Finally Getting Somewhere: An Interview with Allison Moorer

Allison Moorer is happy. This might seem like a simple, if not trivial, fact, but it’s not. After all, it was only two years ago that she captured the music media’s attention with her album The Duel precisely because she was unhappy — with the government, with society, and, most notably, with God. Granted, musicians are known for criticizing the status quo, but Moorer’s background is country (or, if you wish, the aforementioned status quo) and in the space of 11 songs, she not only questioned, but also chipped away at, all the pillars of the Bible Belt where she was born and raised. For example, in the song “All Aboard”, Moorer both exposed and denounced the blind patriotism of the post-9/11 era: “Sign up and get a flag / Wear it proudly you can brag / To the fools who didn’t volunteer / Some restrictions do apply”. And if daring to question America’s path in the era of King George wasn’t enough to draw attention, Moorer went one step farther by pointing her ire towards God in the title track of the album: “In this cemetery mist / Stands a newborn atheist / Even if you do exist / You’re far from almighty.”

You can guess what happened from there. To begin with, Moorer gained a tremendous amount of respect and accolades from critics and fans impressed with her courage and passion; indeed, with or without controversy, The Duel stands as one of the best albums of 2004 for purely musical reasons. But she also associated herself with a political ideology, which always has direct effects on an artist’s career. One look at the whole Dixie Chicks debacle is ample evidence that challenging those in power is simply not allowed in country music, and Moorer crossed a threshold from which there is no return. While she concedes that she never really belonged in the bastion of conservatism known as country music, The Duel pretty much sealed Moorer’s move away from traditional country and towards alt-country and rock. More importantly, the album also attracted a whole new audience, and that audience has expectations. For these new fans, The Duel is the pinnacle of her career so far, and they like the political Moorer, the one who so fearlessly took off the gloves and threw the hegemony a punch to its fat, privileged jaw. Nothing like the smell of blood to attract a crowd, eh?

This brings us to the present, where Moorer is awaiting the release of the follow-up to The Duel, titled Getting Somewhere. And while many have wondered how she would make another album as musically and thematically daring as The Duel, the issue never vexed Moorer. In the two years that have lapsed between these two albums, she has had to deal with other issues on the proverbial hierarchy of needs, most notably those dealing with relationships. For one, she divorced Butch Primm, who was also her key musical collaborator. Then, in another move guaranteed to keep her on the fringes of country, she married Steve Earle. You might say that Moorer has experienced extreme pain and disappointment in the last two years, only to find that they lead to new beginnings. Hence the title of Getting Somewhere, an album that focuses on the hopes and joys of such new beginnings rather than the shortcomings of politics or religion. PopMatters recently talked to Moorer about her life, her career, and the interplay of the two.

A prevalent theme in your last album, The Duel, is doubt: doubt in religion, doubt in the government — doubt in all those things you’re supposed to accept without question. Getting Somewhere, conversely, sounds written by someone more secure, content, and assured. Why?
I think the main reason for that is growing up a little bit. I also went through a lot of personal changes between the two records. I got a divorce from my first husband, who I had co-written most of the songs that I had cut on my first four albums, and got involved in a new relationship, which I’m very happy in. I also saw a lot of the world that I hadn’t seen. I just reached a point in my life when I was just really sort of unhappy with where I was, and I began to look down the road, and saw where I might be going, and didn’t want to go there, so I changed some things. I don’t want to get too personal about my first marriage and why it ended, but ultimately it was the right thing for me. I came to terms with a lot of stuff. One of the themes on The Duel is “Is there a God?” I kind of decided that, yeah, there is. I just sort of gave up on that “I’m in my twenties. I’m full of angst. Oh, there is no God. Oh, is there a God?” I just kind of decided that, yeah, there is, and I’m going to put that out of my mind, and I’m going to live as if there is because it makes things a whole lot easier and I end up a whole lot happier. This whole existential angst thing is not for me — I’ve got other things to worry about.

This ties into the second question. The title track of The Duel is not only doubtful of God, it’s also quite scathing towards religion. Getting Somewhere, conversely, contains a song called “Hallelujah,” which is about finding faith. Is this part of that same journey? Is it just a conscious decision to believe in something?
I really had to do some self-examination. I’m not a big fan of organized religion at all, and I think a lot of artists aren’t big fans of organized religion. I’m not a churchgoer; I’ll just put it that way. But “Hallelujah” was the first song I wrote for this record, and I say in the song “faith is hard to find”, and it is. I think what you have to do is put yourself out there a little bit, put you heart out there, open up your heart a little bit in order to find anything. If you’re closed, it’s not going to come to you. So that’s what “Hallelujah” is about. It’s funny that it’s the first thing I wrote because it was sort of a letting-go song for me, like “Okay, I’m going to write a record, and it’s going to be 100% purely me for the first time, and in order to do that, I’ve got to do some digging, and I’ve got to put some stuff out there that I haven’t put out there before.” I just feel like there’s just too much beauty in the world to not believe there’s some higher power. We didn’t do all this ourselves. There’s some guiding force, and if you’re paying attention, you’re probably going to get to that at some point. But having said that, I certainly don’t judge somebody for what they believe, whether it’s strict fundamental Christian or … It all boils down to whatever gets you through the night.

So is it a relief when you finally come to terms with just letting it be?
I just don’t feel like I have to sit around and wonder about it anymore because what good did that do me? I don’t think anyone has the answers. It’s absolutely fine to be on a personal search, and I’m certainly very active in trying to figure out things for myself. But that “Is there? Isn’t there?” stuff? Mmmm … doesn’t matter.

This is a follow-up to the last question. People assume that an artist’s lyrics reflect his or her personal views. This is sometimes the case, but sometimes an artist is just writing through a character. How often do you adopt a persona, and do you get tired of people assuming your lyrics reflect your own views?
Well, you can’t get totally tired of it, because it’s kind of a given that if you do [write through a character] that people are going to go, “Well, this is you talking.” I think that you have to educate your audience to a certain extent and say, “Sometimes it’s not me. Sometimes it’s a character.” Like “The Duel” – the line is “In the cemetery mist / Stands a newborn atheist.” I was never an atheist — never, ever. That character was.

Do you find yourself having to defend your songs when you were just writing through a character?
Not too often. You know, I really haven’t. I think my audience is smart enough to figure things out for themselves a lot of times, and if met with a question, I have no problem answering it. But yeah, that character in “The Duel” was not me. I think it’s pretty safe to say that all these songs on this record [Getting Somewhere] are me — for the first time. There were some songs on all my records that weren’t exactly — not that they weren’t coming from me or some part of me — but this is an Allison record. It’s safe to say that every song on this record is coming through me.

Your career has moved from traditional country to — for lack of a better term — alt-country to country-rock to rock, and now some of your songs sound pop. Not pop in a bad way, but pop in the tradition of Tom Petty, the Pretenders, the Beatles, or the Byrds — just those good harmonies and clean guitars. What are you listening to these days?
I have always listened to a wide variety of things. I think most musicians and artists do. I’ve always listened to whatever I like, which is a really broad scope. I love Neil Young. I love the Pretenders. I love Tom Petty. I love the Beatles. I love the Stones. I’ve always been into Wilco, and what they’re doing, and they’re experimental stuff is really cool.

So is there a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in you down the road?
We’ll see. You never know. That’s another thing you can’t do — you can’t ever say what you’re going to do, and what you’re not going to do. Lately, I’ve been mostly listening to music on my iPod because my husband is writing a book, so I have to quiet down. [Laughs] I love Kathleen Edwards; I think for someone who’s kind of new on the scene, she’s great. Let’s see … what other new albums have I bought? Not too much lately. Ray LaMontagne — I love him. He’s really great. You know, I like singer-songwriters. I always have.

Speaking of the Pretenders, the first song on your new album, “Work to Do”, is reminiscent of a Pretenders’ song; it’s got that perfect mixture of confidence and attitude. What was the inspiration for that song?
I wrote that song for the girls because I think it’s a common condition among women to doubt yourself, to let somebody tell you, “Oh, you can’t do that. You can’t do that. You can’t do that.” Make somebody feel insecure because you think, “Oh, you’re butt is too big” or “You can’t do math” or “You can’t have it all. You can’t have children. You can’t have a career. You can’t do it all.” Yes you can. It’s about erasing those negative thoughts that have been put in our minds. I know I’ve had a lot of trouble with that, you know, sort of … someone can give me a compliment, and it’s like in one ear and out the other. Someone says something negative to me or about me, or I know that someone said something negative about me, I’ll carry it around with me for six months, and I won’t be able to get it out of my head. So it’s about really working at exorcising those negative thoughts, and it’s a tall order to love yourself more. That’s really where that song came from. I wrote it for anyone, really, who has problems with doubting themselves, but really for the girls because I feel like we need it.

“Fairweather” streaming
“New Years Day” streaming

It’s a great way to start the album; it really sets the tone.
I think it’s my favorite track because it has such a swagger.

On the opposite end, the closing track, “Getting Somewhere” sounds dark but hopeful. Do you find that these two opposites — despair and optimism — need one another?
I feel like that song serves as a lifter-upper because right around that time I wrote that song was when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and I’m from the Gulf Coast, from south Alabama. It was so frustrating for me to watch the news and see what was going on. I had a song on the last record called “All Aboard” which was pretty overtly political. But in thinking about the bigger picture, which is what I’ve tried to do lately — get my head out of politics, get my head around what is causing our world to be in such a state — which is basically we don’t treat each other very well, and everything begins and ends with that. Until we can bring ourselves to understand that we’re all the same, it’s never going to be alright, and we’re never going to have a decent place to raise children because we don’t treat each other very well. And that’s where it begins and ends. In looking at that, we don’t take up for each other like we should. We don’t treat each other as sisters and brothers. In thinking about that, I began to write [“Getting Somewhere”]. All you can do, I think, is control what you do. It means helping out your fellow man; that’s all you can do personally. That’s where that song came from. I began to think about, and pardon my French, how fucked we are until we can get with that concept.

Do you think music can bring about change, or is that just a naïve cliché?
No, no, no, no, no … absolutely not. Look at the Vietnam War and what a big role music played in that. Do you think all those young people would have been mobilized the way they were to protest if it hadn’t had been for the music? I know music touches people and it makes them more open. Art, in general, touches people and makes them more open, and that’s what we have to be in order to feel and that’s the only we’re going to stop this. Until a mother in Oklahoma City, if you will, a mother of a three-year-old understands that there’s an Iraqi mother of a three-year-old and she doesn’t want her child in harm’s way. I think there’s a real disconnect there, like we don’t understand that there’s a mother in Iraq who doesn’t want her child harmed just like we don’t want our children harmed. You know what I’m saying?

Yes, the news has almost become a spectator sport.
Yeah, we really need to grasp that concept.

And we’ve become desensitized to the news. It’s just something on TV that’s abstract.
It’s real life — it’s real lives. Yeah, I think [music] can change people’s lives. I have to think music can change people’s lives because something’s got to.

Going back to the songs on Getting Somewhere. “How She Does It” is about your mother, but it doesn’t reflect what happened in life. In the song, your mother gets away from your father. Songwriters are often asked how reality shapes their art. To flip that around, how does your art shape your reality? [Note: When Moorer was a child, her father shot her mother, then turned the gun on himself.]
When I started to write that song, I was really exercising my muscles there. I wanted to write a story song and when I started to write it, I didn’t know where it was going. And I quickly found out where it was going and then I decided, “You know what? This time I’m going to let her get away.” It was the first time I really grasped my powers as a songwriter. I realized, “You know what? You don’t always have to tell the truth.” Sometimes I can tell it the way I want it to be. And, I think I did that because I wanted to let her go. She got away this time.

Since your sound has changed so much, how do you view your early work in comparison to your recent work?
I love those records. What I see is exactly what I want to see with these records. I think that’s my job. My job, really, as an artist, is to grow and get better. I will be the first to tell you that I get bored easily, so there’s that element. But also, I never set out to do the same thing over and over on a record. You know, I wanted to be a better musician and I wanted to be a better songwriter, and I think I’ve accomplished those things. I think through those changes and through that growth, that’s what has brought me to this point. It hasn’t been any sort of calculated, “Oh, I’m going to do this now; oh, I’m going to do that now.” Art is just about expression. I’m just expressing myself, and I do it differently every time because I change a lot.

So it’s not like a conscious change?
Exactly, it’s not like I’m sitting around sucking on a pencil, thinking, “Oh, what can I do now?” It’s way more honest than that. And way more, probably even, I would say naïve than that, cause as far like, “Oh, if I do this, my fans are going to think this, and the press is going to say that.” I don’t ever think about that stuff. You know, I just sort of think, “Well, you know what? I’ve got to like this. If I don’t, nobody else will.” So it starts there.

This leads to the next question. The Duel was called by many critics “the bravest album of the year” not only because of the topic matter, but also because it was such a new direction for you. Did you feel any pressure while making Getting Somewhere to do something equally different?
This is probably the first time I felt hardly any pressure making a record. Basically because I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I had fewer influences for the first time. You know, some of the records I’ve made have had a lot of cooks, for lack of a better word. This one basically was just me and Steve, and I had written all the songs while he was around. We were on the road together, and so he had a ringside seat for the whole writing of it. So when we went in to make the record in December, it was kind of just a given what we were going to do. It wasn’t like any sort of, “Well, we gotta do this on this song, and this on this song, and this on this song.” There was some talk about it, but not that much. It was just more understood.

How was it making your album with Steve, with him producing it? It just seems like such an interesting dynamic — the person you’re in love with is your producer, and helping you write songs.
Well, he only helped write one song on this record. You know, it’s hard to make a record with anybody. Sometimes it can get into a tug-of-war just because you can’t [be] inside somebody’s head. Having said that, we did pretty good. We’re still married and we didn’t kill each other.

What influence did he have as far as sound? Getting Somewhere has touches of Steve’s sound, such as the powerful drums and thick bass, but only flourishes.
We cut it in our studio in Nashville, so there’s that in common. And Ray Kennedy engineered it, and Ray engineered all Steve’s records. Those are probably the only common things — we did it in the studio and Ray engineered it. He hardly played on it; he played a few things, but not much. I played a lot of guitar and it’s not Steve’s band either, so that’s another difference. I have my own style of playing guitar so that contributes to my sound of my records. I think that’s probably a real common denominator that I think comes out in the last record and this record.

How would you describe your style of guitar playing?

Well, I mean terrible in that I do nothing right. It’s my own style because I taught myself. You know, I’m probably not the most natural guitar player. I’ve got a really great right hand, which means I am a pretty good rhythm guitar player because I’ve got great timing.

Well, people don’t give rhythm players enough credit.
No, they don’t.

That’s really the foundation of the song, and you’re in good company when you say you don’t know how to play. Neil Young says the same thing, and Jeff Tweedy says the same thing.
I just try to suit the song. It’s funny when you sit down to write. Writing on guitar is different than writing on piano. Previously I’ve written a little bit on piano, but on this record I wrote all the songs on guitar because I was on the road and didn’t have a piano. They all started there, so they all have their own little rhythmic things that were born when the song was born. So there’s little things that I do that are probably bad, but they’re mine.

Since you’re talking about writing songs, how do you write songs?
However I can. They start all different ways for me. Sometimes it’ll be a musical thing, sometimes it’ll be a phrase. “Take It So Hard” was born out of a rant. That song is kind of me taking my own inventory, and saying, “Lighten up.” It came out of a rant. I just started typing into my laptop one day and I thought, “I don’t know what this is, but I’m going to save it.” I was going back through some stuff one day and I was like, “Oh…” and I had this musical idea and I put them together and there you go. It’s also one of my favorite tracks on the record.

How do you feel about mainstream country?
I don’t know. What’s happening there? I have no idea. I don’t keep up just because I don’t belong there. I never did. It’s unfortunate that I didn’t because, truly, when I started making records I hoped that I did belong there because I really love traditional country. It’s a really great thing when it’s done with heart. I just don’t keep up with it anymore because I don’t live there, hardly. Steve and I have a place there, but we spend most of our time in New York. I just can’t put up with it because most of it is just so cheesy it makes me want to run for the hills. And I hate to say that because I don’t want to be down on that stuff and a lot of those people are really nice people. And, you know, my start there has afforded me to do this for a living, and I feel very fortunate for that. But, gosh, I don’t keep up with it as far as who’s got a record out and who’s number one. I just don’t. There’s too much other music out there that I like.

Did you feel it was too confining?
Yeah, it was too confining musically, and it was too confining as far as, “You’re a girl — you can’t do this or that.” You know, I don’t like the little darling routine. I just don’t.

Alt-country is a tag that gets thrown around, and most would say that it’s more authentic than mainstream country. The distinction, however, is as much connected to politics as sound. Why do you think mainstream country is so devoutly right-wing while alt-country is so often associated with the left?
I do think there are a lot of right-wing fundamentalist Christians in country, but I don’t think there as many as they would have you believe that there are. I think that what their research has told them is that their demographic responds to Christian, right-wing values, so that’s what they act like they’ve got.

Recently, Neil Young, the Dixie Chicks, and Pink have come under fire for their songs. Did you receive a lot of criticism after The Duel?
Yeah, I’ve received some. I can tell you I’ve spoken out, and I’ve run my mouth a lot and I’ve been doing it for a while, and I’ve lost gigs over it. There’s a festival in North Carolina that I played last year, and I was about to play “All Aboard” and I said something about being disappointed that Bush had won re-election, and I saw the booker a couple of months later, and was telling her what a good time I had and said I’d love to come back. She said, “Oh, well maybe next year. You know your comments about Bush didn’t go over well.” So I was like, “Uh oh, I guess I lost that gig.”

You and Steve now make your home in New York City. That seems like an odd choice for two singer/songwriters with backgrounds in country.
Well, we live on the street that Bob Dylan is walking down on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, so it’s really not that much of a stretch.

Last question: you’re working with an organization called Women in Need and another called Family Friends. Could you tell me about these organizations and what prompted you to get involved with them?
Well, it’s really the same thing. Family Friends is a program that Women in Need does. I’ve been up here this winter. Steve and I came up at the beginning of February to sort of camp out. We had finished my record, and it was all done, and we wanted to camp out up here. Steve’s working on a novel, and it’s a lot easier for him to write in the apartment up here instead of a house in Tennessee. And we like New York. We’ve got an apartment here, and like to go see theatre. We like being here. You know, it’s New York! And I could have lolled about and said, “I’m just going to pleasure myself on my time off” — ’cause neither of us were working on the road — and “I’m just going to shop or whatever or sit on my butt,” but I really started feeling guilty about it. And I had every intention of doing some volunteer work, but I didn’t know what it was going to be, but I knew I wanted to get involved with something. So I started poking around and came across Women in Need and got in touch and said, “Hey, I’ve got some time. What do you need help with?” Come to find out, they have this program called Family Friends, which you can find out about either on my website or their website. And I just help in the office, building the database because I had some time and it’s a really worthwhile thing. You know, I was glad I was able to contribute a little bit. I didn’t do near enough, but, you know, did what I could. Obviously, that’s a cause that’s really close to my heart with what happened with my family. You know, I’ve always felt that if mother had had a safe place to go, what happened to her may not have happened, and we may not have grown up the way we did, me and my sister [country singer Shelby Lynne]. If she had felt like she had a real safe place to go. Anything I can do to help women and their children stay safe. It’s just a real important issue. Everybody, really, but, women are so vulnerable and the child-rearing is left to them so much of the time that it’s a real problem, as is homelessness. Education, drug rehabilitation — they do all those things.