Alison Krauss is calling from her tour bus on a Saturday afternoon, and straightaway starts off the conversation by apologizing, noting she slept in a bit late and is tired and so “I don’t sound very good!”
Of course, Alison Krauss is probably the only person who might ever dare suggest that Alison Krauss doesn’t sound very good.
Non-songwriting singers don’t become 27-time Grammy winners without immaculately, impeccably pristine vocal ability, after all.
The thing is, during the recording of her new album, “Windy City,” released this past February, Krauss’ voice actually was in rough shape.
Ahead of this Saturday’s headlining performance at Usana Amphitheatre in West Valley City, the Illinois-born singer and violin-playing prodigy recalled how, in the studio, a case of dysphonia would randomly cause her voicebox to lock up.
With David Gray
When • Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Usana Amphitheatre, 5150 Upper Ridge Road, West Valley City
Tickets • $30-$65; Smith’s Tix
Except that, as she learned in subsequent sessions with renowned vocal coach Ron Browning, it really wasn’t random at all.
“The first thing he said, he goes, ‘You got too much on your mind.’ And I thought, ‘Well, yeah, but …’ And he goes, ‘You go in there and you don’t wanna work’ or ‘You don’t wanna sing.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes I do!’ I said, ‘I do want to sing!’ He goes, ‘No. Not for the original reason you always loved to.’ And he says, ‘You really gotta clean your desk off. You’re doing too much other stuff.’ Meaning, you can’t be present. And really, he couldn’t have been more right on,” Krauss said. “Because anytime when you can’t be present in that moment, it is contrived. When I’d go in there to sing, if I was thinking about, ‘OK, I only have two hours here to get this done, and then I gotta go do this, I gotta go there,’ you can’t be present in that moment to sing, and you can’t have the real emotions that go along with the words you’re singing. I wasn’t present. So then it’s almost like you’re faking. And I couldn’t keep anything that didn’t feel authentic. So it would kinda shut down — my voice would shut down. I’d lose my voice.”
So, it was almost as much a mental issue as a physical problem, then?
“It was a mental issue that caused a physical problem! Yeah,” she agreed. “It’s pretty interesting, really, when you think about it. Not handy, not handy! Oh, it was a drag.”
By getting that all sorted out, Krauss was able to finish up “Windy City,” her first solo album since 1999. Of course, she’s done plenty of work since then — including several records with frequent collaborators Union Station, some acclaimed performances on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, which was credited with giving bluegrass music more mainstream appeal, and, of course, “Raising Sand,” her award-winning duet album with ex-Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant.
As for why she hadn’t had a solo album in so long, she said it was as simple as not having wanted to.
“It’s a pretty obvious thing when you know you’re led to do something,” Krauss said. “When you have an inspired thought, you know it’s time. And I hadn’t had that. I hadn’t had that ’til now.”
Whatever difficulties there were singing on the album, producing it proved blessedly drama-free, at least.
Upon making the decision to record, Krauss reached out to acclaimed producer Buddy Cannon (best-known as Kenny Chesney’s go-to guy) to helm it. The two had worked together before in spurts, when she’d added backing vocals or violin-playing to other projects he was overseeing, but they hadn’t collaborated on anything of hers before.
Their partnership proved as successful as she’d hoped.
“Having Buddy produce that was a real blast for me. He is so fascinating to me,” she said. “You can’t second-guess him. I always try to find out why — ‘Why did you like that pass?’ ‘Why did you like that track?’ — and everything is just instinctual, he doesn’t have an explanation, it’s just, ‘That’s just it. That’s just the right one.’ And it’s really interesting to watch him work in that environment.”
Her own intrigue in observing other people’s talents became a frequent topic of conversation. She has a specific affinity for watching songwriters at work — no surprise given that she’s made a career out of interpreting other people’s handiwork.
While not being a songwriter herself certainly hasn’t hurt her career, perhaps it does make her lament that it’s not a stronger component of her repertoire?
“Oh, no — I don’t wish it. I don’t pretend strength where I don’t have it. I know where not to dip my toe,” she said earnestly. “I admire it so much in the people who have it. And I don’t have it. My job is to do what I do. Everybody’s job is to be themselves. So, no. I love and I’ve grown up with songwriters. And I love the process that they go through, and it’s fascinating to watch, and there’s patterns with it. It’s completely inspired work. … But I’m no poet, and I wouldn’t pretend to be. That’s not my place.”
Besides — with a voice like hers, asking for songwriting ability on top of it would just be greedy.
“I’m grateful to get to do something that I love to do. I’ve met some incredible people along the way, I still get to play with those incredible people. I’m traveling right now with friends of 30 years — my closest friends. It’s been an amazing job,” Krauss said. “To think that I could do this for a living … I was telling my son something about this, ‘That you could possibly get to do something because you like it, and you get to finish it, and hand it in, to your liking, it’s an incredible gift just to get to do that.’ ”