From The Cedar Box
Allysen Callery - Winter Island
Written by Marissa Nadler
In the spirit of winter, I’d like to write about one of most unique songwriters that I know, and her new album Winter Island. It’s a coincidence that both musicians showcased thus far in From The Cedar Box have been from Rhode Island. Next month, we will be leaving the Ocean State, but Winter Island is a record that must be heard before the crocuses poke their heads up for the springtime.
Winter Island is a record that could proudly sit tall next to Sibylle Baier’s Colour Green and Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room. It's impossibly delicate, gorgeously written, and emanates a timeless quality. Callery’s nylon string guitar playing is beautiful, and her voice is indelibly in service of telling each song's particular story. It’s refreshing to hear such an unpretentious vocal delivery and such carefully honed lyrics.
I sat down next to Allysen to conduct my first proper interview about the content and impetus for her songs. I learned, in this interview, that “to die” meant to “orgasm” in Victorian times, according to Allysen. (see further research in interview section).This gives my first three records an entirely different meaning, and now I am looking for codes in all of her songs.
M- In the last song on Winter Island, the wonderfully titled song "Muse Me,"
you wrote that it is "your take on Perseus and Medusa as told by the dutiful daughter Andromeda." What is it in this myth that appeals to you? Do you see people in your life as fitting into these archetypes? You are Andromeda in this song, right? I ask because you sing these words in a way that hits very close to home and I wonder what the inspiration was behind it.
A- One of the things we did as a child was to visit the RISD museum a lot.
There was a fantastic painting of Andromeda on the rocks. It fascinated & repulsed me. I was Andromeda in my 1st (14 year) marriage. At 23 I'd dutifully married someone who later I felt chained me, but instead of freeing myself, I waited for someone to rescue me. That of course, doesn't work in the real world. I did eventually rescue myself~ & I am now happily married to my second husband. My joke was that Andromeda doesn't outright complain about her predicament- naked & chained to a rock to be eaten by a monster- she just says she's "all right" but her eyes burn from searching the horizon for her savior.
M- You make no secret of the fact that you have some serious life experience under your belt. You are a beautiful woman, with a full grown daughter. I really respect that fact that you are able to not only be a great mother but also continue to set a good example for her by following your dreams as a musician. You even toured Europe for the first time last year. I find your story really inspiring, because it breaks down a lot of the misconceptions and stereotypes about being a musician.
In the song "One Eyed Cat," It seems you are talking about growing older. The lyrics are simple and there is a certain amount of acceptance. Do you think that, over the years, you have achieved the "power of now.” I know that songwriting can be a meditation. Do you see this song as a statement on contentment and acceptance?
A- In many ways I am very content. I love my life, & I was so proud of myself last year for achieving my dream of working with a little label, & touring Europe- it was incredible! My only child is now 17 & about to leave home for college- so this is an interesting, bittersweet time for me. That song is about putting dreams on hold because someone has got to stay home & feed the cats, you know? Someone has to comfort an old friend. Pay the mortgage. These things will always be more important to me than touring, though I dream of touring, & long for it.
M- Are you being literal in "Favorite Son" when you write, "I watched you die, all night long." What inspired this song? Is this a love song?
A-It is in part a love song, inspired by my blond husband's tan hands ~ though in the song I made the character into a kind of stalker. To 'die', in the Victorian sense, was to orgasm...the little death. Sex with someone who wouldn't acknowledge her in the daytime.
M- I did a little research and sure enough, the concept that orgasms could cause death was prevalent in Victorian times. This explanation is from the Oxford Companion To The Body. “The nineteenth century saw much bile spilled over the concern that people were excessively spending their energies on sexual gratification. Many Victorian physicians, enamored of a conservation-of-energy approach to physiology, warned that frequent orgasms would only drain the life from the body and leave the other systems wanting. (A far less happy sex-and-death link.) This essentially constituted a new version of the old bodily-economy trope. Inventors designed devices to discourage erections (these tended to involve sharply-barbed clamps), and many physicians recommended clitorectomies for ‘hysterical’ women, particularly those who enjoyed too much sex or sex with other women. Even well into this century, versions of this dire belief — that one's bodily supply of energy could be squandered by sexual emissions — hung on. Most male athletes are familiar with the aphorism which prohibits ‘spending’ oneself before a match.”
M- What would you like to tell the readers of WLFY about Steeleye Span?
A- I grew up listening to the albums my pretty cool parents had ~ we didn't get new records very often. Steeleye Span's "Now We Are Six" & "Parcel of Rogues" were on heavy rotation. I loved Maddie Pryor's amazing strength & range. I am a huge fan, & got to see them two years ago for my birthday~ one of my top concerts, ever.
M- I think you may remember this. When I first heard you named your song "Snow Pony" I couldn't help but envision a coked out horse. Anyway, that was before I heard how gorgeous this song was.
We have both lived in the icy winters of New England all of lives. I chose to write about your record, Winter Island, now rather than in a few months. I think it is a quintessential winter album. “Snow Pony” is a winter song, if a song could ever be specific to one season. What inspired this song?
A- I love the books by the author Tove Jansson, especially her Moomin series. The Snow Pony is taken from a story in Moominland Midwinter, when the “Lady of the Cold” comes. I am pretty much just singing my take on what happened. These books are written for children, but I love fairy tales & all ages can enjoy these books. I highly recommend them to anyone, especially people in the US who may not be familiar with her amazing work. ( Hobgoblin's Hat was another song taken from her stories.)
M- "Winter Island" is my favorite track on this record. I find your guitar playing, throughout the entire album, to be stunning. The amount of restraint, taste, and delicacy you use in your music creates stunning and refined works of art. Your playing reminds me of Nick Drake sometimes. Do you ever find it frustrating that the guitar playing of women is not often touched upon unless it is of the “in your face shredding” variety?
A- Thank you so much! I kind of feel like a voice is something that you are gifted with, I didn't work hard for this voice~ my mother gave it to me.
But in the guitar playing, I did work hard to develop a style that I feel is all my own. I don't think anyone else uses my picking patterns, most of that came from being so completely isolated for a very long time.
M - When I put on the album Winter Island I feel like reality drifts away from me. I feel like I am free and floating in a haze of nylon strings and whispered lyrics. Do you intentionally set out to make healing music, or does it heal you to write it?
A- It heals me, most definitely. I think I am a gentle person, but my insides are often roiled up & troubled, music helps me to clarify my feelings & distill them into poetic words. I need to write, sometimes it's like a pressure cooker. If I can help heal or soothe others, that would make me incredibly happy.
Bio: "Allysen Callery (September 25, 1967) is a musician from Bristol, Rhode Island. After years of obscure & solitary music pursuits, she was helped by many friends to self- release two cds, Hopey (2007) & Hobgoblin’s Hat (2010). In May 2011 she released "Winter Island", on the tiny Berlin based label Woodland Recordings, http://www.woodlandrecordings.com, touring Germany & Switzerland in it's support."