|ISSUE 8.3||SUMMER 1998|
Music, mutts and the menstrual cycle
An interview with Amy Alwood -- songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist for The Velveteens.
This is the first in a series of band singer/songwriter interviews Cringe (err, Brad Liebling) has lined up. Brad liked the Velveteens' music so much that he recently started the Derailleur label with the Velveteens first release as the label's first project. The 6-song CD/EP has been recorded and is now awaiting final mixing and pressing. Oh, Brad likes ta take pictures too.
Cringe: You play a variety of roles in the band. Which do you think is your strong point?
Amy: I think that I can write songs, but I feel that my singing and guitar playing are mediocre at this point.
Cringe: What are you basing that on?
Amy: I don't have enough freedom to play the guitar. I can't just sit down and play the guitar for three hours like some people.
Cringe: Why's that?
Amy: I don't know. Every now and then I play the guitar for fun, but all of the other times, it's just like work. But I love it. I just don't have whatever it is that lets people sit down and play and have a good time- I just don't do that. And I don't try and force myself; I just have to wait until it comes out.
Cringe: So what is it which allows you to feel comfortable in saying that you are a good songwriter?
Amy: To me, the radio and MTV are pretty boring. [And by comparison,] I think that my music is original. I hope its original; [for] it 's definitely a goal of mine to make more original music without being full of self-pity and sensitive artist stuff.
Cringe: It's surprising to hear you say that you don't think of yourself as being a good singer.
Amy: Well, I've only been singing for two years, and I know that [my voice] is not as strong as it should be.
Cringe: Do you have a plan for trying to improve your vocal abilities?
Amy: I think just practicing. [Laughter.] I don't know; I've never done it before. I don't know if you're supposed to take lessons or what. I think just practicing [to get my lungs stronger] will be enough. Maybe I'll quit smoking- that certainly couldn't hurt.
Cringe: Is it easier for you to work on your singing than it is your guitar playing?
Amy: Yeah, it's a lot more fun to sing along to tapes and music that I like to listen to.
Cringe: Have you had any musical training or a particular mentor which you feel has significantly effected your growth as a musician or songwriter?
Amy: Well, I had five months of guitar lessons when I was eleven, but my teacher just fell asleep. We would put tapes on and try and learn them, and later he would ask me to show him what I'd learned. After playing for a while, I would look up and he would be asleep on his guitar. Basically, I did learn how to be able to learn how to play a song by listening to a tape. When I learned this, I figured that I didn't need a teacher anymore since I could just do it that way. [But] there have definitely been a lot of times when I have thought about taking lessons again because I don't know how to write down or read any of the music, and I don't know the names of any of the chords or anything about the guitar itself.
Cringe: Well, I guess that just goes to show how unimportant technical training can be. Your songs clearly blend a variety of musical styles. Where do you see their roots stretching from?
Amy: I really don't even know what my stuff sounds like, so when people ask me to describe it, I have to ask them to ask someone else; however, I did grow up with a wide range of music playing all of the time. My mom was always playing albums, but there weren't any in particular [that I would think of as being a major influence on me]. I just liked [those albums] that had songs that you couldn't get sick of.
Cringe: Once you had created a body of work, were you aware of how unique of a sound you had developed?
Amy: No, but I was hoping for that. The biggest compliment that someone could give me would be to say that my songs are original [in comparison] to regular rock songs. I'm not saying that I'm so awesome or anything, but I am hoping to be able to give people something different.
Cringe: So do you feel as if you have done that yet?
Amy: Yes, I do feel that my music is different.
Cringe: What took place which allowed you to come to this realization?
Amy: Probably other people telling me that [the music was unique]. I'm people-esteemed; I can't help it. I guess it's only because I go back and forth in my head [about the music]- one minute I hate it all and the next minute I love it. It's always been like that, so I have to get leveled out by asking other people what they think. Another thing though is that I feel that I don't have [enough songs to be able to judge anything by at this point].
Cringe: Well, it certainly seems that you have written a group of songs which you could look at and think that you had completed something significant and that you might now move into another stage in your writing.
Amy: I do feel that I am done with this section of [my writing]. There are twelve songs that I like a lot, and I do feel that it is [like] a finished painting or something. So I do feel that I have accomplished something; I'm just not sure what it is.
Cringe: Both your music and your lyrics are marked by their grittiness and sophistication. Is there anything you can point to as the foundation for these elements?
Amy: I think that comes from the way my life has been. In the last two years I've finally figured out how to live what I believe to be the right way. And I don't know if I am necessarily telling people how to do it in my lyrics or if I am just telling people what I do. I just know who I am, and that might be what comes across.
Cringe: You also have a consistently great ability to turn a really cool phrase within a line of lyric.
Amy: A lot of that comes from the lyrics that come randomly. A lot of times I'll just be writing, and I'll write something down, and I'll think that I might use that someday.
Cringe: Do you keep a journal?
Amy: [Heavy sarcasm] Yeah, I keep a journal- a little diary. "Dear Diary, I had a great day!"
[In a more serious tone] I think that a lot of the lyrics also come from not wanting to be some sappy poet talking about love. Not that love is stupid or anything, but it's not all good stuff.
Cringe: Really? Now there's a revelation. I guess you really do have something interesting to say.
Amy: Shut Up. [I want to express that feeling] happiness and contentment don't have to do with feeling good all of the time. It's about being able to have pain and being fine with that. And it's about being able to be happy and being fine with that too.
Cringe: Could you comment on the similarities and dissimilarities in your processes of writing music versus writing lyrics?
Amy: With the guitar, it's like once every month or two a song will come out of me -- and that's as far as the guitar goes with me. But I work on the words all of the time. I have always liked writing and playing around with words. [In fact], I have a song called "Alliteration" where that's all I do.
Cringe: So when you sit down to write on the guitar do you initially experiment or do you have a clear idea in mind of what you want to do?
Amy: I don't have an idea when it comes to the guitar; I just feel it, and I know it's time to play. I wish [that feeling] would happen more often, but it doesn't. [So I'm] bummed out the majority of the time about the guitar because it's not fun for me more frequently. But the words are something that I can put more of my own will into.
Cringe: When the music is happening for you, do the songs flow quickly?
Amy: Yes, it's like bam-bam. But then it's over for another month or so, and then I'm like [sarcastically] " This sucks! I'm never going to write another song." Somebody's teasing me; that's what it is.
Cringe: Your songs were first performed acoustically. Were you always desirous of having them performed in a full band setting?
Amy: Yeah, I always heard that in my head. But even now, I am still trying to be able to explain what I hear in my head to the rest of the band because I don't have the terms to use [yet]. But I am learning.
From back, left to right: Amy, Josh, Joe, Pat and Meagan
Amy: Josh knows a lot, but the others don't really have any [formal training].
Cringe: Do you think that is an aid or a hindrance to you?
Amy: I really don't think it matters. If I imitate the sounds that I want with my mouth, then they understand just fine. So I guess I don't need any big words or anything.
Cringe: As far as what you are hearing musically internally now, do you envision adding any new instruments to the sound anytime soon?
Amy: I've always wanted horns, but some people in the band are against that I think. With the recording though, we have been talking about using some different instruments like the violin. But I don't know how I feel about that. I don't want anything that's too fancy. I think that the more instruments there are the more confusing it gets for people to listen to. I'd just rather be more straightforward. [She flashes a key chain that says "Keep it simple".]
Cringe: Your band is preparing to go into Workbook Studio and record your material for the first time with a full band. What sort of expectations do you have?
Amy: I hope that everyone shows up. That's it really. I have never really been in this situation before. So I'm going into it not knowing what the hell is going to happen, but I hope that it is good. I don't know what's going to happen, so I might as well not worry about it. Right?
Cringe: Sure. That sounds fair enough. What type of role do you expect to play in the recording process?
Amy: Hopefully, I will just get ordered around. [Laughing.] That's the way I like it.
Cringe: That's the way you like it?
Amy: Yeah, hopefully whoever is recording will just order me around.
Cringe: What effect do you think that having two women in the band's forefront has had?
Amy: It's definitely helped since my sister is so pretty.
Cringe: And you're so homely.
Amy: No, I'm pretty too. [Laughter] I think that just having two girls who are fairly attractive in a band is good for business. I keep telling Meagan that it would help even more if she would wear skimpy outfits, but she won't do it.
Cringe: Are you willing to follow your own advice?
Amy: No. But I did say that I would play naked, but I don't think that I will. It would probably just distract people.
Cringe: I guess it would just depending on what you wanted them to focus on.
Amy: [Completely deadpan] I don't think it would help them to hear the music better.
Cringe: Have your listening tastes changed much throughout the years?
Amy: Not really. I usually like one band for a while, and then I don't like anyone. And I don't like any band right now. Right now I'm listening to the oldies station, and I really like that. It's just so simple and quirky.
Cringe: What was the first band that you can remember really being into?
Amy: Guns and Roses was my first favorite band.
Cringe: What was it that attracted you to them?
Amy: It was original and something that I had never seen before. Plus it was all of these wasteoid guys in tight pants -- that was a good thing. And I don't know why, but I was really attracted to that. After that, I was really into Jane's Addiction. I was really into the drug addicts; I thought that they were all so cool. After that it was Royal Trux. They weren't really, really good or anything, but it was something that I had never heard before. I'm ashamed to say it, but after that, I was into Nirvana.
Cringe: Why are you ashamed of that?
Amy: I don't know. I just am. But I did really like it, and I really liked the way he wrote songs. And then I really liked Beck. And that's about it as far as the main ones I got hooked on.
Cringe: My next question was going to be about what you are listening to now, but that's the oldies station, right?
Amy: Yeah, I also taped the Melvins off of my neighbors.
Cringe: Have you ever thought of playing or composing in a different musical genre?
Amy: Well, I just see myself playing the kind of music that I have been playing and whatever it is that it might become because it is not anything that I do on purpose. I just don't have any control over it. I could pick up the guitar one day and start playing a jazz song and then that would be what I was doing.
Cringe: Well, to wrap up in an overblown and contrived way, where would you like to be artistically in 5-10 years?
Amy: Hopefully I will have progressed musically, and I will feel a little freer on the guitar because I still feel that it's a chore and that it's hard to do. And someday I wish that I could make money making albums.
Cringe: What about touring?
Amy: Sure. As long as Buster can come.
Cringe: How do you think that you will feel about your musical career if those things don't happen?
Amy: I wouldn't be bummed out if I didn't make money playing music because it isn't an easy thing to do. Actually, I'm more sure that it is not going to happen than it is. But if I don't feel better about the guitar in general, then I will be bummed out because there are a lot of times when I just want to stop playing. So that might happen, but I doubt it. It just has to happen, I guess. It's like having my period. [Mutual laughter] I hate it, and I wish it would stop, but I have to have it.
Cringe: Interesting analogy. But what part of your musical process do you wish would stop happening?
Amy: Well, it's hard to play the guitar. It's a burden in a way. But in some ways it is really awesome. But I have no choice whether to play this music or to write these songs. I don't have a choice in that because it just happens to me. And then when it is not happening I am bummed out because I don't think that it is ever going to happen again. But then it does happen again.
Cringe: So you wish the cyclical, up and down nature of it would stop.
Amy: Yeah, because it is like one little up and a big long down and one little up and a big long down.
- Photos and text by Brad Liebling