Originally published at ABC Arts Online, January 2015
Some of the most affecting 'break-up' albums from singer-songwriters over the course of the last decade or so, in the popular consciousness at least, include Ryan Adams' still magnificent Heartbreaker, Bon Iver's ubiquitous (and overrated) For Emma, Forever Ago, Beck's startlingly sincere Sea Change and perhaps, more recently, Fiona Apple's mouthful of an album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and the Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.
Then there is Alela Diane's 2013 record About Farewell, which is certainly a different beast. Rather than embracing any notion of romanticised angst, beautiful pain or the identity of the tortured lover, the album took a distinctly more pragmatic, adult approach to the disintegration of Diane's marriage. Rather than a break-up album, it was a divorce album, and does not shy away from the practical, almost administrative, aspects of such an ordeal. It is an album of imagery and description, more than emotion or confession.
Not that it wasn't a cathartic and draining process to put the songs together. About Farewell, her fourth album, came about following Diane's split with husband and former collaborator Tom Bevitori, a record of confronting sincerity the like of which, some might say, can only be made once in any artist's career. Thank god, reckons Diane.
"I think you're lucky if you only do an album like that once in your career," she says from her home in Portland, Oregon, "Because it's not a fun experience to go through something that inspires such work."
The Sydney Festival receives Diane at an interesting point in relation to About Farewell - a year and half on from its release and more than two years since the events that inspired it. The question of whether revisiting the songs is a painful process, or indeed if her distance from those impressions and that period means a certain detachment and lack of emotional investment, seems important to Diane's appeal as a performer.
"I feel a bit different about them because my life has transitioned a lot since the album was created, but I still very much feel the songs when I sing them. They're very personal and very truthful, and while I've moved on from it all, those stories are still part of my life and if feels good to sing those songs, if a bit sad."
Her life now is profoundly different: she has remarried and given birth to a baby daughter. Happy, it seems. As a consequence though, she is a little stumped as to what future songs will be about. She admits that motherhood will "start to show itself in song in some regard", but without a preoccupying personal demon or particular experience to confront and explore, Diane is set to enter a new period as a songwriter, one less autobiographical and inward-looking.
"I've been thinking about where I go from here and what I have to say now, because my albums have always related to what I've been going through, and I feel with About Farewell there was a sense of completion about that. It was almost the end of a chapter, and now I feel like I'm in a much lighter phase of life and I'm going to have to dig pretty deep and explore different territories as far as material is concerned."
Diane confesses to not having been writing a great deal since the birth of her daughter, who turned one in October. But that is not to say she has neglected music making, and a project that is currently in its early stages promises to mark a decisive, slightly experimental new turn in her career.
Fellow Portlander Ryan Francesconi is known as an elegant Balkan-influenced guitarist and composer of instrumental works. With his wife, violinist Mirabai Peart (originally from Sydney and who is set to join Diane on stage in Sydney for a couple of songs), he released the excellent album Road To Palios in 2013, and now he has embarked on a musical partnership with Diane. The two have been passing songs between each other and rehearsing, and according to Diane, it is this project that is most likely to be her next release.
"He's coming up with guitar compositions and I'm coming up with melodies and words," she says. "It's very freeing and also challenging to work in a different way and not be the one holding the guitar, and to not have the melody flow with the guitar or make the changes myself.
"He has mainly just done instrumental music, and I think he's sick of doing that. For me, after About Farewell, which was such a personal undertaking, it feels really good to be sharing music with someone else, and also to be able to write some melodies and words over something that has a lot more depth to it than anything I'm capable of on guitar."
She is, in fact, hardly shabby on guitar, forging out her own idiosyncratic style as most who are self-taught, through trial and error, do. However, she admits that she has been brushing up on her technique ahead of the show at the Recital Hall, even if time for rehearsing has become more rare and precious thanks to her new domestic situation.
"I'm constantly giving so much of my time and energy that I really have to carve out space for songwriting and rehearsing, and that's something that I didn't have to do before. I have to have my husband look after her and I've just started having a nanny two mornings a week.
"I have to be much more intentional about how to give myself the time to still be a musician."
Alela Diane performed as part of Sydney Festival with Olivia Chaney and Jessica Pratt.