of us spent two days recording and demoing” songs onto a four-track “and that kind of planted the seed for this album.”
Providing colorful descriptions of her past (“Mamaw’s prayers and honeysuckle / White lightning, hurricanes / Cracked hands, thank you ma’ams”) accompanied by the blues-infused sounds of a Wurlitzer, “Cotton and the Cane” is an album highlight. And Helm graciously compliments Kaufman for remodeling the original version that she previously had attempted “different ways” live and planned to add to This Too Shall Light.
“It wasn’t until we recorded it on this record that I felt we really revealed the tune and you could hear the song for what it is,” Helm admits. “And that was a lot to do with Josh and his capacity to untangle parts that felt … fine but they didn’t feel like they were exactly where they could be to get the strongest narrative. So he helped, we shifted just a few chords underneath the chorus and then changed the tempo, slowed it way down … to re-create the feeling of a choir, and I’m really proud of how that track came out.”
Two songs on which Helm was the sole writer are also among the record’s best.
With a Dusty Springfield-like delivery, Memphis gets a shout-out on “Calling Home” because her aunt lives there and, Helm indicates, “I think of it as a home base like Arkansas, where a lot of my roots are from. [Born Mark Lavon Helm in the Arkansas Delta, Levon was also raised near his birthplace.] I guess it represents trying to get to a place where I feel stronger than I do stuck in New York going through the various things I was going through that I wrote that song about. … Trying to escape some hard times and go to a different home base.”
Levon’s presence is also felt in the lyrics:
Whistling a different tune, Helm yearns for a romantic encounter on “Terminal B” (“California and the slow setting sun / Made for lovers on the run”), a reference to leaving San Francisco’s airport and “having just encountered the most handsome man I ever laid eyes on in the tram back to the rental car place. … It was me thinking I might have met the love of my life but, alas, he got off at a different terminal and life went on.” (laughs)
Among the other fine selections are songs written by Steve Salett (a catchy “Sweet Mama”), Dan Norgren (“Are We Running Out of Love?”) and Taylor (the album-opening “Verse 23”), who also shares a cowrite on “Renegade Heart” with Helm and Ziman.