One look at the band photo to the right, and it’s pretty clear that local songwriter Angi West — that’s her in the hedgehog mask — has a, well, rather quirky sense of humor.
“I think that most of the time I censor myself,” says West about her new album, Opportunity Cost, which she recorded with local producer and Floating Action frontman Seth Kauffman. “But Seth and I have the same, very weird sense of humor. This is probably the first time I’ve found a real music partner who I could just say everything I thought. I felt comfortable enough to try anything.”
And, man, does it show. Her latest record is by far the catchiest, not to mention strangest, batch of songs the soon-to-be 30-year-old has ever put to tape. Over a raw, dreamy assortment of organ strains, tremolo-ed guitars and stripped-down drums, West has finally found her niche. Her angelic Southern drawl soars like Dolly Parton one moment and slides into the delightful, child-like chirp of a backwoods Joanna Newsom the next. It’s a charming mix of the beautiful and the haunting, the elegant and the bizarre, much like the songstress herself.
It’s also a hell of a far cry from the polite, Berklee-sounding piano ballads that defined her first two albums. (West jokingly refers to her year at Berklee as “the best training in what not to do.”) You can thank Kaufman for that.
“I couldn’t have stretched myself without him,” says West. “Working with him is the most growth I’ve personally had as a musician. His whole thing with me was getting me out of my comfort zone and trying new things and trying to be innovative with my songs. To not limit myself to what I thought they were supposed to sound like.”
In West’s case, that meant getting her off the piano stool. No easy task, mind you. Piano is West’s musical backbone, the instrument with which, up until then, she had composed almost every song she’d ever written.
“I mean, I’m sick of [the piano] myself,” she says, laughing. “I sit down at it and I’m like, ‘I really don’t want someone to compare me to Ben Folds Five or Tori Amos right now.’ But it’s been my instrument. I know how to write on it.”
West laughs as she remembers the first day she arrived at Kauffman’s house to start recording.
“We were hanging out at his house, drinking espresso, and there’s no piano around,” she says. “And he’s like, ‘What do you want to play?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, there’s no… what do you…? I can’t play any of this stuff!’”
But with his encouragement, West began experimenting with a variety of different instruments, like Kauffman’s warbly, 1970s Baldwin Discoverer organ, or the accordion-like harmonium that West dragged back from India a few years ago. In the end, only two out of the eight songs on her new album even include a piano.
In fact, one of the best songs on the album, “Involuntary Conversion,” West penned on her old banjo (a gift from musicians Tyler Ramsey and Joti Marra). The song is a dark, back-porch strummer; West’s voice skips and flutters as she sings about — of all things — the old medieval practice of wedging rocks into the mouths of black plague victims so they couldn’t return from the dead as vampires. But that’s West for you.
“I don’t like writing love songs,” says a smiling West, whose lyrics touch on everything from from reincarnation to 14th century Persian poets to the classical idea of the Divine. “I’m really annoyed by most human relationships. I get more inspired by greater, more universal ideas.”
But one thing she does like? A good party. Which is why West decided to celebrate her CD release party at the Grey Eagle on her 30th birthday. Expect champagne, a few new songs, some oddball covers, and a blowout dance party (hosted by DJ Kipper) following her set.
“We have some serious specialness up our sleeves,” she says about Saturday’s show.
And honestly, it’s a very fitting way to celebrate West’s most mature album to date.
“I just want to grow,” she says. “And this record, it’s definitely the beginning of that process.”
— Miles Britton is an Asheville-based freelance writer.
who: Angi West
what: CD Release & 30th Birthday Party. Dance party w/ DJ Kipper to follow.
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Feb. 12 (9 p.m., $8. thegreyeagle.com)