On Space and Range: The soulful Gothic Americana of Amanda Winterhalter

click to enlarge Amanda Winterhalter By Kittenteeth Studio 1
Amanda Winterhalter By Kittenteeth Studio 1

By Corey Ogelsby

For Inland 360

Seattle-based singer-songwriter Amanda Winterhalter is headed inland for two shows Friday and Saturday in Clarkston and Moscow, respectively. Currently on tour with a full backing band supporting her latest release, “What’s This Death,” Winterhalter’s singular brand of gothic Americana is as intimate and direct as it is audacious and unpredictable.

Winterhalter was gracious enough to give Inland 360 some insight into her history, influences, and her thoughts on the craft of songwriting. Here’s what she had to say.

How did you get started writing songs? You can hear a lot of different and interesting styles in your music; have you always identified your music as “gothic Americana?”

I grew up playing and performing music in church but I didn't start writing anything worthwhile until my mid-20s. I think that's when my musical influences and tastes really expanded and deepened into a richer well to draw from, and that gave me the modeling I needed to express my own stories and perspectives through music. I also joined my first band around that time and did some songwriting collaboration, which was good practice. In 2012, I connected with an organization called the Bushwick Book Club Seattle, which curates a series of concerts each year presenting local artists’ original music inspired by books. Each show focuses on a different book, and I’ve gotten to take part in many Bushwick shows over the last seven years, so I have quite a few songs inspired by literature. It’s been a great motivator to keep me writing, and I often find it easier to write with this kind of external prompt and source to layer with my own experiences.

When I first started writing songs, I identified as an indie folk or folk-soul artist. It's tough to be an emerging solo singer-songwriter and know exactly what your sound is, but when you incorporate more instruments and players who bring their own distinct style and sound, things begin to take shape and become more realized. When I was recording my first record, I didn't feel like the folk genre accurately described what I was doing musically, and when I tossed the term Americana gothic around in a conversation with a friend one day, he reversed it for me and that seemed to fit and encompass the varied influences and sounds that were represented on that record. And it continues to be a great identifier for what I do as a musician and songwriter. I think on my latest album, I’ve gone even deeper into that identity with my band, and our sound feels even more cohesively gothic Americana.

Who/what are some influences of yours that your audience might be surprised to learn have helped shape your sound?

My foundational influences are pretty straightforward — gospel, country, blues, jazz, and rock. I suppose my audience might be surprised to learn that hip hop and soul artists like Lauryn Hill, the Fugees, James Brown and Otis Redding have had a big impact on me, creatively. There’s so much raw emotion and energy in that sound and I feel that and want to express that as an artist, too. When I started writing music, I was also delving deep into a lot of roots music — old traditional music like Appalachian and Celtic ballads. There, again, you find a lot of rawness and transparency. I've also been heavily influenced by artists like Radiohead, St. Vincent, Y la Bamba, and Wilco, where there's something more layered and complex happening, musically. For me, growth as an artist means creating music that is interesting, and listening to a lot of different styles of music helps me express and interpret something musically interesting.

click to enlarge Amanda Winterhalter album cover of "What's This Death."
Amanda Winterhalter album cover of "What's This Death."

 

The sense of restlessness in many of your arrangements is striking — we’re never in one place for too long, and often the songs seem to build in velocity toward a crescendo of some kind, either in terms of emotion or actual volume. Can you talk a bit about your structural approach/considerations to songwriting?

I think, subconsciously, the gospel and contemporary Christian music I listened to growing up had a substantial impact on me later as a songwriter. That crescendo shows up a lot in modern church music, so a build up and release is kind of an innate pattern I tend to repeat. I think about my natural instincts as a writer and singer, though, and I don't want every song to be the same, so I like to be intentional about trying different structures and approaches. That's why songs like “Dial it In” have more of a straight line musically, but the emotional arc is still there. I tend to follow a pretty traditional arc in my songwriting — it's what makes sense, and what feels honest and real to me.

You have a beautiful and interesting voice. Who are some of your favorite singers, and what specific lessons have you taken from them?

As a singer, some of my early foundational influences were Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, and Lauryn Hill. They were the singers I wanted to sound like, and I used to record myself singing their songs to see how closely I could mimic their phrasing and timing and inflections. Those singers taught me about space and range. I think the space around the notes I sing is often more important than the notes themselves. Timing is what makes a song and its delivery exceptional. Having an impressive range as a singer isn't imperative, but it can be pretty potent — it takes the listener on a journey and can surprise them in a really satisfying way. Early years of soaking up singers like Aretha and Ella helped me develop a decent range as a singer. Listening to singers like Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Patty Griffin, and Otis Redding have kept an edge in my voice, and I like that. I don't want to sound too technical or too pristine.

How do you most often approach writing lyrics? It’s an old question, but I’m always interested — do you begin with words that you then shape the song around, or do you use the music as a form to pour the lyrics into?

For me, the seed of a song is almost always a melodic phrase. Usually, an actual phrase of words pops into my head and my brain puts some notes underneath the words. I'll build the rest of the song out on my guitar around that melodic phrase and once I have the musical framework, I'll finish the lyrics. Sometimes all of the lyrics come along as I build out the song musically. I kind of need both; if I don't have both a basis of melody and words/concept, it's tough to move forward and create a whole song.

What song of yours is your favorite to play live, and why?

Oh, I have many favorites! Music — especially performing live — is all about catharsis and connection for me. I find that the greatest catharsis and connection I feel with my bandmates and with the audience usually happens on the songs with the biggest arc. “100 Years Old,” “Reel,” “I Miss You,” “What's This Death,” and there's a new song we haven't recorded yet that I just love singing. It's inspired by Mount St. Helens, and it's called “This is It.” Those are the ones where I really get to build and release and use my voice at its most powerful climax. And sometimes there's this intangible, extraordinary moment that happens in that climax that feels almost otherworldly — like we've all crossed over for just a blink in time to some higher plane. Experiencing that with a whole room of people is pretty remarkable.

IF YOU GO

WHO: Amanda Winterhalter

WHEN:  10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22, Hogan’s Pub, 906 Sixth St., Clarkston.

9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23 (with Meredith Brann and Margo Cilker), Humble Burger, 102 N. Main St., Moscow.

COST: $5 each night.

Corey Oglesby is a songwriter and poet originally from the Washington, D.C., area. Formerly the frontman of the alt-country band Worn Joy and post-punk trio Agent and the Patient, he now plays lead guitar in the Moscow-based indie rock outfit Hallowed Oak. You can find his music on Spotify.

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