Amy Rigby: Making Passage for an Artist in Motion
Written by Liam Sweeny on January 30, 2021
A girl from the suburbs has a dream, and through the trials and errors of hard-fought experience, she finds her dream and claims it. And lives it. Artistic expression can be beautifully described in the tools of a writer’s trade, but we can never forget that art, all art, is the telling of the artist’s story.
Amy Rigby is an artist’s artist; singer, songwriter, book writer, artist… and yet above all, storyteller of her own design. She has a few things in the fire, and she’s asking everyone to come get warm.
I sit down with Amy and we talk about the finer rules of highway bingo.
RRX: You have a great story, growing into being a professional musician from an Elton John fan in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Luckily, it’s a story told in your memoir, Girl to City. Memoirs are tough, because writing a good one forces you to write what they want to read, as much as what you need to write. What did you learn from the effort?
AR: Well I love to read memoirs so I just wrote what I’d want to read if I didn’t know me. I learned that writing a book really is as hard as people say, but worth the effort. It also made me appreciate the quick payoff of songwriting.
RRX: You spent time in a lot of different places, New York, Nashville, England, just to name a few. And now you’re back in New York, a bit north of the city. Based on your travels for the arts, would you consider it easier to move to a new place and have to establish yourself, or move from a place, and have to let go?
AR: I find it easier to move from a place because I never really let them go! I still feel like New York City is my town (though I admit it gets less so), parts of London will always feel weirdly familiar and same with Nashville. The buildings change but the topography remains the same, and a lot of the people do too. Many of my New York friends still live in the same apartments they’ve been in since we were just out of college. Starting over in a new place is something I never worry about until I’m actually in the middle of doing it, but I think because I travel so much for gigs (or did until this past year) I don’t need to rely on the place where I live to provide as much for me as if I stayed put. It is wonderful to get to know the people and place where you live though, I’m appreciating that even more this past year. Even if I only see very occasional glimpses of friends at the takeout coffee line, I’m appreciating community more and more.
RRX: You have a podcast, Looking for the Magic, with Elizabeth Nelson of the Paranoid Style. I’ve only done a blog, and I’m not afraid to admit I suck at it. And I know a lot of writers who did them with good starts, and they run out of gas. How do you and Elizabeth plan on keeping up a schedule and keeping it interesting?
AR: I started a podcast back in March, Girl to City, where I read a chapter of my book each week and worked music into each episode, spending hours editing and getting it up at the same time every week for 20 weeks. I could never have done that if I hadn’t been stuck at home but I had the content already created. It was good to have something to focus on every week. This new podcast Looking for the Magic is a different experience – flying by the seat of our pants, committing to finding a topic related to music/songwriting every week and meeting up live online on YouTube, then uploading as an audio podcast. I’ve written a blog for many years now and just make myself do it. It’s discipline but is always rewarding – I always feel better when I’ve created new work or articulated something I couldn’t get to without an imagined audience in my head. The hardest thing is the energy needed to find readers, listeners etc. Which reminds me, I need to share about tomorrow’s episode on every platform…especially tough to self-promote when there is so much going on in the world, but we can all use a little pleasant distraction.
RRX: Touring is tough, no matter how you do it. But touring while raising a kid, I imagine that’s like being a computer hacker with a warm keyboard and a room full of cats. It must have been difficult from a logistical perspective, but it had to balance out, right? Was there any moment :that cemented, in your mind, the benefit of doing it?
AR: Looking back I honestly don’t know how I did it. I was driven, and maybe one of the beauties of having kids is you feel like whatever you do it’s for the team, like you need to make it count and be worthwhile because there’s someone else relying on you. Not to say I didn’t feel selfish some of the time and I still look back with guilt and regret. I was just remembering taking my daughter out of school, flying to the UK with her, taking a train to Bristol where her dad was playing a gig and putting her on a tour bus with him, carrying on doing my dates by train and then picking her up at the airport in Dublin. Shared parenting insanity. It sounds glamorous but it was scary and hard and I probably spent any money I made! I do think my daughter had fun though, and she knew she was loved. When she was a bit older she and I worked up some punk covers together so she could play on tour with me and that’s a treasured memory. I think whatever you do as a parent, you’re never sure you’re doing the right thing so I guess I didn’t do too bad.
RRX: We like to explore the creative minds of the people out there that use that part for their bread and butter. Seems that people making a life of one craft have their toes (or legs) in the pool of other crafts; art, writing, sculpture… So, you have had your life in music and writing. Are there any other worlds you’re trying to conquer?
AR: I really loved turning my book Girl to City into a podcast and I love doing the podcast with Elizabeth Nelson. Years back, another artist Marti Jones and I created a live show called Cynical Girls where we had a whole little stage set and scripted bits – I guess it’s closer to theater or TV. And I admit there have been a few times I’ve tried to turn a set of songs into a musical, or collaborated with a playwright and I still love the idea. I know that’s what every songwriter ends up doing – yep, why should I be any different?!
I also have always made visual art – studied illustration at Parsons – and I keep coming back to graphics, drawings; laying out books, screen-printing. I just designed and printed a Dancing with Joey Ramone tea towel and selling those over Christmas basically helped me support myself. I get a giddy thrill out of packing them up and sending them to people all over the world!
And then there’s my dream to have a combination cafe/hotel/shop/venue – we stayed at one in Holland years ago and I still have fantasies of doing that.
RRX: When I heard your name, I also heard the name of Wreckless Eric, whose also spent a life of notes and measures. You two are not only married in song, but married in life. If you had to pick, would you say you more complement each other musically, or compete to keep each other on your toes?
AR: I think we definitely complement each other musically – from the first time I ever heard Eric back in the seventies, I thought he was a kindred musical spirit. I think we definitely keep each other on our toes but not through competition, just support and encouragement, and also offering another perspective, shared with love and honesty. If we can aim to be insecure at different times over different things, that’s the best!
I know I said we don’t compete, but I will say I’m inspired by Eric’s work ethic. He keeps moving forward making new work and doesn’t get bogged down and I’ve learned a lot from being around him.
RRX: This is where you answer the question I didn’t ask. Do your instruments have their own luggage tickets? Who’s hiding out in the upstate? Educate, enlighten, emote – the floor is yours.
AR: I hope we’ll all take something away from this pandemic era that is positive – I’ve been unemployed for almost a year but have had freedom to create stuff without constantly coming and going on tour and self-promoting; I’ve lost heroes and friends and my stepmother to COVID and almost lost Eric due to COVID but those experiences have highlighted how it’s people that matter. I’ve hardly seen a soul but feel connected to everyone in a deeper way as it’s put us all in a humbler, more elemental place. Even when I walk around our local Walmart and see everyone doing their best, wearing masks – I feel like we’re all a lot closer to each other than divisive forces would have us believe, if only we could see it.