She’s a guitar-playing Monroeville girl living in New York City now. Her parents died in a murder–suicide when she was 14. She was once married to Steve Earle, and now she is not. The 5-year-old son they had together has been diagnosed with autism. This ain’t Nashville, some soap opry to tune out at your convenience. This is real life.
Allison Moorer could have read the Book of Job over and over again to seek meaning in misery, but she chose instead to write her way out. Her new CD, Down to Believing, is as fine a piece of music as you will hear this year. Producer Kenny Greenberg shined up the songs, but left their jagged edges exposed for the singer to explore. It’s not a concept album, but its 13 songs are tightly and thematically intertwined; even a Creedence cover, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”, alludes to the emotional damage she is daily rebuilding. She graciously entertained our impertinent questions on the phone the other week on Autism Awareness Day.
Weld: I guess you’ve been keeping up with the news about your old Monroeville neighbor, Harper Lee.
Allison Moorer: Do you know what I’m doing right now? I’m in the throes of a second draft of a memoir of my childhood. I was just talking to my friend about it, and I said, “You know, I read something this morning that I wrote about two weeks ago that brought me to tears.” I’m almost done with the second draft, and hopefully the book will come out in 2016. I’ve been working on it for about four years now.
Weld: Is it a writing exercise or is this designed to be cathartic, to clear the cobwebs from what happened to you?
AM: Well, it definitely has been some of the best work I’ve ever done for that reason. It’s been very revelatory to me, and ultimately — it’s funny, because I had no desire to write a book before I became a parent. But when John Henry was born I became very aware that I wanted to create the best environment I possibly could for him. That meant I did not want to create any of the things that had happened to me, so I just started to explore them and figure out what exactly did happen. I’m a writer, so what does that mean? That means I have to write something down in order to know how I feel about it. That’s what Flannery O’Connor said. That’s what Joan Didion said, and it’s really true in my case, you know? I’ve stumbled upon some things that I never would have known otherwise. It’s been really good work to do, and quite possibly the most important work I’ve done, in terms of my own healing and trajectory, emotionally.
Weld: There’s an interesting corollary here, it seems, because your songs are also autobiographical. I wonder, with this new album, is it unnerving to have no artistic mask to hide behind when you write songs that are this explicitly personal?
AM: Well, you know, I write about myself because I’m the subject I know best. This is like taking your clothes off in public, but I don’t know how to do this and not be autobiographical in some way. I’m a staff songwriter for Warner-Chappell in Nashville, so I write a lot of songs that aren’t necessarily for me. But I sneak into them somehow, no matter how I try not to. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I have a hard time removing my own self and my own experience from the process. Maybe as I get older I’ll be able to write fiction. But at this point, who needs it? Truth is stranger than fiction, right?
Weld: It’s pretty well known that the songs on Down to Believing deal with the end of the road with your husband, Steve, and the beginning of a journey with your son, John Henry, and his diagnosed autism. Tell me about the process of making art out of damaged expectations.
AM: Well, it’s just necessary. I’m an artist, so that’s what I do. I reflect my world, the world around me. I think that’s the artist’s job. My hope is that I can do that and come up with a common experience with the world by putting it in language that is common. When I wrote “Mama Let the Wolf In,” which is an absolutely unintellectual song, it was just how I felt, as a mother being powerless against something that my child was going through and is going to have to go through until he doesn’t have to anymore. Which may be never.
Weld: In a couple of interviews I read, you said you felt guilty about John Henry’s diagnosis of autism. Do you really feel that you were complicit in what’s happened to him?
AM: Not in my brain, I don’t. But in my heart and in my gut I couldn’t help but feel that way. Because your job as a parent is to protect your child. I think I have that motherly guilt at least as bad as everyone else does — maybe worse, because I kinda drag that around anyway. Well, here’s the thing: Nobody knows what causes autism and no one knows how to cure it. There are all these theories flying around out there about this, that and the other, about vaccinations or food or insecticide or pesticides or diesel fuel. I still, three years down the road, will wake up at three in the morning and go, “Oh God, it was that bus trip we took when he was 14 months old and he inhaled too many diesel fumes, or it was those un-organic strawberries I ate when I was pregnant.” I mean, your mind just goes where it goes. But do I intellectually think I had anything to do with it? No. Of course I don’t. Do I as a parent feel like I’d want to protect my child? Yes.
Weld: Have you had the misfortune of encountering people who don’t believe that autism is a real thing? Autism deniers, folks who don’t believe that autism is a real medical condition?
AM: Well, then they’re uneducated. There is a neurological difference, and that can be proven by looking at an MRI. Now, autism and ADD are not completely unrelated; sometimes ADD can mimic autism. What’s interesting to me is that it’s so much more prevalent in boys than girls. There are theories about that, too, but really, what we’ve got to figure out is how to get the car out of the ditch. It’s not so much how it got there. Let’s get it out. And we certainly don’t need people running around saying it’s not real because, trust me — if they came to my house they’d know it’s very real. When your child can’t talk to you, I’d say that’s a real condition.
John Henry is so, so bright, and, by the way, he’s wonderful and loving and connected. He’s in a great school and he’s getting what he needs, so he is progressing in every way. By the time he was a year old, he had a 10-word vocabulary, and by the time he was 16 months old, he had 35 or 40 words. Then he began to regress. So it’s not like he never spoke. I have heard him speak. I have heard my child’s voice. I’ve heard him say words. But I haven’t heard him say that many since he was just under two years old. He’ll pop out with the odd word here and there, but he’s not at a place where he has functional language.
As a parent it’s frustrating and it’s scary because he can’t tell me when he’s in pain. He can’t tell me when he wants something. We have ways of communicating and, trust me, he communicates, but it’s a slow process and a lot of it is a guessing game. You just have to pay really close attention, closer than you normally would
Weld: Coping with this would impinge on your day job, writing the songs for Warner-Chappell, would it not? What is your songwriting process like these days with the added pressures in your home life?
AM: You know, I get my day to work when he’s in school, and I take advantage of that time. I remember having this email exchange with [Grammy-winning record producer] Joe Henry right after John Henry was born, and I said finding the time to write with a baby is super difficult. He said your time just becomes more compressed. He said, “I made a whole album when my daughter was an infant and I was home for her.” What happens is you adapt, and you figure out how to get more work done in less time. It just sharpens you somehow.
I hear stories about when women become mothers they develop just one big mama brain cell. That did not happen to me at all. In fact, the opposite happened. I became more determined to maintain my work. I became more focused and just became sharper in my skills set because I guess I just knew that I had to.
Weld: In terms of time management, then, it was probably a good thing to have Kenny Greenberg come in to produce your album because he’s a master of making good things happen in a hurry in a studio. Did he play a big role in making these new songs come into focus?
AM: Oh, yes. You know, Kenny produced my first two albums, and the time just seems right for us to work together again. I’m so glad he was open to it. It just felt so good being in the studio making that specific sound that we make when we get together.
I think he noticed a change in me. He said, “You know, it’s not like you weren’t good before, but now you’re great. … It just seems like you’re saying this is who I am and this is what I think and you’re a full, whole person.”
I think a lot of it is attributable to having John Henry because not only did it sharpen my skills set, not only did it make me more determined to use my time wisely and make a more specific statement as an artist, it also made me more open and more feeling and more everything. I think parenthood does that to you. It opens you up to the world because you have to be. You just can’t be in your own little world and just paying attention to what you think and what you feel all of the time. It makes you much more empathetic, sympathetic, all those things.
Weld: Well, it must have been exciting to hear the songs evolve. I saw a clip of you singing “Down to Believing” during last year’s Americana Music Awards Week, and it was as though you were talking to yourself. When you hear the studio version on the new album, with you and Kenny and all those guitars, it’s polished up like an elegy in a churchyard.
AM: I love that track, and that song’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. I think it’s a pretty unique look at relationships and how they end, and what you kinda have to go through as an emotional process when you figure out it’s not going to work.
Weld: Do I hear a little of the influence of Leonard Cohen here and there throughout the album?
AM: I’m a huge Leonard Cohen fan, sure. That’s quite a compliment.
Weld: And another great writer, one you got to tour with a little bit recently around the Northeast, is Mary Gauthier.
AM: We just got done the other day and we had a ball.
Weld: What was it like playing these emotionally charged new songs in front of an audience?
AM: It was thrilling for me. It’s nice to see people react to those personal statements because what I’m trying to do is communicate with them.
First of all, I’m so happy to have the chance to go out and play any time that I can, and people really are reacting to the new songs. I think that’s attributable to the fact that I just gave it up. I have always written from a personal place, but I have not always given it up like I do on this record. To write a song like “Mama Let the Wolf In,” or “Gonna Get It Wrong,” or “Down to Believing” or “If I Were Stronger” — these are all statements of vulnerability. I think that that’s something I might have been a little reluctant to show before. You know, when you get cut off at the knees, in my case, I became more open. And, to quote Leonard Cohen, “The cracks are what let the light in.”
Weld: Do you worry, given the way the music business works these days, so different than when you got started, that people won’t be able to find your work out there?
AM: Oh, sure. There just aren’t as many outlets as there were, and you can’t just go to a store and buy it, that’s for sure. There are a few independent record stores left, but they’re few and far between. I know the label [Entertainment One Music] tries to get it into as many outlets as possible, and then there’s always Amazon and iTunes and those things, so I hope they find it.
Weld: You’re probably going to stay up in New York, because of the schools and that situation, but a lot of folks wish you’d make it back down South when you can.
AM: Gosh, I miss it so much, I really do. I like New York City, and I think it’s good for me right now, and it’s definitely great for John Henry, so we’ll be here for a while. But, as I always say, there’s not a whole lot of porch sittin’ going on here.