The singer explains the songs that define her musical universe, her issue with R.E.M., and what musical disagreement ended one relationship before it started.
I'm always struck by how expressive Alexandra Scott's voice can be. In measured, conversational ways, she moves convincingly through the full range of complex emotions and modes of expression we employ daily if not hourly. There's nothing theatrical in her singing, but her sadness sounds earned, her joy is felt, her heartbreak is painful, and much of it is modulated by humor--gallows, antic, or otherwise. When a song focuses on a single, simple emotion, that's telling.
I told the story of Scott's most recent album, I Love You So Much Always, in The New Orleans Advocate. It's a story of loss and coping, though the album rarely feels like that. She'll perform Saturday at the French Quarter Fest at the BMI Songwriter Stage at the Historic New Orleans Collection at 1:30 p.m.
The breadth of her musical interests prompted me to ask her to be a part of out "Milky Way" series, in which musicians identify the eight--not nine, since Pluto was de-planetized--songs that map her musical universe. Here are her choices and rationales.
1. "Kiss Me On The Bus" - The Replacements: They will always & forever be my favorite band. Picking just one Mats song has actually turned out to be upsetting to my tender heart & I’d like to say how much I love "Within Your Reach" & "Answering Machine" & "Left of the Dial" and and and--so many more. I actually don’t remember how I found The Replacements, but Tim must have been about four years old when I brought it home. I worked backwards from there through their catalogue, but it was where I began.
I have a capacity to play one song over & over & over that has driven many a roommate insane, & I did that with "Kiss Me On The Bus." It was loud & fast & sexy & sweet & I’m still mad at the waiter at the House of Blues who made me miss it when I went to see Paul Westerberg by taking his sweet time with our check. We walked into the room just as the song ended & I almost cried. They’re not a perfect band and I don’t want them to be. But they get me in the chest & the gut & they always have, & that to me is what rock & roll is supposed to do.
2. The Flowers of Guatemala" - R.E.M.: R.E.M. & The Replacements were my two favorite bands, but I broke up with R.E.M. after Green, and I’ve never forgiven them for not splitting up on New Year’s Eve 1999 like they promised. So they’ve been dead to me for a long time now, but their early catalogue, which I found by standing in record stores & bothering clerks as a long-haired teenager, remains perfect. I fell in love with them because I was at a rare party--it is impossible to overstate how big a geek I was in high school--and I heard a song playing (it was actually "Fall On Me" from Life’s Rich Pageant, the same album as this song) and I grabbed the arm of some random guy and said desperately, “What is this song?” (NB: Totally not the last time I’ve done this.) He told me, I bought the record, and this is the song that I love most from it.
3. "Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You" - Lauryn Hill: Because it is perfect. Because it is rocking. Because it is a hidden track on a killer record that changed my life. Because I was so in love the first time I heard it and I can never hear it without feeling that feeling. Because she was such a young badass, getting up to the Grammy podium holding a Bible, having just had a baby. Because I was in an electronica band with two guys, on this pretty decent label out of DC, and I got engaged right afterwards, and one of my bandmates called me and said, “Congratulations; the label wants to make sure you’re not going to get pregnant.” I saw red and I wrote them all an email that said, “Unless & until you tell every male artist you sign that he has to wear a condom every time he has sex, lest he get some girl pregnant and be forced to stop touring and get a day job to take care of his family, you’re not allowed to tell me that. Also, two words: Lauryn Hill.” They never bothered me again. I will love her forever.
4. "Living With The Law" - Chris Whitley: I don’t have a lot of regrets but I do have this one: Chris Whitley came to my CD release party for my first record, Styrofoam, because that’s the kind of guy he was, and because I was terribly shy, and because the guy I was dating then was terribly jealous, I didn’t talk to him much, despite or maybe because of the fact that he was one of my Real Actual Heroes. I don’t know how many times I saw him play. None of them were the same. I never saw a greater guitarist. (Once a guy who was trying to ask me out tried to tell me that Jack White was a better guitarist than Chris Whitley, and I was like, “Well, clearly this is not going to happen.”)
I was living in New York after Katrina, working an office job & trying every day not to be any crazier than I had to be, when my friend & musical mate Tim Sommer called me & said, “I have something really awful to tell you.” Chris had died at age 45. So little life for such a kind, grand person. I still can’t think about it without weeping.
‘Living With The Law’ wasn’t his favorite record, but I love it. I used to work in horse country in upstate New York, summers during college, and I would drive these long dark beautiful roads at night and listen to his songs. I don’t know if I knew then that the record was recorded at Kingsway, which is just down the street from where I live. I probably did, because I’m an inveterate reader of liner notes.
Some people are just too good for this world, and Chris was one.
5. "Pancho & Lefty" - Emmylou Harris: I asked my Facebook friends what Emmylou Harris song they would choose if they could choose only one, & Ken Foster said, “I would kill myself.” Which is about right. Emmylou and Chris Whitley are probably tied for Artists I’ve Seen Most (aside from bandmates & Artists I’ve Dated). My mom took me to see her for the first time when I was 13, I think. Steve Earle said that every Southern man is in love with Emmylou, but I think there’s room for the rest of us. She’s just perfection. She rescues dogs. She’s funny. She’s gorgeous. Once all her band’s gear got stolen, and two days later, just her guitar--and the little pink jacket that she liked to wear--got returned. Because she’s Emmylou.
I picked ‘Pancho & Lefty’ because it’s a Townes Van Zandt song, maybe the perfect song, but it was wrenching not picking something from Wrecking Ball. Honestly, this entire list could have been Emmylou songs and I’d have been fine. Except there’s also Gillian Welch….oy gevalt.
6. "Let Down" - Radiohead: In Charlottesville, VA, my hometown, there’s a great indie radio station called WNRN, and this song was the single they played from OK Computer. I get weird looks when I tell people that. I remember where I was in my car when I first heard this because I had to pull over. When I say I like Radiohead, what I really mean is that I like The Bends & OK Computer (& I like to cover "Creep"). This song stretches my heart all over the place, and I don’t care how cerebral they’ve gotten since then, they moved me here.
7. "Waltz #2" - Elliot Smith: When Guy Eckstine and I were doing preproduction for Styrofoam, we spent a lot of time listening to records I liked. I put XO in the car stereo and we spent the rest of the day driving around, listening to it, exclaiming over its perfection.He was the one who pointed out to me the connection between Elliott Smith & Pet Sounds (another album that it killed me to leave off this list). In some ways ‘Waltz #2’ is an obvious pick, but I love it--its combination of happy/sad, the up/down lift, the drumbeat. Just go listen to a lot of Elliott Smith, but make sure you have someone to hug close on hand. We miss you, Elliott.
8. "I Am Stretched On Your Grave" - Sinead O'Connor: This song has everything I love: great vocals, hip-hop beats, poetry, violin. The lyrics are a translation of a Seventeenth Century Irish poem by Frank O’Connor (who is one of my very very favorite writers; his short stories are crazy good), and when I made that connection (in one of my liner notes readings) I think I yelled out loud. I like how simple and repetitive and strong it is, with that excellent beat underneath. And the poetry is really beautiful: “my apple tree, my brightness, it’s time we were together, for I smell of the earth and am warmed by the weather.” And then at the end that Irish fiddle comes in and just starts wailing, and I get goosebumps every time.
Honorable Mentions (Or, Pluto and The Mysterious Ice Planet Of Quoaor): Alex very kindly said that I could extend my Milky Way to mention these two songs (because I love them so much):
"I’ve Always Been Crazy" - Waylon Jennings: After my parents got divorced, they each announced that this was "their" song. I could no more pick one Waylon song than I could pick one favorite Han Solo moment, but since I apparently have to pick one Waylon song (and I’m so sorry, Waylon, that I didn’t put you on the list. It killed me), this is the one. His voice sounds like saddle leather and he is the greatest man who ever lived.
"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" - Roberta Flack: A friend put this on a mixtape for me a long time ago. It is perfect singing. I grew up listening to Roberta Flack--my mom loved her--but when I re-heard this, in my 20s, I remember the tears just running down my face. All singing should hold this much emotion, I think. All voices should be this beautiful.