The term “old soul” is bandied about so casually these days that it has almost lost it’s meaning, but how else to describe Grey DeLisle? Her dynamic brand of Americana displays a preternatural connection to past eras as far flung as the Civil War, most recently on her critically hailed 2004 release The Graceful Ghost. Listeners and journalists alike marvel at her astute grasp of the essence of old-time country music that, at the same time never threatens to brand her an anachronism. Embracing different eras and different styles as readily and impeccably as she has, the only thing that fans have come to expect from a new Grey DeLisle album is the unexpected.
“I never want to make the same record twice,” DeLisle says. “I’m not interested in treading the same ground over and over again, even if it means people might get thrown for a loop on first listen.” Beginning with what she calls her “coffeehouse girl phase,” her self-released debut, The Small Time, was a far cry from her sophomore effort, Homewrecker. The latter was an irresistible mash note to the dramatic country chanteuses of the ’60s and early ’70s, and suited DeLisle’s strong, smoky alto perfectly. Fans were treated to another shock with her Sugar Hill Records debut The Graceful Ghost, replete with a turn-of-the-century vibe and dark themes of death, betrayal and redemption. DeLisle’s version of “Willie We Have Missed You” was also featured on the Grammy winner for “Best Traditional Folk Recording”—Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster.
With Iron Flowers, Grey DeLisle once again fulfills her promise of dynamism. Just because her signature instrument is the Autoharp, don’t expect the second coming of Mother Maybelle Carter this time around. One look at the interior album booklet art—by iconic photographer Mick Rock (David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Blondie)—reminds us that the young DeLisle is an artist of her generation. And just to make the Appalachian-Glam fusion complete, her new release boasts a cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” employing that trademark Autoharp in ways that nature never intended. Queen fans may make the connection that Mick Rock shot the infamous cover photo for the album Queen II. From the revelatory “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover, to the dirty rockabilly of “Who Made You King” and the garage-Americana sound of “Blue Heart,” Iron Flowers turns out to be the most sonically and lyrically varied group of songs that DeLisle has ever put forth. And in fact, the eclecticism itself may be what proves to capture her essence as an artist. “It’s strange, but I think the chaos is what makes the most sense to me and says the most about me musically.”
One thing that DeLisle does not deviate from is her winning formula of producer and guest musicians. Marvin Etzioni is at the helm once again, proving that no matter what musical direction DeLisle decides to take, he always shares her vision. “He just gets me,” says DeLisle. Also on board is husband and collaborator, Murry Hammond of the Old 97’s.
Rounding out the band is Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Paul McCartney), Don Heffington (Bob Dylan, Lone Justice, Victoria Williams), Sheldon Gomberg (Rickie Lee Jones, Five for Fighting) and Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell, K.D. Lang). DeLisle says she simply made a “dream list” of people she would love to work with, and then went about the task of asking them to participate. For a relatively young upstart to take this approach with musicians of such stellar curriculum vitae speaks volumes about DeLisle’s guileless attitude toward the music business and toward life. “I just thought, What’s the worst that could happen, they say no? OK. But what if they say yes?”
Recording in a friend’s garage-cum-studio in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles, DeLisle remains true to her dedication to vintage analog equipment. Eschewing such modernities as ProTools and endless overdubs, the band recorded all performances live, often using the first take. DeLisle is no snob about her preference for an old-fashioned approach: “It just sounds better that way!” When she says “better,” what she means is more organic, more honest, not necessarily prettier or more perfect. Technical perfection seems a paltry goal compared to a raw emotional connection to the music, and Grey DeLisle is an artist who vies for the latter.
For those keeping score at home, DeLisle’s band does indeed feature two bass players (Hammond and Gomberg) and two drummers (Mattacks and Heffington). She says she wanted a big, full rhythm section sound for Iron Flowers and decided to go with double percussion and double bass on every track except “Sweet Little Bluebird” and “Blue Heart.” This is a distinct departure for the artist whose previous release had virtually no percussion at all! It’s just one more example of DeLisle’s constant desire to move forward and her disdain for musical stagnation. She says that when new fans ask after her live show, “Which CD should I get?” to best encapsulate her style, she has no choice but to say, “All of them!”
“I feel bad sometimes,” she laughs, ”They might think I’m just trying to sucker them into plunking down their money on my whole catalogue! But it’s true, they all sound so different!”
A DVD documentary on the making of Iron Flowers is also on the immediate horizon, and DeLisle plans to do her most extensive touring yet in support of the album. In addition to her songwriting, recording and performing schedule, DeLisle also maintains a thriving career as one of the most successful voice actors in Hollywood. Even if you have never heard a Grey DeLisle song, chances are, you’ve heard her voice. It is virtually impossible to watch Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, PBS, or the Disney Channel without encountering one of the 16 cartoons on which DeLisle currently appears. She stars as Daphne on “The New Scooby Doo,” Emily Elizabeth on “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” Vicky on “The Fairly Odd Parents,” Mandy on “The Grim Adventures of Billy& Mandy,” Frankie on “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends,” Sam on “Danny Phantom” and Yumi on the new breakout hit “Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi.” Any chance Japanese pop-rockers Puffy Ami Yumi might trade in their guitars for an Autoharp?
“I’m thinking that might not fly with the ages-6-to-11 demographic,” says DeLisle, “But hope springs eternal!”