Americana singer-songwriter Amy LaVere trades youthful indiscretion for mature insight
Amy LaVere’s mother once said of her daughter, “You could drop Amy naked in the middle of New York City with one dollar, and she’d walk out clothed with a hundred.”
LaVere’s self-confidence and wildly independent streak prompted the singer-songwriter/bassist to run away from home when she was in 10th grade. She and a friend took the train from Detroit to Chicago, where they slept in the train station and were approached by pimps wondering if they needed work. The adventure was short-lived—after two nights they were picked up, taken by paddy wagon to juvenile hall, and flown home—but it made enough of an impression on her to inspire the album Runaway’s Diary.
A story album full of quiet insights into the life of a young woman, Runaway’s Diary combines fiction with real-life experiences. Inspiration for the project came when LaVere discovered an old box of her notes and other scraps of paper. Full of half-written journal entries, poems and random observations from her younger years, the box revealed a glimpse into her life.
“With some other material I had prepared, I realize there was a story unfolding,” LaVere says. “I started to focus my writing of the songs in that direction, then filled in the gaps with some songs that I thought kind of pulled the story together.”
The result is an album that draws out the emotions of a young runaway and the characters she meets. Musically, it’s full of spacious Americana guitarscapes, haunting vocals, catchy melodies and, of course, LaVere’s thumping, swinging bass lines.
An accidental bassist, LaVere “stumbled into” the upright bass when she was living in Nashville in a house full of musicians. Two of her housemates played the upright so she started plucking around on it.
“I really took to it naturally,” she says, explaining that she busked with other musicians on the tourist strips and started getting called onstage at performances. “It’s like dancing with someone. I got addicted to it.”
A self-described people person who doesn’t spend much time alone, LaVere was born in Shreveport, Louisiana and moved 13 times with her family before she hit high school. She loved the travel and adventure, but did not share her parents’ appreciation of classic country music—at least not during her teen years when she was more interested in Siouxsie and the Banshees and Michelle Shocked than she was in anything her parents introduced her to.
“Wild, angstful art-rock was my jam,” she says. “It suited my angstful sensibilities at that time.”
It was in Nashville that LaVere reacquainted herself with classic country music as her friends “made it hip again” for her. Coming full circle with her country roots, LaVere played rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson in the 2005 film Walk the Line. Her part was, she says, “a lot better” before more than half of it was left on the cutting room floor, but she enjoyed the experience and ended up opening up several shows for Jackson.
Now based in Memphis, LaVere spends more time on the road than anywhere else. Her traveling companion these days is her husband and collaborator Will Sexton, who she calls one of the best musicians she’s ever seen, much less gotten to play with. When LaVere realized that Sexton was “a joy to tour with,” it sealed the deal on their relationship—musical and otherwise. But it did take some adjusting to go from a full band to a duo.
“It was terrifying, really,” she says. “I never wanted to be in a duo, I wanted to be in a rock and roll band.”
She now loves it. Playing as a duo brings a new intimacy to the songs. Fans ask about songs that no one asked about before—songs that may have gotten lost with a full band. To share this stripped-down, more intimate sound with fans, LaVere and Sexton recorded a merch table exclusive album titled Hallelujah I’m a Dreamer. It’s a reflection of a new direction for LaVere—one that she can see doing into the foreseeable future.
“This is something I can do that’s far more sustainable than carting around a whole band all the time,” she says. “And it’s a lot easier to figure out where you’re going to eat when there’s only two people.”
Amy LaVere and Will Sexton will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 9 at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $10. 603-2294.
DREAM DUO Amy LaVere performs with Will Sexton on Wednesday, Sept. 9 at Don Quixote’s.