Grey DeLisle - A remembrance of things past
Grey DeLisle has a dream: She is performing with Loretta Lynn when Wanda Jackson comes onto the stage. Somehow a plastic "Roy Rogers type guitar from the '50s" materializes in DeLisle's hands and her first thought is to find a marker so Jackson can autograph it. When she does, the ink won't stick to the plastic, and Grey becomes panicked. "I'm scrambling around everywhere, looking for a Sharpie," DeLisle says. "But all we can find is regular markers, and they won't write on the guitar." A week after awaking from this nightmare, DeLisle was asked to open for Wanda Jackson in Hollywood, and she's stoked. "I mean. I'm. Playing. With. Wanda Jackson!" DeLisle's voice is often filled with such emotion, even if she's not talking about two legends of country and rockabilly music. She chatters, rambles, goes off on tangents involving the evil of digitized music, drops in many references to the Carter Family, mentions her husband Murry Hammond (of the Old 97's) every other moment, and all the while manages not only to charm the interviewer, but to make him care more about music. She's one of those rare people who is incredibly positive, yet not at all annoying. On the contrary, her optimistic excitement is contagious. DeLisle is particularly excited about her new album, The Graceful Ghost, due out March 16 on Sugar Hill Records. The album is a collection of tender, bittersweet ballads that explore the arc of love, whether it is the first attraction pursued against a parents' will, separation caused by war and work, or even divorce. It's also a meditation on the past. "I wanted to evoke the atmosphere of pre-Civil War...to climb across all eras, be universal and relevant," she says. "There's something that happens when you hear that old-time music -- you feel like you're somehow remembering something you haven't experienced. There's a sense of...longing." The album begins with the sound of a music box being wound up, which instantly conjures up a sense of nostalgia, love, and heartbreak. "I wanted the listener to feel as if they had wandered into an antique shop, found a music box and opened it up to find personal little things that capture an entire life experience. All the jewels of a life." In fact, the first song is entitled "The Jewel Of Abilene", a song that sounds ancient despite its very modern conception. "I was shopping in this hippie health-food store and it just came to me," she says. "I finished it in the car." It's sung from the point of view of a man whose heart has been broken by the beauty -- "with a heart as black as coal" -- who haunts the streets of Abilene, Texas. It's appropriate that the album opens with a song set in Texas, because DeLisle feels a strong connection to the state. Though she was raised in San Diego, she says she was always reminded she was a Texan at heart. "And my family are not only Texans; we feel as if we're old-time Texans," she adds. "You know, from the Republic of Texas." DeLisle's mother was a divorced 19-year-old rock 'n' roller when Grey was born, and she "couldn't handle the responsibility of having a child that young," her daughter says. DeLisle was "pretty much" raised by her maternal grandmother, Eva Flores Ruth, a singer who performed with salsa legend Tito Puente. Her mother was still a strong presence, often taking her along to practice in her many rock bands. "If I was good while they practiced, they'd let me sing 'Delta Dawn'," DeLisle remembers. When Grey was 11, her mother was saved and joined the Pentecostal church, and Grey went back to live with her. "I wasn't allowed to wear pants or makeup; couldn't cut my hair," she says. Besides the recollection of demons being cast out in her living room, her most vivid memory concerns the burning of all her rock records. At the time, DeLisle was sure that this had ruined her life completely, but now she thinks it was a positive experience. "Basically, I was saved from the music of the '80s," she laughs. She was allowed to keep her country albums -- "despite the fact that they were full of adultery and drinking" -- and was also permitted to listen to her Beatles albums, which became a major influence on her own music. Her biggest influence, however, was classic country, including Marty Robbins and George Jones, who was her father's favorite singer. "I really owe my love for country to my father," she says. DeLisle saw her father every month and lived with him for a short time in El Paso, and he kept music on the stereo constantly. As a child, her father had a crystal radio set that would only pick up a local hillbilly music show. "He'd stay up way past bedtime with that thing to his ear and often fall asleep to it," DeLisle says. "I guess those songs just got into his brain somehow and got passed on to me." By the time DeLisle was 17, she had rebelled against the church. She left home and painted portraits in San Diego parks to survive while living "here and there." Despite her talent (one of her many paintings is the cover art for Jim Lauderdale's album The Hummingbirds), painting didn't supply a great income, so she moved to Los Angeles and took on jobs waiting tables, delivering singing telegrams, and cleaning houses, all to finance acting school. She was never unemployed: "Everyone in L.A. needs a cleaning lady," she says. "It's an epidemic." Through her struggles, her Pentecostal upbringing stuck with her. She has never so much as had a drink of alcohol or smoked a cigarette, and she says that to this day, "anyone would be hard-pressed to find a pair of pants in my closet. I love dresses, and still wear my hair long." She still respects the Pentecostal church but has now found a home in her local Christian church, which she cites as one of the "last bastions of old-time worship music in Los Angeles." However, she had spent much of her childhood nurturing her mother, who had had a drinking problem before joining the church; and once she was out of the house DeLisle realized she was attracted to the adrenaline that alcoholics and drug addicts supplied. "I had this need to take care of people, and I realized this was becoming a problem, so I had to get out of it," she says. She attended Al-Anon meetings to fight her addiction to enabling and nurturing alcoholics, and found some beautiful inspiration among the people at the meetings. "Nothing will inspire a country singer more than going to an AA meeting," she says. "People stand up and tell these stories, and they're just heartbreaking. "I think my strong faith makes me a better songwriter. I love story songs, and when you're writing about these characters, you can't be judgmental of them. I love songs that say, 'It doesn't matter where you've been or what you've done,' and I try to create songs like that, songs with characters who are vivid and real." DeLisle had been raised to sing. "When my family got together, we sat out on the porch and played music and sang," she recalls. "We'd sing whatever came to us, even if it was a TV jingle." An only child, she had also been in charge of amusing herself. "I performed in plays, did voices, wrote and recorded songs from a young age." She had also been exposed to the churning, passionate music of the Pentecostal church, often in her own living room. During a brief stint in stand-up comedy, a casting director told her that her humor was too corny for Los Angeles. She did, however, suggest that DeLisle try out for some voiceover work in cartoons and commercials, to take advantage of her talent for mimicking voices. Today, DeLisle is one of the industry's most in-demand voice talents, appearing on countless shows. She is most prominently featured on the PBS children's series "Clifford The Big Red Dog" (as Emily Elizabeth), Nickelodeon's "The Fairly Odd Parents" (as the evil babysitter Vicky), and the Cartoon Network's "What's New Scooby-Doo" (as Daphne). She also does lots of work in commercials (including ad campaigns for Levi's and Ford), and on videogames such as "Final Fantasy: X-2" and "Star Wars: Bounty Hunter." "It's the best job in the world," DeLisle says, particularly of the cartoon work: "There's nothing better than making little children smile." Her success in the field also allows her to make her own kind of music. "Let's face it: If I was waiting tables and had to deliver a hit record for a record label to deliver me from that, I'd end up making a crappy record," she says. "Since I don't have to rely solely on the money from the record label, it allows me to make music that's really good and genuine." Her roles in cartoons also take her to many schools, where she not only talks about the television shows but also introduces the children to her singing and autoharp. "The arts are being cut from so many schools," she says. "And this lets me introduce children to the power of music." Her first two self-released albums, The Small Time (2000) and Homewrecker (2002), received critical acclaim and earned her a following on the west coast. A third self-release, Bootlegger, Vol. 1, which DeLisle calls "a very rough live record," was released in 2003. Homewrecker received a glowing review in Billboard that caught the eye of Sugar Hill. "I always said I'd never sign with a record label, but when I met with the people at Sugar Hill, I knew it was the right place for me," DeLisle says. "During the making of the record, they respected me in all ways and gave me free reign to make the album I had envisioned." The resulting album takes DeLisle's music in a new direction. The Small Time was organic and traded genres on every other song, while Homewrecker "rocked out," as DeLisle puts it. By contrast, The Graceful Ghost plays like a finely constructed novel, full of stories and vivid characters. In a voice that is equal parts Kelly Willis, Tammy Wynette and Bobbie Gentry, DeLisle delivers twelve songs on an album that is held together by a love for mountain music, which is surprising since DeLisle was raised on the sunny California coast. However, she has been a lifelong fan of the Carter Family, and has always loved themes common to much mountain music: heartbreak, loss, and redemption. "I've never experienced living in Appalachia, of course, but there is a similarity to my own family's experience," she reasons. "Living in those mountains in the past was a hard life, and my own ancestors in Ireland and Mexico experienced that, too." DeLisle's father, who is Dutch-Irish, often sang old Irish ballads to her, and her maternal grandmother, who is Mexican, told her the many tales of poverty, despair, and ultimate beauty of her ancestors' lives in Mexico. "And there's that feeling of community you find in mountain music," she continues. "The old-fashioned values, the sense of togetherness. That's the way my family was. Plus, no other music honors the past like mountain music. It keeps stories alive down through the ages." DeLisle wanted the album to be "like a little snapshot of a time that's past. People still yearn for that," she says. "This record is sweet and innocent and moving, and I think people see that as an escape. It's something we all want." The Graceful Ghost covers the old-time landscape well, from the aforementioned devil-beauty of "The Jewel Of Abilene" to the ancient-sounding ballads "Katy Allen" and "Sawyer". There is the tender gospel hymn "Sweet Savior's Arms", which very much pacified DeLisle's mother, who thought her daughter "was going to hell for recording Homewrecker." DeLisle's mother loves the new album so much that she's asked for copies to give to everybody at her church. There's also the Johnny Cash beat of "Sharecroppin' Man", and the haunting, poetic "Walking In A Line", which she sees as an homage to Hank Williams' "Sweet Love Ain't Around". DeLisle's beloved Louvin Brothers would have been right at home singing "Tell Me True", while "Turtle Dove" is dedicated to A.P. Carter and is about "the way he longed for Sara after she left him," DeLisle says. "I had such a sad image of him, waiting for her to come back." All the songs were written by DeLisle except for "This White Circle On My Finger", originally recorded by Kitty Wells. DeLisle wrote "Black Haired Boy" for Hammond, who duets on the song with her. In fact, DeLisle's courtship with Hammond informs most of the songs, she says. "When you fall in love with a musician, you know that you're going to be separated a lot, but I really missed Murry when he was on the road." While missing her fiance, she went on a songwriting jag and called him up to sing the songs over the phone. "It sounds real girly to say this, but I'd write as many songs as I could so I'd have an excuse to call him. But the songs just kept coming, and they came really fast," she says. "I don't really have great stories to go along with a story's creation. I believe that there are all these little songs just swirling around in the air and they just come to you." Their relationship formed the theme of the album and is even reflected in its title. The Graceful Ghost is the name of a small steamboat in Texas that Hammond rented to take DeLisle out onto Cattle Lake, where he proposed to her. "He knew how much I loved John Hartford and steamboats," she says. The title also refers to photographs taken in the late 19th century, the period she wanted to conjure up on the album. "I had this book of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron," DeLisle explains. "She photographed women in the late 1800s, and back then, taking a picture took a long time. These women would move just the tiniest bit, creating all these little ghosts in the pictures, especially in their eyes." DeLisle kept the book open on a table while making the album, which was recorded in the living room of the home she shares with Hammond in Los Angeles. The album jacket's photographs were all taken with equipment from the period, and many songs were recorded with vintage gear. "No computers will ever be harmed in the making of a Grey DeLisle album," she quips. A self-proclaimed "analog snob," she equates Pro Tools to "other forms of horribleness." DeLisle feels that instruments such as the pedal harmonium from the 1800s used on "Katy Allen" support a vibe she was trying to create. On the lovely "Tell Me True", DeLisle wanted to incorporate a spoken excerpt from a Civil War letter, and found it in a very modern way: on the internet. However, she reads the poetic lines of the letter into a Rek-o-Cut recorder from the 1940s. "Using authentic equipment is just like having candles around while we're recording," she contends. "I believe these things create a vibe, and you can feel those candles and that equipment when you listen to the album. Some things are felt even when they're not heard. It creates a warmth and closeness that I can't really describe." Having grown up singing on front porches, DeLisle wanted the listener to feel as if they were eavesdropping on that kind of setting. "I'm not classically trained, that's for sure," she says. "And Marvin [Etizoni, who produced and plays mandolin, guitar, and other instruments on the album] learned how to play the guitar on his own front porch. We're playing out of a sheer love for music, and I think that comes through on the album. It's very pure. John Hartford said that style is based on limitations, and that's definitely true for me. I'm not a virtuoso, but I truly love music, and love making music." Capturing the warmth of the music was made easier by keeping the cast small. Only four people play on the album: DeLisle, Hammond, Etizoni, and standup bassist Sheldon Gomberg, who has also played with Ryan Adams and Five For Fighting. Etzioni, a founding member of influential 1980s roots-rock band Lone Justice, has produced all of DeLisle's albums, as well as records by Counting Crows, Toad The Wet Sprocket and others. "He understands a reference easily and has a wide palette of musical knowledge," DeLisle says of Etzioni, adding that she never considered using a different producer. "If you're making good things together, why move on?" Alongside the themes of her courtship with Hammond and meditations on the past, DeLisle also sees The Graceful Ghost as a tribute to artists she loves -- particularly Johnny and June Carter Cash, to whom the album is dedicated. "I felt scared to dedicate it to them. I thought, 'Is that presumptuous of me?'" she admits. "But in the end, I figured that was what was in my heart, so I'd just do it." DeLisle says that the two legends' spirits informed the writing and recording of the album, and she thought that it was suitable since she sees the album as a reflection of her relationship with Hammond. "I always respected June and Johnny's bond and marriage so much, like most people do." But she's been informed and inspired by the Carters and Cash most of her life. She admired June's ability to excel in music, acting and comedy. "I always wanted to act and sing and paint and do all these things, and people would say, 'Pick one thing and stick to that,' but I thought to myself that June Carter never had to do that," DeLisle says. "She inspired me to follow all the dreams I had been given." Sara and June Carter were two important figures in her decision to take up the autoharp, though she adds it was also because she found other instruments too frustrating and that she needed "something to bang out my songs on." Besides, she says, "the autoharp has such a beautiful, angelic tone to it. I love the way it sounds." When PBS was doing research on a Carter Family project, the filmmakers discovered DeLisle and invited her to be a part of the documentary, which is currently in production. DeLisle doesn't entertain any notion of becoming a superstar, but she does want her music to be heard. She turns pensive when considering all that she has going on: the voiceovers, her painting, her singing. "I think you can follow all your dreams, use all the talents the Lord blesses you with." DeLisle might want to be careful with what she dreams, since that Wanda Jackson one recently came very much to life. When Jackson heard about DeLisle's dream of the unsignable plastic guitar, she couldn't resist. During their Hollywood show, Jackson presented DeLisle with a small pink plastic guitar that was signed, "Grey -- Dreams Do Come True! Love, Wanda Jackson." DeLisle can barely contain her joy, laughing through her words: "I could've died with a smile on my face," she says. ND contributing editor Silas House was raised Pentecostal and is the author of three novels. His latest, The Coal Tattoo, will be released in fall 2004 and features a character whose favorite singer is Wanda Jackson.