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Roots Music

Five years after Alaska Reid’s departure, Montana still inspires the Los Angeles musician.

By A.J. Mangum

Alaska Reid’s 2012 CD Powerlines includes “Livingston,” a mellow, acoustic ode to the Los Angeles-based musician’s Montana hometown. She sings, “This place wouldn’t be as special if I were here to stay, and had never gone away.” Much is packed into that single line: homesickness and nostalgia balanced against the acknowledgement that progression, almost by definition, means putting that which is familiar in the rear-view mirror.

Five years after her move to southern California, Reid, now 18, still owes much to Big Sky Country. She developed a love of music listening to her father’s eclectic collection of CDs during drives to town from their rural home in Paradise Valley. Reid’s roots as a singer and guitarist trace to vocal lessons in Livingston and jam sessions with the town’s “community of older musicians,” who taught her to play. And, it’s her separation from Montana that’s inspired songs on the heavy themes of being out of place and between identities.

“It’s weird when you move from someplace,” Reid says. “You have roots in one place and start putting down roots somewhere else. You don’t know whether you’re totally in one place at all.”

Los Angeles, though, has been good to Reid. With her new band, Alyeska (an Aleut word for “mainland,” and the term from which the 50th state takes its name), she’s released an EP that represents a bold creative progression, courtesy of a sound decidedly more aggressive (“louder and electric,” Reid says) than that found on the tranquil, dreamlike Powerlines – think “Joni Mitchell joins Nirvana.” In addition to performing frequent gigs throughout southern California with Alyeska, Reid still maintains a solo identity, and spent this past summer opening for Lyle Lovett on his 2014 tour.

“Over the course of the past few months, I’ve played constantly,” she says. “That’s the name of the game, though. It keeps you on your toes. You battle through it, and the payoff is there.”

Reid grew up in Montana ranch country, but her identity was forged by Livingston’s art and literary scene. She spent more time around writers than around cowboys. By middle school, she was a guitar-obsessed budding poet joining her first band. Her earliest gigs included performances at “shitty bars” in southwestern Montana. Her family’s move to Los Angeles was painful, but she admits relocation was likely her big break.

“I was completely scared,” she says. “Montana was my home, and I’d grown up with a particular group of kids.” Still, music provided a constant for the transplanted Reid. “My involvement in the L.A. music scene was gradual, but it’s progressed.”

Powerlines has a contemporary country-folk sound, but Reid’s take is unabashedly literary and experimental, leaving her material free of any cliches of the genre. Sweeping, dramatic vocals carry lyrics rich with imagery of lonely, beautiful moments in small towns, and laden with the emotions of protagonists heading into uncertain futures. The material could be interpreted as a bridge between chapters in Reid’s life: the song “Livingston” follows “California,” a plugged-in road-trip number that – even with another title – would fit comfortably in the “California sound” catalog, beside the defining works of artists like Jackson Browne, Neil Young and Gram Parsons.

The Alyeska EP occupies different turf, expanding the universe in which Reid works as a songwriter, and the influences from which she draws. Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and Cowboy Junkies are there, but so are nearly forgotten progenitors of the Seattle grunge scene, bands that early ’90s alternative acts brought back onto the mainstream radar. Gentle, understated verses rise to explosive crescendos, and beautifully raw rhythm guitars are accented by delicate, ethereal keyboards. The record’s energy propels it far outside the country-folk territory of Powerlines, and comfortably into the realm of alt-rock.

Recorded in just two afternoons, with a lineup of musicians that included backing vocalist Kimberly Rose, keyboardist Arlan Oscar, bass player Will Henley Dias, and drummer Ben Spear, the EP possesses the character of a live performance.

“All the instrumentation is live, with no studio tricks,” Reid explains. “It’s an honest EP, very raw, organic.”

Such sincerity in a performance is important to Reid. She cites a wide range of influences, from Peggy Lee to Kurt Cobain; the common thread, she says, is a brand of unapologetic originality. “And,” she adds, “some people are just cool.”

Since the formation of Alyeska, Reid has returned to Montana to play familiar haunts with her new band. A highlight of this past summer: a marathon three-and-a-half-hour gig at Livingston’s Murray Bar.

“There were a ton of people there,” she says, “people I’ve been friends with since I was a kid, and they got to hear the ‘electric band’ sound for the first time. We only had maybe two hours of material, so I switched with the bass player and he began playing guitar – this blues thing – and we just made it up on the fly. This drunk guy in the audience kept offering to buy me a drink, and the bassist was sort of ‘courted’ by this older woman. Livingston is amazing, but also very bizarre that time of year. We got the full dose.”

Such a full-circle experience could be mistaken for the closing of a chapter – a last hurrah in Big Sky Country – but Reid actually returns to the Northern Rockies frequently to perform at benefits, festivals and other venues. Even after five years in California, and a lengthy list of new experiences and collaborations that have reshaped her sound, it’s likely her Montana roots will always be present in her music.

Still, she’s at a stage in her career, and at a stage of life, in which the unwritten future is an overwhelmingly dominant theme. Reid says she wants to “loosen up,” and get more comfortable on stage. She’s changed up her songwriting process, writing lyrics and music simultaneously, rather than locking her lyrical phrasing to the music.

And, she’s content to move forward without the burden of labeling her work as part of any one genre. Such fearless explorations of identity – musings one could expect from a Montanan transitioning into a Californian, or from a country-folk solo performer doubling as an alt-rock band’s lead singer – could make Reid one of Montana’s most intriguing exports.

A.J. Mangum is the editor of Ranch & Reata and the author of the non-fiction collection Undiscovered Country: Dispatches from the American West, available on Amazon.com. Learn more about Alaska Reid’s music at http://www.alyeskaband.com.

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