Bluegrass and country superstar Alison Krauss talks to Richard McComb about her bruised heart and her quest for emotional contentment.
Talking to acclaimed singer Alison Krauss, America’s undisputed queen of bluegrass, can be likened to listening to one of her albums.
The experience leaves me wondering if I should stick a consoling arm around her tiny shoulders (difficult, admittedly, when she’s in Tennessee and I’m in the UK) or laugh like a moonshine-fuelled mountain man when she goofs around.
Her songs, which have sold millions and garnered 26 Grammys – a record for a woman – tell of love, heartache and loss, yet Krauss makes it all sound so beautiful that you almost hanker for the next break-up.
The soulful patterns of her clear-as-a-bell voice, her interpretation of roots music and her fragile honesty (you could throw in mesmerising musicianship, too) explains why tickets for Krauss’s show at Birmingham Symphony Hall sold out long ago, even though her name is far from household status this side of the Atlantic.
Things may be about to change. Paper Airplane, her new album, debuted at a career best Number 11 in the UK Top 40. In the States, it entered the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart at Number 3 and was Number 1 on both the Bluegrass Albums Chart and the Country Albums Chart.
The reality is that Krauss is so loved by her fans she does not need to launch a wild round of media promotion each time she releases a record or goes on tour. The 40-year-old from Champaign, Illinois is doing only three press interviews for her British dates, which include four nights at the Royal Festival Hall.
Paper Airplane is her first album of new material with her band Union Station since 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways. The mega musical milestone between these recordings was her effervescent collaboration with Robert Plant in 2007. Raising Sand, which alone picked up six Grammys, including album and record of the year, was a stunning and unexpected successes. Krauss’s hauntingly pure voice, which by default is described as angelic, sounded like it was born to be played off and layered with the mellowed rasp of the ex-Led Zeppelin frontman.
I tell Krauss how Plant is a local hero in Birmingham. “You must be very proud,” she says, genuinely pleased at our good fortune.
She reveals she visited the rock god’s home in Worcestershire in 2008 during the Raising Sand tour, which featured a show where they smouldered on stage at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena.
Might Plant pop in when she plays Symphony Hall on Friday?
“I hope so, if he’s in town,” she says. “He’s been over here [in the States]. I just saw him. We played in Austin, Texas, and he came out there. If he’s at home when we come through I’m sure we’ll see him.”
After her musical forays with one of rock’s wilder men, Paper Airplane sees Krauss, a fiddle player extraordinaire, return to home territory with her 14th album.
Alison is back in Kraussland. It is a place of deep oceans and dry prairies and of shady stoops where boys fall in love with the girl next door, then break their hearts.
If you are unfamiliar with the singer’s musical and emotional sensibilities, these lines from the new album’s eponymous title song are a good place to start: “How many days should I smile with a frown/’Cause you’re not around with the sun on your shoulders?/And how many nights must I wake up alone/And know in my soul that it’s almost over now ...”
And that ain’t the half of it.
Krauss says she has lived through the pain. If she hadn’t, she explains, she couldn’t sing about it. For her, the turmoil of love is an artistic truth.
There is something of Alison Krauss in all her albums, she says, perhaps even more so with Paper Airplane. “They’re all very personal, but this one really is. I think the older you get, the more things have to be true,” says Krauss.
Just “relating” to the songs is not enough; she needs immersion. “I don’t want anything coming out of my mouth that’s not true and these songs were as true as they could be for me,” she says.
So the songs, like Lay My Burden Down (“Darling can’t you hear me cry?/My bones are broke/My tongue is tied”) reflect events in her own life?
Without hesitation, Krauss, who is at her home in Nashville, speaks softly down the phone: “Yes. They always do. When you are gathering things to sing you see the reflection of yourself at the end of it.”
She must have been going through a tough period when Paper Airplane started to take flight, I suggest.
“It was a drag,” she says, laughing. Krauss, the enigma, who protects her private life (one marriage, one child, one divorce) puts down the shutters, albeit with charm.
“There were plenty of things going on – and you can kinda tell by what I sing.”
She’s a conundrum, I tell her, wearing her heart on her sleeve before whipping on a blanketing shawl. She answers this by saying: “Some things are gonna come out different ways and if you have to sing what’s true for you then certain things will come out.”
When I ask if she is in a good place right now, her answer is surprising. Despite the infectious laughter – she does have a great laugh – nothing is quite as it seems.
Krauss says: “My goal is not necessarily happiness. It is satisfaction. I have considered myself to be a relatively satisfied person but when things are tough ... my goal isn’t happiness.”
It’s a strange thing to say, harsh even.
“No, no, it’s not,” says Krauss, quick to correct me. Maybe there isn’t a difference between happiness and satisfaction, she says. “That’s just the word I choose.”
The recording of the latest album proved to be a cathartic experience, both emotional and physically. Early recording sessions were hampered when Krauss suffered lingering migraine attacks and had to take to her bed. Things weren’t clicking in the studio either.
Krauss turned to one of her favourite songwriters, Robert Lee Castleman, and discovered he had hit a barren patch creatively. Singer and songwriter were lacking a spark. Castleman invited the singer to hang out at his place and tell him about what was going on in her life.
Over grilled cheese sandwiches, Krauss poured out her heart and the songwriter was inspired to write the title track of Paper Airplane that night. An anthem to doomed love, it remains her favourite song on the album.
“He told the story quite beautifully. I have a real connection to that tune,” says Krauss.
“It’s not the first time he’s done that, that we have gotten together and we’ll talk for a while and he’ll write it.”
Does she lay it on the line to Castleman, telling all about her guarded personal life?
“He’s a very intuitive person and I’ve known him for a long time. He knows enough,” she says sweetly.
Krauss has described Paper Airplane, both the song and the album, as representing a trial. “Like a trying time that has an end,” she has said.
The theme only emerged once the album had been put to bed but it runs through gritty numbers like Dustbowl Children, a depression-era howl of protest applicable for the 1930s and 2011, in which guitar and mandolin player Dan Tyminski’s takes lead vocal.
The album has two covers, Richard Thompson’s Dimming of the Day and Jackson Browne’s My Opening Farewell, the latter from 1972, the year after Krauss was born.
The singer was so overcome with emotion while recording Dimming of the Day, originally sung by Thompson’s then wife Linda, that she broke down and had to stop.
Lyrics like “I’m drowning in a river of my tears/When all my will is gone you hold me sway” can have that effect.
Krauss has been quoted as saying “truth is sad.” “It sounds like something I’d say ... If you’re gonna tell the truth, you’re gonna see it all,” she says.
She explains she sometimes gets a feeling she just has to say, or more accurately sing something, and “you’re not going to be happy until you do.”
“Any time that I don’t go by those rules, like make a political decision or choose something because it’s clever ... it’s always a mistake. It’s just a mistake. It’s OK the first couple of times you do it and then it’ll turn into something else and become something you loathe doing because it is not true for you.”
She decided to record Dimming of the Day and Opening Farewell because “they were true for me.”
“They were true at the time. They will always be interesting, always mean something when you perform them. It doesn’t get old. The only songs you aren’t satisfied with are the ones you choose with any lesser conviction.”
Are there any other songs she would like to interpret. “Oh, boy ...” There’s a thoughtful silence. “I don’t wanna look ahead too far. There are things I love but they don’t fit me personally, so they don’t make sense to do them. Does that make sense?”
It does, but what she says next leaves me flailing. I ask if she prefers recording in the studio or playing live. “I can’t really compare them,” she says. “I love the studio because you will watch something become something.
“I love it when something’s right – and I love when something’s wrong. I love both of them because it means the same thing. Both things that happen means that something is right.”
Cryptic, I tell her. “Do you know? It is, it is,” she says.
Hands up. I admit I’m lost. Thankfully, Krauss is a patient teacher.
“Because if something doesn’t work, and it’s so clearly doesn’t work, it means something else does. I love that process. I love it turning into something and I love those black and white answers that come back in the studio. That’s really special.
“If something doesn’t work, it so clearly doesn’t work. It never lasts more than a few seconds and I think ‘Isn’t that beautiful that something is that clear?’
“It’s a mysterious, romantic process. I love that. I like playing live because it’s really nothing like that. It’s like you did your time, now you can commit your crime.”
And it’s great having the boys from Union Station out front with her. “When I’m by myself, I don’t like that so much,” she adds.
But what of that lauded, yes, angelic, voice? Surely she has to take special care of it, special gargling solutions, exercises.
“Nooo,” she says, playfully chastising me for suggesting the voice is anything special, which truly it is. “There’s no huge range,” says Krauss. “Sleep, I need to get good sleep.”
Oh, and she needs curry. She loves it, as do her bandmates in Union Station. “I go for a curry everywhere. Everybody’s favourite food,” she says.
When I tell her Birmingham is the UK’s capital of curry, she’s putty in my hands. I tell her I am a food critic and could give her some restaurant recommendations. Would she like some?
“Are you kidding! Give me some,” she says.
Krauss, heartbreak and curry. It’s a magical combination.
* A deluxe edition of Paper Airplane, featuring six additional songs, including three exclusive studio songs, is released on Rounder Records.
Alison Krauss & Union Station's concert at Birmingham Symphony Hall on Friday (November 4) is sold out. www.thsh.co.uk