It would be perfectly fine with Alexandra Scott if she never experiences another year like the one that preceded her last album, I Love You So Much Always—a year that saw numerous personal losses compounded by health issues that put her out of commission for weeks at a time. But since the album’s release, she’s been recognized as one of the city’s more exquisite pop/rock voices, and she’ll cap a busy year by playing French Quarter Fest. While she’s played the festival before as part of the New Orleans Nightingales, this will be her first appearance there as a solo artist.
It’s not always easy for a singer/songwriter with ethereal leanings and alternative-pop roots to feel at home on the local scene, but Scott admits that’s been changing. “I still feel like an odd fit, but there’s more of a community in 2015 for my kind of music. We have Hurray for the Riff Raff, Kristin [Diable]’s new album, Ingrid [Lucia]’s new album – things that are more related to what I do. I may not have much of a New Orleans sound, but I’ve been shaped by my time here and the musicians I’ve learned from.”
And she’s done her bit to bring that community together by compiling a bunch of creatively themed singer-songwriter shows. Among them are her membership (with Mark Paradis) in ABBAnoon Delight—yes, the city’s best and only ABBA tribute—along with a recent Valentine’s Day show at One Eyed Jack’s (with Natalie May, Dayna Kurtz, Cindy Scott and others) for people without Valentines. “It just seemed right to sing sad love songs on that day. You can’t see the backstage from the audience at that club, so there was an unseen angel choir for most of the show. All night long I’d hear the voices rising up from the audience, and it made me so happy.”
With its musings on mortality and reaching for transcendence, I Love You So Much Always feels like a personal catharsis, and indeed it was one: She lost a handful of friends during the recording, and one of her closest took his life in January of last year, turning that week’s release celebration into a memorial. “I don’t think I’m ever going to forget that he did that the day before the record was released—that was the ultimate cosmic, terrible joke. For a while I couldn’t separate those two things. That’s where the album title comes in. It’s something I’ve heard people say to their children, or when they put their animals to sleep. Saying it makes me feel like the people I love aren’t going to be entirely gone.”
There were physical issues to deal with at the same time. Thanks to a fluke accident at yoga class when her teacher pulled her leg behind her head, she underwent a long series of knee surgeries and was facing yet another one when we spoke last month. “It’s never going to be over—they told me I’d never be out of pain. I spent years of my life not being able to go to second lines, just staying home with my dogs. The operations can give you six to 12 months of relief, but there won’t be a time in my life when I won’t have to push through pain. So now, I’ve been through Katrina, I’ve been through this much loss, and I’m still here. So okay, I can stand it. I must not be entirely without character.”
One encounter during her recovery inspired her single, “Gas Station Lover,” which received an OffBeat Best of the Beat nomination for song of the year, received some WWOZ airplay and for which she’s just completed a video. Lyrically, it’s a true story about getting hit on by a gas station attendant—not an event that many women would remember fondly. But the song is generous enough to thank him for the ego boost, and hope he finds true love with somebody else. Has the guy in question ever heard the song? “Maybe, if Middle Eastern guys who work at gas stations ever listen to WWOZ. I considered going down and giving him a CD but never went through with it. It was one of those low times in my life where I’d come out of an operation and couldn’t go to a parade or a concert unless my friends pushed me around. It was a really lonely time, so I couldn’t overlook the sweetness of that gesture.”
Statuesque and striking onstage, and currently sporting a pink pixie haircut, Scott has actually done a fair share of modelling work. A dreamlike photo of her can currently be seen outside the New Orleans Museum of Art, as part of Josephine Sacabo’s exhibit Salutations, which features her prominently. “We’ve worked together for a decade now, and thanks to her, my face has been on galleries and museums in New Orleans, London, Paris, New York, Mexico. I started modelling as a teenager, and I’ve done a ton of that. I had an agency in New York for a while when I was at Vassar, but I was too busy playing classical guitar to go on many calls, so I never had a mega-career. I have that weird gift of being comfortable in front of a lens. I know where I am in relation to it, so even advertising can be fun, except when you get male photographers who want to pour buckets of water over you. But at best, it’s a cousin of live performance—they’re related, and every type of art ultimately serves every other type.”
Scott grew up in rural Virginia and was raised on family sing-alongs. Her uncle Peter Stanley was a folksinger who performed on a few occasions with Pete Seeger. “It was horse country and mountain country. I spent my childhood riding horses around the countryside. I didn’t realize when I moved to New Orleans that I wasn’t going to be able to go a half-hour out of town and be in world-class scenery. We would, and still do, have these family cookouts where we’d be wrapped up in blankets under the stars and everyone would start singing all together.”
She credits one of those gatherings, later in her life, with getting her over a longtime case of stage fright. “This was in 2005. We’d had a hayride that day and my mother said ‘You’re going to play for everybody.’ So a few of my friends struck up ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ and I had this humungous performance breakthrough. Until then I’d been shy onstage or maybe too much of a perfectionist. I’d always be hiding behind long hair. That night I realized that it’s not about me giving a performance. It’s about offering something to someone I love.”
She was starting to get well established in New Orleans around 2005, when certain weather conditions put the kibosh on that. At the time she was getting high-profile solo gigs, including opening for Richard Thompson at the House of Blues. And she’d joined the Peoples’ Revolutionary Army of St. Bernard, the short-lived rock band that singer/writer Peter Holsapple put together after the final breakup of the Continental Drifters. That group managed just a couple of gigs before a few forced relocations.
Another Katrina casualty was her musical partnership with indie rock figure Tim Sommer, who’d led the ambient pop group Hugo Largo. He was also the Atlantic Records A&R man who unleashed Hootie & the Blowfish on the world. “I’d already been through a number of musical set-ups that turned out to be pretty painful, then a photographer I was working with told me, ‘You should meet my sister’s boyfriend, he works with Hootie & the Blowfish.’ Well, I hated that band, even though I’m sure they’re wonderfully nice people. But I met up with Tim and we had one of those meetings where you just chatter away—‘You love this record? I love that record!’ We got along so well that everybody assumed we were sleeping together, even though we weren’t.” Sommer wound up producing two of Scott’s solo discs (2003’s Spyglass and 2005’s Spring), and the two collaborated on her most unusual album: Music for Synchronized Swimming in Space, credited to Hi-Fi Sky. A set of ambient pop soundscapes with English and French lyrics, it’s likely the spaciest Cajun-rooted music ever made. “I truly love that album. Tim would play an Amadee Ardoin album and we’d take a couple of notes from the accordion solo and work around it. He always told me that I could play better than I realized, so if he told me to jump off a musical cliff I was going to do it.”
These days, she works with an ever-expanding group of collaborators, including recent appearances with pianist Tom McDermott (“You can feel yourself stretching and growing when you play with him”). But her core band is keyboardist Sam Craft, singer/guitarist Kelcy Mae Wilburn and violinist Rebecca Crenshaw. At French Quarter Fest, she’ll be joined by two multi-instrumental collaborators from the album, Jack Craft and Rick Nelson.
The question now is whether she can write a worthy follow-up album without quite as much turmoil in her life. “I would love for that answer to be yes. I’ve been pounding away, but so far I haven’t fallen in love with anything I’ve written,” she said during our interview. But she’s since come up with a couple that she’s at least crushed on, including “a straight-up rock song, a Sixpenny Opera/cabaret song I wrote with Earl Scioneaux, and a train song I wrote while on meditation retreat.” And after immersing herself in Boyfriend and Beck, she’s since come up with a new song that’s “totally upbeat and danceable.” Maybe it’s not too much to hope that the next year in her life will be the same.