As a solo artist, a collaborator with husband Wreckless Eric and with her trio The Shams, singer-songwriter Amy Rigby has always written from the heart
Amy Rigby’s first solo album “Diary of a Mod Housewife” was released in 1996. It didn’t take long for the album to find a devoted following. For some fans she was a “where have you been all my life” voice. The idea that a grown-up woman could write grown-up songs about real things like messy romance, parenting and approaching middle age, but not cushion them in singer-songwriter over earnestness really was a welcome perspective. There was an audience of people like her, who were raised on rock & roll, and though they were now way out of their teens, they were certainly not ready for Lawrence Welk. Amy not only delivered personal songs relevant to them, but had developed her skills so the songs were catchy and with a rough-edged familiarity.
Amy Rigby “Keep It To Yourself”
Some fans might have been surprised to learn that she had a rock & roll past. Photos on her website document her evolution from a college student flirting with Punk to the Cowpunk phase with her band The Last Roundup (who released an album on Rounder in 1987), and the early 90s timeless look of her all-girl trio The Shams, who released two records on the Matador label. Then parenthood and break-up caused her songwriting to take a left turn, and Amy Rigby the solo artist was born.
In the twenty plus years since then, she’s released three collaborations with husband Wreckless Eric and seven solo albums. She’s built a career chronicling the heartbreak of being human.
PKM: You moved to New York City in 1976 to attend Parsons School Of Design. What were your dreams? What were your first impressions of the city?
Amy Rigby: I wanted to live in an apartment, wear cool clothes and have my own money. Being able to draw seemed like it might lead to me being able to achieve that. I loved Betsey Johnson’s illustrations for her designs.
The first thing that blew my mind when my taxi came up Sixth Avenue from the Holland Tunnel was a girl in overalls with no shirt underneath, just walking along like everybody else. I thought “Wow, you can be free here.” In the suburbs of Pittsburgh, I’d have “Weirdo!” hurled at me from passing cars when I’d walk up hills with my jeans tucked into Frye boots.
PKM: Is there a song, or album or group that signifies that time for you?
Amy Rigby: “X Offender” by Blondie. It sounded like pop singles of my youth. I didn’t know at the time that Richard Gottehrer also produced The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back,” which made a big impression on me the first time I heard it hanging out after school in a house with no carpet on the floor and no grownups around, but the lyrics and Debbie Harry’s delivery made it feel modern and subversive. Patti Smith’s Horses and The Ramones first album would come next and were both huge for me, but that first Blondie single, the feeling that they as a band and we the listeners were all getting away with something new… well it just made me want to run to the Late Show used clothing store on St. Marks Place and buy a secondhand leather jacket which is exactly what I did. Even though the student adviser had cautioned us to never ever go east of Third Avenue.
Blondie’s official video for “X Offender”
PKM: Can you point to any difference between the way that New York in the late 70’s is remembered and romanticized these days and the way you remember it?
Amy Rigby: I just remember it feeling empty at night downtown. A clear divide between uptown, above 14th Street, and downtown. If it meant getting on a subway, it was usually too far! Abandoned cars everywhere and heroin traffic dominated whole streets in the East Village and Lower East Side. The number of people who were into punk or no wave, going to see shows in little places downtown, with the occasional weird gig at an uptown restaurant or bar, felt so small. We started a dance party called Stinky’s, that eventually became Tier 3, in a dank basement on St. Marks Place and the floor turned to mud the first night. The next day walking around the East Village, I spotted a person here or there with dried mud on their shoes or jeans and felt like we’d made a little mark on the city which for the most part still looked like the 70s, still sounded like disco. There was one store uptown (Ian’s?) that had vinyl clothes from London and only Trash & Vaudeville and then Manic Panic on St. Marks had anything resembling punk fashion.
I also remember extremes of hot and cold, and how weather seemed to factor into everything. I don’t think you see that aspect so much in the mythology: the intense heat of the subway platforms and the cars themselves – this is on the rare occasion you’d “treat yourself” to a ride, everybody sweating at shows; mountains of snow around Cooper Square where there are now fancy buildings. It was rare to know someone with an air conditioner, what used to be Stuyvesant Town (the massive apartment complex at 14th and First to Avenue C) didn’t even allow them until maybe the early 90s. Going to Mudd Club or Tier 3 way downtown was like going to Antarctica sometimes. And then tenement heat with radiators that hissed and clanged all night – unless the building ran out of oil. I spent one winter in a fur coat next to a gas stove as the only source of heat in the apartment.
Amy Rigby “Dancing with Joey Ramone”
PKM: You’re married to Wreckless Eric. Can you remember the first time you ever heard his much loved, much covered “Whole Wide World”?
“Whole Wide World” by Wreckless Eric, produced by Nick Lowe:
Amy Rigby: It was probably in the dorm room at NYU where Parsons students lived because Parsons didn’t have its own dorms yet. One of my roommates, Julia Gorton, the great photographer with an amazing Instagram account of images from back then, had a boyfriend, Rick Brown of 75 Dollar Bill, Run On, V-Effect etc., who bought all the new records as soon as they came out. I’m sure he had “Whole Wide World” but I remember listening to the B side “Semaphore Signals” more. I just loved the way Wreckless Eric said “green belt”. It was the Greatest Stiff compilation that came out in the early 2000s that got me into Wreckless Eric in a big way. I started covering “Whole Wide World”. Then I was sitting in Holland Tunnel traffic when I heard a record called “Young Upwardly Mobile & Stupid” on WFMU and the DJ (Terre T?) said it was by Len Bright Combo, and that Wreckless Eric was in THAT band, and I just became super-intrigued: who was this crazy-talented, elusive figure? It took a few more years of missed connections, he WAS elusive and I was going through some turmoil in my own life, but we met again at a Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show at Maxwell’s and got together a year after that.
PKM: I was looking back at reviews of your albums and on the whole, critics really love you. Why do you think that is?
Amy Rigby: Maybe cause I’m as much of a nerd as they are? I wish I could have that rock star elusiveness, that air of absolute mystery and otherness we need our artists to have… and not be so normal, human and approachable, but then I don’t think I’d be able to write songs like I do. I think the writers identify with me, another writer.
PKM: Ever get any bad reviews?
Amy Rigby: I know they’re supposed to sear themselves on your brain for all time, and I guess I’ve been lucky cause there haven’t been many, but the main stinging one was more like a fan message board, from the first show Eric and I played together in Los Angeles, saying what a shame such an epic talent as him would be saddled with a nobody like me. Even going so far as to compare our duo to Tin Machine-era David Bowie! These things stay with you…
PKM: You were in your late 30s when your amazing first solo album Diary Of A Mod Housewife was released in 1996, and you’d been writing songs and playing in bands for a long time by then. You didn’t exactly reinvent yourself, but by continually writing about what was going on in your life, you continually evolved, and I think the world was really ready for the point of view you had at that moment in time. It was unique, and the musical palate that you’d honed over the years was a great backdrop for your songs. That record caused a sensation. Were you expecting that?
Amy Rigby: I believed so much in what I was putting out there I never even considered the possibility that no one would be interested. I guess I’ve always operated with an artist’s necessary degree of self-delusion: you need it to be so, and it is. I felt like I wrote those songs to be heard and that people would hear them, and they did! Of course, at the time there was still that kind of music industry where selling 20,000 records was not a success but kind of a letdown, and so I ended the Mod Housewife ride feeling… not exactly a failure… but not popping any champagne corks, still wondering how to get people to come to shows, how to pay a band, how to do a follow up album. I was also dealing with the breakup of my marriage, still working temp jobs to pay the bills, raising a daughter and the fact that I’d dyed my hair blonde. Crazy time indeed.
PKM: Yeah, when that record came out people were still buying CDs in record stores. It wasn’t that long ago but the music business had changed so much. You still tour a lot and seem to really thrive on it. What’s changed about touring in the last 22 years?
Amy Rigby: The cost of gas usually goes up when it’s time to go on tour, that hasn’t changed. I think the biggest difference is the amount of self-promotion one is expected to do for every gig, except some of the house concerts where the host has a built-in group of friends/audience that come to all their shows. Oh wait, that’s another difference: house concerts. I remember the first time I heard about someone playing in a living room. Pat DiNizio, the late great singer/writer/member of The Smithereens, did a whole tour of them back in the mid-nineties and it just seemed impossibly intimate, like “You’re in these people’s living room? And they’re sitting on couches, with the family pictures on the wall and stuff? And you actually stay in the house with them?” Now they are a big part of a lot of artists’ tour itineraries. They are challenging in a different way than club shows as you feel onstage from the minute you park your car in the driveway. For the most part they end up being a lot of fun, but you kind of have to roll with whatever the situation is, unlike in a commercial enterprise where you would have some level of professional expectations in regards to sound and lighting, and clearer demarcations between performer, host and audience… or at least you’re allowed some righteous anger if things are shoddy whereas when people are putting on shows for the pure love of music, a table lamp might be the lighting rig and unless you carry your own simple lights, you accept ‘hey, I’m in a living room. We’re all in this together’.
I wish I could have that rock star elusiveness, that air of absolute mystery and otherness we need our artists to have… and not be so normal, human and approachable, but then I don’t think I’d be able to write songs like I do.
PKM: In your travels I imagine you’ve encountered your share of creeps. Ever had a ‘me too’ moment?
Amy Rigby: No, not in the world of music. I guess I’m lucky, or don’t have anything to offer people in positions of power. I’ve been fortunate to work with many respectful, creative, inspiring men and women.
PKM: Some of your songs talk about real events and describe real people. I imagine that could cause some uncomfortable situations. Has anyone ever gotten in touch after hearing them self described in song?
Amy Rigby: Only my daughter – she claims she was never the sulky teen in “Don’t Ever Change” and she’s probably right to a degree. Real people might be the jumping off point, but songs are constructions and the characters are amalgams for me to speak through.
PKM: Are there songs you’ve written that were turning points in your development as a writer? Songs that made you think “That’s something new” or “I’ve turned a songwriting corner”?
Amy Rigby: With “At The Well,” which was recorded by my early country band Last Roundup, I felt like I was expressing my true youthful angst and ennui in the way I’d heard Doug Sahm & Gram Parsons do it, with country music as a jumping off point but not a template. “Only A Dream” and “Dark Angel,” recorded by The Shams, were the same thing a little further on, with some formal songcraft but not much technical knowledge to get in the way. I still don’t know how “Dark Angel” ended up being in G flat.
The Shams “Dark Angel”
I remember writing “All I Want” and thinking – that’s a real song for anybody, not just me. I heard Ronnie Spector’s voice in my head. Same with “Don’t Break The Heart”, only that was maybe Emmylou Harris’s voice. Those felt like I’d achieved pop music. “Summer Of My Wasted Youth” and “Cynically Yours” felt like art, like they broke through that formal wall, like a person turning to address the camera in a movie. “Don’t Ever Change” feels like pop and art. I always hope I can better any of those. “Genovese Bag” from me and Eric’s record “A Working Museum” and “Do You Remember That.” “Back From Amarillo” too. “From Philip Roth…” It might be the lyrics that have moved things along for me but there’s always musical stuff to learn and better and I don’t see that ever stopping.
Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby “Do You Remember That”
PKM: Your songs have been covered a bunch. Do you have a favorite, or one that surprised you?
Amy Rigby: I always thought/hoped there would be more! Most of the recorded covers have been through friends who heard my songs. I moved to Nashville to find a publisher and do more as a songwriter. I signed with Welk Music but didn’t get a single cut through that. Maybe my songs weren’t right for the town or that time. Probably the best thing that came out of my time there, along with getting to know some super-talented people and learning to collaborate and co-write, was realizing I was an artist, not just a writer who happened to make records and perform.
I will say the covers that surprise me most are by people that aren’t well-known just choosing to play one of my songs in a bar. Every now and then I’ll hear from somebody or see that on YouTube. They could do “Freefallin,” they could do “You Baby” or “Wish You Were Here” or any number of Neil Young or Dylan songs or “One Way Or Another” but they play “Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again” or “I Dont Wanna Talk About Love No More.” That’s a huge compliment.
PKM: What’s the best compliment you ever received from a peer?
Amy Rigby: I don’t know if he’s exactly a peer, but Bob Neuwirth heard me play “Magicians” at an in-the-round in Nashville and said, “That’s currency. Just take your guitar and play that song anywhere.” It kind of felt like no matter what, that was something I could fall back on forever.
PKM: What’s the first record you bought/most recent music you bought?
Amy Rigby: I remember my mom letting me choose a 45 at Kresge’s (Pittsburgh’s Woolworth’s) and it was “Early In The Morning” by Vanity Fare.
The most recent music I bought was the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s Nashville a few weeks ago. I get given so much music when I’m touring and I try to listen to all of it. I loved hearing one of my house concert hosts Rain Perry’s album Men and Kristian Hoffman’s album Fop. He’s a friend from the old New York days, though I never knew him well back then; he was in The Mumps, a real group and very intimidating! But I think he’s a genius.
PKM: What do you miss about Pittsburgh?
Amy Rigby: I left over forty years ago. I don’t feel like I have a right to miss anything about it. I’m still a regular visitor. My dad and two of my brothers live there, and it seems like anytime I go there my hair frizzes and my face breaks out. That will always be Pittsburgh to me.
PKM: Now you live in the Hudson Valley. What’s the best thing about life up there?
Amy Rigby: Aside from being one of the most beautiful places on earth, something about the light reflecting off the Hudson River and all those mountains, I love how it lets you take what you learned and who you were in other places and make something new with it.
PKM: When you visit New York City is there a place you need to see, or thing you need to do, or food you need to eat?
Amy Rigby: My car just automatically goes to the East Village. I guess I still know where to find the parking spots there. If I spend the night at my brother’s place, he still lives in the same building he and I moved to back in 1979, I have to go to Veselka for the breakfast special…even though the fresh orange juice is now served in a thimble and they’re stingy with the bread too. But it’s the place I remember… they don’t remember me.
PKM: When you’re on tour, what snack do you buy at gas stations?
Amy Rigby: I really try not to. Maybe a banana.
Amy Rigby: They’re always real estate-related. And pointless! But I’ve always had a knack for living in and moving out of neighborhoods/cities before they become sought after: the East Village, then Williamsburg, then Nashville. That cycle stopped when I lived briefly in Cleveland, I think. Though I hear there’s lots going on there…
PKM: On record, and even more so live, I’ve always felt a tremendous vulnerability from you that is very endearing. Is that just you – or was it a conscience decision to express yourself in an unguarded way? Is that hard to do? Is there a downside?
Amy Rigby: I just don’t know how to be any other way. It all points back to Pittsburgh. There is or was an innocence and lack of guile to that place. Just look at Andy Warhol. He didn’t know how to be pretentious…that’s inaccessible to a Pittsburgher.
PKM: Your new album The Old Guys starts off with a song called “philiproth@gmail to [email protected].” It’s an imagined email from novelist Philip Roth to Bob Dylan. It’s a great song on so many levels. You must have been sorry to hear that Philip Roth died shortly after its release. Is it depressing to think that the “old guys” will soon be “the dead guys”?
Amy Rigby: I look through my old address book and think this sometimes. Not only artists and writers I look up to but family and friends I loved or whose work I admired. I just don’t want to forget them. I guess that’s a good thing with social media, you can share your love of somebody’s work so easily and doesn’t it feel good to know you played somebody a Roger Miller song the other day and they said “Wow! I forgot how great he was. I think I’ll listen to some more Roger Miller.”
The new album, The Old Guys, is streamed here:
PKM: I get the feeling that if you didn’t write songs, you might burst.
Amy Rigby: I’ve been trying to learn to be a non-song writer too, as putting life down in words helps me make sense of it. Sometimes I wish I worked as a visual artist instead. Like when I’m in hotels and see all these paintings in the rooms and I think that would be relaxing and creative and satisfying to make art that isn’t asking anyone to know who made it, only giving them a bit of color or design to stare at or ignore as they go about their business. Songs need an audience – my writing comes out of a desire to understand the world but also a need to communicate and there’s a pressure then that they be heard, and to be heard they need to be played and gotten out there, so here comes another record and tour and hoping I can get someone to come along and listen. And the cycle goes on and on but I’m lucky I’m still able to do that. It’s not enough to just write the songs if they sit in a drawer, the good ones don’t feel done until you put them in front of people. Recording and performing are rewarding in themselves. So I guess it’s not a bad cycle.
A recent live show at the Bop Shop with Amy Rigby :