By Brendan Morley
CALGARY – Music has always been a part of life for Amy Helm. In fact, it runs deep in her blood. Growing up as the daughter of acclaimed singer/songwriter Libby Titus and legendary rock and roll pioneer Levon Helm, a career in music might seem like an inescapable fate. Yet for Helm the decision to follow on this path was not always obvious.
“I’m not sure that I had a vision of a career in music.” Helm tells BeatRoute,
“I just enjoyed singing. So that’s what I always gravitated towards. Then at some point in my late 20’s I think that I really decided that this was a better career than waitressing. And the money wasn’t that much better, but certainly the reward was, and the heart and spirit was much stronger, so I jumped in.”
For nearly 20 years the singer and multi-instrumentalist has been sharpening her skills and honing her sound as a key player in several groups, including the celebrated alt-country outfit Ollabelle and in the Grammy-winning band led by her late father, Levon Helm of The Band fame. So when Amy Helm finally stepped into the spotlight as a solo artist with the release of her debut album Didn’t It Rain (2015), she was already well equipped.
“It was a huge transition. It’s one that I’m still discovering,” Helm modestly admits about the shift to bandleader.
“As I watch others who’ve done it much longer than I have, and who do it much stronger than I do, I realize that you could spend a lifetime crafting it.”
This deep respect and gratitude for older gospel, blues, and folk artists (particularly strong women), is prominently displayed on Helm’s record. The album’s title track, a soulful rendition of the classic gospel hymn, is a nod to Mahalia Jackson; an artist that Amy confesses she once went months listening to exclusively. The gospel spirit that resonates on the album has been with Amy since she was a child.
“My grandmother, when I was a kid, would sing those songs to me. In church, it is stuff that I would hear. Then when I was in my 20’s, I was just so drawn to singing it.”
Since the album’s release, Helm and her backing band the Handsome Strangers, have toured extensively, most recently playing a string of shows with Elvis Costello. In the true spirit of the gospel music she was raised on, Amy’s live performances aim to create a powerful and emotional atmosphere rooted in community and love.
“I try to keep politics off the stage because I think that going to hear music is a relief for people. Especially when there is a political climate as fraught as it is now in the States. But, I also believe that when you have an administration that is silently and now actively allowing white supremacy to be alive and vibrant in the United States, you have to do something because people need to be reminded that we’ve got to come together.”
Helm is currently finishing up a brand new album, tentatively slated for release in early 2018, with Grammy award winning producer Joe Henry.
“It’s not even 12 hours old!” says Helm excitedly from a Los Angeles studio.
“We did four days of tracking and today I go in and do a little editing and that’s about it! It feels strong.”
With lots of voices and instruments filling the room in a live off-the-floor approach, Amy Helm’s new album is aiming to capture the togetherness and community of her spirited live shows.
Amy Helm performs September 17 at the WISE Hall (Vancouver), September 20 at the Hume Hotel (Nelson), September 21 at Festival Hall (Calgary), and September 22 at the New Moon Folk Club (Edmonton).Amy Helm, Festival Hall, Hume Hotel, New Moon Folk Club, Wise Hall