Standout singer is much more than just a famous name
I woke up Amy Helm for our 2016 interview (she was in Nashville on Central time and had overslept), but she was a trouper and jumped right into conversation. She was gracious when I apologized for asking about her father so quickly in a story about her, explaining that she was proud of both of her parents and gave them credit for helping shape her career. “Didn’t It Rain,” her 2015 breakthrough album featured Levon’s final recordings. Her latest record, “This Too Shall Light,” will make my list of 2019’s best.
The daughter of Levon Helm, the iconic drummer and mandolin player in The Band, and songwriter Libby Titus (“Love Has No Pride”), Helm grew up with a front row seat to the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll generation. After her parents split, Titus lived with Dr. John and then married Donald Fagen of Steely Dan
Helm watched and listened closely.
“Certainly I had a colorful childhood. That’s the word I use a lot,” laughs Helm. “One thing that I was able to see was that when people lost their way – and I was raised around a lot of people who at times lost their way – music was still the constant.
“Music was something that kept people tethered to the ground. Music was what kept people from going too far away from the their jobs. That was something that had a big influence on me.”
Although Helm didn’t lack for teachers and supporters, the music business is a meritocracy and she worked hard to put her own stamp on that famous name. She spent more than a decade in Ollabelle, the eclectic collective that played everything from blues and bluegrass to soul and jazz. She was an integral part of her father’s Midnight Rambles at his barn in Woodstock, N.Y., that helped him bounce back from throat cancer and financial hardship to enjoy a second wave of critical acclaim before he died in 2012.
His death, however, was part of a series of life-changing events that led to “Didn’t It Rain.” Her father’s last recording session was playing drums on three tracks. He is listed as executive producer on the credits.
“So much happened in four years and so much changed in my life (that) I had to mark this kind of hurricane that I had walked through,” Helm says. “I went through a lot of things. The loss of my brother (writer Ezra Titus, to whom the album is dedicated), having (two) babies … having a marriage come apart. All that stuff, all the good stuff comes at once.”
Helm laughs ironically at “good stuff.” So some of the pain that led to “Didn’t It Rain” has dissipated. But the album, which features eight original songs by Helm and producer Byron Isaacs and four covers, including a marvelous version of Sam Cooke’s “Good News,” is short on lollipops and rainbows. The good news is Helm took the influences that surrounded her life and produced an album that is intensely personal, but yet sounds familiar.
“I spent four years making this record,” Helm says. “You get pushed into these challenges and you don’t realize that you’re jumping off the cliff. Doing the solo thing has been such an interesting change (from being part of a band) because it’s a completely different skill set, which I’m still learning. It requires a different intention, a different energy when you’re standing on the front of the stage (by yourself).
“But honestly, it’s been exhilarating and terrifying and great to challenge yourself. No matter the work we do, when you put yourself into something completely new, it’s been such a cool thing to try to do and learn that.”
“Didn’t It Rain” proves Helm learned her lessons well.
Amy Helm plays Dave Finkelman Auditorium on the Miami Middletown campus Nov. 9, 2019
Watch Amy Helm sing “Michigan”