American Singer Songwriter, Alela Diane, has just released her sparkling sixth studio album ‘Looking Glass. The album follows Alela’s celebrated 2018 release Cusp, and the re-issue of her debut release, The Pirate’s Gospel, which has since sold over 100,000 copies. The phrase ‘Looking glass‘ originally referred to a mirror, however after Lewis Carroll published the novel ‘Alice Through the Looking-Glass‘ in 1871, the term took on a second meaning: “the opposite of what is normal or expected.” After the pandemic, the world found itself living in a world that was turned upside down. “So much of our reality has been distorted through an unexpected lens,” said Alela,
“In the context of the album, Looking Glass refers to both meanings. It is a portal to past and future, and a reflection on all that lies between.” It is particularly prescient in these current times, particularly after the pandemic where Diane reflects, “The rug was pulled out. We’ve leaned on memory, been caught behind the fishbowl of our own homes — waving at a friend through the glass. A cellphone screen — a zoom meeting — the digital rabbit hole left behind by those who have passed on or simply drifted out of our lives.” It is telling that much of this album’s imagery is rooted within the natural rather than digital world, focussing on rivers, the strawberry moon, howling winds and sunrises; the same natural environments that our ancestors would have taken shelter and solace in.
This intensely personal alt folk album explores ideas of identity, belonging and where we choose to seek shelter. The album is like a sonic sanctuary in itself; inviting you wrap yourself in its sonic warmth while the winds ‘howl’ outside your windows, both literally and metaphorically. Diane’s powerful honey glazed vocals feel like a lighthouse in the storm guiding you back to the safety of the shore like a personification of mother earth. Her songs are woven with Americana, indie and psychedelic folk, whilst remaining ultimately contemplative, soothing, powerful and unique.
Touching on universal timeless issues like a sense of home, changing personal identity, maternal protection and love, Diane’s work is lush with pastoral elemental imagery of water, rivers, and sunrise, dancing in the ‘Strawberry Moon’ and ‘Howling wind,’ whilst also exploring love in its fierce maternal and romantic forms. She sings of water in its different states, “As the thunderous waves roared ” in ‘Paloma’ and “On the water we are free” in ‘Of Love‘. That idea that even the elements can change states from being dangerous to life giving, looking at water as both a cleansing, baptismal and lifegiving in ‘Of Love’ as opposed to the danger of the thunderous waves in ‘Paloma.’ At points in the album her voice seems to be flowing like the water or river itself dancing over the steady steel guitar strings and twinkling keys. It’s as if the water itself was a source of knowledge and insight as it was for our forefathers.
The first two songs, ‘Paloma’ and ‘Howling Wind’, were both written during storms that took place in Mexico and the Pacific Northwest respectively. ‘Howling Wind’ was the first single released from her cathartic sixth studio album. What began during the unfolding of a single natural disaster evolved into a song about the wider instability and volatility of contemporary life. The “howling wind” becomes a metaphor for collective fears and sorrows, captured in stark imagery.
Diane said, “Howling Wind was born of the great reckoning we’ve been living through these past few years. These days of uncertainty, of fragility, of war, of disease, of brutality, of grief, but also hope, beauty, and love. ‘Howling Wind’ is a song for that feeling, whatever you call it.” This emphasises the futility and fragility of human systems when nature will always win out, but the musical narrative- the soaring melodies voice and steady rhythms seems to tell a more powerful optimistic story of human triumph over adversity.
Echoing this fragility and strength ‘Camellia’ was written about Alela’s intense brush with death whilst giving birth to her youngest daughter in 2017. The song reflects her deep inner monologues and euphoric triumph over darkness in the chorus.
‘Dream River‘ reflects on how Diane visited her old house in Navada realising that it had just come up for sale. She walked in the door feeling like ‘A trespasser in the place she once called home.‘ It was like sneaking through a life-sized time capsule from a lost era in her life. The song pivots around another interest: how the past is always with us, a source of sadness, sometimes, but also solace. It’s a preoccupation which resurfaces on ‘When We Believed’, which casts a backwards glance to Alela’s younger years, frequently away from home on the road. ‘It’s a song of reflection, of letting go, and reckoning with former selves, and expected outcomes,” says Diane.
These ideas of shedding the skin of old lives felt newly potent for Diane during the recording of Looking Glass, which took place whilst she and her family were selling the Portland house she bought at the age of 26, with the money from her first royalties. The water imagery of cleansing and making a fresh clean start feel particularly potent here too.
Many songs on this album strike the balance of imagined disaster juxtaposed with placid melody in a characteristic weaving of lightness and dark. Diane’s reflective new songs seem to ask, where shelter can be found. That question of refuge links Looking Glass to Diane’s entire body of work, which often touches on meanings of home, past and present. Diane traces the genesis of her creative life to the traumatic loss of her first place of refuge: her magical childhood home, nestled among the mountains and rivers of Nevada City, California. When she was 19, her parents divorced and sold the house, where she recalls listening to them harmonise bluegrass songs in the kitchen. Her first album, The Pirate’s Gospel, was inspired by that loss.
Often Fairy tales and dreams can be a refuge from the storms of life too, particularly when we are children. These imaginary stories can bring shelter. ‘Looking Glass,’ like ‘Howling Wind’ can be related to the world as a whole too. The title ‘Looking Glass’ seems embedded in the lyrics from ‘Strawberry Moon’ where she sings,” I had a dream that you were young again./and, in my dream you held me to your chest /Now, you’re a flicker in the looking glass.”
Just like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass,’ it is hard to know what is reality and what is fiction in the ‘digital rabbit hole’ that many of us found ourselves relying on during the pandemic. It seems telling that that so many of her songs relate to taking refuge in the natural world or seeing human emotions in all their light and dark forms echoed in nature, with pastoral elemental imagery of water, rivers, wind, sunrise and magical realist images of dancing in the ‘Strawberry Moon.’ This is an album to bathe and take refuge in, woven with Americana roots and deep ripples of sonic solace, ‘Looking Glass’ is a place of sonic sanctuary and soul solace. Dive in.
The new album Looking Glass, out on 14th October and is closely followed by a sold out headline show at London’s St Matthias Church on October 20, 2022.
God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.
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