Allison Moorer: Telling, and Singing, the Whole Story

Music Features Allison Moorer
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Allison Moorer: Telling, and Singing, the Whole Story

You think you know the Allison Moorer story—the tragic murder-suicide of her parents, the dual rise of her and her sister’s careers, the stunning talent and sometimes explosive personalities, the multiple marriages. But there’s so much more you don’t know. There’s so much more, in fact, that Moorer had to simultaneously write and release a new album and a memoir to set the record straight. The chemistry experiment works, and Blood the album (the memoir shares the same title) is one of the best of Moorer’s career. She sat down with Paste recently to discuss all the stories.

Paste: Where are you from originally?

Allison Moorer: I was born in Mobile, [Ala.]. When I was about 18 months old, we moved as a family up to Frankville, which is in Washington County. We moved into what we call the old place. It was my daddy’s mama’s parents’ house, and we lived there until I was about 12.

Then he got a job in a place called Irvington, Alabama, which is just south of Mobile, working at a vocational school, ’cause he was a teacher. He studied English and he studied agriculture so he could do both things, but he had a teaching certificate, so it sort of encompassed all of this stuff. He got this job as sort of the overseer of this vocational school, so he was in charge of growing the crops and turning a profit and making sure everything was running smoothly on that end. He didn’t actually teach, but he oversaw what the school produced because the vocational school was about teaching kids how to learn a trade, how to do something that will give them a job. So I think that made him somewhat happy. My daddy was a man who did not necessarily wanna work at all at the things, unless he was working on the thing he wanted to work at. You know, it’s like all of us, but he was just more pissed off about it than most of us are [laughs].

So, we lived there until 1986, and they died, and then I moved to Monroeville. When I graduated high school in 1989, I was 16, and I moved to Nashville because my sister lived here and she had just gotten signed to what was then CBS Records and was working on her first record And during that time, her first record came out. So, I spent about a year taking classes at a junior college on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and singing backgrounds for her, and opening for her. And you know, it’s crazy. I’m like, “I’m 17! Sitting on a bus, opening for—like, what’s going on?”

Paste: And were you already writing your own songs at that point?

Moorer: No.

Paste: Just singing?

Moorer: But what I did do was kinda catch the bug. So after a year of doing that, I went back to Mobile, enrolled at the University of South Alabama and finished my degree, which ended up being in public relations and communications. Lot of journalism classes, writing all the time, which is what I wanted to be doing, whether I knew it or not. So, I graduated in ’93, and I didn’t even stay to get my diploma. I left, I had my car packed and in the parking lot of the building where I took my last exam, and literally left with my cat and carrier in the back. I was 20. Moved to Nashville again, started singing back up for Sissy again, and then things just sort of fell together and within four years, I had a publishing deal and a record deal. There you go. That’s the backstory.

Paste: Alabama artists are some of my favorite artists right now. And as a thinking and feeling person in the world, and as an artist myself, you know being from the Deep South has its own set of baggage to it. A lot of great stuff, amazing stuff, stuff that nobody else gets that comes with it, and a lot of bad stuff that nobody else gets that comes with it, you know? And when I think about the Drive-By Truckers, who are probably closest to my age, and they deal with all of that. You know, Patterson even calls it “The Duality of the Southern Thing,” right? They deal with all of that by hitting it head straight fucking on, right? And then, Jason Isbell, as a solo artist, outside the Truckers, he’s a little bit younger. I would say, he deals with it head on, but not as literally as they do. His songs are not quite as obviously dealing with “the duality of the Southern thing” as the Truckers generally are, right? Then you have the people like Britney Howard from the Alabama Shakes and St. Paul and Broken Bones. And to me, they do it in still a different way, they’re playing music that is so obviously not just influenced by but tributing these great black artists from the South, you know? And so, I’m curious how, if you’re even conscious of how growing up with that kind of double legacy, affects you as a songwriter? Or do you not really think about it? It just comes out the way it comes out.

Moorer: I’m definitely affected by it. I think that I am a person who is uncomfortable with reducing anybody to their politics. I don’t like it done to me, and I don’t do it somebody else. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand, that I don’t wanna understand why people believe and think the way that they do, and then I don’t wanna challenge them on those beliefs. But, at the end of the day, you know, when I regard my upbringing, I heard a lot of things that were awful things, and I know whose mouths they came out of. So, that’s the duality of the “Southern thing” for me.

There is a passage in my book that is about a black woman who my momma hired to look after my sister and me, and Sissy started a kitchen fire one day, and Beau ended up grabbing the skillet with her bare hand and throwing it out the kitchen door. And ten days later she was back at work and her skin had become—her skin has started to come off and she was pink. I was six years old, and that was when it hit me. Everything that I had heard, through osmosis, because it wasn’t like I was raised by people who were overtly racist. It was—is—an underlying thing. But that was the first time I realized this is absolute crap. I’m six years old, and I can see it. I see what the reality is.

So, I just didn’t need to go any farther with that. People get comfortable and they don’t wanna be challenged, and they don’t want what they believe to be called to the carpet, and they’re comfortable with that. And you know what? There’s a part of me that desperately wants to understand why that is, because I’m a person who always wants to know. I need the information, and that’s how I function. That’s how I’ve always functioned.

But there’s a certain part of it that I just gotta let go too, and I try to appreciate what is beautiful about the South. Our love of tradition, and our heritage, and also our—in a lot of cases—our willingness to look at our seriously complex history and those of us who were doing the work to make reparations and whatever we can. We gotta keep doing that work, and we have to keep encouraging that work. And it’s all about awareness, you know. You don’t change minds in a group; you change minds one at a time. And I don’t know if I’ve ever had the wherewithal to write a song about what we’re talking about, and it was never really on my heart to do, but who knows?

Paste: Well, I don’t think it has to be direct in that way. I don’t know that Emmylou Harris has done many songs that are specifically about some of these issues we’re talking about, but I guarantee you in a weird way, there are a lot of people who are less racist in the South, because of Emmylou Harris, because she’s singing about love and caring and empathy and things that indirectly lead you away from things like racism. I think—I don’t know.

Moorer: Who can say what the reasons are for anything? Who can say what’s gonna change someone’s heart or change someone’s mind or make them think about what the situation is a little bit harder?

But all we can do is make the art that we feel like we have to make and whatever subtleties are in there we have get through. They don’t always, but sometimes they do.

Paste: They also don’t always. Sometimes they have an effect that you don’t know too. There’s a great bible verse about that: “It’s given to some to plant and some to water and some to reap,” you know? And you never know what part of the chain you’re in, I think.

Moorer: Nope.

Paste: So having your sister there on a parallel career track, did it spur you on, like a Beatles and Beach Boys thing where it’s like, “Damn! That record’s good. I gotta make my record even better.” Or did you learn stuff from her, did she learn stuff from you? Was it just a completely separate track where she’s my sister and I love her, she’s got a career, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with me? How did it feel?

Moorer: We always have something to do with each other. We’re deeply connected, on several levels, musically for sure. I think that we were both determined to have our separate career paths. We were both determined to always have our separate career paths, but both very, very supportive of each other.

I think it was important in the beginning to allow a delineation between the two of us. I learned a tremendous amount from her from singing back up with her on the road. I learned about the road, I learned about the grind of it, I learned about the glory of it, I learned about the dangers of it. And in a business way, you know, we both have been saddled with, you know—people knew our story before we walked in the door. So, in very many ways, it preceded us, you know, this, “Oh, these tragic girls, bless their hearts and they can really sing, and boy, they’re mean.” No, we’re not, but they’ll fuck with us, so, you know, Sissy doesn’t suffer fools. I don’t either. We don’t have time to, the inclination to, and damnit, we’ve been through enough; we don’t need to.

Paste: Absolutely.

Moorer: So, I learned from her that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and she’ll tell you that too, you know? She’s looked me in the face and said, “You’re more palatable.” And, you know, I think that depends on the day. And I have my strengths. She has hers. When we come together, it is indescribable.

Paste: Do you write a home? Do you have a place you go? What do you do? How do you write?

Moorer: I write hanging from a hook. I write wherever I have to. I would love to be one those people who — look, I’m pretty disciplined about it, when I’m home and I’m working on something, I get up at five in the morning every morning, and I work on what I’m working on, especially if my son is with me because that’s all the time I’ve got. And as a woman, I’m juggling so many things that I gotta grab it when I can. If I wanna get that done, I’m up at five. And it’s also the time when I do my clearest thinking, before the world has a chance to get in, before I have any time to become diluted. Diluted, not deluded.

Paste: Either one really. [Laughs]

Moorer: Oh, yeah [laughs]. So, there’s that, but you know, I was on a plane for six hours yesterday and I wrote the whole time. I think if you’re a writer, you write. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t circumstances that suit you better than others, but if you’re determined to get the work done…

Paste: You’re writing prose on the plane—not songwriting, right? That would be a little difficult.

Moorer: I could do that too.

Paste: Nice, nice. Well, when it comes, it comes, right?

Moorer: I keep a notebook; this is another thing that I do in the morning, I keep a notebook of intentions and prayers. I am, at this point in my life, at 47. I’m trying to figure out, “Okay, you did all that, now what are you gonna do?” And what I wanna do is simplify my life. Make it more what I want it to be, which is about being with my family, doing good work, growing a damn plant. And crossing things off the list that don’t belong on there.

So, in order to do that, I find myself wanting to center myself a lot, like, becoming overwhelmed and needing to go to my altar that sits in the bedroom, or picking up a book that I’m reading. I’m reading a Richard Rohr book, Falling Upward, right now. It’s really had a huge impact on me. So, I’m spending a lot of time with that right now.

So I get up, I make coffee, and I sit down either in there or where you’re sitting, and I write for an hour, an hour and a half, on whatever I’m working on. And I delete it, whatever it is, but after I do that, and provided my son’s not here, demanding breakfast or whatever, I will then do a little meditation, and I will write down my intentions and my prayers for that day. And it helps me to stay centered and it helps me remember we can get pulled off so easily in this world.

Paste: It’s true.

Moorer: It’s important to stay focused on what’s important.

Paste: [Paste photographer] Gordon [Hight] hasn’t heard the new record the new record, and he asked me today at dinner, “How would you describe the new record?” And I said, I haven’t fully digested it, but I said it feels like there’s a — not quite mellow-ness but a — I don’t know, kind of a softer approach to some things. And he said, “Do you mean melancholy? And I said, “Well,” I said, “I think all of her albums have a lot of melancholy in them.”

Moorer: For sure.

Paste: I don’t know that I would say this is more melancholy. It almost seems more—maybe the word I was trying to get at is, it almost seems more meditative to me. Does that speak to you at all in thinking about this record?

Moorer: I would call it ease.

Paste: Do you feel like that was in the song writing process as well? Were you in a place of ease when you wrote the songs?

Moorer: Absolutely. I am no master songwriter, but I have sat at the feet of some. I’ve learned a lot in my 20-plus years in this town. I also took a deep dive into learning how to write prose, and I learned some tricks and some tools that I have in my sack. When I went and got that MFA in New York, I only did that because I could, because I wanted to get better. It was important to me that I be able to understand the craft of writing prose. And what happens? Writing songs is nothing like writing prose. But what happens when you study something in a different way, than sort of the Nashville songwriting way, which is its own beautiful thing… But there aren’t very many people in this town who are gonna sit down with you and say, “Here’s how this works.” They’re not ever gonna take the time to do the nuts and bolts. They’re a couple of people who will, but when you’re learning the craft of writing prose—if you’re lucky enough to get a great professor, you do learn some tricks.

And I felt like when I was writing this record, I had more power, I had a better instinct. I wasn’t stabbing in the dark like I had been and hoping that I would get lucky, like I had been on so many occasions. I felt more confident and I felt like I knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. Now, that doesn’t mean it was easy ’cause songwriting isn’t easy, making art isn’t easy, it’s—it’s fucking catching lightning in a bottle, but the difference is, you get your bottle ready.

Paste:. So, do you feel that maybe writing prose kind of helped break you out of—I don’t think you need to break out of anything, but I’m sure you did.

Moorer: For sure. I didn’t know that I’d ever make a record again. I didn’t even mean to make this one.

Paste: Why so? Did you feel like you’re out of inspiration or you just…

Moorer: Done. I had made ten records, felt like a good stopping place. Because here’s the deal, you can keep doing it, and you can keep staying in the cycle of doing it and you can keep saying, “Okay, I got a record. How am I going to get the money, and how I’m gonna gonna do this, and now I gotta take pictures and I gotta do the press and then I gotta go on the road and then I got to hope I sell it and then the T-shirts and posters… It’s fucking exhausting.

Paste: Sure.

Moorer:And nobody gives a rat’s dick. So… [laughs]. You kinda gotta get yourself up. At this point, because when you’re young, and you’re bright-eyed and bushy tailed, it’s like the best thing ever. Then when you have been in the same club four or five times, you go, “That’s the same dick I saw on the wall in 1999.” I’m a lady, not that you would know that from me saying that, but I aspire to be a lady, and I don’t wanna be in the same old fucking club that I was in when I was 25. And I knew that then. So, it was always my plan to evolve my craft and to start to do other things, and because there are simply other things I’m interested in. I’m a singer/songwriter, but that’s not all I am. I hand sew, I cook. I keep a house, I’m a dog momma, I’m a mother to a beautiful, wonderful child who is the most important thing in the world to me. I’m a wife. I’m a friend. I crotchet. I like growing flowers. I do all kinds of stuff. So for me it was like, I gotta have a really good reason to do this, and a really good reason to do it was my book.

Paste: Which let’s talk about, which I have not read. (Laughs).

Moorer: (Laughs) I hope you do.

Paste: I will of course, but before we get away from the album, I want you to know that I’m incredibly glad that you made this album.

Moorer: Thank you.

Paste: This is one of my favorites, if not my favorite, of your albums.

Moorer: I think it’s my best album.

Paste: It’s really beautiful.

Moorer: I really do. It’s, from beginning to end, the best thing I’ve done as a piece of work. And it was born from—I realize, and I’m gonna talk about the book, and this is about the book. I’ve been trying to tell this story my entire life. And sometimes you need more than one art form to tell the complete story. I’ve been hinting at it—there’s not one record I’ve ever made that I have not covered this subject in some way. You tell the story until the story’s told and I feel like I finally told it. This book, it’s more more of my childhood. I think it has almost nothing to do with the crazy music business. It’s in three parts, parts one and two are about my childhood. Part three is present day and has more to do with what the fall out of what parts one and two are than…

Paste: Than the actual events.

Moorer: Yeah. It took me years to write, I rewrote it four, five times. I went and got a graduate degree so I could learn more about what I was doing. I was very dedicated to it; it was important to me to get it down on paper. It’s a worthy story, as all stories about families are. And I wanted to—goin’ back to that part about my sister and I have in our stories proceed us whenever we would walk in the room, and my parents have always been reduced to these, sort of tragic figures. And they were, absolutely they were. They were also bright and beautiful, wonderful. They gave us a lot incredible tools, so there’s a lot of hard stuff in the book. There are some hard things to read, but there are also some good things, and it was important to me that I tell the story in this balanced a way as I could coming from my memory, and at the end of the day, I just love them. The record exists because I wasn’t quite done. [Laughs]

Paste: “Wait, but there’s more! There’s stuff I can’t tell you about, I have to sing about it.”

Moorer: Well, there’s so much there, and I think that there are things when you write a song, you can express so many things in three minutes because you have all of the tools, you know? You’ve got singing, you’ve got melody, you’ve got music, you’ve got tempo, you’ve got all the things that a song has, and with the book, you got a sentence. So, I wanted to try to embody the characters a little bit more on the record. And it’s fucking fun making an album. I love making records.

(This interview has been edited for space and clarity.)

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