An exclusive chat with the acclaimed singer-songwriter and regular RNR Globe contributor about his new solo album, house concerts and more
The beautiful thing that makes the Rock & Roll Globe spin so seamlessly on its axis is that our contributors are not just incredibly knowledgeable and super fun to read, but a good amount of us are established musicians and recording artists in our own right, from the top on down.
And it is within that duality where Jim Allen exists. He is a scribe with a firm grasp on the way by which rock journalism should be conducted, but an incredibly versatile lyricist and composer as well. Not only does he look a little bit like Shel Silverstein, he also shares in the legendary cartoonist/performer’s knack for writing catchy, imaginative tunes that help us observe our lives with a little more color and clarity.
In addition to writing for the Globe as well as NPR, BandCamp, Billboard and other established outlets, Allen also leads a rock band called Lazy Lions and a really cool country group dubbed The Ramblin’ Kind. But in 2019, Jim is returning to his work as a solo artist with an excellent new album called Where The Sunshine Bit You. The 11-track LP was recorded live in the studio with a superior backing band featuring The Mekons’ Steve Goulding on drums and the great Joanna Sternberg on bass, and is available now via Hardcover Records.
I recently had the chance to ask Jim Allen five key questions about his craft. Here we go.
The album has been getting a great reaction. How’s it looking from your end?
Well, you have to take into account that it’s been 16 years since I last released a solo album, even though I’ve put out records with my band Lazy Lions in the interim. And to be frank, my last solo record didn’t exactly set the world ablaze, either. So considering that even the slim handful of people who might have been interested in my solo work tuned out long ago, combined with the fact that this was a strictly DIY project on every level, from distribution to promotion, not to mention that seemingly nobody buys albums anymore, well, I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. So let’s just say that my expectations were roughly equivalent to those of someone preparing to pole vault across the Grand Canyon. But this was really a labor of love anyway, I made the album because I felt like I needed to. All of that said, though I may not have made it to the other side of the canyon, it did turn out that more people were interested than I expected, which made me feel good, and a lot of those who were interested seemed to really love the record, which made me feel great.
As a writer, how do you empathize with artists who send you music to cover on the level your album was released?
I’ve been writing about other people’s music almost as long as I’ve been making my own, and I’m old enough for those to add up to a long time! So naturally I’ve always had a lot of empathy for artists like myself who are coming from the underground/DIY world. I feel like it was actually right around the time my first album, Weeper’s Stomp, came out, back in 1996, that things started to shift in the music world and the gradual process of independent artists gaining more equity with high-profile artists began to happen. So I think there are more possibilities for indie artists to make at least a little more headway on their own. Of course as a music journalist I always try to pay as much attention as I can to anything that’s interesting regardless of its place in the pecking order, and I know a lot of colleagues like yourself do the same. Personally I’ve found it really gratifying that some of the people who’ve already written about my new album have obviously taken the time to listen really closely and come up with some incisive observations about it. For instance, one writer, Mark Rifkin, nailed the fact that the song “Going Under” was inspired by Richard Thompson even though I didn’t consider it obvious and it was never mentioned in any press materials or anything. Little things like that mean a lot to me.
How did you first connect with your pal Steve Goulding from the Mekons and Joanna Sternberg as well?
I’ve been friends with Steve for about 20 years, ever since he first moved to New York and we were working at the same day job. He and Matt Applebaum, the guitarist on the album, both play with me in my other band, The Ramblin’ Kind, which is a country band that’s been going for something like 10 years now. Whereas Joanna Sternberg, who plays upright bass on the album, was somebody I heard randomly at a club a couple of years ago and was really impressed by. In fact, Joanna’s acoustic bass was one of the key elements I had in mind when I first started to envision the sound of the album. I wanted to go for something predominantly acoustic, which I think worked well with the fact that we were cutting the whole thing live in the studio. By the way, Joanna also happens to be a great singer/songwriter, with an excellent album out now on Conor Oberst’s label, Team Love. There are some songs on there that’ll tear your heart out.
What are your thoughts on the house concert circuit? Do you think that is the way to go for independently released artists?
Trying to find the right places to play is always tricky when you’re talking about singer/songwriter stuff, especially if you’re mostly performing solo. Because you immediately have to cross a lot of venues off your list, places where a band would work but are too noisy for quieter things. That’s how the term “listening room” developed, and there are some places like that, but they’re far from the majority. One of the great ones in my hometown of New York is The Treehouse at 2A in the East Village, run by Tom Clark, who is also a great musician. I did my album release show there, and that place is a model for how that kind of thing should work. But I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of house concerts — I’ve hardly ever done any, but I know lots of great artists from the famous to the obscure who have. I think it seems like a great option, and I’d love to try to get more into them, so if anybody out there hosts one, feel free to get in touch! Speaking of getting in touch, anybody who wants to can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and anybody who wants the album can get it at www.jimallen.bandcamp.com
VIDEO: Jim Allen “Wedding of The Dead” (lyric video)