Alela Diane’s new album Cusp is, first and foremost, about her experience becoming a mother, and perhaps more indirectly about the way that identity has intersected with her preexisting identity as a musician.
Since her 2006 debut, The Pirate’s Gospel, the Portland singer/songwriter’s records have cataloged different chapters of life, with incisive lyrics that often source metaphors from the natural world, rootsy acoustic guitar melodies, and Diane’s powerful, magnetic voice. But motherhood and pregnancy are still kind of taboo to write songs about, which is why I got a little thrill when I first heard her sing about feeling movement in her womb on the standout track “Ether & Wood.”
Diane wrote Cusp during an artist residency in the Cascade Mountains, removed from her maternal responsibilities. After breaking her thumbnail on the very first day of the program (which made it difficult to fingerpick her guitar), she decided to try writing songs on the piano. As a result of that broken nail, piano is Cusp’s primary instrument.
It’s an album driven by cosmic hiccups, strange intersections of fate, and the transitory feeling of standing on the threshold of something new, in the space between two overlapping versions of yourself. The Mercury recently spoke with Diane about the creation of Cusp, and fittingly, throughout the interview (which has been edited for space), her young daughter interjected her own questions for her mother.
MERCURY: There aren’t many albums entirely about motherhood—did it feel kind of radical to write Cusp about that?
ALELA DIANE: It’s such a transformative experience, and the way my music has always been, it’s very personal-narrative-based. This is what’s going on in my life, and I didn’t really know what else to say. But it’s what came naturally for this record.... These songs are largely inspired by motherhood and written through the lens of that experience. It’s weird that it does feel a little bit radical, just in that I think women are under a lot of pressure to go on as if nothing happened, if they’re working women. As a performer especially, there’s pressure to be perceived as available and sexy.... Motherhood is, in a lot of ways, really contradictory to all of those things.
There’s this narrative that women have to choose between being a mother and having a career, but your new record seems like an assertion that you don’t.
It’s definitely a hard choice to be both [a mother and a musician], and it involves sacrifice, of course, but for me it has felt really good to be able to choose both. Having just come off of a three-week tour in which I left my children at home and performed all of these songs and sang about motherhood while being across the world from my kids, on one hand it was really challenging, but on the other hand it was extremely liberating and fun.
Being able to compare that experience to life at home, it’s like, being at home with small children is also exhausting and you don’t get enough sleep. You’re always focused on your kids, these little people who are so important, but you don’t get to nurture your own spirit at all. Now when I go on tour I’m like, “Wow, I can just sit here in this van for six hours and stare out a window, this is great.”
The job of being at home with kids is more exhausting than most things. It’s so under-appreciated. It’s also, in our culture and still to this day, largely viewed as the woman’s job. For me to be able to leave for three weeks, I have such a supportive husband, and I would not be able to do this if I didn’t. It’s also interesting to compare: I’m a woman in music, but for men who are touring musicians and have kids, it’s like, no questions asked, they just leave.
The major theme of Cusp seems to be the cycle of birth and death. How did your understanding of that cycle change with motherhood, especially since you almost died giving birth to your second daughter?
The record was finished being mixed the weekend I had Oona and almost died, consequently. So the record was done, but I was singing about that exact thing on “Song for Sandy,” about Sandy Denny. She’s a musician that I’ve respected and loved for a long time, and she died tragically when her only child, her daughter, was like seven months old. After becoming a mom and thinking about Sandy Denny’s story, I felt called to elaborate on it in that song. And when I had Oona and had severe complications and got way too close to the edge, it was strange to me that I had already written a song about leaving your child behind, and the tragedy of that.
[Almost dying] has given me this more grateful perspective of everything I get to experience. On tour, even when it’s super hard, and in moments with my girls that are super challenging, I’m just like, “I’m just glad I’m here, on Planet Earth. As horrible as it may feel, I’m alive, and I get to experience this.” It really gave some more perspective. And I think in my music I’ve touched on that before, the lightness and the darkness, and death, and the intensity and the mystery of it. And bringing children into the world—I think about that a lot, because you love your kids so intensely and you don’t want to lose them. It’s just a lot of feelings [laughs].