Woodstock-based musician Amy Helm has a lot in store this year, including the launch of a brand new music festival in Accord.
It's one of those crazy-hot Woodstock afternoons that happened last month. Amy Helm is sitting in the house her father built, chilling in the A/C and talking about her two sons, Lee, 10, and Hughie, 6.
"Lee's at that age where he's mortified to be seen with me. I have to drop him off down the street whenever I'm taking him somewhere to meet his friends," she says while smirking and rolling her eyes. "They both love to sing, though. I can tell they're both actually proud of what I do and proud of what their grandfather did."
Their grandfather—Amy's late dad—was, if you're not already aware, the legendary Levon Helm, known and loved the world over as the drummer and vocalist of the Band; her mother is the singer-songwriter Libby Titus, whose songs have been performed by Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, and others. Amy's sophomore solo album, This Too Shall Light, which comes out in September, builds on the artful, introspective balladry of her mom and the deep blend of soulful blues fire, gospel harmonies, country grit, and elemental rock 'n' roll that her father so famously pioneered. But despite her having Levon's rich roots-rock blood coursing through her veins from conception and her singing along with him practically since before she could speak, it wasn't until later that the proto-Americana he was most recognized for—a style many would've seen as his daughter's birthright to carry on—actually hit home with her.
"I was 17 and my mom gave me a tape of [the Band's] Music from Big Pink, which, you know, of course I knew about, but I'd never really listened to before," she remembers. "And my breath was just totally taken away. I played that tape on my Walkman on the way to school every morning and I just became totally obsessed with it. It was the tonality of the music, what Garth Hudson was doing on the keyboards. And Richard Manuel's singing. Like everyone else, right away I wished I could sing like Richard, who'd just been kind of a curious memory of someone who'd been around during my childhood. I don't remember thinking, 'Wow, that's my dad playing!' I was able to listen to the Band's music without much association."
Amy Helm was born in Woodstock in 1970. Her parents parted when she was six, although their relationship remained amicable as Titus partnered first with Levon's good friend Dr. John and, eventually, Steely Dan's Donald Fagen (similarly, Amy and her ex, saxophonist Jay Collins, the father of their two sons, are still on good terms). "I remember being really little and my dad sitting at the piano with me and teaching me how to play 'The Tennessee Waltz'," says Amy. "And I remember riding in the car with my mom and singing along with her to 'Jolene' by Dolly Parton. When I was about five, my dad was on the road and my mom was also working a lot, so I spent a lot of time in Arkansas staying with my [paternal] grandmother. So, at first, the task sort of fell to her to teach me a lot of the old hymns and traditional songs."
Amy made her recording debut at age nine, alongside her mother on a track for a "Sesame Street" tribute album and in high school formed a vocal group, the Chilly Winds, that reflected her then hip-hop and contemporary-R&B leanings (Cameo, Run-DMC, and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam were faves). Her further immersion in the Band's music opened her up to related sounds: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and, especially, classic gospel. It was the latter, and the soul-searching aftermath of 9/11, that led the young singer to her first musical project of note, the band Olabelle, which grew out of the weekly "Sunday School for Sinners" gospel sessions at Lower East Side bar 9C. "At the sessions, different people would get together and just pick hymns and songs to do—it didn't matter what anyone's faith actually was or if they even had one," she says. Things began happening quickly for Olabelle (named for folksinger Ola Belle Reed) once the lineup—Amy on vocals and mandolin ("I play it more like a guitar"); Glenn Patscha on keyboards and vocals; Fiona McBain on vocals and guitar; Tony Leone on drums and vocals; Jimi Zhivago on guitar and vocals; and future Levon Helm sideman Byron Issacs on bass and vocals—had congealed. "I think we'd only done about six gigs before we started making the first record."