Life and death meet in a cusp. The two are intrinsically linked. My second daughter was born on the cusp. Alela Diane

Strongly influenced by British singer songwriters like Vashti Bunyan or Sandy Denny and associated with contemporary acts like Fleet Foxes or Mariee Sioux, Oregon-based singer songwriter Alela Diane’s indie-folk and eerie songs first emerged in the late 2000s. The musician has since embarked on a steadfast career path somewhat away from the limelight either as a solo artist, as a duo (with Alina Hardin or Ryan Francesconi) or with her own band (Wild Divine). If her previous solo album About Farewell documented an agonising marriage breakdown, her new opus focuses on motherhood and “explores the weight and beauty of creating life”, a subject which is rarely touched upon in the music industry. Cusp was released on 9 February 2018 last on the AllPoints label.

Alela Diane - Cusp (2018)
Alela Diane – Cusp (2018)

Most songs on Cusp were composed during a three week residency in Caldera, Eastern Oregon where the singer retreated in January 2016. Living in solitude for the first time since the birth of her first daughter two years previously, Alela Diane’s stay in a small cabin in the snowy woods became a time to reflect on motherhood and the challenges to stay creative when raising a family – “There is not a big place in the music industry for 30-something women with kids making music” ponders the singer. The album was then recorded while the singer was pregnant with her second daughter who was born in February 2017.

Songs like “Never Easy” re-evaluate the singer’s relationship with her own mother, “Albatross” deals with the heartbreak associated with leaving home and loved ones behind while on tour while “So Tired” deals with the physical exhaustion associated with pregnancy. Quoting lyrics from “Motherless Children”, a traditional song recorded as a demo by Sandy Denny in the late 1960s, Alela Diane’s “Song for Sandy” pays homage to one of her main musical influences while acknowledging at the same time the troubled singer’s failure to look after her own daughter.

One song on the album also allows the singer comment on recent political events through the prism of motherhood. Since the beginning of 2015, the European refugee crisis and images of makeshift migrant rafts that capsized in the Mediterranean have been making headlines news, but the photograph of a three year old Syrian boy washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach in September 2015 shook the world. This particular tragedy prompted the haunting “Emigré”.

I can feel the fear hang heavy on the water
Glinting sharply with the pale moonlight
Mothers hold on tightly to your children
As the waves are breaking violently tonight

If her trademark finger picking guitar style has always featured prominently in her previous recordings, a minor hand injury while shovelling snow outside her cabin at the start of her residency forced the singer to abandon the guitar temporarily. As a result, most of the new songs on Cusp where composed and arranged on the piano which perhaps opened the door to more complex arrangements with a wider range of instruments.

Several guest musicians such as Heather Woods Broderick (flute and piano), Peter Broderick (violins), Ryan Francesconi (guitars), Rob Burger (piano) or Anna Fritz (cello) complete the line up along a string section, percussion, upright bass and the occasional horn on some songs.

The album title is a reference to the near-death experience the musician endured as she went into labour five weeks early. In that respect, Cusp is a heartfelt and enchanting ode to life – as in accepting the past, enjoying the present, celebrating the miracle of giving birth and embracing change – sustained by a striking voice throughout.