Through the past, darkly with Alison Pipitone - INTERVIEW
blog by Ben Kirst • August 09, 2013 @ 7:00am
The song ‘Oh, Georgina’ on The Alison Pipitone Band’s excellent new album, Big Wide World, is an upbeat homage to Buffalo singer-songwriter Alison Pipitone’s one year-old niece. It’s a bright little rocker that playfully takes note of the child’s Western New York and Central American roots and advises the youngster to enjoy her opportunity to take life easy.
Then comes the title track. ‘Big Wide World,’ one of 10 songs from the band’s first new album in three years, washes away the buoyant optimism of ‘Oh, Georgina’ in a wave of golden-era country and weary cynicism.
If you seek fortune, if you seek fame
Don’t hang your hat on the dollar and the game
Lonely at the top, that’s for sure
But at the bottom, you’re lonely and you’re poor.
“Two kinds of time,” Pipitone intones, “Some for wasting, some to save / Such a quick trip from the cradle to the grave.” The juxtaposition between bleak honesty and the sunnier tones of ‘Oh, Georgina’ is a little jarring.
Alison Pipitone—slated to perform with her band at the Buffalo Air Band Championships at 5 p.m. on Saturday at Larkin Square (745 Seneca St., Buffalo)—has been a fixture on the local music scene for nearly two decades, and there are moments on Big Wide World, her ninth album, that catch her staring hard enough into the mirror to see the abyss. These moments make Big Wide World an exceedingly brave record—the acknowledgement of lost love and betrayals, the recognition that friendships and dreams can slip away with time. While Pipitone’s indie-blues and alt-country blend is often vibrant and upbeat, she has no time for dewy lyrical gloss: break-ups hurt, parties get old and it’s no fun to be broke.
“I’ve had to redefine success,” Pipitone said in a recent interview. “I’ve had to make a new relationship with it, and I think anybody, no matter what they do, whether they’re successful or not, or rich or not, as they get into different decades of their life—if they’re living a self-examined life—then they go through all of these same things. It doesn’t really matter what the background is. The experience, I think,is the same for a lot of people. I think I’m just rolling with the changes as they keep coming…
“And luckily,” she added, “the old thing that we songwriters can always fall back on is our love life.”
To spend nearly 20 years as a working musician in a blue-collar drinking towns means you have to know how to keep crowds happy, whether the gig is a Southtowns bar on a Saturday night, a dive in the heart of Allentown or a sun-drenched stage at The Taste of Buffalo. Pipitone’s sound—a rollicking hybrid of alt-rock and boogie blues with forays into classic country and Americana folk—is in fine form on Big Wide World. Pipitone and her longtime collaborators, guitarist Graham Howes, bassist Ben Clarke (who recently left the band) and drummer Patrick Shaughnessy, crunch through sure-to-be-barroom favorites like ‘Mat Tress Secrets’ and ‘There Are Drunks On My Lawn,’ tighten up for rockers ‘That Was The Place’ and ‘Twelve Twenty Seven,’ and take country / bluegrass-inspired spins through ‘Swoop, Daddy-O,’ ‘Nothing Like Him’ and ‘I’m Not Sorry.’
Pipitone’s sister-in-law, Natalie Howes, added backing vocals and Sheila Connors contributed vocals, Cajun rubboard and accordion. A bevy of familiar female musicians from the Western New York area, including Holly Christiano (guitar), Liz Holland (percussion), Theresa Quinn (keyboard), Mary Ramsey (violin), Susan Rozler (harmonica, percussion) and Pamela Ryder (vocals, ukelele) also make guest appearances, as do guitarist Michael Skowronski and new Alison Pipitone Band bassist Eric Vickerd.
“I can actually say I like every single song on this record, which is such a relief,” Pipitone said. “(And) it’s just an awesome band. Awesome band. The core group has been around for eight, nine years and it feels so good, it really does. We, I can honestly say, have never had a falling out or the drama—I think we all have a similar work ethic and a similar view of what it’s like to be a working band. That’s sort of why it works. And for my part, if I understand one thing, it’s that everybody has lives, everybody in the band has an awesome family, and I think that’s one thing that takes precedence—and it should take precedence—over some decisions we make about the music.”
Pipitone is a Hamburg native who spent her teenage years bouncing between Western New York and Southern California. Inspired by a musical collage of The Clash, Etta James and Dolly Parton (“all of my friends were listening to REO Speedwagon and Supertramp, and I was listening to ‘9 to 5’) and her own self-described “lack of inhibition,” Pipitone began playing guitar at the age of 18.
Her first solo record, Life in the First Person, was released in 1995 and inspired this breathless review from California writer Jim Trageser:
Alison Pipitone writes songs with a wisdom we tend to associate with longevity. Listen to her opening words (I’m calm and collected/hurtful and neglected/bankrupt and idle/well, I don’t try sometimes) and you’d not guess this is the debut recording of a woman in her mid-20s.
Unlike so much of what passes as socially aware or protest music these days, Pipitone is able to point out both society’s hypocrisies and our own innate ability to lie and blame our own failings on anything but ourselves. Liberal idealism matched with a call to personal responsibility? Hell, if she ever wants to lay down her guitar she can run for office and give the Demopublicans a lesson a true reform.
But we digress. Pipitone’s music is what gives her lyrics their power. Hard-edged and contemporary, her music is along the lines of Sheryl Crow or Joan Osborne. Like Crow, Pipitone’s rough, nasal vocals are half-sung, half-spoken. And she also plays some mean guitar.
Over the next 18 years, Pipitone would travel the country with various incarnation of her band. “We’ve toured everywhere in the U.S. except for the Deep South and the Northwest,” she said. “Portland, Seattle, I’ve never played up there, but besides that, we’ve played pretty much everywhere else.” She also became a fixture in local music calendars, clubs and events—Alison Pipitone would regularly pop up on Thursday at the Square bills, Buffalo Sabres parties and seemingly every bar with a stage in the 716 area code. With time and sweat, she built a loyal regional fanbase.
“That is just dumb luck, I swear,” Pipitone said. “We really sometimes say, how in the world do we still get people who want to pay to come to our shows? I think the only thing is, we try to keep being good. We used to call ourselves ‘fan farmers,’ because you have a new crop of fans every couple years or so. We’ll see some people coming to every single show for, like, a year, and then they’ll kind of drop out and new people will come into play…I think we just have a niche that the people who run bars want our kind of music, they’re still in business, and they know what they’re going to get when they call us. People who come to see us know what they’re going to get when they come to see us. So that may explain some of the longevity, but really, it’s just luck.”
Big Wide World was funded by a successful 30-day Kickstarter campaign launched late last winter. Pipitone was able to raise over $14,000, handily reaching the established goal of $12,500. The support of her fans—some from as far away as The Netherlands and Belgium—was admittedly gratifying for her.
“This is our ninth CD and this is the first one that was ever paid for when it came out of the box, you know what I mean?” Pipitone said. “The process was really stressful only because of my own perception. That’s the only reason. Honestly, I put myself forward and I said OK, here we go, we’re going to do it, but what if it doesn’t work? I know nobody would have cared that much if it didn’t happen, but I know for me, personally, it would have been tough to justify that in my head. You sort of put yourself out there and you say hey, guys, you say you like us, do you?”
Pipitone plans to continue promoting the new record for the next year, using the leftover Kickstarter cash to help get the word out. While she talked about novelists and actresses who didn’t get their big break until their late 30s or early 40s, Pipitone does not seem like she’s making plans to stand at the dock, waiting for the ship to come in that will make her a household name. Age and experience may temper expectations, but they can also breed confidence.
“I’ve had to take a lot of different looks at why I do this,” Pipitone said. “It’s kind of a humbling experience, but it’s also kind of a fulfilling experience, too. I don’t care, outside of me and my band, what people think of my music. I mean, I am happy that people like it. But I spent so many years trying to prove that I was good, and that our band was good, and that we were as good as everybody else. That doesn’t even cross my radar anymore, which is very freeing.”
So she’ll keep playing. And when you open Artvoice, or Gusto, or Nightlife, or just about any publication in Western New York at one point or another over the course of the next year or so, you’ll probably find an Alison Pipitone show. And if you go, you’ll have a few beers, nod your head in appreciation and do your part to keep one of the scene’s stalwarts in business.
And if you buy Big Wide World, maybe you’ll listen to it in your car when you’re driving alone. And maybe some of her observations will hit you right between the eyes, and you’ll be sad for the dreams you lost, but happy that someone else gets it.
And when you get home, if you pick up the paper or click through Facebook long enough, you’ll probably find another Alison Pipitone gig to go see.
“I love music,” Pipitone said in the beginning of her Kickstarter video. “I feel like it’s the one thing in my life that has never let me down.”