It began with a song for a graveyard. In 2008, Weinland's Adam Shearer was asked to contribute to a compilation album benefiting Lone Fir Cemetery. He called up Adam Selzer of Norfolk and Western, and together the pair recorded the sparse, haunting "A House, a Home." It was such a departure from the layered, instrument-heavy work of their main projects that they decided, immediately after hearing playback of the final mix, it should become something more. So they texted singer Alia Farah, asking if she wanted to be in a band. It was 1 am.
"Part of me was like, 'This sounds too awesome, I don't think anything is going to come of it,'" she says.
It took four years, but something has come of it: The Alialujah Choir, the Portland folk-pop supergroup's self-titled debut, featuring 10 tracks following the bare-bones template set by that first song, of minimal instrumentation framed around goosebump-raising three-part harmonies.
At Muddy's on North Mississippi Avenue, the band discussed Led Zeppelin and the angst of writing lyrics for such an intimate arrangement.
WW: What attracted you to this project?
Adam Shearer: With Weinland and Norfolk and Western, if you were to look through the liner notes on the albums and see the instruments that were on the tracks, there's going to be more than, like, 30 different instruments. You'll never find a song with less than six people playing on it. So it feels really good to go in the other direction a little bit. I'm always asking Adam about recording and why things sound the way they do, and I had this moment where I was like, "What the hell? Why is it, when you listen to an old three-piece, or like Led Zeppelin, it just sounds huge, and we've got this five-piece band with monster musicians in it and it sounds so much smaller?" Sometimes, less is not only more, it's way fucking more.
Adam Selzer: Things always sound better when they're not competing with something else.
Does writing lyrics that everyone else in the group will sing make you feel more accountable for what you write?
Alia Farah: I felt that way, definitely. Coming into this, I respected [Shearer and Selzer] greatly for the songwriting they'd already done, so when I was first bringing songs to the group, it was intimidating. We were all really honest with each other with all of our songs right from the beginning. We wouldn't hesitate to be like, "Oh, that sounds too musical theater for this group." It definitely made you think in a different way before you wrote.
What's everyone's favorite song on the record?
Selzer: I like âWay Too Soon.â Itâs super sparse. And itâs so immediate, too. It was written and recorded within a day.
Farah: Mine is "Looking for a Gesture." It has really tight harmonies all the way through it, and it's one of the "boppers" on the album, as I get made fun of for calling it.
Shearer: My favorite is "A House, a Home," just because that song feels bigger than the band. It's one of those ones you listen to after the fact and you're like, "I don't actually know how we did that, and I donât think we could do it again.â
Do you still consider this a side project?
Shearer: A lot of times, just because Weinland was more busy the last couple years, I controlled the tempo of things a little bit. Out of respect for the other guys [in Weinland], I would make a concerted effort to respect the history of that project by not letting this project become too consuming. At this point, I feel like it's carrying its own weight. It's been cool to watch it come out on its own. Our rule is, we don't let it become anything other than just making music together. But if it becomes something more because people respond to it, then that's awesome.