A voice and fingerpicked guitar are all you need.
That’s the stark simplicity of Bristol-based singer-songwriter Allysen Callery’s music, within which lies endless variation and a magnetic, hypnotic quality that makes each chordal change and vocal melody altogether inviting, haunting and intriguing. Just ask her growing fanbase here in New England and beyond in the UK, Italy and Germany.
For those who are new to the music of Allysen Callery, I’d recommend starting with either her newest release, The Song the Songbird Sings, produced by local music legend Bob Kendall, or her 2012 release The Summer Place, on the European label Woodland Recordings. Both records showcase Allysen’s austere acoustic guitar and clear, unadorned voice – an intimate sound that, when played through good speakers, captures the feeling of sitting in a quiet room across from her as she plays. Her music seems to speak from a different era, while maintaining its emotional immediacy. It’s music of solitude and contemplation.
“I moved to Bristol as a teenager, but continued to go to high school in Providence – School One, which for the most part was geared toward creative kids like me who didn’t fit into mainstream society,” Allysen says. “I’m still on the outside, although the Internet makes it easier for us to find each other. I tend to be kind of a hermit. The music I grew up with, no one else listened to – Steeleye Span or the Incredible String Band, or even Joni Mitchell – in my Manton Avenue neighborhood. It’s always kind of put me on the outside.”
In some ways I guess it’s more defiance of the digital age than a throwback to a simpler time, but the stripped-down music that Allysen Callery creates exists without a motive. It’s in this way that she reminds me of Joni Mitchell – not as an echo of the 1970s, but in her artistic spirit, her disregard for conventions and complete embrace of the music and words.
Allysen writes songs that exist for themselves alone. They disregard genre and resist categorization. They tell their stories, meander down their own paths; they are simple and to the point. They dare the listener to find meaning without making any promises.
Despite her stripped-down folk seeming to defy it, technology has helped Allysen’s popularity grow not just in the Northeast, but in the folk havens of Europe as well. “I’d been listening to a radio show called Simple Folk Radio out of Brighton, England. All the folk they played sounded to me like mine – definitely not like anyone I knew of around here, but finger-style, and on the quieter side,” Allysen recalls. “A lot of the music I especially liked was put out by a little DIY label called Woodland Recordings, originally also from Brighton, but who’d moved to Germany because it’s more affordable to live there. I got the nerve to write to them, and they asked for demos. We put out two EPs over the next two years.”
Allysen was later signed to the label Jellyfant, based in Oberhausen, Germany. “We’ve put out two records so far, and they will be releasing my record The Song the Songbird Sings next month. Also, I’ll be putting out an EP on the boutique UK label Reverb Worship called Prince’s Pine,” she adds.
Allysen’s active career offers a glimpse of the possibilities and freedom within the current DIY music scene, rather than its (often discussed) deficiencies. While some may lament the decline of the record industry as the demise of the full-time musician, Allysen’s ability to find an audience and artistic support, along with her willingness to balance work and travel, has given her a musician’s life that she has come to genuinely appreciate.
“Freedom is a huge part of what I think is success. All I ever wanted to do was tour in Europe and be on a label, and get some international and national airplay. I’ve done these things, and now I’d like to continue,” Allysen says, “Playing festivals is fun, but I’d really like to play more house concerts and record shops. That’s where I feel most comfortable. I wouldn’t be against hiring a manager, but I like to be able to choose when and where I play, and with whom.”
Along with her work on the Woodland Recordings label, Allysen has gone on numerous European tours with other Woodland artists. “Every venue in Europe has a band flat or friend with a couch,” Allysen recounts. “You never pay for drinks or dinner. It’s great!”
Somewhere in the intersection of music, solitude and mass communication lies wanderlust for the rest of the world and nostalgia for home. Allysen’s relatively young music career has brought her to a place of ambition balanced by contentment with home.
Allysen lives in Bristol and works in Warren, but she gets most of her airplay in England and most of her music sales are international. The Internet has made an enormous difference for indie musicians struggling with distribution. It is through online platforms that Allysen has found both a place to put her art and an audience looking for it.
“I waited a long time to start releasing music because I was too shy and didn’t believe in myself, but the critics, the DJs and the folks reaching out and listening through the Internet gave me a lot of confidence to spread my wings,” Allysen says. “I’d like to return to Italy and also do a more extensive tour in England – I have a lot of friends who have been waiting a long time to see me. I’d also like to tour more in my own country, especially going back to Philly where there is a thriving psych folk scene, and I always have a fun time playing Brooklyn and NYC.”
Even though she’s played venues all over Europe, Allysen still has a soft spot for the New England live scene. “I love playing the Columbus Theatre upstairs. I just opened for Baby Dee in February and it was just the most beautiful show,” Allysen says. “I’m going to be slowing down a little bit in the next few months to record two new projects for two new labels.” But you’ll be able to catch her at NIMFEST in Newport on July 9. While her recordings are beautiful, the music takes on new meaning when it’s live.