As part of NewBeats.com’s 10th anniversary, which is official this month, here is an old interview with musician Amy Farris.
Not Just the Fiddle Player Anymore: Amy Farris
by David Chiu
Had you not known that Amy Farris was a singer and violinist, you could have sworn she was a silent screen actress or the It Girl of the Roaring ’20s. Her distinctive photogenic face makes her a shoe-in as a Hollywood starlet. It’s something that this native of Austin Texas and current Los Angeles resident would consider as a possible career.
“I would get the biggest kick out of that,” says the effusive artist on a Sunday afternoon on holiday back in Austin. “That’s something I would like to look into since I’m living in Los Angeles. I think I’d like to be a corpse on Law and Order, or anything. When I was growing up, I used to say, “Daddy, what should I be?” And he would never tell me what he thought until I was 22. He goes, “I think you should be an actress.” And I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?””But that is for another time as Farris right now is making name for herself as a musician. After spending the last couple of years as the fiddle-playing sideman (sidewoman to be politically correct) for Kelly Willis, Alejandro Escovedo, Ray Price, and Bruce Robison, Farris recorded and released her debut Anyway (Yep Roc). In order to do so, Farris moved out from Austin to Los Angeles-prior to that, she’s never lived anywhere outside of the Lone Star State.
“Moving to LA has been a huge adventure,” she remembers. “A lot of people have been kind to me so I had a lot of help. I’ve been out there a year and I’m only beginning to comprehend that city. I’m trying to figure out what the deal is, if that’s possible.”A big slice of Americana music, Anyway was produced by Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin. It was a dream come true for Farris, who first saw Alvin performing with her favorite band X when she was a teenager. “So when I got really serious about making the record, we had a mutual friend and we got in touch,” Farris says. “I took a chance-I didn’t think he’d ever work with me. I mean in my wildest dreams, Dave Alvin would be my producer! I wrote to him and he wrote back and said he’d be happy to work with me. And he signed it, ‘Your fan Dave.'”
Alvin would turn out to be a fit not only as a producer but also as a songwriting partner on three songs. “At first it was scary working with Dave because he’s one of my heroes,” she says. “By the understood me so well. He understood my eclectism. The fact is that I play violin but I didn’t sit around playing bluegrass, all the time-that I have an interest in a lot of different music. And Dave does too. Co-writing together was probably the most fun.”
Farris’s her favorite song on the record is the title track, the most accessible and poppiest song on the record. It’s also become a special song for another hero of Farris. “Dave gave a copy of the record to [X singer] John Doe, and John Doe called him up the next day and he was saying, “This is my favorite song of all time.” I grew up as this X dork and that was a big deal for me.”
The X connection also extends to Farris meeting Doe’s bandmate Exene Cervenka at one of her L.A. shows. So what were the two’s reaction to Farris’s cover of their “Poor Girl” on the album? “They liked it fine. John Doe was like, “Oh that was good, but I love “Anyway!” That was through Dave.”
Although Anyway is clearly a nod to old-fashioned twang and alternative country, like “Pretty Dresses,” it also reveals some stylistic range. For example, the song that closes the album, “Let Go,” possesses a bluesy, almost torch, feel. “That song kind of all came together in one day,.” Farris remembers. “I wrote it in ’97 because Sara Hickman recorded it on her album. In my mind I wanted to record it with a Motown string section-a Roy Orbison sound to it. Sometimes I find myself trying too hard that it becomes ineffective. So it’s a song to myself to chill out. To me that song is a benediction to be people who try too hard.”
Another song that breaks out of the alt country mode a bit is “My Heart’s Too Easy to Break.” “That’s when Dave [Alvin] and I wrote together and I’ve been really enjoying doing that one live. People really have been responding to it. I guess everybody feels that way sometimes.”
Farris also covered others’ material on her album, including the aforementioned X song “Poor Girl,” and Bruce Robison’s “Drivin’ All Night Long.” The latter song opens the album on an atmospheric, introspective mood with Farris’ sounding a bit like Nanci Griffith. Farris had previously played with country singer Robison, so she knew where to go for material on Anyway. “I remember very vividly the yellow pad with the lyrics and it was so haunting with the imagery of the empty houses on the highway and the sort of desperation and the obsessive quality of it. And the melody was so incredible. It hit me really hard. I asked him way back then if I can record it. So it was another dream come true to finally sing that song.”
Achieving that dream and many others started out gradually for Farris who in a past life was working as a legal secretary. But she was also playing fiddle in the Austin clubs just enough to capture the attention of other musicians who sought her services. One of those musicians was Alejandro Escovedo who brought her along his tour. “That was a great opportunity,” Farris recollects. “I learned so much. He’s one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met. He liked me well enough to take me up to Bumbleshoot in Seattle. That was wonderful. I kind of hooked on travel and coffee on that trip too.”
She also toured with legendary country singer Ray Price, and had the distinct honor of being the first woman to be allowed in his tour bus (Apparently Price’s wife didn’t appreciate single women to be around her husband on the road).
Having spent most of her early career playing behind singers, she now has the responsibility of singing as well as playing her fiddle. It’s a new situation that Farris relishes without hesitation and is prepared for it. “It feels great. I knew I wanted to do it for a long time but for one reason or another it’s taken me to have the confidence and finances and everything else together. Now it feels wonderful.”
Touring with Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison became a valuable learning experience, but there might be those occasions when Farris would seek advice. “I’ll call her up sometimes and go, “Hey Kelly what do I do when this happens?” or “Bruce, what do I do about this?” And I also know a lot of terrific musicians, so I know who to call.”
Being onstage is exciting to her particularly as a fiddle player, able to show the range of the instrument on both the spirited and mellow tunes. “I like nice, uptempo kind of rock songs,” says Farris. “I like doing the ones that show off my chops and cause me to stretch my abilities. I love listening to those players because I feel that’s where I learn. I love improvising on the other songs as well, like the solo on “Heading East.” It was a blast and I could just cut loose.”
Growing up in Austin, Farris first picked up the violin when she was ten. “I started on piano and I just hated it. I love listening to the piano but I just hated playing it. My folks got me a _ size violin that I could play it right away. And I just felt right at home with it. There’s something about generating the tone of the violin. It’s such an emotional instrument and a very human and vocal instrument. It can do an incredibly wide range of stuff.”
Farris was raised on Disney records and Broadway musicals, which encouraged her to sing and write. “I’d be in my room and I had my mom’s old records. I had “Pineapple Princess” by Annette Funicello, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” [by the Charlie Daniels Band], and I had The Sound of Music soundtrack with Mary Martin. Singing was something I always I did. It came naturally.”
As her tastes developed, she listened to artists such as David Bowie, the Beatles, Duran Duran, Patti Smith, Loretta Lynn, Jeanie C. Riley, and fellow Austinite Willie Nelson.
But it was the legendary Los Angeles band X that charted Farris’s musical course. Although regarded as one of the major American punk bands, X also drew from and on roots rock and rockabilly that Farris immediately identified with. “They are so melodic. For a punk band, they have so much going on musically. Some of the lyrics are just brilliant.
“Singing “Poor Girl” was a thrill. I knew every word of it. When Dave asked me, “Hey do you know “Poor Girl,” and I’m like “Yeah!” I was singing, it, and there is this verse, “When you ran out of Pete’s hotel,” and he goes, “Oh, I remember Pete.” And I’m like, “Oh my God.” You remember Pete?” To me, this is like J.R.R. Tolkein-it’s not real to me. They were a huge influence on me. Wild Gift [X’s 1981 album] kind of kills me.”
With the release of the album and the tour to support it (in addition to recording new material), things are happening for Amy Farris. And by all accounts, it’s all one fantastic adventure. “I guess I had a lot of stuff inside me that wanted to come out, and now it’s finally getting out!” she says with a laugh. “I wish I could me more eloquent about that, but I guess I’m ready. I love to tour and the feeling opening my eyes and not being sure where I am in a good way. It would be totally different this time because it’s me. Don’t have anybody to hide behind.”
Photo: Loren Minnick