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Photo By Laura Roberts
Alanna Fugate

Alanna Fugate

Determined to Take Flight With Louisville as a Launching Pad

Text By Kevin Gibson • Photos by Laura Roberts

When transplanted Louisvillian Alanna Fugate pauses to consider what she wants to say next, she is often inclined to sing "ummmm" rather than just say it, as most would. It is at once curious and endearing, giving away a positive and thoughtful nature that comes through in her interactions, as well as in the music she creates.

It's true that she possesses a winsome smile, which she offers freely, and an easy-going demeanor that could disarm a terrorist. But, all of 24 years old, she is also a talented singer-songwriter who tours often and has her sights set on making a career of music - and maybe even bringing about change - using Louisville as her launching pad.

She released the cryptically titled album Lost a Little earlier this year and has shows coming up this month as far away as New York and Louisiana. She blends emotive storytelling with a unique playing style, a style that borrows from banjo techniques and even funk bass stylings. With that, she also possesses a smoky singing voice that is alarmingly mature.

Fugate considers herself a writer first, a guitar player second and a singer third - but a lot of folks around these parts believe she's fairly adept at all three. Of course, one question that comes up when talking to her is fairly obvious: Why Louisville?

The dreadlocked Fugate actually moved to the River City one year ago from Richmond, Kentucky, where she lived for more than five years. She had spent time here, had friends and contacts here, so it seemed to make sense.

"I decided if I was going to make a move, I didn't want to make a huge move," she said. "The first couple of times I visited I said, 'I hate this place.'"

But then she discovered the Highlands. "I fell in love with it," she said.

She now gigs around town and also works in a local eatery smack in the middle of the Highlands. And she's happy.

"Plus," she noted, "this is the only city in Kentucky that has a music scene."

Given her passion for music and her ultimate goal, that doesn't hurt at all.

FROM POET TO SONGWRITER

Fugate began writing poems when she was about 10 years old and growing up in Ewing, Virginia, a small town just outside the Cumberland Gap. Songwriting was a natural progression.

"I had all these poems I wanted to share, but I didn't really know how," she said. "Then I started to get into music and I picked up the guitar."

She is completely self-taught, which helps explain her unique, percussive playing style, which is more or less clawhammer, a method that blends banjo playing with fingerpicking. Her first guitar had belonged to her grandmother, but it was "unplayable," Fugate said, so her father, who plays drums, bought her an electric guitar (she was a Smashing Pumpkins fan).

She messed around with chord charts and guitar tabs, but for the most part she played by ear and figured the thing out organically. By age 13 she was writing songs and playing in that style of hers.

"I've always used the guitar as more of a percussion instrument," she said.

Friend and drummer Jorden Ellis noted that, "Her playing style is very unique, very percussive. It's easy as drummer to lock in with that playing style."

She toyed around with folk music, but things changed when she was introduced to one of her favorite artists: Ani DiFranco by her best friend's older sister. She went to the local music store, found the "Ani section," and randomly bought Little Plastic Castle. If clichés are allowed in this forum, then the rest is history.

"That completely changed my world," Fugate said. "I got an acoustic guitar that summer."

By the time she was 16 or 17, she got a four-track recorder and began recording songs and in 2005 she released her first CD, titled New Becoming Me. She was on her way. Her move to Richmond brought with it new friends, including Ellis. She would play as a duet with upright bassist Owen Ellis for more than three years, which helped her to further hone her chops.

"When I first started playing with her," Ellis, who played bass on Lost a Little, said, "she had just started doing the acoustic side of it. I thought she was a very solid songwriter, but what she's doing now is more about taking a song and seeing where it will go. She explores it a bit more now than she used to. She has had lot of life experiences - she has grown up a lot and she has matured a lot as a songwriter as well."

Playing in and around Louisville during that time helped her develop other contacts with musicians here as well. People such as Todd Hildreth, who plays on the CD and Ben Sollee, an accomplished cellist who recently released a new solo project (see review, page 16), certainly are good people to know when you're trying to jump-start a music career.

Fugate, always energetic, also does some PR work for the Sparrow Quartet, which features legendary banjo player Bela Fleck as well as Sollee. Not bad company. Combine that with some changes in her personal life and the move to Louisville became more and more logical.

LANDING IN LOUISVILLE

She started getting some favorable PR in Louisville and in short time had created enough of a buzz that releasing the CD locally made sense as well.

"By the time February [when the album was issued] rolled around, I had played 75 shows in Louisville," she said. "That's a lot of shows for one city."

PR, live shows, exposure, buzz - this is another point that must be made about Fugate: she is as business savvy as they come, especially for an artist and especially one of her age. She pre-sold quite a few copies of the disc to help finance its production and she has recently been working hard on radio promotions such as live appearances on-air.

In short, she has a plan. It may be a loose plan, but she isn't working long hours booking herself regionally and hitting up radio stations just for giggles. She wants music to be her livelihood.

"I think even in high school I knew I wanted to play music," she said. "It's been a process the last six years, figuring out how to make a living at it. I get a lot of 'good lucks' when I say that, but it's not impossible."

Juggling bills with music can be difficult for even seasoned musicians, as tastes and fads come and go. Being flexible is imperative, but Fugate also infers that she isn't interested in playing cover tunes at corporate events just to make a buck.

"More than anything, I want to be able to sustain myself and produce the art that I want to produce," she said.

"She's always been very driven," Ellis said, "She creates her own music and artwork and promotes herself as well. She's always been really good at that. She just has lot of energy for that kind of thing and she's helped other musicians promote themselves as well. She has a knack for the business side of things too. That's really almost as important as the music."

"She's always been highly motivated," Owen said. "Ever since I've known her she's had a real drive to do this and to continue to do this."

It's working. WFPK is playing the album and she has been on the air live as well on the station. She says in August she is looking to book dates in Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina, to further broaden her reach. Often, she simply plans a pleasure trip and turns it into a promotional trip by booking shows along the way to her destination.

"You get a beginning destination, which is Louisville," she said. "Then you get a final destination. You get the map out and figure out what's here and there and in between."

And if you mention to a booking agent or venue owner you are on your way to play in New York, well, that gets their attention - even if the actual show in New York might not have been booked yet. Sssshhhh.

She works her restaurant job part-time and says she is blessed to have flexibility in her schedule. "I work for a great company; everybody there is really cool."

PROCESS AND EMOTION

Her creative process isn't quite as mapped out as her promotional agenda - not that she isn't prolific. Fugate says she has "more than 100 songs floating around in my brain." She's also planning to publish a book of poetry later this year or early in 2009.

But sometimes songs will simmer for a while before completion. She also knows she has to keep up with herself in terms of putting her ideas down on paper or on tape.

"Something I've always found is if I don't record it or get it down, it becomes a difficult process getting it finished," she said.

For instance, the title track to her latest CD had a lyric long before it had a melody: "Just a year ago I found the music for that and it could not be done any other way."

"Fixtures of Furniture" is notable as well, because it is so personal. It specifically relates her life, her job, her likes and the things she has learned: "In this town I learned to love / I also learned to give when I take / so here's an ode to some friends and what some call sins / I wouldn't have it any other way."

Ellis called Fugate's songwriting style "organic."

He noted that, "It's really obvious but not in a harsh way ... and her lyrics are very obvious. She doesn't try to hide anything lyrically. I think she wants people listening to her music to hear every word she has to say."

Ellis noted that Fugate is exceptionally talented at using the music to dictate the mood of the song and at creating wide ranges of emotion through her melodies and playing. He cites "Diamonds and Gold," another heart-wrenching song about lost love, as an excellent example of music and lyric complementing one another well: "She is good at doing that in general, but on 'Diamonds and Gold' I think she did that to a very high degree."

He continued, "Walk into any honky-tonk and it's the same thing - there's either a happy song playing or sad song playing" based on what the singer is telling the audience. "She's very good at using the music as the vehicle that carries the emotion through the song."

This isn't something she necessarily learned from other songwriters; the ability to feel emotions deeply is often a songwriter's best friend and she seems to be one who indeed feels things on a deep level.

Fugate herself, when asked about her musical influences, said, "What goes on in my day-to-day life is my main influence." (Although, in addition to DiFranco, she also said she is listening to Lucinda Williams and Lyle Lovett a lot these days and those aren't bad songwriting role models either.)

Fugate believes the best song on the album is "Three Good Reasons" and it's for, well, good reason. It's an intensely personal song that tells a story of heartbreak, transition and loss with soul-bared honesty and she feels she was successful in saying exactly what she intended to say.

"It's the only song I've ever been able to sit down and write, sing and play in the first sitting," she said. "I feel if it can come out that way, it's something [special]."

She laughed and then said, "It is also the one that makes everybody cry. ... When you think about it (songwriting) is kind of a sick job."

Fugate is good at doing just that - the song is indeed a tearjerker, because of the story it tells and the honesty that ripples through the lyric and her vocal performance. When leaving Richmond for Louisville, she was not just furthering her music career, she was also leaving some personal sadness behind and that comes through clearly in "Three Good Reasons."

The three "reasons" in the song are three letters from a former lover, letters that held much promise for the love that would be. But the reality of the relationship turned out to be quite different and from that experience came this lyric: "I didn't think this would be hard / moving's just putting stuff in boxes / It's strange the things we carry around / the stuff we call belongings / And I think I'm gonna leave this box here / for the landlord to find / 'cause it would break my heart / to throw away three good reasons why / I stayed here ... waiting for you."

Moving "really felt like independence day for me," she said, noting she wrote the song just before her move. "It was a good way to put a lot of that stuff that had happened to me over that last year behind me. This whole trip to Louisville has been a real learning process for me; I've learned about myself. I feel like I could wave a little flag and do a little dance now."

The album itself consists of recordings that, in her estimation, might not be technically perfect. She was advised to re-record it, but she nevertheless wanted to release the original takes.

"I didn't think I could physically record those songs again," she said. "I'm glad I made that decision." Truly, the songs are bare and honest. Some of that might have been lost in re-recording.

WHAT LIES AHEAD

Fugate also has a social conscience to go with her talent and intelligence. While to this point most of her music has been folk storytelling mixed with personal emotional experience, Fugate said she is branching out lyrically.

"I'm coming to realize my music means nothing unless I really involve people's lives in some way," she said, "some other way than making them cry or laugh. I want to bring a message to the table. This is a crazy time we are in and I want to grasp some part of this revolution going on in our world and country. Music will be the means in which I'll do this."

Fugate said she feels something "pivotal" in the air socially and politically and that it is the duty of every generation to speak up and try to exact change.

"Something that I learned growing up is that there are some things you can never take back," she said. "Words are one of those things. When I'm out touring this fall, I really want to bring out my more political songs and really try to rally people to vote for Obama - or hell, just to vote would be nice."

Whether she will continue to keep doing what she's doing with Louisville as the base, she can't say at this point.

"I would like to call Louisville my hometown, but who knows?" she said. "I kind of have it in my blood to move around." She sees Austin, Texas and Asheville, N.C., as potential future home bases, but has made no decisions.

"The possibilities are endless - I hope it's all good, though."

What she will do, however, is continue to learn - along with music, that's what seems to come most naturally to her. Well, that and change.

"I've been in Louisville for a year now and I've personally seen what change one individual can do for themselves," she said. "Imagine if a nation of people gathered and moved in a positive direction together. You can bet on I'll be singing a bar of 'Alice's Restaurant' until election day. Maybe by then we'll have our revolution."

Sounds like there's already one going on. With words and music by Alanna Fugate.