Saturday, December 10, 2011
South Salem, NY
15 Main Street, South Salem, NY 10590 USA
High Atmosphere, the third album in the remarkable career arc of singer-songwriter Diana Jones, hits with the force of a revelation, further deepening an unprecedented body of work that began in 2006 with My Remembrance of You and continued with 2009’s Better Times Will Come. On her new release (due out in April on Proper Records), recorded entirely live with simpatico musicians at Quad studios in Nashville, this single-minded artist continues to hew to an austere, plainspoken aesthetic, yet its timelessly homespun frameworks are embedded with distinctly topical subject matter. As Bill Friskics-Warren so aptly pointed out in his New York Times profile, Jones “approaches the mountain-ballad tradition not as a curiosity or antique but as a renewable vernacular that’s just as capable of speaking to the human condition now as it was 80 years ago.” “The songs I write,” says Jones, who has a second career as a portrait artist, “are informed by my experiences within a certain time frame, so they become a sort of world within themselves. For this new record, I was on the road a lot, trying to catch up to myself and the things that were happening in my life. This was very different from my previous experiences. For example, I wrote most of the songs on My Remembrance of Youin a cabin in Massachusetts by myself. Then I was mining really old things, focusing on the traditional, whereas these songs happened to me as life happened to me.”
Jones’ back-story is itself as full of cathartic moments, ironic twists and intricate connections as her narratives. During her childhood and adolescence, she felt an almost mystical, seemingly inexplicable attraction to rural Southern music, while growing up in the Northeast with no art or music in her home, the adopted daughter of a chemical engineer. It wasn’t until her late 20s, when she located her birth family in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in east Tennessee, that Jones’ deep affinity for Anglo-Celtic traditional music began to make sense.
Specifically, it was hanging out with her grandfather, Robert Lee Maranville, that brought on her life-changing epiphany. “He was a guitar player from Knoxville, Tennessee, who played with Chet Atkins in the early days,” Jones explained in 2009. “He told me that if he had died, his one regret would have been never to have known the granddaughter who was given away. He took me driving ’round the Appalachians, reintroducing me to where I came from. And whenever these old-time country tunes came on the radio, he’d be singing along — he knew all the words. This ancient mountain music was completely in his blood and, I suddenly came to realize, in mine, too.”
It was then that Jones — who’d recorded a pair of well-crafted contemporary singer/songwriter albums during the second half of the ’90s — decided to start anew, armed with her birthright and a newfound sense of purpose. When Maranville died in 2000, she holed up in a cabin in the woods of Massachusetts and wrote the songs that wound up, six years and many filled notebooks later, on My Remembrance of You, which she fittingly dedicated to his memory.
The album earned Jones a nomination as Best Emerging Artist at the Folk Alliance Awards, leading to tours with Richard Thompson and Mary Gauthier, appearances at folk festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, and covers of her songs by Gretchen Peters and Joan Baez. “There’s some kind of channeling from some other lifetime going on,” Baez marveled. “I don’t know the answer to these things, but all I can think of is that it must come from some mysterious part of her soul.” Jones views her connection to this tradition, and her place in it, as “that simple and that complex. If I try to look from the outside at how my life’s panned out, it seems strange even to me. I grew up on the East Coast, and I didn’t know my life would take that turn. When I came to the South and I met my family, it started to unfold for me, which took awhile. And then I found my own voice through my grandfather; his kindness and the time he spent with me led me to something that was authentic for me — that I didn’t even know was in there. And once I started writing these songs, it wasn’t like I thought about them; they came through in what felt like a channeled sort of way, as if they’d come from somewhere else.” “When I initially went to that cabin in the woods,” she continues, “I had the same certainty I experienced when I found my birth family. It was the thing I had to do at that moment. I knew that I had to give it a sincere shot, and clear everything else out and find that core thing. So I sat there and literally asked for help, because I didn’t want to write in the way I’d written before — I knew I had something new and deeper that I wanted to write if was going to get back out there and sing again. So I asked my ancestors to help me; it sounds kind of woo-woo, but I figured, what the hell. I don’t know if it works or why it works, but I do know there’s something there that, when it did come through, I felt was authentic and something I wanted to sing. And that was really the most important thing, because, if I’m onstage every night, what do I want to say to people?” Jones now has the answer to this pressing question well in hand — and deep in her soul. While the cover portraits on her last two albums reveal Jones at her most serious, she appears on the cover of the new record with hand over heart and eyes closed in a smile of apparent contentment. That image “speaks to the internal process of writing for me,” she offers. “That the High Atmosphere is as internal as it is up there in the sky. Maybe even a spiritual place. That’s the place I write from.”