“Keep Yourself Within Yourself”: An Interview with Inara George

Inara George

Inara George is not new to the music scene. She has been a member of the Los Angeles-based groups Merrick and Lode; she has contributed vocals to the newest Idlewild album; she is the daughter of Lowell George (singer of the famed ‘70s rock group Little Feat) and she also seems to be close enough with Jackson Browne for him to add some backing vocals to her first album. But I don’t want to suggest that George is merely the product of her childhood surroundings. Her familiarity with music is revealed mostly through her strength as a songwriter and her subtle use of an obviously tremendous vocal talent. The entire environment of her youth was merely a starting point, aiming her toward the creation of an album as light and effortless as All Rise.

All Rise is familiar because the melodies are neatly made-beds waiting to accept naps. They are comforting and soft and sung with the perfect amount of levity to counterbalance how sincere the lyrics can sometimes be. The melodies are somehow new and old. They are also the most striking aspect about this album because they seem to accomplish exactly what they were meant to do.

Ross Simonini: After listening to your record, I come away with a lot of melodies in my head. This isn’t to say that you use clichés or hooks, but that you have some way of making melodies addictive without pushing them too far in the pop terrain. Have you spent a lot of time cultivating your sense of melody? Or are melodies more intuitive for you, while other aspects of songwriting (lyrics, arrangements, etc.) require more of your attention? Any particular melodic influences?

Inara George: That’s interesting. I’ve never really put any thought into that. I suppose it depends upon each song. The words are definitely the hardest part for me, and I think the melody sort of just springs up. As for influences, I look to other songs to help with lyrics and tempo more than melody. But I also look to poems and books, whatever I’m into at the time. It’s a little funny to talk about, because it’s certainly not brain surgery, but it’s definitely something that takes some effort. And the best thing about songwriting is that everyone does it differently. There’s no right way to do it, whereas brain surgery probably has a lot more rules. Or at least let’s hope so.

RS: Which poets or poems in particular have influenced you?

IG: I always hate being specific about my influences because I love so many artists that it’s hard to choose. And I’m not sure if they influenced me or not. But I will give you some examples of people I love. Ana Castillo, Bukowski, Neruda, Sylvia Plath. I love old Japanese poems. Bryony Atkinson (my old bandmate) is a really impressive poet. I also love playwrights like Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Bertolt Brecht, Edward Albee, Moliere, Anton Chekhov. Plays have to be just as musical as songs sometimes.

RS: Which books or authors? Any schools of writing you like more or less?

IG: I don’t think I stick to one school of writing. I just like what I like. Some of my favorite books: “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” all of J.D. Salinger’s stuff, “Please Kill Me.” I love Paul Bowles. Victoria Holt writes really good “old fashioned” romance novels, although once you’ve read one you’ve read them all. I love non-fiction and biographies. I could go on all day.

RS: Generally, I would say that books and poems are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of what words can do. Fiction is primarily more narrative while poetry is generally more abstract. I would say that songwriting has a similar division. Some artists like Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell often lean more toward storytelling or narratives and others (most) lean further towards abstract lyrics, lyrics that try to elaborate on emotional responses. Do you have any preference between these two types of songwriting?

IG: I think a good song is a good song no matter how it’s done. I just do what I do and hope that it turns out all right. I try not to over think anything or else I get too into my head, and that doesn’t do me any good when I’m trying to be creative.

RS: Are there any lesser-known artists you would like to bring to the attention of music fans? Any new albums you have found inspiring in the last year?

IG: I have to admit that I don’t have any one record that I have clung to this year. Not because there isn’t any good music; more out of laziness. I suppose I listen to my friends’ music. Mike Andrews is making a record, I love that. There is this band Mt Egypt, which is really just a guy named Travis. He made a record that isn’t out yet, that I really have been enjoying.

RS: After seeing you live, I wonder what sort of approach you have taken to your concerts. Is there much “live” adaptation? Do you just try and replicate the CD for your concerts or do you view the concert as a separate medium?

IG: I think that we try to use the CD as a foundation and then try to make each show fresh. We all have a hard time playing the same thing every time, although I think it’s good to revisit the CD every now and again, so we don’t forget where we started.

Lyrically, All Rise seems to be consistent in its use of heartbreak and the more traditional love-song format. There are all the loves—lost love, unrequited love, new love—and at times it almost borders on feeling too sentimental and particularly too submissive. However, there are also times when the lyrics seem to come from someone cold and hardened, someone ashamed of their sentimentality. George sometimes embodies the anachronistic eye-batting female and sometimes, she spits on it.

RS: Can you comment on this lyric and how it fits into the song “The trick is to never look into their eyes.”

inara george 2IG: I suppose the trick to having a mistress is to never get too invested . . .

RS: I hear a sense of irony coming in and out of the albums lyrics. Would you say much of your music aims for irony? Or do you generally want your music to be less light-hearted and more sincere?

IG: I would hope that I could explore all of it. I don’t think I try to avoid any kind of song.

RS: What would you say the predominant subject matter is of your songs? Love? Trust?

IG: I don’t know, really. I think people might see it as love. But I’d say it’s just life. Whatever is happening at the moment.

All Rise is an album built from a lot of impressive creative forces. They include Chris Stillwell, the bassist and drummer from the well-respected funk group Greyboy Allstars; Greg Kurstin (keyboardist for Beck and Ben Harper); former Cake drummer Pete McNeal; and Michael Andrews, another member of Greyboy Allstars, producer of the band Metric, as well as a film composer for the cult classic “Donnie Darko.” Andrews plays a number of the instruments and produces the record. On the album sleeve, he is listed as a songwriter, producer and band member.

RS: How did you begin working with Michael Andrews? Is the partnership more of a cowriting partnership, a producer-artist relationship or a band member relationship? Certain places in the album (such as the end of “No Poem”), where the emphasis is more on textures, seem like they might come more from the head of a film composer. Is this right or am I way off?

IG: Mike and I met a couple of years ago through a few mutual friends. When Merrick dissolved, he and I started recording a little, here and there. And when we decided we should make a whole record, I started writing more songs, which I would play for him whenever he had a spare moment between scoring. Sometimes the songs would take on a whole other life; sometimes they would just stay the same. I think he was most interested in making the song as good as it could be. So I suppose the relationship is more of a producer-artist one. But I like to think of our relationship embodying all that you mentioned: partnership, friendship, bandmate, (something) multifaceted. As for the textures of the record, I’m sure that Mike has been influenced by his scoring work on films. But I don’t think there was any forethought about that. We just kept working until we thought it sounded right.

RS: How did you come to work with the rest of the band? Is this your touring band or just your recording band?

IG: Mike is in the Greyboy Allstars, and Chris was brought into the project by Mike. Actually I can’t take any credit for bringing any of the players to the table. They are all musicians that had a history with Mike. Pete McNeal and Greg Kurstin have played on a lot Mike’s film projects. But I want to emphasize that we all had played a bunch of shows together before we started recording. We all became very friendly. (And so when the time came to make the record everyone was very invested. I think I’m a little sensitive about people thinking that this record was a “studio musician” creation, not only for my own personal reasons, but for the players. Everyone’s involvement was really important to the project. And now that we’ve started making plans for touring it looks like almost everyone who played on the record will be able to come out, excluding Greg Kurstin, who will be replaced by Joe Kennedy. And when Pete McNeal (who has been touring with Jem) isn’t able to come out, he will be replaced by Barbara Gruska.

“Studio” albums with “studio” musicians usually sound like groups of songs uncomfortably forced into some standard studio package. They can be sterile and void of any unique emotional output. This album does not fall into the same problems as the typical singer-songwriter with backing band. The musicianship has sensitivity and subtlety and depth. In fact, it sounds like a set of musicians who have used various nostalgic elements (there seem to be elements of ’70s rock and ’50s pop and even something of ’20s jazz) to create a unique and focused sound. Also, the interplay between George and the musicians is also quite coherent, another rare quality of the singer-songwriter genre.

RS: To what extent were you trying to match the tone of your songs to the tone of the band? A different way of putting this: When you wrote the songs on this album, did you have the full-band settings in mind or was it more of a process of adaptation?

IG: I don’t think that I really have that ability, to write for a full-band setting. When I’m writing, I never think beyond me and the guitar. It’s definitely not something to brag about. Once the song is finished, then I have a better idea of what I want it to sound like, but it’s always fun to hear what the other players come up with, and to hear Mike’s take on it. I know what I don’t like, so that narrows it down. Once it came time to record, Mike was really clear about how he wanted everything to sound, especially the drums. He had this little room made for the drums in his studio so he could get a very tight sound. Our motto throughout recording was “light and tight.” It sounds kind of dorky in the retelling. I suppose we knew there was something that was dorky about it, but it really informed the record. And ultimately the idea was to leave space for the vocals. Mike thinks the best parts of my voice come through when I don’t have to strain over the band, and I think he’s right.

RS: The difficult aspect about adapting voice-and-guitar songs to a full-band setting is that you gain as much as you lose. Usually, the intimacy and nuance becomes muddled and the power becomes amplified. You said that you try to create a subdued band sound, so that your voice isn’t strained. Do you have any interest in putting out a solo acoustic album at some point? Or do you generally prefer playing with a band?

IG: I’d say I’m open for anything. I love acoustic albums just as much as anything. I don’t know if I would do that for my next thing. But I think that there is definitely something to be said for thinking about it in the future.

Inara George is currently on tour. Her first record is now available on Everloving Records.

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