Singer-songwriter Abby Ahmad developed her distinctive vocals and percussive guitar style while hosting the Shadow Lounge's open-mic series, and cut her theatrical teeth in the University of Pittsburgh's Theatre Arts program. City Paper first covered her in 2006, when she relocated to New York to pursue music and released her debut record, the acoustic-rock breakup album The Rearview, portions of which were used in the film The Guardian. Ahmad, 28, continues her own independent creative course, and visits Club Café on Thu., July 22, playing songs from her latest, Curriculum, which finds Ahmad discovering a hard-earned hope, and features inventive arrangements. Ahmad spoke with CP via phone.
It's been a long time since we spoke -- what have you been up to?
I actually took a year off and I came back to Pittsburgh, for a one-woman play called The Nine Parts of Desire, and I did that at the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre [in 2007]. Taking the time off and doing the play and reconnecting to who I am as a person and a performer, I was able to come back -- that's when I came back to New York and I wrote the songs that are on this album and recorded them.
Does it weird people out that you have more than one creative pursuit?
Well, it weirded me out for a while -- I thought, "I have to make a decision, I have to choose." And, you don't have to choose. I think Joni Mitchell said, "It's all the same release, laughing and crying." It's acting; it's singing; it's art; it's creating; it's communication. Some people don't understand it. I recently opened for Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls, and she gets similar reactions, because she has a lot of interests and passions, and sometimes her fans don't know what to do with her.
Does Curriculum have a central theme?
I've spent the last three years in New York being a preschool teacher -- that's how I subsidized my income, and so that played a lot into it. I actually just quit, so I'm now a full-time musician, which is very exciting! But for the past three years I've been doing that, working with 2- and 3-year-olds -- they're relatively clean slates. And I just wanted to approach life from that perspective: How can I take what I've learned and fuse it into what I already know and proceed in a way that's powerful and hopeful? There's some very sad songs of course, and painful songs, but I always feel like they're kind of polished with this little bit of hope in them.
The first time the horns come in, it's a rush. How did the songs come together?
Each song started with a little idea, like "Star Pupil," which is the first track on the album. I was fooling around with a kid's guitar that [co-producer Nathan Rosenblum]'s son had at the studio, just for shits and giggles. And I picked it up and said, "We should record a song on this," and from there it took off -- "Yeah, it needs a little honky-tonk piano." And then we ended up getting Levon Helm's horn section -- just brilliant musicians, and we were very lucky to have them on this.
It's quite different from your earlier album. "Landing Gear," though, reminds me of your early, driving songs.
I have a very distinctive style, as far as the percussive nature of the guitar and the kind of balls-to-the-wall vocal style and bluesy thing -- [the producers] didn't want to change it, they just kind of wanted to take it up a notch. And I was really grateful for that. There's a lot of producers and a lot of recordings I hear, you can tell that there's a songwriter under there somewhere who didn't really get to have much of a voice!
When you come to Pittsburgh, you're doing a CD-release. So the record's coming out now?
[Laughs.] It actually came out in November, and I had a CD-release show for it in April, in New York. I realized another thing about being an independent is that there's no real set schedule or agenda. This is my struggle and it's my journey, and this is how I have the means to do it. So nine months later, if I have the means to come to Pittsburgh, then I will, and do a show. I still have a lot of friends and listeners there, and they haven't heard a lot of the songs from the new CD, and I haven't been back to Pittsburgh to play. So for them, it's for sure a CD-release, and for me.
Abby Ahmad CD release with Barnaby Bright and Autumn Ayers. 8 p.m. Thu., July 22 (doors at 7 p.m.). Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $10. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com