Music

Amy Helm Continues Family Tradition

Amy Helm’s roots stem from a musical background that lives on to this day

Music is very obviously in Amy Helm’s blood. Her father, Levon Helm, was the drummer and often lead vocalist of The Band, a rock group well-known for songs including “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”

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But Amy Helm has succeeded in establishing herself as both a tribute to that tradition and her own freestanding entity, one who combines her father’s soulful twang with her own outlook on life. She’ll bring her sound and tracks from her new record, Didn’t It Rain, to the Center for the Arts in Homer on Saturday, Nov. 28. She’ll be backed by her band, The Handsome Strangers.

Helm bounced around as a child, living in Woodstock, Los Angeles and Manhattan. She began singing as a teenager in New York City.

“It wasn’t that glamorous,” she says with a laugh. “I sang a block or two from my high school at a dive bar on Broadway. I was in a couple bands and would get up as a guest singer. I’d sing a Joe Cocker song.”

But it was clear early on that music was her path. “It was always what I loved to do the most and what came easiest,” she says. “I think musicians learn pretty early on that they love it. I started singing in bands when I was about 14 and never stopped. I’ve taken breaks here and there to pull back and try other things, but it’s always been music. I listen to a lot and try to get my head around all of it. Around my mid-20s, I was singing in bands and working on various projects.”

Helm was a founding member of Ollabelle; as she performed with the roots band for about 10 years. She also performed with her father’s Midnight Ramble Band for about a decade, learning plenty from her dad along the way.

“He was certainly a huge influence on me,” she recalls. “He helped me to learn a lot of songs and hold myself on stage. He taught me to try harder each gig. I took a lot of fantastic training from him, as we all did who played with him. It was the next natural step to branch out and challenge myself to write and perform songs that I had to carry in a solo capacity.”

Helm started consistently writing and recording her own material about five years ago. Between tours with other groups, she would return home and lay down original demos with bassist Byron Isaacs. Then she’d go back on tour, save money, come home and record more tracks.

The process was slow but steady, and it was only three and a half years ago that she started performing under her own name. “As I did that, the songs and arrangements grew,” she says, “but I also grew myself as a singer: my musculature, confidence and strength. I became less cautious about my choices. I got stronger.”

During the time that she was recording her songs, Levon Helm died, on April 19, 2012. Meanwhile, Amy Helm’s personal life was in upheaval. “All these personal changes happened within just a few years,” she says. “That coupled with singing and being on the road, I wanted to represent that on the album. So we rerecorded more than half of it.

The result is a fresh representation of Helm and her band, complete with a few tracks featuring the distinctive count-offs and drumming by her father Levon. It marked his final recording sessions and his last act as producer.

“He was very proud and really excited,” she says. “He wanted me to do it for a long time. And it’s very special. It’s really amazing to hear and have that (Levon on the album). I’m very grateful about it.”

Helm is currently raising two boys, ages 4 and 7, who sometimes accompany her on tour. “It’s a really tough job (being a musician) and a single mom,” she reflects. “But the boys are the loves of my life and I’m finding that balance. I love to bring them on tour in the summer if I have the money. It’s all about money and timing.”

And she already sees the music in them. “They scream really loudly. They might be naturally inclined to be shout singers,” she says, laughing. “Really, they are musically inclined and I hope to see them foster that.”[snt]

Amy Helm and the Handsome Strangers will perform Saturday, Nov. 28, 8 p.m., at the Center for the Arts, 72 S. Main St., Homer. Tickets are $28 for adults, $23 for seniors and $15 for students. Visit center4art.org or call (607) 749-4900 or (877) 749-ARTS.

Advice from the Artist:

“I would give the same advice my dad gave me: If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. It’s a very difficult time in the world to be a working musician and cultivate a life as a musician, have a family. But if you’re called to play, if there’s a calling in your heart, nothing else will satisfy you. It’s important you do it. Enjoy every single gig, the best and the worst. And just have fun.”

Header photo by Jennifer S. Altman.

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