Seattle-based singer-songwriter Amanda Winterhalter is headed inland for two shows Friday and Saturday in Clarkston and Moscow, respectively. Currently on tour with a full band supporting her latest release, “What’s This Death,” Winterhalter’s singular brand of gothic Americana is as intimate and direct as it is audacious and unpredictable.
Winterhalter gave Inland 360 some insight into her history and influences and shared her thoughts on the craft of songwriting. Here’s some of what she had to say. To read more, find an extended version of this story at inland360.com.
Q: How did you get started writing songs? A lot of different and interesting styles are apparent in your music; have you always identified your style as “gothic Americana”?
A: I grew up playing and performing music in church, but I didn’t start writing anything worthwhile until my mid-20s. I think that’s when my musical influences and tastes really expanded and deepened into a richer well to draw from. I also joined my first band around that time.
When I first started writing songs, I identified as an indie folk or folk-soul artist. It’s tough to be an emerging solo singer-songwriter and know exactly what your sound is, but when you incorporate more instruments and players who bring their own distinct styles and sounds, things begin to take shape and become more realized. When I was recording my first record, I didn’t feel like the folk genre accurately described what I was doing musically, and when I tossed the term Americana gothic around in a conversation with a friend one day, he reversed it for me and that seemed to fit. ... I think on my latest album, I’ve gone even deeper into that identity with my band, and our sound feels even more cohesively gothic Americana.
Q: Who/what are some influences that your audience might be surprised to learn have helped shape your sound?
A: My foundational influences are pretty straightforward — gospel, country, blues, jazz, and rock. I suppose my audience might be surprised to learn that hip-hop and soul artists like Lauryn Hill, the Fugees, James Brown and Otis Redding have had a big impact on me, creatively. There’s so much raw emotion and energy in that sound, and I feel that and want to express that as an artist, too. When I started writing music, I was also delving deep into a lot of roots music — old traditional music like Appalachian and Celtic ballads. There, again, you find a lot of rawness and transparency. I’ve also been heavily influenced by artists like Radiohead, St. Vincent, Y la Bamba and Wilco, where there’s something more layered and complex happening, musically. For me, growth as an artist means creating music that is interesting, and listening to a lot of different styles of music helps me express and interpret something musically interesting.
Q: The sense of restlessness in many of your arrangements is striking — you’re never in one place for too long, and often the songs seem to build in velocity toward a crescendo, in terms of either emotion or actual volume. Can you talk a bit about your structural approach to songwriting?
A: I think, subconsciously, the gospel and contemporary Christian music I listened to growing up had a substantial impact on me later as a songwriter. That crescendo shows up a lot in modern church music, so a buildup and release is kind of an innate pattern I tend to repeat. I think about my natural instincts as a writer and singer, though, and I don’t want every song to be the same, so I like to be intentional about trying different structures and approaches.
Q: You have a beautiful and interesting voice. Who are some of your favorite singers, and what specific lessons have you taken from them?
A: As a singer, some of my early foundational influences were Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and Lauryn Hill. They were the singers I wanted to sound like, and I used to record myself singing their songs to see how closely I could mimic their phrasing and timing and inflections. Those singers taught me about space and range. I think the space around the notes I sing is often more important than the notes themselves. Timing is what makes a song and its delivery exceptional. Having an impressive range as a singer isn’t imperative, but it can be pretty potent — it takes the listener on a journey and can surprise them in a really satisfying way. Early years of soaking up singers like Aretha and Ella helped me develop a decent range as a singer. Listening to singers like Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Patty Griffin and Otis Redding have kept an edge in my voice, and I like that. I don’t want to sound too technical or too pristine.
Q:What original song is your favorite to play live, and why?
A: Oh, I have many favorites. Music — especially performing live — is all about catharsis and connection for me. I find that the greatest catharsis and connection I feel with my bandmates and with the audience usually happens on the songs with the biggest arc. “100 Years Old,” “Reel,” “I Miss You,” “What’s This Death,” and there’s a new song we haven’t recorded yet that I just love singing. It’s inspired by Mount St. Helens, and it’s called “This is It.” Those are the ones where I really get to build and release and use my voice at its most powerful climax. And sometimes there’s this intangible, extraordinary moment that happens in that climax that feels almost otherworldly — like we’ve all crossed over for just a blink in time to some higher plane. Experiencing that with a whole room of people is pretty remarkable.