Happy Woman Blues
Singer/Songwriter explores her relationships
By Michael McCall
JANUARY 11, 1999: Singer-songwriter Amy Rigby has written humorously and perceptively about relationships on her two solo albums, 1996's Diary of a Mod Housewife and last year's Middlesence. For the most part, her examinations of love and unhappiness have proved therapeutic. At the same time, they've created a few unexpected problems as well.
"I'm finding that when guys ask me out, they think they know all this stuff about me because of my songs," says Rigby, whose music often delves into deeply personal issues. "People have started to think I actually have this superior knowledge of human relationships. But, in real life, I'm as clueless as the next person."
Rigby's encounters with listeners' high expectations underscore just how good her songs are: In lyrics that come across as intimate yet conversational, she divulges personal secrets in a witty, off-the-cuff manner. That naturalness is hard to come by, of course. And in seeming so honest and unfettered, Rigby proves how well she has mastered her craft: It takes a particularly gifted songwriter to turn the personal into the universal.
"Striving for those moments of clarity, those times when I seem to hit upon some kind of understanding of why things are the way they are, that's what songwriting is really about for me," Rigby explains. "For one split second, I understand everything. After that, I spend the rest of the time trying to get back to that place. Sometimes you can get there as a songwriter, but it's much harder in regular life."
For Rigby, the newfound recognition comes after two decades of pursuing a career in music, shifting between shimmery pop rock and a more rootsy sound. A North Carolina native who has lived in New York City since early adulthood, Rigby spent time in a couple of well-regarded alternative bands before embarking on her solo career.
In the mid-1980s, she was a member of Last Roundup, an acoustic group that presaged the current alternative-country movement. Her talents as a songwriter were displayed more prominently in The Shams, a female trio that blended three-part harmonies into folky pop with a downtown Manhattan sensibility.
But it was with the grand Diary of a Mod Housewife that Rigby's talents truly began to sparkle. A concept album of sorts, the roots-inflected record focused on the tensions that arose between a musical couple who tried to balance their bohemian tendencies with domestic family life. From the aching strains of "Don't Break the Heart (That Needs You)" to the biting rocker "(Don't Look at Me In) That Tone of Voice" to the hilarious send-up of a husband-and-wife confrontation in "20 Questions," Rigby found a way to bring the real-life travails of modern wives into the rock 'n' roll domain.
"I feel incredibly lucky because I'm doing what I want," she says. "I didn't expect to become the next big thing or anything, because I'm not chasing after the youth market. I feel like I'm filling a void in that I write songs that specifically concern a certain segment of the population. It's not that you have to be between the ages of 35 and 45 to get these songs; hopefully, the themes drift over in a way that younger people can relate to them. But I think there's something to be said for writing about topics that don't usually make it into rock songs. At least I'm hoping there's room for that."
The small but fervent acclamation from Rigby's fans, who hear their lives in her lyrics, suggests that there is indeed an audience hungry for such songs.
"I think there's a period of loss and acceptance that anyone goes through during the aging process, and that hasn't really been written about in popular songs very much," she says. "[One] writer said I was obsessed with the loss of sexual attractiveness. But that's the kind of society we live in today, and it may not be that big of a deal, but it's something a lot of people go through--especially women."
Buoyed by her success, Rigby felt ready to take bolder chances with 1998's Middlesence, which answers the question left dangling at the end of her solo debut: How did her rock 'n' roll marriage turn out? Not so well, we learn. Relying on more pop- and rock-oriented arrangements, Rigby used her second album to write about the experiences of a newly divorced mother quickly approaching her 40s.
The best songs pointedly yet humorously explore the challenges faced by a newly single woman: In "All I Want," she demands that a lover display some kindness and at least a minimal amount of interest in her thoughts. "All I want is a little pat on the back, not a little subtle attack," she sings.
"As Is" humorously addresses the thrift-store, bargain-bin existence of a woman on a limited income, while "Invisible" wickedly yet poignantly talks about how men perceive Rigby differently now that she's older. The singer doesn't always lighten her social commentary with whimsy, though. "20th Anniversary" uses the setting of a high-school reunion to reminisce about a teenage love affair that turned into a humiliating, soul-crushing encounter.
As Rigby explains, she wanted Middlesence to be even bolder and more personal than Diary of a Mod Housewife. "When I wrote the songs for the first album, I was still thinking that I could have a career as a country songwriter," she says. "After the album came out, it became apparent that people weren't likely to cover these songs, mostly because they are so personal. So this time I threw away the constraints. I wanted to try to say the things that you wouldn't say if you were trying to get someone else to cover your songs."
She succeeds too--Middlesence maintains a high level of craft while deepening the thematic richness that marked her first collection of songs. Besides, Rigby says, at this point, people realize that she's singing about her own experiences. "People are always coming up to me after shows and giving me hugs and asking if I'm all right," she laughs. "And women are always saying that it's good to know that they're not alone, that someone else has had the same experiences they've had. To be honest, it's nice to make that kind of connection. That's the kind of thing that keeps me going."
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