I was not particularly surprised when Amber Cross turned out to be a soft-spoken person. Savage on the Downhill, her first wide release solo album, is the rewarding result of time spent reflecting on quiet places and people.
The music isn’t particularly sparse or underdone; Cross sings out confidently during hunting scenes, awkward silences in a marriage, about friends she hasn’t spoken to in a while, and during songs from the perspective of loners and wanderers. On “Echoes,” the song about a married couple adjusting to their empty nest, the silence bothers the husband, who has trouble sleeping as a result. The character Cross sings for notices the quiet too, but instead hears it asking her a question about the viability of her marriage that she feels compelled to answer.
Isolation drives the lonesome character in “Trinity Gold Mine” who tries to explain his social behavior in a way that seems unlikely to be spoken aloud. The perspective in “Tracey Joe” is that of a mother calling on her child to keep her from feeling lonely. And not one, but two tracks cover the topic of the inability to settle in one place. The title track stands out as a fantastic example of mood work produced in a quiet moment. The lyrics are intense, Cross’ vocals are firm-but-subdued as to maintain an atmosphere of anticipation, and the low hum that plays under the entire track makes it difficult to let a breath out. Cross originally wrote the song about her experiences hunting a wild boar, though album producer Ray Bonneville pushed her to make it more applicable to relationships. That proves a wise decision. The ambiguity of just who or what is this unseen force of evil makes the song that much better.
Cross is a fine songwriter who knows exactly how to present herself. Her vocals are penetrating with a raw edge added by a slight nasal muffle, much in the style of earlier Lucinda Williams. It’s difficult to overstate just how much Cross makes these qualities work to her advantage. At times it seems she is uniquely capable of cutting across the vast expanses and through the painful intimate moments that define the Western folk genre. Backing vocals from the always fantastic Tim O’Brien and instrumentals from Gurf Morlix only bolster this sound.
If there’s any weakness in this set of intimate songs it’s that the scene isn’t always easy to visualize after one listen. The fact that “Eagle & Blue” are the names of two old folk singer friends and Savage on the Downhill is named for a hunting rifle in which it is used were not things I fully understood until speaking to Cross and reading material on her website. Learning both facts did a lot to change my interpretations of the songs; only “Savage” felt just as satisfying afterward. Other tracks, lead song “Pack of Lies” among them, work better thanks to this lack of explanation. Knowing the singer lied and is harboring guilt is enough, and her hesitancy to explain what she’s done conveys a sense of shame while making the words more relatable to a wider range of people.
Glide spoke with Cross about some tracks and the interesting way the album came together.
Reading through your album notes, I saw a lot of this album came together at a Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada. That makes a lot of sense because you have the type of voice you’d expect to hear at a Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada.
I that was one of the first events I had ever been to, the National Cowboy Poetry convention in Elko and I just gone there to check out what the scene was, I actually wanted to see Glenn Ohrlin perform and Ramblin’ Jack, of course, was playing and I thought I’d sit on over at the open mic. In doing so I met Chuck Hawthorne who was there with his new release Silverline produced by Ray Bonneville. I was blown away by Chuck’s performance. We became friends at the festival and when I heard the record on my way home I gave him a call and I asked him if he would get me in touch with Ray around a production and he said he would.
On the title track you manage to create quite a bit more intensity than I’m used to from a song. Where did that story come from and how did that fantastic low hum make it onto the track?
I had written that song quite a few years ago under the name of “Cattle Trail” and when Ray heard it he was drawn to it and wanted to record it. As we got into it, he was pushing me to change some lyrics and change the feel because he’s kind of dark and bluesy in his nature. We rewrote it together. We kept the chorus the same with some lines reversed and the verses we might’ve pulled from other songs I have. We built from different places. He was writing from a relationship perspective and part of the story that I had shared with him and then I was writing from a hunting perspective about this boar I used to encounter, a wild pig, it kind of haunted me. I would run into this boar and I had the opportunity to take him a couple of times but never got my nerve up because of how he was staring me down and so somehow that song brought those things together I think pretty powerfully. And the low hum in the song was added last. Gurf had laid down this great bass line for it. And it ended up with Ray laying down just that low hum of the harp which added so much.
You approach lonesome in quite a different way than I’m used to hearing in East Coast roots music in Trinity Gold Mine. It’s more quiet than high and lonesome.
I wrote that song from a male perspective. It was this friend who he shared with me from his upbringing in an isolated area in Northern California. As a child he was kept in a real little place and became quite a loner. And when I knew him he was kind of like that guy in the bar that you see all the time but you never know what his story is but it’s real dark. And when I heard his story and got to know him over a couple of years that song came out of it. He was an odd one, maybe that’s what you’re picking up on.
You hit on something so essential, in my mind, to the music listening experience in Eagle & Blue when you imply how much the meaning of a song has changed for you after the relationship associated with that song has soured.
That song is all about memories for me. I had gone back to New Mexico and was driving through places I used to live and thinking about people I used to know was there and everyone had moved. Halfway through writing that song I actually got a poem from a friend who lives in California. He’s a folk singer and he’d written this poem and mailed it my way and it is one of the verses in that song and I got permission from him the very day I received it. I don’t know if I could have completed it or how it would have come out if I hadn’t gotten that poem in the mail. As for the relationship, I hadn’t thought about it that direction. I was definitely recalling someone I used to travel with in New Mexico. Eagle and Blue were two friends of mine down there, they were folk singers who used to play farmers markets. I have to give that some thought. I would like to, but spur of the moment I can’t get my head around it. I think you’re onto something though.
And finally you have two songs about the difficulty of settling down in “Leaving Again” and “One Last Look.” Is that something you find that you struggle with?
I’d say it’s something that I’ve struggled with, definitely. I’ve always given my heart and jumped in with both feet and then getting myself in a sticky situation or getting in too deep too fast. And I wrote a lot of songs about that and now, gratefully, I’ve settled with a man that I’ll be with the rest of my life, no doubt, and raise a family with together. It’s definitely something I’ve struggled with but I finally found the right one.
Top photo by Barry Goyette