It’s great when opening acts, instead of merely warming the stage, serve notice they are headliners in the making. Alicia Wiley, opening at The Cabooze several years ago for Willie Walker and The Butanes, did just that.
Material from her debut album, Alicia, inventively jazz-tinged ballads, put one in mind of, say, the young Laura Nyro – stark with a sweet, avant garde edge. No wonder the disc won 2004 Minnesota Music Awards for Best Female Vocalist and for Best Self-Released Recording.
Since then, Wiley has established a strong presence, captivating nightclub crowds, following with 2005’s CD/DVD in your sight. And, these days, doing prestigious stints at Cue @ Guthrie (Oct. 6, 20, Nov. 2, 23) and legendary jazz venue The Dakota on Oct. 11 at 8PM for the release of her new, live recording, Changes. She spoke about her craft with Dwight Hobbes for Twin Cities Daily Planet.
DWIGHT HOBBES: How do you come up with your songs?
ALICIA WILEY: I carry a book of transcription paper around with me to write down ideas, usually melodies. I’m one of those people who wake up in the middle of the night with a tune in my head. I’ve learned to get up and write it down because if I don’t I WILL forget by the morning!
DH: The melody?
WILEY: The melody usually comes first for me and the chords, rhythmic ideas, lyrics flow from it.
DH: What about the lyrics?
WILEY: The lyrics are inspired by the mood and direction of the song. I have notebooks where I continually write down lyrics and ideas. When I’m working on a song I go to my notebooks and grab thoughts from it.
DH: What possessed you to become a professional composer-performer?
WILEY: Music became my main passion and focus very early on. It was the first thing I wanted to do when I woke up in the morning, and the last thing I absorbed before crashing at the end of the day. It still is.
DH: Training, influences?
WILEY: I studied classically with my aunt till I was about 13. I then went on to study jazz piano at MacPhail. The freedom of improvisation opened up a new world for me, and that is when I really began to grow into a better songwriter and musician. After high school I went to McNally Smith College of Music. Mike Elliot, Sue Tucker, and many other instructors there were extremely supportive of what I was doing and helped introduce me to the Minneapolis music scene. I listen to many styles of music. From Joni Mitchell to Radiohead to Feist to Led Zeppelin to Prince to Tom Waits to Jill Scott to Roy Hargrove. I love it all. Just today I picked up Estrella Morente-wow-incredible!
DH: How pleased are you with the new album?
WILEY: Very. There are new flavors on it which reflect the appreciation and influences I have from other styles of music. It is definitely different from anything I’ve ever done before. It is a live recording along with four studio tracks which are made up of solo guitar arrangements and vocals, and one with Rhodes and vocals.
DH: Why a live album?
WILEY: I wanted to capture the spontaneity and energy that you can only get from a live performance. My band, Kevin Washington, Andres Prado, Yohannes Tona, Peter Vircks, and Brandon Commodore, played beautifully that day. We recorded at the Phipps Theater and there was a small audience in the house. We had such a blast, it was a day I will never forget. When you listen to this CD you will feel like you are right there in the theater at the show. There is a very raw, intimate vibe to this recording.
DH: What’s next?
WILEY: I would love to get on the road. That is definitely on my checklist in the next couple of years. In the meantime I plan to keep playing hard and enjoy every moment of this journey to the fullest.