Usually, the idiom “you were raised in a barn” is a negative, referring to one’s crude behaviour. In the case of Amy Helm, it’s apropos and positive. The singer-songwriter is the daughter of the late Levon Helm, drummer/vocalist for The Band, and singer Libby Titus. Helm grew up — and discovered her own expressive style — singing with her dad and his all-star Midnight Ramble house band in gigs at the famed studio/home in Woodstock, NY, affectionately known as The Barn, which Levon built back in the mid 1970s. Over the years, everyone from Steve Earle and Jackson Browne to Emmylou Harris and Mavis Staples have played this legendary venue.
Levon Helm Studios is situated on 18 acres in Woodstock, NY in the
heart of the Catskills and the Hudson Valley. Amy has made it part of her
musical mission to carry on her father’s legacy here.
“It’s really incredible,” says Helm. “The studio is not only alive and well, but blossoming. We have a whole new staff and we’ve worked hard to get the thing back up and running and be the landmark musical place that it is … we have bands every weekend. The room still holds a lot of that magic. There is a vibe there – you can feel it when you walk in.”
While Levon passed seven years ago, his spirit lives on in the Barn and in Amy’s songs. Helm, 48, has one of those voices that stop you in your tracks. You can feel the gravitas and emotion in each note she sings. Look no further than her most recent release (This Too Shall Light), released last fall on Yep Roc Records. The disc was tracked in just four days with three-time GRAMMY-winning producer Joe Henry (known for his work with artists like Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello). Everything was recorded live with no overdubs on the vocals to capture the raw beauty of Helm’s voice. Adding to the ambience, This Too Shall Lightwas captured at United Recording room in LA where The Beach Boys recorded Pet Soundsand The Mamas & The PapastrackedCalifornia Dreamin.
“I don’t think we did more than 2 or 3 takes of each song,” Helm recalls. “We kept everything in a live, in-the-moment context. Joe wanted to make the record that way. He even asked me not to practice the songs too much or sing them too many times before I got to the studio, so my vocal performances would hold an element of finding the song in the moment. That was the scariest part of the process.”
This Too Shall Lightfeatures several interpretations of other people’s songs such as Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind,” and “Michigan” by The Milk Carton Kids. One of the highlights is an old gem (“The Stones that I Throw,”) from The Hawks’ (pre The Band) days. Helm describes the tune as a “fun, up-tempo” number that perfectly suited the vibe of the record. Did the songwriter channel her dad and think of his spirit when recording that track? Apparently not.
“I was really thinking more about Richard Manuel and his vocals and the way he sings,” Helm concludes. “I feel he is one of the most underrated singers of his generation. There is such an intention and attack in the way he leans into his vocal performances and songs … I was trying to emulate that.”
On this mini Canadian tour, opening for Matt Anderson, that stops into Centre In The Square tomorrow, fellow musician Zach Djanikian joins Helm. The pair will perform as an acoustic duo.