There’s something about Merrie Amsterburg
Merrie Amsterburg takes a swig of beer and wonders aloud what the angle of this story is going to be. She asks politely; she’s an unassuming Midwesterner who grew up in Michigan, after all.
It’s a good question, one her fans surely must have been pondering as they wait for another album by Amsterburg, a singer-songwriter of quiet grace with a nimble voice full of pathos.
Her last record, “Clementine & Other Stories,” a deeply felt interpretation of folk standards, was released in 2006. Before that, Amsterburg seemed poised for a national stage when she put out “Little Steps” in 2000 and “Season of Rain,” her solo debut, a few years prior.
On a recent afternoon at Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain, those albums feel distant in the rearview mirror. Amsterburg lives nearby with her husband, Peter Linton, a guitarist who often accompanies her. She’s beloved in the local music scene yet rarely performs around town. This weekend, however, she’ll be part of the lineup at the third annual JP Music Festival that comes to Pinebank Field near Jamaica Pond on Saturday with a diverse lineup of acts.
“‘Little Steps’ was my first official record on Rounder on the Zoe [imprint]. I had hoped that it would do well,” she says of that collection of ethereal folk-pop songs built around catchy choruses. “What I say is that my music is pop music that I wish was more popular.”
She laughs after she says that, acknowledging the bittersweetness of such a sentiment. But she also mentions that her three solo albums have all had a long life as various songs have been placed in TV shows and films.
“You always hope that your music does well enough that you don’t have a day job,” says Amsterburg, who’s 53 and looks at least a decade younger, her reddish hair piled high with gold hoop earrings dangling. “That didn’t happen. It came close. But overall, as far as what they are, I’m happy with my records. It is a record – a record of what I’ve done.”
Amsterburg’s story, while circuitous, is not a sad one. She’s had a modest amount of success since arriving here in 1985 with dreams of working on her own music. She did just that with a revolving door of bands, including a female rock group called Miss Understood and the Natives, where she first met Linton, a bandmate at the time.
The Natives, too, seemed headed for bigger things in the ’90s before falling victim to record deals that fell through. They were even signed at one point to Gene Simmons’s now-defunct label. (“That was pretty awesome,” Amsterburg says. “We played at CBGB, and Gene showed up in a full-length black leather coat.”)
She makes it clear that she never measured her career by the usual benchmarks. Her goal was more about creative fulfillment.
“I was looking to be successful as a writer, and I think I accomplished that and I’m still trying to accomplish that. I’m still trying to write things that I think are good,” she says. “My goal was not to be famous. That part freaks me out. I’m not one of those people who loves all the attention and has to have all the attention.”
Even so, Amsterburg is the kind of artist who inspires devotion in her fans, particularly among other singer-songwriters. Jennifer Kimball, who has collaborated with Amsterburg over the years, calls her “a musician’s musician” and rattles off a list of her gifts, including the fact that Amsterburg makes a “mean apple pie.”
“OK, so it’s hard to know how to sing her praises without sounding like a total idiot fan. But it’s a fact that her whole musical persona is, well, inspiring,” Kimball writes in an e-mail. “Where do those gorgeous melodies come from? How does she sing those devastating and beautiful lyrics just the right way to break your heart — all the while sounding profoundly unique, perfectly in-tune, almost detached but completely embracing you as you listen?”
“There’s something about Merrie,” says Patty Larkin, who features Amsterburg’s backing vocals on her latest album, “Still Green.” “Someone gave me a cassette of her music in the ’90s, and from there I became addicted to her songs. She’s an amazing melody writer and lyricist. I think she has a big sense of the world of music, where she wants to go with her melodies and her imagination.”
True enough, but that’s also easier said than done. Amsterburg happens to be a working musician who’s working another job as well. She does bookkeeping, which keeps her so busy that she can’t focus exclusively on music. She gets up before that job starts, sometimes as early as 6 in the morning, to write and work on songs. “To fool around,” as she calls it.
Amsterburg has been keeping voice memos on her phone with song ideas and melodies and recently got GarageBand to record at home. She’s got at least 40 songs in various states of completion and wants to start whipping them into shape in the fall.
“People have been patient,” she says, taking another sip of beer, “and I’m happy that they still know the music. I’ll get something out.”
The makers of “For the Love of the Music: The Club 47 Revival,” a documentary about the little Harvard Square venue that could, are in the final stretch of a PledgeMusic campaign that they hope will raise enough money to license the music used in the movie. If successful, they’ll be able to release the documentary on DVD, ensuring it will be seen beyond the film festivals where it has screened to rave reviews. At press time, the online campaign had hit 84 percent of its goal. You have till Saturday to donate at www.pledgemusic.com/projects/club47film. . . . And speaking of assisting others, Brown Bird, the Rhode Island folk-blues duo of Dave Lamb and MorganEve Swain, could also use a helping hand. Lamb was diagnosed with leukemia a few months ago and has since undergone treatment that has sidelined the band for an indefinite period. They’re seeking crowd-sourced donations at www.youcaring.com/brownbirdhelp.