Alexandra Scott is talking about her songwriting habits over lunch. Like the Replacements' Paul Westerberg, her songs range from sweet ballads to smart pop and rock songs. Like Westerberg, she'd like her albums to accommodate her restless musical imagination. This is an issue because she was writing country songs while finishing recording the poppy Spyglass (Independent), her new album.
The album is Scott's second, third or fourth, depending on how you count. The Virginia native recorded one album in Washington, D.C., which led to her joining two producers to become the District Basement Collective (DBC), a drums-and-bass group that recorded two albums -- one never released due to label squabbles. Scott moved to New Orleans in August 2000 and was flying back for sessions and gigs until things fell apart.
"It was a really unworkable situation we tried to make work," she says.
She moved to New Orleans with her fiance, who she subsequently married and then divorced, and this was not her destination of choice. "I really didn't want to move here," she says. "I was totally opposed to it. I hate heat. I didn't think there'd be anything for me musically."
But after six weeks, things changed: "I was driving home and got stuck in traffic on St. Charles right by Tulane. I was looking around and I thought, 'I don't want to live anywhere else. This is the most beautiful place I've ever been.'"
Producer Tim Sommer met Scott shortly after she moved to town and almost immediately wanted to make a record with her. "I knew right away she was legitimate," says Sommer, whose band Hugo Largo recorded two albums for Opal Records before he became an A&R man for Atlantic Records. "There was an intensity and poise and attention to the emotions in her songwriting and in her guitar playing. Her acoustic guitar and vocals told me where to go in a song."
They told him to go in a highly textured direction, away from the spare, acoustic sound associated with female singer-songwriters. There are synthesizers, loops and tracks of Theresa Andersson playing nothing but distortion on violin. "But it's subtle distortion down in the mix," he says.
Andersson not only appears on the album, but she covers Scott's "Good Girl" on her latest album, Shine. "The thing I like about it -- and the reason Theresa liked it -- as a woman, so much of your existence from the moment you start to get breasts is about how you're perceived, how you want to be perceived, how you're not being perceived, and the desire to please," Scott says. "It was just about, 'F--k it, this is what I am.'" She admits to vacillating about how she feels about the song -- "You can have a very love/hate relationship with your own songs" -- but ultimately, she's happy with it. "It's also not a love song," she laughs. "I write so many that it's pleasing to me when one isn't."
The synthetic settings for Scott's voice are a studied contrast to her rootsy upbringing: "The reason I wanted to sing in the first place is my family has a house on a mountain in Virginia where I grew up. Every Saturday we'd have a picnic and my uncles who play bluegrass would play and everyone would sing. In retrospect, it probably wasn't as beautiful as I thought it was, but I love the sound of people singing together. "
She may have grown up singing with the family, but while going to school at Vassar, she took an opera workshop that taught her about treating her voice as an instrument. "I spend 20 minutes a day at my piano singing the scales because that's how you maintain good pitch as a singer," she says, and that same work ethic applies to writing. "Irritatingly enough, the songs I wrote in five minutes and never touched again are the ones that people say, 'Oh, that's my favorite song,'" Scott laughs. "I want to ask, 'What about this one? I labored over it. Can't you tell? There's assonance, and the wordplay in the third verse evokes the first.'" However deliberately the songs are written, they reflect someone as at home with delicate ballads as with raunchy indie pop. "There was an interview with Ray Charles (I read) the week after he died," Scott says. "Someone asked what kind of singer are you and he said, just a singer, a utility singer. I was glad to read it because every once in a while I feel like maybe I need to define what I do more clearly in terms of my songwriting. You wouldn't say, 'I'm only going to eat Chinese food for the rest of my life.' You should be able to do as much music as you possibly can, and it can't help but improve you."