Amy Rigby - Mod, but not Squad
Judging from the acts she has shared a stage with, you'd think Amy Rigby might have come straight out of the Nashville songwriter scene. She has opened for Bill Monroe, Dwight Yoakam and James McMurtry, and has been a guest on Ernest Tubb's Midnight Jamboree. She loves Merle Haggard and named her seven-year-old daughter after Hazel Dickens, the Appalachian folk singer from West Virginia "who has never been into any kind of glamour...a great singer and a real uncompromising artist."
Contrary to her allegiances, Rigby doesn't often get to Nashville. Instead, she spends most of her time in Brooklyn, where she daily confronts the suit and tie people and writes songs riding the subway to work. She calls the result, her solo debut, Diary of a Mod Housewife. Rigby has described herself as a woman "stuck in the netherworld between bohemia and suburbia, between set lists and shopping lists." She's been living there for a while now, as leader of The Shams (an early Matador act; they released two records) and Last Roundup (who put out one LP on Rounder).
"I wouldn't call myself an uncompromising artist; I'd let somebody else put an adjective there," Rigby says with a laugh. "But I do call myself an artist, that's as far as I go. It's taken me a couple years of therapy to be able to do that. And it's still hard to remind myself everyday that it's OK not to make money doing what I do."
The world Rigby haunts by day, where success is defined by the almighty dollar, provides the theme for some of her songs. She works temp jobs to keep her songwriting honest, albeit a little bitter. Nevertheless, Rigby says she would prefer not to have a fancy lifestyle if it meant losing her ability to identify with the ups and downs of average people.
On Rigby's new album, there are a few odes to daily struggles and quite a few more straight-up stories about love and other troubles. "When I write a song, I bleed, I laugh, and I cry, because when I write, I feel," she says. "If I felt like I was helping other people to put a finger on what they were feeling, that would thrill me."
Rigby's elastic songwriting and singing style conjures up the Bangles on songs such as "The Good Girls" and Michelle Shocked on "20 Questions". The latter is a rocking tune supported by a couple well-known players in these parts: drummer Don Heffington and pedal steel player Greg Liesz. You also might recognize the name of producer Elliot Easton, best-knowns as a guitarist for The Cars. In addition to producing, Easton played guitar and bass and sang harmonies on Mod Housewife.
"Elliot Easton might not be the most obvious person for me to work with; certainly people in New York were surprised," she says. "But something about it just tickled me. I know what I can do, so that's why I would rather work with someone unlike me, coming from a different world and yet coming from the same musical background. I knew Elliot loved the same kind of records as me: Merle Haggard, old country stuff, the California pop music of the '60s, Beach Boys, the Turtles, car radio music, great pop music.
"When we were recording in L.A., I looked at Elliot and Don Heffington just playing and concentrating, and I thought, 'They're actually taking it seriously. They're getting something out of this too!' I tell you, it's taken me so many years to realize the musicians were getting something out of it too."