I love abstract art. But like all true love, it's conditional. Paint a single orange dot in the corner of a 12-foot blank canvas? Stupendous. Glue a bunch of Kleenex boxes to an old refrigerator? Riveting.
But I have one caveat. Get as goofy as you want with your self-expression, but please possess the hard-earned technical ability that should serve as the foundation for any good artist. Take Picasso, for example—his early work was based in realism and showcased impressive technical ability, which makes his later blue and Rubik's Cube disjointed human forms all the more courageous and genuine.
I find that I apply a similar artistic litmus test to musicians. Create whatever atmospheric, dissonant sounds you like with your instruments (seriously, please do!), but for the love of god have the ability to actually play, and more importantly an understanding of what you're playing and what makes it all come together.
Which is why I find Alicia Wiley so impressive.
The fifth album by this 28-year-old Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter, Both Sides, is a haunting, moody soundscape of airy piano-based pop. It's not in the least bit jazzy to my ears, but that is precisely the foundation Wiley works from. She holds a degree in jazz piano, and her earliest albums were heavily jazz-influenced. Both Sides represents a musical evolution that is both bold and admirable, and she pulls it off without a hint of clumsiness or cliché.
With her breathy-bordering-on-sultry vocals, Wiley both seduces and mystifies, channeling such influences as Mazzy Star and Sarah McLaughlin. On Both Sides, she deftly creates a sparse, not quite melancholy world, like a still winter day when your breath lingers over a crystalline landscape. Nothing is rushed. All is contemplation. And it feels incredibly cathartic.
"It's a romance scenario of chasing the idea of someone you can't have, being blinded by both sides and not seeing what's really there," Wiley says of the album title. "It's a dark mood and haunting, but it's not a negative album by any means. It's mysterious. The stories aren't always obvious. I leave a lot to interpretation."
That lack of literalness is what gives Both Sides its depth and maturity. The album cover itself alludes to the brooding mystery that lies within. Wiley, looking stunningly delicate in a black gown that highlights her porcelain skin, sits on a decaying wooden walkway (located outside Pachyderm Studio) while a barely discernible dark figure lurks in the woods behind her. It's subtle, devoid of obvious explanation...and delightfully unnerving.
That unsettled theme is carried throughout the album, such as on the ethereal "Fire," a particularly intimate and spacious song on an already decidedly meditative album. Wiley is at her most sensually mystical when she sings "The devil/He's loose/But you're the king/Branching out and over everything/Everything/Why are we always on fire?" What is she trying to get across with those words? I have no idea, nor do I want to know. Developing your own interpretation is the reward, and Wiley provides the richest of ingredients.
"Jake Hanson [who plays guitar on the album] was really able to shine with the more haunting sounds. I love experimenting with new sounds. I never want to feel like I'm not moving forward and exploring and searching," Wiley says. "I really do have a lot of love for many genres. I draw from different styles and I don't keep myself in any box when it comes to what I feed from or what I respect. I'm able to appreciate almost any genre."
Toward the end of our conversation, although I had already made up my mind, I ask Wiley: "Would you say you are an introvert?" Looking demure and fragile in the booth across from me at the Caffetto coffee shop in Uptown, she leans over the table and aggressively whispers, "Absolutely."
Hardly necessary. It was a rhetorical question. Having spent the last half hour speaking with (and frankly straining to hear) this charmingly nervous and shy woman, it was abundantly clear that Wiley is the type of person who relishes retreating into herself, plumbing the bottomless complexity of human emotion, surfacing what she finds through her piano and her voice.
"I just really enjoy the process and the search," she says. "It's almost a spiritual thing for me."
ALICIA WILEY plays a CD-release show with Hildur Victoria and Greycoats on THURSDAY, DECEMBER 2, at the 7th ST. ENTRY; 612.332.1775