Arcata's favorite singer/songwriter Lila Nelson celebrates the release of a new CD, Letter Home , with a show Friday, Sept. 19, at the Arcata Playhouse , where she'll be backed by Mom and Pop rhythm section, Tim Gray and Marla Joy and guitarist Greg Lojko from The Rubberneckers . (Greg opens the show with his own set.) What follows is Mark Shikuma's e-mail Q&A exchange with Lila on letterwriting, her new album, Poi Dog Pondering and other tales of paper houses.
Q: Concerning the title for your new record, other than the Dylan reference (from the song you covered, " I Was Young When I Left Home "), what does it mean for you?
Letters are obsolete. And CDs are becoming so. So really, I should be an accountant or something. The letter is the letter I meant to write. I meant to send. And the home is the home I left as a kid, but also the home I am trying to find as an adult. Also, it's everybody's letter to their mother, and everybody's mother's letter to them. And sometimes it's a love letter. And it's me not writing home when I should, when I'm out touring. What a jerk I am.
Q: Did you have the theme running while you were writing the songs for the new record? Or, did the songs just end up that way?
Themes are always running. The Dylan song is one that I got stuck on as I was touring cross country in 2005/6 and I think it was fall. The songs weren't written with the theme in mind, per say, some are very old. But there is something autumnal about all of them and about the final touch Freddy put on it (or chose not to put on it, in some cases).
My parents' house almost burned down last fall and my mom lost many of her valuables and all of her writing and letters. I was midway through the project then. I still feel those Santa Ana winds blowing inside...also around that time I fell and suffered a concussion. Speaking of fall, err, falling.
Funny, I didn't know Rickie Lee Jones' stuff until about 4 years ago, after people kept saying, "You sound like her, you write like her..." I checked her out and am a huge fan now. The others I definitely cut my teeth on. Others I have found since working in radio. Not all the songs are new (to me -- some are 10 years old). Some things that influence me: Uh, seasons, especially Fall (which in my mind landed on us last week...something nostalgic, melancholy delicious...all that). What else:
, wine, falling down. Also, when I was 11 or so I heard
Loudon Wainwright III
. Wrote him a letter. He wrote back. And then I got to see him live and thought, "I want a job doing that — writing songs — being silly and poignant at the same time."
Q: How did you end up working with producer/bassist Kenny Edwards and guitarist Freddy Koella ?
Kenny and I were both singing with another artist and really connected. He's been singing harmony, playing and performing for 40 years or more and you can feel that, subtlety, experience, talent. In the last few years he started singing his own songs and touring the singer-songwriter circuit — Freddy produced his singer-songwriter debut record and has a really sensitive touch, so when it was time for me to record they suggested co-producing.
Q: How long did this record take to make? Do you find it a different process than your previous releases?
Hmmm. I started sketching it out with Mike Dronkers in his Pirate Room Studio back in 2006. But it's not like sketching with a pen, where the more you do the more dense the picture: the record is not busy at all. The process was much more like oil painting. We did some songs. Listened to demos. Painted over. Took it to Kenny's studio. Painted over. Took it to Freddy's, Le Garage in Santa Monica . Painted over. And the product is very simple in some ways. Very contained. We tossed songs, a number of them, perhaps to revisit later. In the past I've recorded at home, or with Tim Gray, who is also fabulous.
Q: The spare sound that presides over the record draws the listener to your lyrics, which feel like short stories. Was this your approach to writing these songs?
Short stories. Well, kind of. I write a lot of memoir and other stuff, and part of what I like about songwriting, or the way I've come to do it, is that it is nothing like writing the usual narrative with the usual arc. The melody, inflection and song structure take care of an emotional arc, and the words get to hang, be evocative pictures, punctuation, reminders. Sans syntax. Dig?
Q: How did you come to cover "Thanksgiving," a song by former Poi Dog Pondering member Adam Sultan ? It's quite a beautiful song.
I love that song. The way it is on the record is sort of a one-off. I sang it with the
Dell‘arte Band for
because it fit with the theme - forgiveness. Thing is, it always works. There is never a time when it's not appropriate to say, "Oh, sh*t, I f*cked up," and nonetheless, "look at all the amazing colors!" I was playing Freddy's Martin guitar from 1895 or so, and damn, is that a nice guitar, I wanted to play every song I ever knew, while it was still in my hands. So, I started in, "Thanksgiving" being one I had learned from my friend Joe who I think learned it from our friend Ken back in Idaho years ago. It was very simple the way I learned it. And only after singing for 10 years or more did I think to listen to Poi Dog Pondering's version, which is very different. Recently I got in touch with Adam and got to thank him for writing it and he was happy to see it finally covered. I felt somehow like a musical circle had been drawn.
Q: There is an overall melancholic feeling that carries through this record. Looking back on writing and recording those songs, were you processing some forms of loss, sadness?
Now you've made me cry...I'm sorry. (Wiping tears.) * Uh, yeah. Life is hard. And relative. And relatively hard. But really. Loss? Yes. Sadness? Yes. Some about my relationship. Some about the losses of people around me. Some about thinking my childhood home was lost in a fire. Head injuries...and I think, generally, I spend a lot of time in the shadows. This world has plenty of them. Although, I can see it now…the next record will be all novelty songs. *(note from interviewer: her comment)
Q: Will you be touring soon to support this record?
Yes. A little in the fall/winter. And more heavily in 2009.
Q: Can you explain where the image for the cover of your new record comes from?
It's, quite literally, a letter home. My uncle, Tom Benedek , is a screenwriter and photographer and did a project called "Shot By The Writer," where he took old scripts out to the shooting range and then photographed the beautiful damage high res. Then PEN/USA commissioned him to burn some banned books and photograph them. They are really extraordinary. I wanted him to burn and shoot some lyrics for me, but he suggested taking lyrics and letters and folding them into paper houses. Voila!
Q: Do you still receive/write actual letters? Emails seem rather impermanent.
I sometimes do. Not often. But I do keep all the letters I've been sent.
Why don't you write me? Lila Nelson POB 4150 Arcata, CA. 95518
Addendum: After reading the mostly anonymous discussion below, Lila suggested adding a new photo, which may be taken as her own comment on the cheesecake issue: