If you take singing, songwriting standup bassist Amy LaVere to be gravely serious at all times, things can get lost in translation.
“I have my own style of sense of humor,” she says. “That’s obvious.”
LaVere brings up a show review from a U.K. newspaper that, as she puts it, “painted me out to be a little bit of a hellion. Because at some point, I said, ‘Do you mind if I smoke in here?’ And, of course, I can’t — ever. But it’s a little of an ongoing joke for me. … The English audience did not get it.”
That the Memphis-based, jazzy roots-pop artist threads her wryness through fetching, sophisticated work that can also be profoundly vulnerable or arch means she always gives her listeners a lot to take in. That holds true for her engrossing new album, Runaway’s Diary, which contains both intimate truths and wily embellishment.
CMT Edge: You’ve talked about Runaway’s Diary telling an alternate version of a story from your younger years, which is an interesting concept. What makes it even more fascinating is the way you speak in the voice of your younger self — insolent and self-centered, yet endearing — in songs like “Big Sister” and “Snowflake.” How did you access that youthful voice?
LaVere: I didn’t keep journals, but I’ve always kept something that would be like journals. I guess they would be journals, but it wasn’t like “Dear Diary,” you know? Just little quips, little drawings, even phone numbers, all kinds of things. They’re all like little memory books for me. I can look at some random doodle and remember where I was and how I was feeling. So I definitely referenced some old journals.
My sister went through a really hard time when she was about 16. She went real dark for a while. And I probably journaled more around that time than any time. My parents were divorcing, and it was one of those kinds of times where I put a lot of stuff to paper. Although I sensationalized it [in the songs] and added a sense of humor.
The way you were able to channel your adolescent sense of self is pretty remarkable.
Well, “Snowflake,” I mean, I can really step back into that experience. I remember exactly how I was feeling when I made the decision to leave home. I wasn’t gone very long. I don’t mean to make any big deal about that. It just is what inspired the record. But it was kind of a pivotal moment for my youth, I guess.
When you write autobiographical songs, does it tend to serve a reflective function? Or is it a way of getting at the present?
Likely, it’s reflective, I guess. … Do you ever have that experience when you’re talking to someone, and you’re feeling really relaxed and candid, and all the sudden you hear yourself say something that you didn’t know about yourself? Sometimes the writing process is like that for me. Like, “Wow, I didn’t know I felt that way.”
You’ve said something to the effect of “Matters of the heart scare me more than anything.” What difference does that make to your songwriting?
I’m a really bold, fearless person by nature. I would definitely jump out of the plane. Blood and guts and gore don’t frighten me at all. It’s just allowing yourself to be in love, that’s always been something that’s really challenging to me. I’m like a Labrador — I’m extremely loyal. I’ve only ever had longterm relationships. But really letting someone get to me has been something that’s always been really hard for me.
It’s weird because I wear my heart on my sleeve, and it’s like I have truth serum pumping through my veins all the time. So when it comes to being really sincere in what I write about and showing my ass, I guess, it’s strange how I can do that through song more than I can do that in personal relationships.
What formed my first impression of your music was seeing you do your post-murder ballad “Killing Him” live. How do you feel that song has shaped perceptions of what you do?
I succeeded at something with that song, I thought. It encompassed all the things that I love so much. It’s thoughtful. It’s twisted. I think it shines a really unique light on human nature, as far as, “Killing him didn’t make the love go away.” Also, there’s humor in it. It was such a satisfying song for me to write that I tend to kind of end up going that way often with the way that I write.
To hear you sing a song like that with your soft, feminine vocal timbre added another layer.
For me, because there’s so much depth and complexity in the entirety of the song, it encompasses so many different emotions for me, very much like “Big Sister.” It allows me to use whatever I’m feeling at the time and explore that part of it. “Killing Him,” I mean, I can be close to tears with that song sometimes. And other times, I can be very sassy and funny about it just because of my mood.
You’ve said you enjoy playing in band situations. And yours isn’t typically the instrument of choice for a solo singer-songwriter. Which came first for you — upright bass or the realization that you thrive in collaboration?
I fronted a band for six years as a teenager. So the frontwoman thing definitely came first. … I just wanted to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band, like the Shel Silverstein poem. I wanted to have a band name. … I love the idea of having a family band — and when I say “family,” I don’t mean my children. I mean a group of people that play together for 20 years.
That’s why I left Nashville for Memphis, really, was because I saw that the environment in Memphis was more like people like to get together three nights a week and hash out material. And there’s this level of craft and kinetic energy that you can’t often get from a thrown-together band.
Didn’t you take up acoustic bass while you were living in Nashville?
Yes, I did. … I fronted a band for years, just singing. I didn’t play an instrument — not credibly anyway. But bass, I could dance with it, I could hide behind it. It was one big note at a time. It came really easy for me, and I love it.