No you’re not. You’re the beloved singer-songwriter and mod housewife. For her new album, time had arrived to tip her bonnet to the lifers—among which she finds herself, in 2018, part of the gang. And she never felt more inspired and invigorated than now. (Photo by Ted Barron. Rigby starts her tour this week and will be on tour now through the end of March, and then again during May and June. Dates and info HERE.)
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Amy Rigby wrote the title track to her latest album around four years ago, when she noticed that many of the mentors and sidemen and even fans who had supported her early on were starting to pass away.
“I don’t know if you read the Bruce Springsteen autobiography, but he talks about losing Clarence Clemons and about this bond that you have with people that you make music with. It is a spiritual thing,” says Rigby. “I felt really strongly, the loss of the first person who I recorded with who made me think that I was good. To just think that, wow, if all these people are gone, who’s going to tell me that? Will I still believe it?”
So in some ways The Old Guys is her tribute to the lifers, the grizzled veterans with their battered gear who load in week after week, year after year, in the service of the music they make. It’s a group that’s largely male, for whatever reasons, but one that Rigby feels a kinship with. Asked why there weren’t more “old girls,” she laughs. “I guess I’m the old girl.”
Amy Rigby has been making music since the 1980s, at first with Last Roundup and NYC urban folk heroes the Shams, and later, from the mid-1990s on, as a solo artist. Her landmark album, Diary of a Mod Housewife, won her Spin’s “Songwriter of the Year” title in 1996. Originally a CD-only release, it was reissued on vinyl last year to celebrate the album’s 20th anniversary. For the past decade, she has mostly been recording with her husband Wreckless Eric (Goulden), though. Her last solo album, Little Fugitive, came out a dozen years ago in 2005. (Find out more about Rigby at her official website and Facebook page.)
“It just took a while to get together,” Rigby admits when asked about the gap. “I didn’t want to repeat myself. Too much time had gone by and I’d gone too far in life to do a retread of something I’d already done.”
In the driver’s seat
Rigby worked with her husband Wreckless Eric, who played bass, electric guitar, and keyboards, on The Old Guys, as well as producing and engineering. The process, says Rigby, was both similar and different than on the joint albums. “We never actually wrote together,” she explains. “We both felt pretty strongly about the other’s writer’s voice in their songs and neither of us felt comfortable tampering with that. But at the same time, I guess we approached those more like we were in a band, and how would we play those live? It was more of a democratic kind of band type of thing.”
For the solo record, Rigby was in the driver’s seat. “I felt more that the responsibility all on me as far as going, well, like, what songs go together? What sort of statement do I want to make?” she says. “Not to say that it had to be a big concept album, but it does feel more like a personal statement. The only way that anyone will hear the record is if I’m going to go out and play. So what could I feel strongly enough that I could stand up by myself, not even with a band, and just get up and share with people?”
The album was mostly new material, but once she had her theme, Rigby found a few older songs that fit into its reminiscent vibe. One of these was “Bob,” which sketches an older fan, spotted at a show, excited to see her and then gone. Rigby had recorded the song on a tour-only CD more than a decade ago, but never felt it was finished. During The Old Guys sessions, she wrote a bridge for it. Artie Barbato wrote the trumpet solo which is now one of her favorite sounds on the album. “I love when the trumpet comes in in ‘Bob.’ That always kind of gets me, I guess because my mom just loved Herb Alpert records and Bert Bacharach records. It has a little bit of that feeling for me.”
Famous writers and anti-heroes
Other songs are contemporary, like the opening “From Philiproth at Gmail to Rzimmerman at AOL,” which imagines Philip Roth writing to Bob Dylan on the occasion of his Nobel Prize for Literature. Rigby wrote it at a songwriting camp she was teaching, when her fellow teacher assigned everyone in the class scenarios intended to provoke indignation.
“At first I thought, oh my god, how am I going to do this? Can’t you give me the one about the neighbor who’s like, stop parking your car in my space?” Rigby laughs. “But it gave me this little power jolt to get to pretend I was this mighty author.”
Rigby had sympathy for both viewpoints. She’s been writing prose as long as she’s been writing songs and keeps a very literate and interesting blog at https://diaryofamyrigby.wordpress.com/. But she’s also a Dylan fan, well acquainted with the satisfaction of performing, rather than publishing, written work.
“So I was thinking about Dylan and thinking about this serious writer, Philip Roth, but I was also thinking about myself and that gratification of getting up on stage and just how lonely actually writing words, just one word after another is,” she says. “It seems more pure somehow than getting up in front of people to play a song where the music part’s doing half the work for you anyway.”
“New Sheriff” is another song with very contemporary references, which reveal a taste for high end television — and revenge. “In my mind, I’m Knucky Thompson/In my mind, I’m Tony Soprano/In my mind, I’m Walter White,” sings Rigby, who is probably not very much like any of these people. “I guess that it felt good to be able to picture myself as any of those people — just like if I could only not be a meek little mouse,” she says. “But having watched all of those episodes of those shows fairly recently, they do start to creep into your consciousness and your subconscious. You feel like you’re in the show.”
Rigby admits that it’s surprisingly satisfying to let loose in the song, “just imagining myself just going in with a blowtorch” but, she adds, “at the same time, I felt like, it wouldn’t be honest not to pull back at the end and say it was really just a fantasy.”
Folk music on Mars
Rigby’s music took shape in the home studio she shares with Wreckless Eric, with her husband on bass, plus three drummers — Doug Wygal (of the late, great Individuals and other outfits), who played on Diary of a Mod Housewife, Jeremy Grites, who has played with Wreckless Eric, and Greg Roberson of the Reigning Sound and Tiger High—and Rigby herself on acoustic and electric six-string guitars, organ, piano, and a Danelectro 12-string electric guitar. (Brian Dewan played synthesizers on a few tracks as well.) That guitar, a present from her husband, has changed her sound. “I’ve played guitar for years but I’ve never considered myself an electric guitarist, even though I like to be plugged in and playing an electric guitar,” she says. “But the electric 12-string, I just feel like it expresses something.”
“Danelectro guitars are always kind of copies of what they were in the 1960s, these quirky 1960s guitars,” she says. “But there was that very brief period of Danelectro 12-strings that sound really great. They’re really inexpensive but whatever pick-ups they used…they just sound really good. It just adds another tone to everything. It has this majesty to it. One strum on a 12-string, you don’t really have to do much more for another two bars.”
“The word people usually use is ‘chiming,’” she adds. “If you grew up in the 1960s, hearing pop radio, and the sound of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ by the Byrds through a transistor radio, there’s just something about it. It is like kind of from outer space. It sounded like English folk music bounced off another planet.”
Amy Rigby is heading out on the road with her new album this spring, navigating a physical and digital environment that has changed dramatically since her last solo record. “The last time I put out a solo album, there was no Facebook, and there was no Twitter. It’s not just like ‘Oh, it would be good to do that.’ It’s like you are kind of obligated to create events for everything and tell everybody and keep telling everybody and all of that. It feels like it’s a lot,” says Rigby.
She’s also hitting the circuit as that rarest of phenomena, the older woman artist. As an artist who has always admired the “old guys,” Rigby now finds herself in a similar, but lonelier position. “I guess I am the old girl,” she says.
“I remember people used to always say, and this was when I was in my late 30s, and people would say, ‘But Bonnie Raitt…’ And then, there’s Joan Jett. But she’s almost more like a caricature,” she muses, looking for peers with grey in their hair. “Honestly, though, if I was an academic I would love to go and figure out, do a study of what happens to women in that wilderness years of going through menopause. I mean I know it’s not a topic that anyone even wants to hear about or talk about and certainly it’s not related to music. But I think it would be so interesting to know…”
It’s a touchy topic, she recognizes. At a Planned Parenthood benefit late last year, she let it slip, while speaking, that she doesn’t need birth control any more (though her daughter does). “And a woman’s voice said, ‘TMI.’ And it was like…it’s Planned Parenthood! I don’t think it’s TMI. I think it’s kind of obvious,” she says.
“So is it really so gross that you can’t dare saying something up there that’s so obvious?” she asks. “But I do wonder how it affects writers and artists and musicians to go through this period of, you know, like, it’s a complete change of everything you ever thought about. I know it affects everybody differently but I think it’s got to have some kind of effect on how you perceive and can you continue and what are you interested in after you go through this transition.”
“It’s uncharted territory,” she says.