Gateways: How Alela Diane’s To Be Still Put an Ache in My HeartPhotos via Getty Images, James Lemke Jr, Rough Trade Records Music Features Alela Diane
Welcome to our new Gateways column, where Paste writers and editors explore the taste-defining albums, artists, songs or shows that proved to be personal “gateways” into a broader genre, music scene or an artist’s catalogue at-large—for better or worse. Explore them all here.
I must have one of the most unusual backgrounds that any Paste staff writer has ever possessed, in the sense that I didn’t grow up as a rabid music fan. Part of that, I attribute to growing up in a home where the importance of music was never particularly stressed or prosetylized. That isn’t to say my parents had some bitter grudge against music—we weren’t the family from Pixar’s Coco or something—but they had no real passion for it, either. In the car, we listened to sports talk radio, or whatever happened to be spinning on the regional top 40 station. They didn’t discuss music. Not once did I hear them sing along to a song from one of those stations. Eventually, I started tuning it all out.
As a result, music was simply never an important part of my younger life. From the time when I was old enough to form a complete sentence, to the time I was approaching graduation from high school, it was an aspect of our culture that I largely ignored. I realize that to most of our readers, that’s a difficult state of existence to imagine—what kind of person gestures in the direction of the entirety of musical accomplishment and thinks “eh, maybe it’s just not for me?” It seems robotic at best, sociopathic at worst. It’s a tad embarrassing to admit, given my current job title.
And yet, that was me, more or less—someone who was content to let that aspect of the arts pass me by. What I was unaware of at the time was that this was a function not of some lack of receptiveness within myself, but the fact that I’d never stumbled across the type of musical artist whose work would truly stir something in my subconscious. And right around the time I left for college, that’s exactly what happened: I began to find the artists who truly spoke to me. And none spoke louder—actually, make that “softer” or “sweeter”—than folk singer/songwriter Alela Diane.
It was Pandora, of all things, that set me down the path that eventually formed the vast majority of my music taste. Remember Pandora? Back in those hoary days we now remember as “the mid-2000s,” Pandora hadn’t yet developed aspirations of becoming a proper “streaming service” and was instead a free, customizable internet radio station making use of the Music Genome Project. Its function was simple—it analyzed your taste and then played suggestions it thought you would enjoy—but those initial tentative suggestions created a web of branching paths that would eventually become deep explorations of genres as disparate as traditional folk music, modern indie-pop and classic 1960s soul. Logging into my old Pandora account, which has now been untouched for more than a decade, I can see an array of channels that quite literally built my musical personality from the ground up—and the very last one I listened to is titled “Alela Diane Radio.”
Alela Diane is a Portland, Oregon-based singer/songwriter who has been crafting delicate, immaculately beautiful indie-folk songs since the early 2000s. Her style tends to be sparse and unadorned, structured not around instrumental virtuosity but instead revolving around the warmth of her velvety, lilting voice, which sings meditative paeans to the natural world and the complex people who reside in it. She has the sort of voice that both affirms one’s world-weariness and soothes it—it feels like the aural equivalent of someone laying a hand on your shoulder and saying, “I’m here for you, if you need to talk.”
To Be Still was Diane’s second album, released in 2009 by Rough Trade Records as her label debut. It’s tonally more rich and full in its production than the more austere, DIY sound of her 2006 debut The Pirate’s Gospel, and it also features some of Diane’s most sparkling compositions. Its instrumentation, especially the frequent use of mournful solo violin, gives tracks like “Take Us Back” or “White as Diamonds” a haunting quality never fully replicated in the albums to follow, which from 2013’s About Farewell onward tended to be more sparse. To Be Still, on the other hand, arrived at exactly the right moment to embed itself deeply into the soul of a budding folk music geek in his early 20s, at a time when my post-college future was completely uncertain.
It was a musical lifeline—a revelation that made me reevaluate what I truly valued within music itself. I honestly hadn’t known that I wanted music to be what I’d term “pretty,” but upon first hearing tracks like “Dry Grass and Shadows” or “Age Old Blue,” I was utterly enraptured by Diane’s lilting melodies and how they made me feel. Her preternatural voice is often filled with aching, with longing, with the bittersweet acknowledgement of time gone by, but it’s also ethereally beautiful and somehow affirming. Her lyrics are bucolic poetry, delivered with the familiar warmth of a greeting from a loved one you haven’t seen in months. So many individual lines have become reference points for me—rarely do I wake from a particularly vivid dream without recalling the very first line of the album: “There are things that I’ve seen in my head, while I’m sleeping in bed, that do not wither in the morning light.”
Her songs, and the songs of other artists I discovered as my path branched out from the likes of Alela Diane, made me realize that there was a space inside me that this music was waiting to fill—a space I never realized existed until it was occupied. Something about my perception of self felt more complete, and I realized I possessed an appreciation for earnest, delicate, “pretty” music that I likely would have ignored a few years earlier. To Be Still became my designated album for several specific situations; particularly long car rides home at night, returning from a late show or film. There was something about it that would immediately slip me into a contemplative, slightly somber, but somehow rejuvenating mindset. I would be gliding down a highway in the dark, privately devastated by poetic lines like the following from “Age Old Blue”: “Higher hills do not provide / For hearts born of coral and moss / Where rain won’t flow beyond our steam / And water is captive to the well.” It was music that strengthened one’s emotional fortitude to withstand life’s difficulties … and lord knows, I appreciate it now in 2020.
To Be Still closes with one final track, “Lady Divine,” that has bookended some of the most memorable moments of my life. It’s captured beautifully in the live recording seen below, Alela playing alongside her father Tom Menig, bathed in golden light that makes the singer/songwriter look positively angelic. The video includes a stranger’s comment from a decade ago, which may be my favorite YouTube comment ever: “If aliens heard this, they’d come in peace.” I think of that comment every time I hear the song, and it does rather encapsulate what I’d imagine as the sound of humanity putting its best foot forward.
Given those feelings, it was only natural that when my wife and I got married in early 2020, we would eventually work Diane’s music into the ceremony. And although I can say similar things about many other musicians whose art we chose to feature, none of them affected me in such a profound way as hearing “Lady Divine” playing immediately before I walked down the aisle to get married. Turning around to see the woman who is now my wife bringing up the rear of the wedding party, I could see that she was wiping away a tear—the first of many. And it will be just one more beautiful memory I recall for the rest of my life, whenever I hear the voice of Alela Diane.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer who is not usually this sentimental. You can follow him on Twitter for film, TV and drink writing.