Q&A: Amy Helm

Q&A: Amy Helm
Photo Courtesy of Lisa MacIntosh Amy Helm, daughter of The Band’s Levon Helm, will be playing her first show in Fayetteville with her band The Handsome Strangers at the Roots Festival Friday evening.

Photo Courtesy of Lisa MacIntosh
Amy Helm, daughter of The Band’s Levon Helm, will be playing her first show in Fayetteville with her band The Handsome Strangers at the Roots Festival Friday evening.

The daughter of a famed Arkansan musician will be making her solo debut Friday night at the Fayetteville Roots Festival.

Amy Helm is the daughter of singer-songwriter Libby Titus and Levon Helm — whose famous drum style and bold Arkansan voice was the core of The Band’s sound. Her stepfather is Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. Despite the impressive lineage, Amy Helm is her own force to be reckoned with after releasing her first solo LP Didn’t It Rain last year.

Helm is known for her work as a member of alt-country outfit Ollabelle, in addition to playing in the Midnight Ramble Band with her father for 10 years. Didn’t It Rain features her father — who also was an executive producer for the album — on three tracks, his last before passing away in 2012.

The album keeps a lively, rootsy jaunt throughout and really hits the wide-reaching Americana genre effectively. Helm’s voice shines through on the swampy “Wild Girl,” turns up the rock n’ roll dial on “Heat Lightning,” and you can hear Levon’s familiar count off on “Spend Our Last Dime.”

For everyone who missed out on getting a ticket to her Roots Fest performance, she’ll be doing a special late night set with Earl & Them at George’s Majestic Lounge Saturday night. Tickets are still available at georgesmajesticlounge.com.

We managed to get a hold of Amy while she was in the middle of her tour in the Pacific Northwest on the way to Seattle, Wash. before she headed south to Fayetteville. Check out our our interview:

TFW: How familiar are you with Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas? I know the Helms have a Springdale connection.

HELM: I haven’t played in Fayetteville yet. I’ve been through Little Rock a couple times, but never Fayetteville. I played there with my dad but not— Hold on, that’s the venue right here guys. Oh (laughs). I’m in the van backseat driving and annoying people. But yeah, I played there with my dad but not with my own band yet. It’ll be Amy Helm and The Handsome Strangers’ debut.

I’m a little bit familiar with Fayetteville. I have a lot of family who live there, my uncle Terry Cagle. I’ve been there a little bit.

TFW: I saw you’re going to be playing with Earl Cate, and Terry is in his band. Anything you could share with us about what’s in store for your concert?

HELM: I actually haven’t had a chance yet. I’m out on tour right now, I’m in Seattle. I haven’t had a chance to connect with those guys on the phone and find out what’s in store. Anything with the Cate Brothers is a good collaboration. They’re such fantastic musicians and it’ll be exciting. I’m looking forward to it. Anything those guys want to do I’ll be happy to do, but like I said (laughs) honestly I don’t have a lot to gather yet with it. It’ll be a great surprise for us all.

TFW: We’re all looking forward to seeing what’s in store. How’s the tour going?

HELM: It’s going great. I’ve got my boys out with me, which is a lot of fun. It’s a little more work but they’re very well behaved, we’re having a good time. We just pulled in to Seattle, and we just played in Portland, Ore. We’re headed up to British Columbia after this show tonight. I’m really looking forward to that tonight. Then we drive from there to Little Rock.

TFW: Is it hard being a mother while on the road, too?

HELM: It has its challenges. My boys are really good at being flexible with me and gotten used to me working. They’re real troopers, I’m real proud of them. They’re 4 and 8. They’re patient with me and enable me to be a better mom while I’m out here trying to balance work and mom-hood. That’s been a good thing.

TFW: How’s the solo act been going?

HELM: I put out my solo record last summer and that was my first album. I worked on it for a long time, over the course of five years in different phases of commitment. I was still working pretty heavily with my dad’s band. When I started to record tracks for this album I sort of finished the album and the process, and y’know, after he passed away I came back to it and finished it up.

Courtesy Photo Amy Helm released her rootsy Americana solo LP, Didn’t It Rain in 2015 to critical acclaim.

Courtesy Photo
Amy Helm released her rootsy Americana solo LP, Didn’t It Rain in 2015 to critical acclaim.

TFW: What were some of the things you were hoping to say or do with Didn’t It Rain?

HELM: I just wanted to make a record that was honest and put my best foot forward. Something that I could share with my other friends and other musicians I worked with and feel good about playing it for them, something they would enjoy. When I first started to make the album my vision wasn’t necessarily very clear. I think that as I put the record out and started building a band and started being more familiar with being a solo singer and someone who was fronting a band for two hours every night, my goals changed. I started to challenge myself to sing better and try harder and just get more experience and get better at what I do and become a better singer every night. That’s the goal.

TFW: What were some words of wisdom or advice your father passed along to you about the music business?

HELM: Never accept a personal check, and always try to get cash paid before the gig (laughs). That’s probably one of the most practical things he taught me. He taught me a lot of things and I think one thing he taught by example was if you’re not having fun then you’re doing something wrong. Always let music be fun, and keep that consistent through changing times and good gigs or bad gigs and great shows and shows that make you wish you were home instead of playing. Stay grounded in what’s fun about playing music.

I think that like any other working musician, you have times where you question how it’s all going to work out and how you’re going to do it. Being a working musician can be a tricky career choice. The money is inconsistent. Raising a family as a working musician can be challenging. I do try to follow that advice, and it certainly helps me and grounds me. I think I’m doing a pretty good job of adhering to it.

TFW: What was it like playing in the Midnight Ramble Band all of those years alongside your father?

HELM: I’ve been playing in that band for over 10 years. Playing in that band every night was just like taking a master class in many ways. There was some extraordinary musicians in that band for sure, but even as experienced as incredible as the players were, I think everybody felt that watching my dad play drums was a different thing — someone who had mastered their instrument. It really inspired people and it inspired me. It was a great thing to watch him transcend and play on this completely different level. I mean, his commitment to the groove and to the gig was extraordinary.

TFW: If I had to guess, I’d think you listen to a lot of older music. I’m curious though, who are some acts today that you’re into or influenced by?

HELM: Gosh, there’s so many. I just heard this young lady, Margo Price. She’s a great singer. Aoife O’Donovan is a phenomenal singer. I just got to open some shows for the Tedeschi Trucks Band. I would easily say one of the best touring bands out there. They’re incredible. Every person in that band can play and sing their ass off. Every time I play a show where I get to connect with other artists and other people at festivals I get to hear new music that I love. The Wood Brothers are one of my favorite bands as well.

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