Following the slow-burn success of her eponymous debut EP - a casually distributed affair that nonetheless managed to find its way around the alt country underground - Heather Waters' first full-length album, shadow of you, is out in the world. Now, roots music aficionados who keep hearing the name of the genre-fusing writer/singer can at last discover for themselves what has inspired the ongoing buzz.
shadow of you (independently released on Waters' redd fogg records) fuses elements of bluegrass, stone country and the singer-songwriter genre into a brew that is at once a timeless evocation of indigenous American music and the distinctive expression of a singular artist. Bassist Sheldon Gomberg (Ryan Adams, Shivaree, Warren Zevon, Rickie Lee Jones) stepped in as producer with Eric Heywood (Son Volt, Alejandro Escovedo) and Craig Macintyre (Josh Groban) anchoring the band. A number of in-demand players also contributed including Wallflower Rami Jaffee, Don Heffington (Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Tift Merritt), Tony Gilkyson (Lone Justice, X) Greg Leisz (Lucinda Williams, Brian Wilson) and David Kalish (Rickie Lee Jones). Legendary Americana artists David Rawlings and Gillian Welch also helped out by lending two songs to the mix. The band connected naturally with the earthy material and Waters' captivating voice. As Jaffee puts it, "Heather turned L.A. into Big Sky country."
Among the stunners she wraps her sultry voice around are Gillian Welch's "You Just Don't Love Me," Mark Simos' "A River I Can't Cross," and her own "Comin' Home," and "Turn," along with the opening "Brown Jacket" and "Josephine," co-written by Waters and her frequent collaborator, Robin Eaton.
From the moment she hits the first chorus of the opening "Brown Jacket," half-singing, half-sighing the words, "And there's no sleep for the wicked," with Heywood's pedal steel rising behind her like a blue moon, it's readily apparent that Waters doesn't shy away from hard truths. Her unforgettable voice seems to rise out of the American soil, melancholy yet resilient, immediate yet timeless, as she inhabits the frayed vines of the dead-end relationships so heart-wrenchingly recounted in "Turn" ("You don't turn unless you turn on me, then you turn it off"), "Hush" ("Life's a little bit sweeter without you in the way") and "Alone in Tennessee" ("You're bound to break me and my eggshell heart"). In her songs, she's Dylan's sad-eyed lady of the lowlands come to life.
Waters grew up on the outskirts of Chicago, the daughter of a steelworker and a corrections officer. Her father showed horses and played acoustic guitar but both parents always had a steady stream of Outlaw Country playing in the house. Their spitfire daughter had an epiphany during her junior year of college after a chance jam session with Buddy Guy. "After meeting Buddy, I thought...hmmm, paper on Kafka or jam with Buddy Guy? Kafka lost out," she says with a laugh. "I quit school right after that. My parents were livid."
Waters said goodbye to the City of Big Shoulders and set out for Boston, where she cut her teeth opening for such esteemed artists as Queen Ida, Toni Lynn Washington, Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison, Tim O'Brien, and Darrell Scott. Her seamless blend of blues, bluegrass and traditional country caught the attention of veteran Bonnie Raitt bassist, Hutch Hutchinson, who went on to produce Water's debut EP.
After touring all over the East Coast, Waters packed her bags and headed south. She landed in Nashville, where she found a champion in Delbert McClinton, who tapped her to sing back-up on Room to Breathe, his Grammy-nominated album from 2002. The Room to Breathe sessions found Waters working alongside longtime-hero, Emmylou Harris, as well as Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Rodney Crowell, and Butch Hancock. McClinton, however, was not alone in his affinity for the songbird: Anders Osborne, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings also started calling her for session work.
Waters left the south for Los Angeles in 2003 and in no time, picked up where she'd left off in the Volunteer state. After meeting Gomberg and discovering a shared a love of vintage gear and similar production values, the duo called on Macintyre and Heywood to round out the band. They began playing out and cutting the tracks that would form the backbone of shadow of you.
shadow of you is awash in melancholy and Waters admits an undeniable kinship with high and lonesome songs, an assertion revealed not only in her writing but also in the outside material she's drawn to. "Townes van Zandt has been credited with saying, 'there are two kinds of songs: blues and zippity do dah.' I definitely don't do zippity do dah." Waters punctuates her words with a sprightly laugh, as she's quickly finding out that there's much to be said for coming out of the shadows and into the light.