Alicia Viani had big plans for her debut album. The Bend folk singer and songwriter’s long-awaited, self-titled record was recorded more than a year ago in Nashville with songwriter Amy Speace producing. Following the sessions, Viani built up a full band for the release, including longtime musical partner and bassist Mark Karwan (who features heavily on the album), drummer Scott Oliphant (The Color Study), lead guitarist Pete Kartsounes and multi-instrumentalist Benji Nagel (Honey Don’t, Skillethead).
In February, the album hit No. 4 on The Folk Chart at folkradio.org, based on radio plays from 125 folk DJs across the country, per the website. As the band built anticipation for an early April release show at The Belfry, the novel coronavirus hit Central Oregon. The release show, as well as every other live music performance scheduled in Bend, the state and indeed across the country, was canceled.
“We were ramping up for a release that was close to that, and I was just super excited,” Viani said. “And then when all this hit, of course, it stalled as it did for most artists. There was some personal disappointment, but of course there are worse things happening in the world, so I kind of just let it go.”
But after the countless hours of work put into the album by Viani, Karwan, their bandmates and session musicians in Nashville, she couldn’t completely let it go.
Oliphant, owner and sound engineer at Parkway Sounds, also was getting ready for a release show for the vinyl release of The Color Study’s debut album when COVID-19 struck. This month he worked out the logistics to stream performances online from Parkway, and broadcast The Color Study’s release show June 18.
Viani’s album release stream is up next from the studio, at 7 p.m. Friday (find the stream on Viani’s music Facebook page or Parkway’s Facebook page). (Nagel, a full-time farmer and father, had to drop out of the band in the interim, but the rest of the group will be there.)
Viani has called Bend home for the last five years, but she first moved to the city in 2005. She’s traveled around the world her whole life: Born in Singapore, she lived in Indonesia and Japan before moving to Ashland with her family when she was 8. While in college, she went back to Japan, as well as Ghana in West Africa and Mongolia. After college, she went to the Czech Republic, then attended graduate school for social work at Portland State University before moving to Finland.
“I try to write songs about my experience in the world,” Viani said. “I’ve always processed my reality through writing, always. … I wrote a book in Finland about women and sexuality, that’s what I was there doing. So I was an academic writer, but also just a personal writer. And then at some point I started writing songs — not that long ago. Maybe 10 years ago I started playing around with writing songs (and) got more serious about it just in the last four or five years. And so I’ve always been a travel writer, writing about what I see in the world.”
These different cultures tend to seep into her music as well as lyrics. Viani describes her work with Karwan, whom she met in Portland about six years ago, as a marriage of folk and jazz (with some blues and funk thrown in), perhaps best illustrated by album songs such as “How the Sun Survives” or “Lonesome For You.”
“I’ve also been inspired by how music all over the world is so different obviously, and how white people music and folk music — like current music — is pretty straightforward and simple,” Viani said. “And then you go to West Africa and the beats and the polyrhythms are so complex. They used to laugh at me trying to dance because it was just so — I was like, what is the beat right now? There’s so many things going on.”
Viani’s songwriting also takes cues from her job as a clinical social worker, as on “Wounded Healer.”
“As a therapist I have a role to help and facilitate others’ healing, but I’m wounded too, and I’m doing my own (healing) simultaneously,” she said. “That song was actually for somebody else, but it’s also a declaration of my own journey that’s parallel.”
The album’s lead-off track, “Good Man,” may be the most political Viani gets on the record. The song takes the perspective of a white man witnessing a racist incident and not intervening, and was an attempt by Viani to maybe understand Donald Trump’s voter base more.
“My clients of color, BIPOC folks, were talking about more violence towards them in Bend, Oregon,” Viani said. “And I had something racist happen right in front of me and I responded and don’t know if I responded very well. And I was thinking about how as a white person, how easy it is for me to respond or not respond. … I was really like, why do we not? And so that song was me trying to understand someone different from me who maybe is less committed to stepping up and interrupting what is wrong. … I’m not trying to justify it, I’m trying to ask the question.”
Viani and Karwan ended up recording in Nashville thanks to Viani’s friendship with Speace, which began at the Rocky Mountain Song School songwriting workshop in Colorado. After continuing Skype lessons with Speace, Viani built up the 10 songs that make up the album.
“I said, ‘I want to make a record,’ and she said ‘I would love to produce it,’” Viani said. “I was going to … do it out in Bend or Portland, and then whatever, and she said, ‘Come out to Nashville, I’ve got it all hooked up.’”
Much of the album takes on the influence of being recorded in Nashville, with session players such as guitarist/dobro player Thomm Jutz and fiddler/mandolinist Justin Moses pushing Viani’s sound into twanging country. The sessions went fast, with most of the songs being first or second takes of live performances.
“It was very trippy because I had only heard these songs in my head as solo or with a duo, and suddenly it was a band,” Viani said. “And it happened so fast due to their professionalism, that when you’d hear it, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I like that.’ And then I’d listen to it again and listen to it again, and I’d be like, ‘Wait, maybe that wasn’t actually the vibe of the song I wanted?’ But too late, they’re gone. And so it was a process and trust of being like, I’m not just hiring studio musicians, I’m hiring artists to join a process with me, which meant that they had some artistic control that I was relinquishing.”