“We’ve been told we land somewhere near a roots rock Americana soul band – if thats a thing?” say Memphis based Avon Dale of the sound of their new EP, Little Ditty, independently released late last year.
It must indeed be a thing as, for all the verbiage, it aptly describes the stirring and soulful mix of sounds laid down across Little Ditty’s nine tracks, a fiery blend of fully fleshed out longer compositions and the shorter aforementioned “ditties” alluded to in the E.P.’s title.
At the end of a year-long recording period with producer Mike Wilson at the legendary Ardent studios, Avon Dale still managed to find the energy to get out and play a handful of shows at the close of 2016 following the release of Little Ditty, including a set at Memphis’ River Arts Festival and a New Year show at Chicago’s The Elbo Room. Now, ahead of more local shows this Spring, we’re delighted to premiere the band’s new song, “Annabella.”
One of Little Ditty’s slower and more sultry tracks, Avon Dale describe it as “…a little bit of sex, a little bit of pain, and a lot of longing mixed into one short verse.” If that doesn’t make you want to take a listen, goodness knows what will.
Check out the song via the stream below before getting stuck into our recent interview covering the band’s origins, the making of Little Ditty and what it was like to play in front of 15,000 people at Memphis’ FedEx Forum.
Skin Back Alley: For those who might not know, tell us a little about yourselves. Who are Avon Dale and how did you come together as a band?
Avon Dale: We started in Champaign, IL in 2012. The first songs that we ever wrote were in a house on the street Avondale, hence the band name “Avon Dale”. The name is split because there is a town in Arizona called Avondale and a great deal of many other things by the same name. Retrospectively, maybe not the smartest choice in names but we chose it so we stuck with it.
Originally it was a three piece band featuring two vocals, an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and drums. Or in other words: garbage. We moved down to Memphis with Alec when he accepted a Teach for America position. We gigged as much as possible and ended up finding our current bass player Andrew Allen. He’s been a godsend and retaught everyone in the band how stay in time. We’ve done two summer tours where we’ve played 25 shows in 13 states each time and we continue to travel and play around the Midwest. We live and practice in Midtown Memphis right next to the ‘Cash Saver’ supermarket and we all work full time jobs while playing music at night.
I understand you’ve had a change in line-up relatively recently. Can you tell us about that and how you have developed as a band since your last EP?
Our acoustic guitarist moved to China, so during the writing/recording of Little Ditty we were a three piece band. We’ve primarily been a four piece band featuring one electric guitar and one acoustic guitar. This change definitely influenced the content of the songs and the arrangements, which allowed more electric guitar work to come through.
I love the tinge of southern soul in your music. You can hear it clearly in the horns on “Soul Ditty” and again in the likes of EP closer “25”. Was that something you consciously set out to incorporate into your sound?
That’s something that just came out naturally. I don’t think we ever set a purpose for a song before it’s written, in many regards it takes the magic out of the songwriting/recording process. Those songs were just begging for horns (“Soul Ditty”) and a drunken gospel choir ending (“25”) which were decisions made in the studio.
Would you place the band in any particular canon of music? Are there any particular artists that you have drawn influence from as musicians?
I don’t think we’d classify ourselves into any specific genre of music. With that being said, we’ve been told we land somewhere near a roots rock americana soul band – if thats a thing? We don’t focus too much on fitting into one niche, but rather writing songs that feel right to us and hopefully anybody willing to listen.
Our influences vary within the band and are quite eclectic. Influences of Van Morrison, John Platania, Carter Beauford, and Janek Gwizdala are a consistent source of inspiration in our own respects, but we always try to write to the song; meaning the song sounds honest and cohesive rather than a bunch of guys jerking their instruments off.
I’m intrigued to know how you feel being in Memphis has (or hasn’t!) influenced you and your sound as a band. Memphis obviously has such a rich musical heritage, and from an outsiders perspective there seems to be such a strong music community there today?
Memphis has played a big role in developing our sound via the people we’ve met and the music we’ve heard. It does have such a rich musical history and is holy ground for rock n roll, blues, and soul music. We’ve absorbed some of the old Stax and Ardent/Big Star influence which manifests in many different forms. Working at Ardent and specifically with Mike Wilson opened our eyes (ears) and made us become disciplined listeners and recording artists. Every note has a purpose and you need to throw away the fluff.
Excellent artists and musicians are abundant in this city. There’s some great original music coming out of Memphis but in many cases it’s overshadowed by it’s strong musical heritage. Because Memphis is home to Elvis, Stax, Ardent, BB king etc., it becomes a tribute city in many regards. With that being said, there are a lot of efforts being put into promoting and exposing new original music coming out of Memphis. It’s a melting pot of passionate artists just waiting to be unearthed.
We’re premiering your track “Annabella.” Can you tell us a bit about the writing of the song and what it means to you in the band?
“Annabella” is a song that was kicked around for a few years. It always held a lot of weight but never seemed complete. The melody hasn’t changed but the song’s meaning and arrangement have taken on many different forms as we’ve developed. By taking a step back and keeping the song simple in it’s arrangement, we produced the most authentic version of it. I think ultimately it’s meaning is ambiguous but it has this anecdotal/nursery rhyme quality to it that is very pleasing. I tried many times to write a second verse to it but couldn’t quite capture the essence of the first one, so I just sang it again. There’s a little bit of sex, a little bit of pain, and a lot of longing mixed into one short verse.
What was the thinking behind the EP containing four fully fleshed out songs, and then the selection of ‘ditties’ that you refer to in the title?
We knew we wanted to make another EP with more content than our previous (Dress It Up, November 2014) which only featured four songs, but we also knew the time, energy, and effort that goes into writing full songs. We spent a lot of time working on full length songs and the tedious details that go along with them like changing their key and bass line and drum parts and lyrics only to come back right to where we started.
Making a record is a lot of fun but is also a lot of work. I think we decided on the idea of putting in the little ditties because they were the unfinished songs we would play in between our serious writing sessions that we ultimately loved more than the full length songs. It was an idea that I think captures the essence of songwriting holistically. There are songs that require a bunch of chord changes and rhythmic variations that are a pain in the ass, but turn out sounding great if they’re done right. But there are also songs that are two chords and the truth and sound just as good if not better than those overly produced songs. We hope where the Little Ditties are placed provide context or juxtaposition to the full length songs they accompany and ultimately balance this record.
What has the reception been like to the new songs?
The reception has been good. I think because of the time and effort we put into this EP, people are really impressed with the quality from top to bottom and we’ve received a lot of compliments. When we play live, “Soul Ditty” seems to be the song that most strongly resonates with crowds.
There seems to be a broad through line in the lyrics of the new songs: touching on the road weary aspects of the human condition, but somehow clinging on to a hopeful and positive outlook. Is that a fair observation do you think?
I would agree, that’s a very articulate description of the content. I think it’s important to find the silver lining in every situation. Life sometimes sucks but there’s always something to keep you happy, you just have to look for it.
Where did you record the tracks and who did you work with to record and produce them?
We spent over a year writing and recording in Memphis, both at our home practice space and Ardent studios. We have a very close working relationship with Mike Wilson, who helped produce the EP, and we also collaborated with Rickey Shelton. Both of them were great to work with.
Ardent Studios has an incredible history. How cool was it to be recording there again?
It’s always a pleasure working at Ardent. The history, the gear, the staff, and the atmosphere are all excellent. We love it!
What do you feel Mike Wilson and Rickey Shelton brought to the new recordings?
They both have so much experience that it creates a very productive yet relaxed atmosphere. Working in that atmosphere helped us wrinkle out the difficult sections but also provide us the freedom to open up and make our individual artistic choices in each song. It created a very authentic product that we’re proud of.
Mike ran the show and kept everything moving while making the experience lighthearted and fun. Rickey brought a lot of expertise from years of being a musician (currently a drummer and background vocalist for Alvin Youngblood Heart). He helped develop drum parts and sang harmonies on many of the songs.
Can we expect a full album in time? Is that the next recording goal?
We’re not positive on the date, but we’re prepping to record a full length album sometime next spring.
Am I right in thinking you recently played at the FedEx Forum in Memphis when the Grizzlies beat the Warriors? How was that whole experience for you?!
It was awesome! It was definitely a great experience playing on such a large stage in front of 15,000 people. The added bonus was the beat down the Grizz put on the Warriors. We must be a good luck charm.
Have you got any live shows coming up? Where can we next see Avon Dale?
We’re in Chicago on New Years Eve playing a show at the Elbo Room. We plan to play locally in Memphis throughout the spring.
What can we expect from Avon Dale in 2017?
We’re planning on an extensive summer tour in the states and prepping for a full length album in the spring of 2017!
Finally, would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses, or one horse-sized duck?
One horse-sized duck – That would be a wild sight.