Allison Downey
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Allison Downey

Portage, Michigan, United States | SELF

Portage, Michigan, United States | SELF
Band Folk Singer/Songwriter

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"Music: Allison Downey & John Austin"

Christian Czerwinski | NOISE

Strumming a few notes and singing about the wind in the trees does not a folk singer make.

Sure, a true folk singer needs an abundant list of tales to tell. And the ability to skillfully stroke a guitar. Regardless, it's still vital to paint poignant pictures and sing with a resonating voice.

Allison Downey has the basics down and a few other tricks too.

The singer with a honey-coated voice is also a playwright and writes songs that appeal to all of the senses. It's as if she's creating a scene on stage. Sometimes during her show the assistant professor of creative arts education likes to sing or talk to the audience in a different character's voice.

"I think that as a playwright, I've been trained to listen to conversation. One of the similarities is a real economy of words. In writing, in both songs and plays, the intention is to say as much as possible with as few words as possible," she said from the phone of her office at Western Michigan University.

Recently, Downey began playing with her husband, John Austin, a bassist and veteran of various funk bands. Being a married couple and utilizing characters on stage isn't protocol for most folk acts, but the couple likes that.

"There's a certain level of intimacy between the two of us and it's fun to see some of those dynamics," Downey said.

Though folk duets normally play guitars, Austin said his bass also introduces a unique element to the music.

"I play the six-string bass, so I'm able to play chords and melodies on bass I wouldn't be able to play on the four-string," he said. "Playing bass with Allison has taught me to tune into the melody, so what I play has to be directly in line with the melody while also maintaining the groove. In funk, the notes don't matter as much as the rhythm."

Downey is getting ready to release a new album after more than five years. Her last, The Wind at Your Back, was full of earnest songs about social causes and relationships. Her songs often strike a chord with audience members and in some cases, have moved them to tears.

"I don't believe there's just one song audiences respond to," Downey said. "On the last CD, people really liked 'Wind At Your Back' and the latest one is 'All That Matters,' which is about a 12-year-old girl and her first dance. It deals with middle-school life and periods of insecurity and fragility that people experience."

All of the music has an ethereal quality and gets a boost from Downey's soft but commanding pipes.

By her own admittance, Downey doesn't stick to traditional folk arrangements. In fact, she doesn't consciously sit down and try to adhere to anything in particular.

"I might consider some of the other structures I know about or the work of other performers as a model," she said.

"We do term ourselves as 'contemporary folk' and that means maintaining some of the spirit and soul of the music and the music being for the people and about issues that relate to everyday people. But it's set to rhythms that might be more contemporary." - Lansing NOISE


"Allison Downey and friends debut "Across the Sea""

Jan. 9, 2008

KALAMAZOO--Award-winning singer/songwriter Allison Downey, will introduce her second album, "Across the Sea," at a CD release concert beginning at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, in the Little Theatre at Western Michigan University.

"Across the Sea" follows Downey's "Wind at Your Back," released five years ago upon her arrival in Michigan from Austin, Texas. During her time in Michigan, Downey has honed her songwriting skills and developed a sound that has been characterized as "Midwestern urban folk." Two of the songs from the new collection, "Almost" and "All That Matters" won Downey the 2007 People's Choice Award at the Wildflower Festival Performing Songwriting Competition in Texas.

Performing with Downey on the CD and at the concert is her husband and musical partner John Austin (six-string bass). Also lending their talents to the CD and performing at the concert are Ann Arbor's Annie Capps (harmonies) and Rod Capps (mandolin, guitar), Grand Rapids' Brian Morrill (drums, percussion) and Michael Crittenden (guitar, piano, percussion). Crittenden also produced the CD, which is available on the Mackinaw Harvest Music label.

In addition to their marriage and musical interests, Austin and Downey also have common professional careers. Austin, psychology, and Downey, education, are members of the WMU faculty.

Doors open for the concert at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 and $7 for students and are available through the Miller Auditorium Ticket Office at (269) 387-2300 and at the door.

"Across the Sea" will be available for purchase locally beginning Saturday at the WMU Bookstore, Terrapin, People's Food Coop and Barnes and Noble. It will be available through major online retailers and music services later. For more information visit allisondowney.com.

The Little Theatre is located at the corner of Oakland Drive and Oliver Street on WMU's East Campus. Free off-street parking is available behind the theatre and in lots across Oakland Drive.

Concert sponsors include the Printmill, Craftsman Chop Company and Flying Dog Garage. - Mark Schwerin, WMU News


"Coming in sweet, clear."

By Andrew Hughes, Staff Writer

"Connections a persistent theme of her songs, Downey says."

One of Allison Downey's colleagues describes her sound as "urban Midwestern folk." There's just one problem with that description: Accuracy. "I'm not born or raised in the Midwest so I couldn't have come by that honestly," she says by telephone from her home in Kalamazoo. "My sound has a little traditional, but most of it is comtemporary."

A native of Washington, DC, who also has lived and performed in Austin, TX, Downey has a sweet, clear voice, and writes melodic, character-driven songs that, on Downey's CD, "Wind At Your Back," recall Natalie Merchant's solo records.

"Wind At Your Back" closes with a song "Connections," a title that Downey says reflects a persistent theme in her songs, the connections people form with others and places, and through language and across time. That certainly shows up in such songs as "On the Day (September 11, 2001)," about the unity Americans felt in the wake of the terrorist attacks, "Cate's Cradle," about a cradle a father makes for his daughter, or "The Fact of the Matter," about how a lover's quirks - hair loss, clothes on the floor - become his endearing characteristics for the narrator.

"I am drawn to write a song based on the rthythm or melody that pops into my head, so I have less control over the theme, but I also tend to write songs about issues, nuances in relationships, abilities or lack thereof to communicate," Downey says. "I also tend to write songs about watershed events in my life. Some of the songs start out as something and end up being about something else. A conversation I heard or seeing some kids play might the impetus, but it will become something else."

A professor of theater at Western Michigan University, Downey also writes and performs original plays, including the one-woman show "Connections," which incorporates her original songs into the stories of the seven elderly characters she portrays in the show.

"I'm working at having the characters and storytelling be part of the performance," she says. The venue is very important. At The Livery (in Benton Harbor), the sound system is wonderful and I can hear myself, and that's important. It has a wonderful community feeling. People come in and get a beer and they feel comfortable. It's a brewpub but it's also a concert."

Although "Wind At Your Back" is a fully produced CD, Downey usually performs only with her husband, John, a bass player and early-90's graduate of the University of Notre Dame who played in the Boathouse Blues Band when he was a student in South Bend.

"The songs are the same at the core, but they are more fleshed out than when I perform now," she says of the CD, which came out in 2002. "The next one will be more sparse to reflect what I am doing now."

She and John will perform tonight at The Livery.

I've performed so long as a solo performer, and it's only two years that I've played with John," she says. "That's dramatically influenced my songwriting and performing because he's got the groove. I didn't know anything about the groove before. It allows me to expand a little more and open up the song."

- South Bend Tribune


"Singer-songwriter taps longing -- and hope"

ANDREW S. HUGHES Tribune Staff Writer

Five years have gone by since Allison Downey released her debut CD, "Wind at Your Back."

Since then, the Kalamazoo-based singer-songwriter has written enough songs for two albums.

Then she rewrote the ones that made it on "Across the Sea," her new CD, which she'll release tonight at The Livery at the second of two release parties for the CD (the first was Saturday in Kalamazoo).

"I came up with however many songs I had, 25 or 30, and (producer Michael Crittenden) gave me notes on them," Downey says by telephone from her home in Kalamazoo. "I went back and spent months working on them, really whittling the lyrics down to their core component."

It seems to have worked. Even before she finished recording "Across the Sea," Downey won the 2007 People's Choice Award at the Wildflower! Festival Performing Songwriting Competition in Texas for the songs "Almost" and "All That Matters."

"Some of that process was survival of the fittest, the songs that ended up being the strongest, but we really worked the songs," she says about making the final selections for the CD. "There was a whole slew of other songs that could have taken the place of the 11 that made the album, but they didn't feel as strong or they didn't have the feel of the whole album."

Connections between people and places and the literal and metaphorical distances between them remain Downey's métier as writer on the new CD.

A professor of theater at Western Michigan University and a playwright, she writes intelligent, poetic lyrics that don't allow her characters easy or sentimental resolutions.

The soft, jazz-inflected "Across the Sea," for example, has a stoic acceptance underpinning its intense longing in its story of a lover closing an English pub while her mate sleeps hundreds of miles away from her.

Regret and self-awareness, not self-pity, power the missed-opportunities tale in "Almost," while the bouncy rhythm of "More Than Human" shines a false sunshine on the narrator's empty-nest depression.

"Please Help!" makes a vigorous plea for respect, if nothing else, from the point of view of a homeless man, based on a conversation Downey had at the airport in Austin, Texas, while waiting to return to Michigan from a gig there.

"Texas" has a jaunty, country feel behind Downey's lyrics about her narrator's conflicted feelings about the Lonestar State, where she once lived, while the pop-rocker "Green Light" makes abundant and joyful use of a driving metaphor in its story of the narrator's attempts to push a romantic relationship to another, deeper level.

"The title of the CD changed several times," Downey says. "Originally, I had 'Landscapes of the Heart' because I felt like so many of the songs related to different ways of knowing. Then I changed that to 'Postcards' because it seemed like so many of the songs were from different physical locations and different figurative locations."

"Across the Sea" won out, at the suggestion of singer Annie Capps, because of its "sense of longing but also hope."

"I didn't want to make an album that was melancholy or would bring people down, but that would explore relationships and the breadth of human experiences," Downey says. "(I wanted) each song to individually tell its story."

Downey also writes and performs plays, including the one-woman show "Connections," which incorporates her song in the stories of seven elderly women she portrays in the show. Two of them, Melba and Carmen, appear on "Across the Sea" as part of the CD's two bonus tracks in live recordings.

The Spanish-accented Carmen gives an over-the-top dramatic reading of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," while, in full-on hick voice, Downey introduces "Paris, France" in the character of Melba and then launches into a vigorous performance of the song about being an awed and confounded tourist in the French capital.

" 'Paris, France,' I wrote before Melba started singing it, and once she started, let's just say it's heightened the experience of the song," she says. "It was the first time I had ever done Melba. The night before, John and I were talking and said, 'Maybe Melba should sing this song, and maybe she should introduce it.' All those comments were on the fly."

Downey may not think the CD's live rendition is perfect, but she's right when she says it has great energy.

"My producer also said, 'This is what you do, whether it's your characters or not,' " she says. "I joke with the audience. I try to be myself between the songs. He said it was important to include that, where that sense of the lightness comes through in the concert."

For most shows, Downey plays only with her husband, John Austin, a bass player and 1991 graduate of the University of Notre Dame who played in the Boathouse Blues Band while he was a student in South Bend.

Tonight, they'll also have Rod Capps, an Ann Arbor-based mandolin and guitar player who, along with his wife, Annie, appears on "Across the Sea."

"We feel like we finally know how to play these songs," Downey says. "Part of what it takes to get into that zone with the audience is being so fluent with the song, and I had gotten to that place with most of these songs, and then I cut them open like you would a toaster and put them back together."

That caused some problems for Downey at a gig in September.

"Some of them are songs I've been playing for years, but we've reworked them, and I've had to relearn them and the new lyrics," she says before telling the story about the gig in September. "I thought, 'No problem.' We had just finished recording the album in August, but I had to work so hard to remember how to play the new versions of these songs. Some of them have different opening lines. I was ruthless with the pen."

- South Bend Tribune


"Quotes"

"Allison Downey is a true poet whose lyrics stand on their own as art. Add to that her polished performance skills and crystal clear vocals and you have one of the best singer-songwriters out there today."
- Al Kniola, Host, The Back Porch, 88.1 WVPE Public Radio

“Across the Sea should be required listening for anyone who thinks they know music. I love it!...among the best I’ve heard this year.
-Tom Saunders, A3Radio.com

“Allison and John are the complete package…skilled musicians, engaging storytellers, and songs ranging from thoughtful to flat out hilarious…our audience loved them.”
-Andy Baker, Northwind House Concerts

“Downey has a sweet, clear voice and writes melodic, character-driven songs that, on Downey's CD, 'Wind at Your Back,' recall Natalie Merchant's solo records."
- Andrew S. Hughes, South Bend Tribune

“Allison Downey, … the singer with a honey-coated voice is also a playwright and writes songs that appeal to all of the senses. It’s as if she’s creating a scene on stage…”
– Christian Czerwinski, Lansing NOISE

“Allison can really smoke! Take me back to the late 60's on Highway 61”
- Eddie Stout, Malaco Records

“Downey's smooth, lyrical, soaring voice is a splendid instrument.”
- Mark Bretz, KDHX radio, St. Louis

“Allison Downey is one soulful bitch!”
- Miss Lavelle White, Antone's Records Recording Artist

- Various


"Review of Across the Sea (2008)"

Produced by Michael Crittenden of Mackinaw Harvest Music, the voice of this Kzoo storyteller rings above her contemporary country-folk backup group, which gently fleshes out her usual voice-plus-guitar-plus-bass live arrangements. With six-string bassist and husband John Austin (of fusion jam band Jam-Lab), Downey creates pictures to touch sentimental hearts and life scenes to illustrate hopefulness in the face of gravity. With live bonus tracks including a performance of Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 disco hit “I Will Survive” in Spanish-speaking character, the disc is a representation of real and earnest songwriting with a sense of humor about itself. See allisondowney.com for details. — Ryan Cunningham - Recoil Magazine


Discography

Wind at Your Back - CD 2002 (Little Ditty Records)
Across the Sea - CD 2008 (Mackinaw Harvest Records)

Photos

Bio

ALLISON DOWNEY & JOHN AUSTIN (Little Ditty Records) www.allisondowney.com

"Allison Downey is a true poet whose lyrics stand on their own as art. Add to that her polished performance skills and crystal clear vocals and you have one of the best singer-songwriters out there today." - Al Kniola, Host, The Back Porch, 88.1 WVPE Public Radio

“Allison and John are the complete package…skilled musicians, engaging storytellers, and songs ranging from thoughtful to flat out hilarious…our audience loved them.”
-Andy Baker, Northwind House Concerts

“Across the Sea should be required listening for anyone who thinks they know music. I love it!...among the best I’ve heard this year.
-Tom Saunders, A3Radio.com

AWARDS
• 2008 The Great Lakes Songwriting Contest, 2nd Place
o “All that Matters” & “Almost” – Across the Sea
• 2008 Music to Life Contest, Semi-Finalist, aired on XM Satellite Radio's Top 40 songs for social justice
o “Please Help!” – Across the Sea
• 2007 Wildflower! Arts Music Festival Performing Songwriter Contest – People's Choice Winner!
o “All that Matters” & “Almost” – Across the Sea
• 2005 International Songwriting Competition - Quarter Finalist
o “Wind at Your Back” – Wind at Your Back
• 2004 Susquehanna Music & Arts Festival Singer-Songwriter Contest Finalist - ** “Wind at Your Back” & “Cate’s Cradle” – Wind at Your Back
• 2004 South Florida Festival Performing Songwriter Competition Finalist
o “Wind at Your Back” & “Cate’s Cradle” – Wind at Your Back
• 2003 Wildflower! Arts & Music Festival Performing Songwriter Contest - Semi-finalist –
o “Wind at Your Back” & “Fallen Angel” – Wind at Your Back

Allison has been described as a “masterful performer with a commanding, yet genuine and open, stage presence”. Her face literally lights up as she sings with a voice reminiscent of the stylistic range and quality of Natalie Merchant. With an MFA in Theatre, Allison is a natural storyteller who creates scenes on stage. This native Washingtonian (DC) honed her craft in Austin, TX before bringing her style of music to her current home of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Since 2004, Allison has been performing with her partner in music and life, John Austin. Allison’s “Midwestern Urban Folk” originals are complimented by the dynamic grooves of John’s six-string bass. Songs from Allison’s newest recording, Across the Sea (2008), produced by Michael Crittenden of Mackinaw Harvest Records, have already garnered accolades for Allison, including the People’s Choice Award for Texas’ 2007 Wildflower! Arts & Music Festival Performing Songwriter Contest. The album has been played on 55 radio stations across the US, and five other countries. “Please Help” was aired on XM Radio’s “2008 Music to Life Top 40,” a contest honoring songs for social justice and presented by Christine Lavin. Allison's debut CD, Wind at Your Back (Little Ditty Records, 2002), produced by veteran performers Christine Albert & Chris Gage, has been heard on radio stations around the country. Both CD’s are available at a variety of stores, on itunes, CDBaby.com and on her website: www.allisondowney.com

"Real and earnest songwriting with a sense of humor about itself.”
— Ryan Cunningham, Recoil Magazine

Allison’s Extended Bio:

A natural on stage, Award-winning Singer-Songwriter, Allison Downey can make an audience in a 500-seat theatre feel like they’re in her living room. Her face literally lights up as she sings with a voice reminiscent of the stylistic range and quality of Natalie Merchant. “Dynamic, energetic, intimate, masterful, genuine, honest, humorous, hilarious, charismatic” – just a few of the descriptors chosen by critics and audiences to describe Allison’s performances. She takes her audiences on a journey that spans the gamut of human emotions, guiding them through the nuances of connections, and missed connections, across the character of landscapes and seascapes, to the bawdiness of an American in Paris, or a Spaniard in America. In song and performance Allison creates multi-dimensional characters in settings so rich with imagery that they reveal her training (MFA, Theatre) and experience as a theatre artist. Christian Czerwinski of the Lansing NOISE explains “Allison Downey, … the singer with a honey-coated voice is also a playwright and writes songs that appeal to all of the senses. It’s as if she’s creating a scene on stage…”

Born in Berlin, Germany, raised in Washington, DC, Allison is a world traveler, well, 5 continents that is, living for extended periods in Spain, France, Brazil, Senegal, Africa; Tortola, British Virgin Islands; as well as Maine, New Mexico, Texas, Ohio, Washington, and Michigan. She spent much of the past 20 years traipsing across all 50 United States, Canada, England, Mexico, Western Europe, Australia & New Zealand (w/17 twelve year olds), and Eastern Europe before the crumbling of the iron curtain. She’s climbed the Grand Te

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