On a mild late spring day recently, Alela Diane is in her kitchen with her boyfriend, listening to NPR and slicing up vegetables for a hearty soup. Were it not for the evidence of the fact that the 30-year-old singer/songwriter was vacating her home — boxes piled up in the front room, bare walls, and empty cabinets — it would be the picture of domestic bliss.
Diane’s relocation is really the final step in a long process that resulted in her fourth album About Farewell. The album is a gripping, beautiful and often painful exploration of the struggle that went on between the artist and her then-husband and -bandmate Tom Bevitori (he’s also a member of Blitzen Trapper side project Denver).
Farewell is an appropriately stark and raw album, relying heavily on Diane’s delicate guitar lines and knee-buckling vocals and augmented tastefully by the occasional string section, percussion and keyboards. Lyrically, she avoids metaphor almost entirely, bringing up the painful details of her marriage’s troubled start (“Hazel Street”), the realization that it was a lost cause (the devastating title track), and trying to maintain a delicate peace while on the road (“Before The Leaving”).
Diane invited Robert Ham to sit at her dining room table and discuss the creation of this album, making art out of difficult circumstances, and her changing view of love and relationships as a result of her divorce.
As I was preparing for this interview, I realized that so many of the albums I’ve been covering lately have been about difficult breakups.
[Laughs] Amazing. It’s a good excuse to make an album.
There’s so many examples of these types of records, too. Relationships end and…
Things come out of us. That’s what happened to me!
Were you at all familiar with some of the more famous breakup records?
Joni Mitchell’s Blue is an example of a really dark, personal album. I’ve heard a lot of those really, really heart-wrenching records and they’re really good usually.
How was it for you using the music as a way to process all that went on with you and your ex-husband?
I think it was just how it went down. I wrote all these songs right on the brink of making my decision to leave. The songs told me what I had to do. I wrote them all and I think I had gone to record some demos because I thought it would feel therapeutic to just get them out of me. At this point, I was just really on the brink of splitting up with Tom, and I was sitting upstairs practicing, and I was, like, “There’s no way that I can release any of these songs as a record or sing them in front of anyone unless I actually get a divorce.” They were so personal and cathartic for me that once I was saying this stuff out loud, stuff that I think I had been holding inside for quite some time, I knew I had to follow through with what I was truly feeling. So I did. We separated and we were divorced six months later.
Did the lyrics come out first?
Yeah, I wrote of the words on tour, while touring with my husband. I came home and I wrote all of the music for these songs within a week. I came back from the tour and wrote the songs super quickly. It was sort of shocking and then there they were telling me things that maybe I didn’t want to hear.
Wow…while you were on tour with him?
Not all of them. A few were written after he left, but a lot of them, the lyrics were written then. I write a lot when I’m on tour because you’re isolated. You’re in a van and there’s not really anything to do, so you get your laptop and you start…thinking [laughs].
Was it a difficult time being on tour with your husband and having this stuff coming out of you?
At that time everything was at the point where it was on the brink but nothing was being said. Because if anything was said, the bomb would go off. So nothing was said until after we got home. So the tour we actually existed pretty peacefully and calmly because you’re pretending that everything is fine.
How was it for the rest of your band?
I don’t think that they really knew the depth of it. I think a lot of it had to do with his drinking problem and I think all of them saw my frustration with that. But I don’t think any of them realized the extent to which that wasn’t the way that I wanted to continue living my life. They all totally understood once they found out. When you’re on tour, you really have to keep your cool. You have to exist and you have to go day by day. The important things are eating food, getting to the venue on time, sound-checking, and playing your show, and then going to bed. And that’s really all you can worry about.
That’s your job.
That’s your job and what you’re doing so I think I’ve done a pretty good job of maintaining composure when in situations like that. And then the bomb can go off after a year of touring!
Was this situation a wake-up call for Tom about his drinking?
I wish I could say it was. And I hope that someday it will be. I think in ways, yes, but I don’t know…he’s still going through his deal on his own.
Are there parts of the album that look back at other relationships?
It’s not all directly about what just happened. A lot of the songs were reflecting back on past relationships and I think were me sort of attempting to process leaving…the concept of leaving and being left and ending something. There I was writing about someone who I don’t have any feelings for at all but thinking back on it, like the song “Colorado Blue,” that’s about my high school boyfriend. And when I sing it, I get sort of emotional. I remember how much it hurt at the time. I feel like in the song I was able to convey that experience. In that case, I was the one that was left. He broke up with me and it was devastating.
It’s also very empathetic of you to think about how you felt being left and relating it to what was just about to happen.
Totally, and remembering how much pain there was in that, and knowing I was about to do that to someone else, and that I’d never really done that to some one else. I still don’t know if it’s easier to leave or be left. It’s really terrible either way [laughs].
“I Thought I Knew” is a very interesting song. When I listen to it, it almost seems like you’re admitting you’re complicit in a way, or trying to understand what your role was in the ending of this relationship.
It was me being aware that I led someone on and made a mistake. Whoops. Sorry about that [laughs].
There are notes of hope on the record, though. “Lost Land” in particular.
That one is a surrender, but in a way, that is hopeful. I knew I was in something that I needed to get out of. I knew deep within myself that I’d be fine at the end of it. And I am. So the outro of that song is totally my vision of myself being okay once I got through with what I needed to go through with. It is hopeful and it worked out!
Were there times when you were writing or recording these songs where you doubted what you were doing and what you were expressing?
I don’t think so. I felt like I needed to get those songs out of my system. Making this record was doing that. It was also very liberating. The last record was much more of a band collaborative effort. This time because I was essentially divorcing everything in my life, band included, it felt really good to come back to myself and to remember the original root core of where my music comes from. It really comes down to me, and my guitar.
Has Tom heard the record?
He has. It was hard for him to hear, but it’s nothing that he was unaware of. And it’s really nice to be on the other side of it now. We’ve been divorced now for over a year. It’s totally friendly. I’m very grateful for that. I shared the record with him. He shared the new Denver record with me.
Are there any songs on his album about the divorce?
There are, yeah. We’ve been joking about doing a split 7-inch [laughs].
How do you think your understanding of relationships and love has evolved over the years?
I think in every relationship you learn more. When you get into relationships really young, you don’t necessarily know who you are and you don’t know what you want, either. It can be very challenging to navigate that and to grow together when really you’re still developing as your own person. Tom and I were together for seven years, since he was 19, and I was 21. That was long enough to figure that as growing into adulthood together, we were going different routes. That really paved the road to know exactly what I’m not looking for. I have a very clear picture of what I want in my life, and I’m not willing to settle for anything else.