Nearly twenty years ago, I worked a day job with singer-songwriter and freelance journalist Jim Allen, a gracious and friendly man who has a never-ending thirst for music old and new, obscure and popular, with a vast knowledge of his chosen discipline. Allen is a solo artist in addition to being leader of the country band the Ramblin’ Kind and the rock outfit Lazy Lions; this month he has released his first solo record in sixteen years, Where the Sunshine Bit You, a tasty confection of eleven tunes that showcase Allen’s sweet-sounding acoustic guitar and trademark turns of phrases.
Recorded live, the album opens with the swampy folk-blues instant classic “All the Way Down the Line,” in which he sings in his deep baritone, “Yeah, the sign said stop, it was only a suggestion / The dead end sign was really meant to be a question / Where’s that map when we need it most? / Are we christening a country or following a ghost? / Well, the train’s on time all the way down the line.” Jerry Garcia would be proud of “The Day After Tomorrow” (“When the worst of all your dreams decides to call your house a home / Then the arctic freeze is just a breeze compared to where you roam”), while Leonard Cohen would get a kick out of “Wedding of the Dead” (“Here comes the groom all dressed in doom / He’s got a bloodstain on his tie”), Richard Thompson would be honored by “Going Under” (“This hole has got a boat in it, it’s all that I can do / To find a way to float in it till something else comes through”), and Hank Williams is smiling somewhere at “What I Deserve” (“Oh, I was high and dry but now I’m low and drowning / I only hope God’s grading on a curve / When the cotton meets the clay underneath the milky way / And the time arrives to get what I deserve”). Among Allen’s other influences are Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Johnny Cash. It all concludes with the foot-stompin’ “High.”
A DIY effort, Where the Sunshine Bit You was recorded live in the studio and mixed by Magic Mike Jung; it features Matt Applebaum on guitars, Joanna Sternberg on bass, Steve Goulding on drums, and Libby Johnson and Jung on vocals. On June 2, Allen will be hosting a record release party at the Treehouse at 2A with a litany of special guests. Below he explains some of his process, his collaboration with his son, and his love of LPs.
twi-ny: What made you decide to do a solo album at this time? Your last one was 2003’s Wild Card.
jim allen: After that album I concentrated more on being in bands than doing the solo singer/songwriter thing, but I would never abandon it. Maybe the singer/songwriter-type material eventually reached — or more accurately, surpassed — critical mass and I felt like I had to do something more concrete with it. Also I began to realize how alarmingly long it had been since I’d last put out a solo album! So I started to envision a predominantly acoustic album of these songs. I think hearing Joanna Sternberg playing standup bass helped spark my imagination of how the songs could work in that setting. Fortunately, Joanna was available for the session.
twi-ny: You are also a singer/songwriter for the Ramblin’ Kind and Lazy Lions. What is your songwriting process like? Do you set out to write songs specifically for one of the bands or yourself, or does the song just come to you and then you figure out where it belongs?
ja: I never start out with any particular direction in mind; it just goes where it goes, not to get all hippie mystic on you or anything. There’s some overlap between my solo stuff and the Ramblin’ Kind, but a lot of the songs will obviously not fit in a country-oriented band. And the Lazy Lions stuff is much more separate; it’s an entirely different set of blocks we’re playing with, so there’s rarely any confusion about which belongs where with them. Occasionally I’ve tried out songs with them that we determined were more Jim Allen songs than Lazy Lions songs.
twi-ny: You have two kids who look like they’re a lot of fun. Are they into music? What do they think of Dad’s albums?
ja: Yeah, they’re possessed of an almost unnatural amount of joie de vivre. They like to hear music, and they love to have ad hoc dance parties at home, with me or my wife playing DJ. But they haven’t made a lot of their own specific preferences known yet. They love to hear my music, though. When I first got copies of this album, my son, who’s seven, wanted to hear it right away and just sat in rapt attention staring at the speaker for the entire thing, which was pretty damn adorable. Actually one of the songs, “The Day After Tomorrow,” began from something he said to me one day, that’s why you’ll see his name co-credited on it. Not that I’d necessarily be so magnanimous as to extend that same courtesy to a non-relative in the same situation.
twi-ny: You recently wrote that you have a “strategic approach” to the WFMU Record Fair. What does that entail?
ja: I’ve been a crate-digger since my teens, but I’ve always taken an open-ended approach to it. I figure if you’re only looking for a specific set of things, you’re gonna have a hard time finding what you want and you’re gonna miss out on a lot of other stuff in the meantime. So I just gravitate to whatever looks good, and inexpensive.
twi-ny: Is there a specific LP you’ve been on the hunt for and have been unable to find?
ja: If I ever encountered the first couple of Butch Hancock albums in the wild for a reasonable amount, I might begin to weep.
twi-ny: We often see each other at shows, by Steve Earle, Richard Thompson, and others. Who have you seen live lately that you love, and what’s coming up for you as a spectator?
ja: Let’s see. Well, most recently I saw my buddy Wes Houston play; he’s been performing longer than I’ve been alive and he sounds better than ever, so I find that inspiring. The last thing before that was Chick Corea in an all-star trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, which was blindingly good. I’m never sure exactly what I’ll wind up making it to see, but the next few shows on my docket are Barre Phillips, the jazz bassist, and the Masqueraders, an old-school R&B group that’s performing again, and my old friend Simon Joyner, a great singer/songwriter from Omaha who’s playing at Alphaville in Brooklyn. That’ll be five dollars for the plug, Simon.
twi-ny: In addition to being interviewed about your own records, you have been writing about music for several decades. Who are some of your favorite subjects?
ja: I always say the nicest person I ever interviewed was Jimmie Dale Gilmore; the guy just oozes genuine sweetness and conviviality, even over the phone. Recently I got to talk to Jon Anderson, which was huge for me because I’m an enormous Yes fan, and it was all the more enjoyable because he turned out to be a super-nice guy; he really is the sort of twinkle-eyed hippie prince you might imagine him to be.
twi-ny: If you could choose to write the liner notes for any album or artist, new or old, what/who would it be?
ja: Very interesting question. I got to write notes for some great records. I guess the ultimate would be Leonard Cohen, because he’s had the biggest effect on me.
twi-ny: Who would you most want to write the liner notes for your next record? Feel free to choose a writer no longer with us.
ja: As far as someone to write notes for my album, let’s see. This is a dangerous question because I have a lot of great music journalist friends, you know. So I’ll play it safe and go with someone I’ve never met instead, the British writer Allan Jones, just because he’s so howlingly funny.
twi-ny: On June 2, you will be hosting a record release party at the Treehouse, with such guests as Mike Fornatale, Emily Duff, Libby Johnson, Wes Houston, and Pete Galub. What can you tell us about the show?
ja: I’m taking over the joint for the night. We’ll be playing two sets, from 8:30 to 11. The first set will be the new album in full. And the second set will be some of my old songs plus a bunch of surprise covers and special guests, including the people you mentioned. Matt Applebaum, Paul Foglino, and Steve Goulding, who also happen to be in the Ramblin’ Kind with me, will be playing with me. The Treehouse is above the bar 2A on the corner of Second St. and Ave. A, where Tom Clark, who’s a great musician himself, has been running a great Sunday series for a good while now.
twi-ny: You were born and raised in the Bronx. What did that instill in you?
ja: I guess on one hand, growing up as a weird, arty kid in the midst of the very blue-collar, kind of conservative neighborhood where I lived, I developed a sense of otherness pretty early on. But at the same time, growing up in one of what Manhattanites charmingly refer to as the “outer boroughs,” I also developed an inclination towards lurking around on the periphery of things and sort of observing the hullabaloo from a safe distance. Unfortunately, it did not instill in me the ability to smoothly segue from that into the shameless hucksterism of reminding people that my album, Where the Sunshine Bit You, can be found in both download and CD format at www.jimallen.bandcamp.com. Alas.