I love the photo on Allison Tartalia’s web home page. It shows her sitting on some type of old ledge outside a building in disrepair and she’s playing a little white toy piano. The image makes me want to know more about her. She’s looking at the piano with a look of winsome tenderness. Allison’s music does revolve around keyboards although she tells us in this interview that she’s toying with other instruments lately. In addition to being a singer-songwriter, she’s also part of a conclave of women called Chicks with Dip who celebrate the music of Joni Mitchell by performing all the songs on the momentous album Blue.
In general, I use Allison’s Invention for my singer-songwriter project, but Allison Tartalia for anything I compose for theater, film, etc. Whether solo or with a band, I feel like the arrangements and orchestrations are a big part of the sound I’m trying to create, so I tried to capture that with the name.
Tell us about Sweet and Vicious. I understand that you used a variety of vintage keyboards and strings and horns. Did you “hear” these soundscapes in your head and feel the need to record them? What was the genesis of this “invention”?
In terms of the vintage keyboards, that was new for me. Michael Leonhart, who produced all the instrumental tracks with me (and who just produced Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos) has a lot of wonderful and quirky instruments in his studios, including Wurly’s, a vintage Casiotone, a Farfisa, a celeste, a vibraphone, an awesome little pump organ….the studio is wall to wall instruments. He really encouraged me to consider these other keyboard instruments, sometimes as a substitute for the acoustic piano, and at other times as an additional texture. I learned a lot about layering sounds from working with him. There are some tracks where we tried a few different options before we stumbled upon what we liked. For instance, I have several different versions of “Clean” with a variety of different keyboards as the lead. In terms of the strings and horns, I’ve always liked working with orchestral instruments and a lot of those parts I did hear in my head in advance. Often what would happen is that I’d write out parts and then Michael, who’s a phenomenal arranger would refine which instruments played what, add parts in places where I was stuck, suggest places where another instrument should double a certain part, etc. I really learned a lot from working on that record, so now I do write with more of those possibilities in mind, especially with regards to other keyboard instruments.
How did you get involved with the documentary 5000 Miles from Home? You were nominated for an Emmy award for your contribution to this documentary. What was it like working on the music for a documentary?
I actually met Joann Robertozzi through Allison Scola, one of the Chicks with Dip who’ll be performing at me&thee. She knew that I’d composed and arranged music for 1918: A House Divided, which was a period musical, and she needed a collaborator for this film project. Initially we thought the film would only be shown in the Veteran’s Museum behind the project, but it ended up airing on the PBS affiliate in Chicago, which is how the Emmy nomination came about. The process was unusual in that we didn’t have a final cut or score to picture. We created songs to capture various moods as indicated by the director, and then he took what we wrote and recorded and figured out where to place the songs.
Your life. Your music. Your pain. Your loss. You’ve been through a lot and I admire that you proudly wear your “war paint” in every line of your music. Is it scary putting yourself on the line like that or do you feel like you’ve been set free by expressing the contents of your soul?
At times, both have been true. Sometimes I’ll write something that’s so vulnerable that I’m fearful of putting it in front of an audience. On the other hand, at my times of deepest sadness, I’ve found solace by going over to the piano. It’s always interesting when I speak with someone and discover that they connected to a song of mine but that they related to it a way that was completely different from what I would have expected. I think you use your own truth to create, but then part of the beauty is that once you put it into the world it can change completely when viewed through someone else’s experience.
What’s your connection with the music with Joni Mitchell?
Back in college, a good friend of mine introduced me to Ladies of the Canyon and Hejira. Various records have taken turns being my favorite. With regards to Blue, I love that she was tackling subjects that women hadn’t really discussed in song previously. It’s really a timeless record.
What’s next for Allison’s Invention / Allison Tartalia?
I’ve recently become very taken with the kalimba (african thumb piano) and have been writing some songs on that, as well as on ukulele. These songs are pretty different from my keyboard-based songs, so I’m not sure how I will release them. I’m trying to become more independent by doing as much of the recording process myself as I can, which is a huge learning curve for me, but an enjoyable challenge.
More information about Allison on her website.
Chicks with Dip will be playing at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on March 8.