Amy Helm knows a thing or two about her craft; she’s been singing and playing since she was a little girl. Music isn’t just her passion, it’s in her blood. She’s the daughter of the late music statesman, Levon Helm of The Band, her mother is singer/songwriter Libby Titus, and her stepfather is Donald Fagen, of Steely Dan fame. Her first solo album, “Didn’t It Rain“, debuted in July 2015, and she’s currently touring around the country. Funkhouser caught up with the singer last week before her show in Hershey, Pennsylvania alongside Tedeschi Trucks Band, to talk about: the tour, growing up in the shadow of her legendary father, his legacy, and of course, some nonsense.
How’s the tour?
Touring can be grueling, but you don’t get the sense that it’s taking a toll on Amy Helm: “It’s fantastic and going great,” she says. “I’m grateful for every minute, because I get to do what I love.” For folks unfamiliar with Amy Helm, her voice is bewitchingly commanding and deeply soulful and people, namely me, compare her sound to: Susan Tedeschi, Neko Case and at times, Bonnie Raitt. I ask if that’s a fair comparison, and she humbly responds, “I’ll take those comparisons any day…but don’t leave out Mavis Staples“. She’s a regular member of the multi-genre (alt-country) musical collective, Ollabelle, and although she once performed alongside her dad with the Handsome Strangers, this time it’s her turn to go solo.
Your album “Didn’t It Rain” came out almost a year ago. What have you learned since that time?
“I’ve learned so much,“Helm says. “It was a chaotic time for me.” In fact, she’s right. During this period, she had her second child, her marriage fell-apart and her dad’s health began to deteriorate. “Didn’t It Rain” was actually recorded over a series of those years and prior to release, nearly half of the album was re-recorded. Helm explains, “we were building a band, my confidence was growing, we were performing these songs, but the arrangements changed and the songs didn’t match the earlier recordings. It was both emotionally and financially draining on me, but ultimately necessary to capture the feel I was going for.” When she would start to feel the pressures of the world beating her down, she’d look to her father, who would simply say, “Buck up girl.” For what it’s worth, the entire album is fantastic, and I especially love the tracks: “Deep Water” and “Roll Away“.
Speaking of your father, was it hard finding your own voice, being the daughter of such a iconic musician?
At fourteen, Amy began singing and playing music, and while she most certainly was influenced and benefitted from playing alongside some of the greatest musicians in the world, both family and peers took a laissez-faire approach, “encouraging and supporting” her desire to pursue music as a career, yet “allowing her to find her own voice”. That’s not to say it was easy. Inevitably being the child of a traveling musician comes with “patches of absences“, yet she cherished the time she spent with her dad both personally and professionally: “I had the opportunity to rebuild our relationship, reconnect and heal” especially the later years as she watched him fight his ten-year battle with throat cancer.
It’s been four years since your dad’s passing. I recently watched “Ain’t In It For My Health” on Netflix, what impact do you think your dad had on you and to a larger extent the world?
Levon Helm, was a remarkable artist and true American icon. He was the founding member of the Canadian-American rock n’ roots quintet The Band, and is recognized for his formidable skill as a drummer and mandolinist, however, it’s his raspy and seasoned voice, coupled with that distinct charming Southern draw that most audiences remember. He was a consummate musician who continued playing music til’ the very end of his life, one that lasted 71 years. The 2013 documentary, “Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm” is currently streaming on Netflix, and it’s a poignant look at a man who was the ultimate survivor, and it beautifully chronicles his life (warts and all), from his early beginnings in Arkansas to the height of his success with The Band. Amy says she’s “grateful to be working” and “feels a responsibility to carry parts of him, so that she can share them with others.” Helm says her father was an “inspiration” to her and others and describes him as “fearless, a great example of a working musician, one of the highest integrity, committed to doing it his way.”
So was it the love of music, that kept him going?
Making a living as a working musician can be challenging and at times extremely hard on the musician and their family. Amy Helm knows this all too well and that’s the real message in “Ain’t in It for My Health”. Seeing her father’s struggle with addiction, bankruptcy, and his battle with cancer, was hard, but despite it all, he kept performing: “He lost his voice (due to throat cancer), he was bankrupt, on the skids…yet he packed his drums in the back of his truck, despite not having enough money for gas a lot of the time, and went out there night after night to play music!” He was deeply “committed.” There’s a song on Amy’s album called “Spend Our Last Dime“, which beautifully sums that up, and it would be the last time they recorded a song together.
So, have you been to Kentucky?
“I have so many memories of driving through Kentucky with my dad, on our way to Arkansas along the Bluegrass Parkway.” We speak briefly about KSR and sports and Helm says that her dad was a HUGE Arkansas football fan.
What’s the last book you read?
“Outside of Thomas Keating and other spiritual stuff, the last book I read was called Orphan Train.”
What’s your guilty pleasure when you’re traveling or at home?
Speaking of Kentucky, Helm says she’s fallen into binge-watching shows on Amazon and Netflix, specifically saying she’s “obsessed with the show ‘Justified’. I know I should be down there writing and recording songs, but I’ve fallen into the rabbit hole of that show.”
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
“Gosh, where do I start?” I’m sure being stuck in a van with a bunch of guys for long periods of time can get old. “Oh, I know!” Helm exclaims. “When people crush their plastic water bottles after they finish, and it makes that annoying crunching noise!”
Despite growing up in the shadow of her late father, Amy Helm has clearly found her own voice, and oh how sweet it is. As the keeper of the flame, she has embraced the time-honored tradition of making music that is true, honest, and of the highest quality. She not only shares the musical talent and name of her legendary father, but also the burning desire of making euphonious music. To learn more about Amy Helm and where she’s touring, visit her website here. Oh, and don’t forget to buy her album too!