“I want to pretend it’s kind of this Classic Country/Gypsy/Jazz thing,” says Amy LaVere of her new Archer Records album, Anchors & Anvils. “I like so many different kinds of music, and I want to be all of them at different moments of the day. But I’d love to think that it’s kind of a Big Pop record.” The disc, produced by the legendary Jim Dickinson, is bigger than even that: Anchors & Anvils delivers ten smart and sexy tales of spooky love, twangy ache, sultry torch and gutsy blues that is totally unpredictable and relentlessly daring, the sound of an uncommon artist unafraid to be exactly who she is. It may also be, quite simply, the sound of Amy LaVere’s Big Breakthrough.
For the singer/songwriter that The Chicago Tribune describes as “a Southern girl thumping a doghouse bass bigger than she is and singing in a woozy, whispery voice that casts an intoxicating spell,” Anchors & Anvils refuses to be weighed down by easy expectations. “I felt comfortable in doing whatever I wanted to do on this record,” Amy says. “I wasn’t scared of anything because I don’t really have anything to lose.” And though it may be Amy’s bass – which is indeed bigger than she is – that many will first notice, it is her voice – simultaneously coy and seductive, able to communicate hurt, strength or even menace in a single breathy bound – that remains unforgettable. “Truthfully, my voice isn’t very big,” she admits, “which is why I always looked up to singers like Billie Holiday. I figured out early on that if anybody was going to pay attention to what I was singing about, I was going to have to be pretty expressive about it.” Add to this a nascent acting career that began with her cameo as Rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson in WALK THE LINE and now includes a featured role in fan and fellow Memphian Craig Brewer’s BLACK SNAKE MOAN, and you find a woman who refutes any attempt at demure restraint. “I’ve always really tried,” Amy says with wry understatement, “to live life largely.”
Amy LaVere was born in a small Texas/Louisiana border town, nurtured by musical parents with a passion for traditional country. Her family moved 13 times by the time she entered high school, ultimately landing in Detroit where Amy fronted the infamous punk band Last Minute while still in her teens. From there, her musical journey became a wild ride of impetuous travels, sudden elopements, and itinerant vinyl siding sales. The early ‘90s found her in Nashville as part of the burgeoning Lower Broadway scene, where she began to play upright bass as half of the popular roots duo The Gabe & Amy Show. By 1999, she’d moved to Memphis where the city’s diverse music community quickly embraced her unique style. “Memphis doesn’t allow you to be trite,” she explains. “It not only forces you to be original, it’s an accepting and supportive place for that which may seem unusual anyplace else. There’s very little music ‘industry’ here, but plenty of musical freedom. “ In early 2005, Amy released her debut album This World Is Not My Home on indie label Archer Records to instant national acclaim. As the Los Angeles Daily News then raved, “Something like this doesn’t come along every day.”
Two years, hundreds of gigs, and a whole lot of liven' later, Amy went into the studio with Jim Dickinson to craft her much-anticipated new album. “She has the whole package,” the Memphis music legend says. “You run across artists all the time that have part of it, but Amy has it all. And it just keeps growing.” Dickinson – whose celebrated work as a musician includes classic records with Ry Cooder, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers) and Bob Dylan (a 40-year relationship that’s extended from Blonde on Blonde to Time Out Of Mind), and whose landmark role as producer includes such eclectic classics as Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, The Replacements’ Pleased To Meet Me and his sons’ seminal The North Mississippi Allstars – captured Amy and band at his Zebra Ranch recording barn/‘art project’ in rural Mississippi. “As a producer, you take the artist out to the edge of the cliff, where they have to learn to trust you,” Dickinson explains. “And of course, you push ‘em off. A lot of them fall. But Amy has the wings to fly. In fact, I think it’s one of the best records I’ve ever made.
There’s an underlying darkness that’s kind of ‘Twin Peaks’-ish to me. Plus she can triple-slap the upright bass like Willie Dixon on steroids.”
Anchors & Anvils introduces itself with the jaw-dropping “Killing Him”, Amy’s sinister ode to homicidal passion that smolders like Norah Jones with a razor in her boot. “It’s totally a love song,” Amy insists. “A friend had seen a woman on the news who’d just murdered her husband of 30 years. As they’re leading her away in handcuffs she’s screaming, ‘Killin’ him didn’t make the love go away!’ And I thought, ‘My God, if that’s not a statement of devotion…’” In “Pointless Drinking”, she delivers a poignantly frank and deliciously sardonic manifesto to a life lived by the glass. “Tennessee Valentine” – co-written by the late dulcimer master David Schnaufer – is a classic country waltz, and Amy re-imagines the obscure Carla Thomas cut “That Beat (Keeps Disturbing My Sleep) as a vivid gypsy tango. “Washing Machine” rides monster riffs and ominous reverb, while “Overcome” is a fiddle-fueled tribute to emotional breakdown. “People Get Mad” is a greezy slice of Memphis funk, her original “Cupid’s Arrow” is both playful and lethal, and Amy’s insistent bass drives the dark Zen of “Time Is A Train.” For the album’s closer, she uncovers startling new layers of wistful beauty in Dylan’s delicate “I’ll Remember You”. “All of these songs were speaking to me,” Amy says today. “It may be all relationship related, but that was never a conscious thing. I guess that’s why I like songs to sometime be a bit theatrical. I want people to be lifted out of their moment in time, taken on a little journey and then put back where they were slightly altered in a good way.”
Today Amy LaVere looks forward to dropping Anchors & Anvils on a world where integrity can still call its own tune and true artistry stands tallest of all. “It’s an ambitious project and we definitely took some chances,” she says, “but music is something you can constantly do without anybody letting you do it. There are artists out there who can get away with being different. I’m banking on the fact that I’m gonna be one of them.”