Amy Helm Serves Up Gorgeous Harmonies on Cover of Milk Carton Kids' 'Michigan': Premiere
Amy Helm's second album, the forthcoming This Too Shall Light, was all about finding the right songs -- and having the right producer in Joe Henry to choose them.
This Too Shall Light, the follow-up to 2015's Didn't It Rain, comes out Sept. 21 and includes Helm's interpretations of songs by the Milk Carton Kids (whose "Michigan" premieres exclusively below), Rod Stewart ("Mandolin Wind"), Allen Toussaint ("Freedom for the Stallion"), Hiss Golden Messenger (the title track) and more. It also features a pair of homages to her father, the late Levon Helm, in Levon and the Hawks' 1965 single "The Stones I Throw" and an a cappella rendition of the hymn "Gloryland," which Helm was introduced to by her father.
"It was a really excellent experience," Helm tells Billboard about the 10-song set. "I was really honored to get to work with Joe Henry; He's been on my wish list for a long time and he was the first person I really thought of when I was getting ready to make another record. I'm such a fan of his productions and in particular how he frames a singer and presents a singer that I really wanted it to be a Joe Henry record and really surrender to his vision and his creative intuitions about it."
In addition to coming up with a long list of songs from which he and Helm narrowed down, Henry also had a strong sonic vision for This Too Shall Light based on Delaney & Bonnie's 1971 release Motel Shot. "It's an album that sounds just like a bunch of folks sitting in a living room playing a bunch of songs," Helm recalls. "The performances are very spontaneous, and there's a certain kind of abandon to the sound and he thought it would be great to make a record with that as kind of a main direction on the compass."
That approach also impacted on the song selection, and Helm says "Michigan," from the Milk Carton Kids' 2011 album Prologue, was one of the first songs the two agreed on. "The song is so devastatingly heavy and sad that at first I was kind of taken aback," says Helm, who recruited a vocal triumvirate for the album that includes Allison Russell and JT Nero from Birds of Chicago and Adam Minkoff. "But in the weeks following our first meeting...the more I listened to it and hummed it in my head I honestly could hear the chorus being served so well by a rich, four-part harmony. So that was what drew me to it.
"And the lyrics, of course, are stunning. I think that song has the ability to kind of land so personally in the heart of each person who hears it but can mean 1,000 different things to 1,000 different people. It's a mysterious story that becomes clear in different ways to each person who hears it."
Helm is in the midst of a tour that takes her into October, with plans to expand the itinerary along the way.