A decade ago, Alela Diane came to Portland from Nevada City to build a career in music. Instead, the move led to a career in Europe.
"It's pretty funny to see the contrast between where my career is in Europe compared to the U.S.," says Diane, who recently returned from a three-week European tour. "In London, I performed a sold-out show for 900 people. In Paris, it was 1,000 people. In the U.S., it's more like 350."
But it was a connection made in Portland that led to the folk singer's international acclaim. A few years after the release of her debut album, The Pirate's Gospel, Diane was discovered at a small Portland show by the owner of an English record label who wanted to bring her music overseas. In 2007, three years after the U.S. release for which Diane sewed the lace-adorned album sleeves herself, The Pirate's Gospel was re-released in the U.K. on Names Records. It was met with resounding praise, and ultimately led to tours with bands like Fleet Foxes and Blitzen Trapper.
Four albums later, Diane still calls Portland home, though the bulk of her fans are overseas. That feels like a bit of an oversight on Portland's part. Soundtracked by gentle acoustic guitar and honeyed vocals, her imagery-rich lyrics provide snapshots of youth, love, heartbreak and—most recently—her crossover into motherhood.
On Cusp, released in February, Diane relays her experiences as a new mother with soft, poetic tracks. Departing from her usual rootsy acoustic guitar, her new sound is built around tender, thoughtful piano melodies, which she wraps up in delicately harmonized vocals.
The album's 11 songs were written over the course of three weeks at an artist's retreat in Caldera, Ore. Tucked into a quiet A-frame in the woods, with her husband and toddler back home, Diane took the opportunity to create new music and composed on the onsite grand piano.
"There's not a lot of space in life when you have a child at home," she says. "It's such a huge transition. I wrote Cusp from that perspective and that experience. I think that's a different approach to take. There's a lot of pressure on women artists who have children to go on as if nothing happened, and push motherhood under the rug."
Diane recorded Cusp while pregnant with her second daughter. The album's title was inspired by a harrowing experience. Diane went into labor five weeks early and, due to complications, nearly died.
"It made me so grateful for every day, and also for the experience I can have with my music," says Diane. "I think of 'cusp' as an interim—an in-between, a threshold. I was also born on a cusp, and so was my [second] daughter."
Cusp was released shortly before her daughter's first birthday and the anniversary of her near-death experience. In her first piano-driven album, Diane's lyrics ring with poetic meditations on motherhood, from quiet odes to her own mother to an aching tribute to her idol Sandy Denny, a '70s folk artist who died young, tragically leaving her daughter behind. The lyric "she left her baby girl alone, and nothing could be done" is a painful parallel to the fate Diane just barely missed.
Diane has another European tour this fall. But until then, she's balancing staying close to home and maintaining an international career.
"I feel really lucky to still be able to do this," she says of touring. "I plan on doing music for as long as it feels good, and I also want to encourage my daughters to do what fills their hearts with joy."
SEE IT: Alela Diane plays the Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., theoldchurch.org, with Mariee Sioux, on Saturday, May 19. 8 pm. $15. All ages.