Amy Helm—Lighting the Way
Amy Helm is many things. She is a gorgeous singer, an accomplished songwriter, a multi-instrumentalist, a Grammy award-winning producer, and daughter of Levon Helm (The Band) and Libby Titus (singer). But perhaps more than anything else, Amy Helm is an absolute artist’s artist. She has spent the better portion of her life creating music and performing both alongside and in front of extraordinary musicians and singers. In 2004, Amy and her father began Midnight Rambles at the Levon Helm Studio Barn at his home in Woodstock, N.Y. Fifteen years later, the Midnight Rambles continue to offer artists a unique space to come together to perform for intimate audiences and even enjoy homemade food as a community.
As we spoke about her stunning sophomore solo studio album, This Too Shall Light (Yep Roc Records), released in September 2018, Helm deflected the compliments I bestowed upon her. She instead took every opportunity to celebrate the album’s producer, Joe Henry, as well as the talented musicians who accompanied her on the record, including Doyle Bramhall II (guitar), Jay Bellerose (drums), Jennifer Condos (bass), and Tyler Chester (piano, organ, keyboards). She praised JT Nero, Allison Russell (Birds of Chicago), and Adam Minkoff, who served as her backup choir, and provided endless inspiration throughout the recording process.
While This Too Shall Light is theoretically a compilation of covers with “Heaven’s Holding Me” being a song co-written by the artist and her producer tucked neatly into the mix, the album feels entirely original. With a track list largely comprised of relatively unknown songs and a tight four-day recording window, Amy Helm and Joe Henry managed to create a totally spontaneous, remarkably bold, and completely unconstrained album.
The album has been out for a little over a year and by now you are probably tired of people praising you, but I am going to do it, anyway. This Too Shall Light is simply breathtaking. The album feels timeless. It is already one I keep coming back to. Congratulations.
Thank you so much. That’s so kind. I think the credit really must be given to Joe Henry and also the very specific team of musicians and singers he put together and we folded in for the album and the kind of chemistry that existed between them. I think that’s what gives it the tone and feel you are describing.
What makes the album even more impressive is that you recorded the whole thing in just four days at the legendary United Recording Studios in Los Angeles.
We did. We recorded it in four days and did very few overdubs. There were no vocal overdubs. I left everything. There were a couple things where if I couldn’t live with it, I would grab it from another tape, but we really only had two or three takes of each song. That part of the recording process was actually quite liberating.
Did you and Joe Henry have much communication leading up to your time in the studio? How did you prepare for your jam packed days together?
Joe and I met once to discuss songs and discuss vibe and get an idea of what we thought the album should be and then we continued to stay in touch long distance. He lives in California and I am in Upstate New York. We got a list of songs together we thought could work. An interesting part of pre-production for me was that Joe did not want me to sing any of the songs more than once…. It was the same with the musicians. He didn’t send out the music until just a few days beforehand to everybody. It was a very spontaneous hunt for the song, which gave a particular kind of performance that I think is very different. As a singer that was challenging and scary because I knew I had to make the take really count. I had to really try to find the song on the first or second go-around. It was exciting really.
The album is a celebration of songs originally written and performed by artists spanning many genres and decades. What did the song selection process look like? Was there criteria for the songs you wanted to include or not include?
When we got together to try to find what the record could be, Joe first played me a record called Motel Shot by Delaney & Bonnie. There was a certain sound to that record which basically sounds like a bunch of people in a room, very spontaneous, very immediate and energized, [with] singing soaked in harmony. You can hear Leon Russell’s background vocals kind breathing through an amp mic. It had a very particular sound to it. That was one of our templates for what we wanted to try to achieve. We started thinking about songs that could live within that sound. Joe brought a bunch of songs to the table. He is known for choosing great songs for singers and finding unusual songs I wouldn’t have thought of to cover like “Mandolin Wind” and “Michigan.” I brought a few forward that had been songs which were always of interest to me to cover. We kind of drew a list together and then jumped in.
Despite the songs originating from a variety of artists and periods you managed to create a deeply cohesive sound from the opening track to the finale note. It feels fresh. Was the recording process as effortless as it seems to the listener?
It really did feel like the sound you are describing. For me personally I think having JT (Nero) and Allie (Allison Russell) from Birds of Chicago, who are really dear friends of mine, and Adam Minkoff, another really close friend of mine who is an incredible multi-instrumentalist and singer who plays with me often in my live band… the three of them came out and set up right to the right of me. They became my choir. They really became my safety net and the place where I was getting a lot of my inspiration from and the place where I could land…. It also makes it a lot less scary to jump into a bunch of songs you have never sung when you have three incredible voices going there with you.
You and Joe Henry co-wrote “Heaven’s Holding Me” for the album. What about this song begged for it to be featured alongside the songs you chose to cover on This Too Shall Light? Did you write the song before or after the track list was determined?
The song happened first. There was a handful of original songs of mine that we were looking at as well and we did record a few others that we ended up not folding in simply because they just didn’t fit. Sometimes there is a mysterious process to the recording and at the end of the day that one just suited the other songs. It was less important for me to represent my own writing than to really go for this kind of rich tone that included so many of the voices and the players we talked about. It’s a solo album but it felt very much like this community whole. It had that kind of vibe to it. So we just picked the songs afterwards that lived there and felt right. We took a fifth day where we just sat there and listened, and it was really clear what worked and what didn’t.
You have been performing the album for more than a year now. Can you share any tour highlights or magical stage moments from your experience so far?
This year of touring has been really fulfilling. I have had a rotating cast of musicians, all of them absolutely beautiful, beautiful players and all of them different. I have had months of exploring the songs with one group and then another few months of trying it a completely different way. It’s been interesting, [and] sometimes challenging trying to find and get the chemistry of the song over to the audience. You always want to have it as tight as you can get it, but it’s also been inspiring and fun because it always feels like jumping into a new set of dynamics. I have been loving “Freedom for the Stallion.” Doing that one live as an acoustic duo with my friend Zach Djanikian was one of the highlights for me, really finding that song eventually in a very profound way. “Michigan” was also a fun one that we played with quite a bit. Adam Minkoff arranged a kind of epic rock take on it, which was ultimately fun to do. We extended the solo section and it turned into, like, a ten minute song. We had fun playing with the arrangements and just really diving into the material. “River of Love” was another one that sounded really interesting in the live interpretation. It became kind of spooky and moody. It really has been a lot of fun. When you’re working with such a great group of songs and great musicians it is always different and it’s always a thrill in one way or another.
Your music and career have been consistently reverent to the musical greats who paved the way before you—including, of course, your parents. Talk to me about the decisions to incorporate “The Stones I Throw” and “Gloryland” onto this album.
We were looking for songs that had an uptempo, fun, joyful vibe to them. I had been doing “The Stones I Throw” in my live set so that wasn’t as intentional a choice. It was just kind of a fun tune and, of course, the fact that it was The Band’s, that it was with Levon and the Hawks, made it even more fun. “Gloryland” was a little more intentional on my part. After having sang that song for the past few years in live shows, I feel the audience really connects to it. I have been asked so many times, [and] I finally recorded it live. I wanted to give that to the folks that come out to hear us play.
Has touring for this album inspired any writing or new work? What can we expect next?
Yes. Touring always definitely inspires. Touring the album with different groups of musicians has inspired me to dig in and find songs that really crossover genres and styles. I have been writing with a lot of different people and getting ready to hopefully record an album in January. I am working with a producer named Josh Kaufman. We are still sort of shaping the album with a lot of original material, co-writing, and possibly a little bit of a different flavor. I really respect Josh as a musician and a producer. I love kind of following the different styles of the different artists, and challenging myself to go into a bit of a different sound. That’s what I am hoping to do this winter.