Prior to beginning her second album, Amy Petty was something of a nervous wreck. Her 2008 debut, Mystery Keeps You, is a breathtaking work, full of soaring vocals and haunting, longing lyricism. That was the problem. The first record “was beautiful and perfect and exactly what I wanted it to be,” wrote Petty on her website. “I was pretty confident that I would never be able to create something like that again.”
She needn’t have worried. House of Doors, a record Petty celebrates this weekend with a release party at Boynton’s Taproom, shows Petty’s maturing musical skills. Like many great songwriters — Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos come immediately to mind — Petty finds power in self-doubt and fuel in her insecurities.
The first line of the bluesy opening track, “Promise’s Demise,” perfectly reflects Petty’s dour mood. “I don’t do optimism,” she sings, “I do well, whatever.” On that and a dozen other songs, Petty channels confession, the search for meaning and a fierce determination to pull no punches into one of the most tuneful and fully realized efforts of the year.
“I wanted to be more melodic,” Petty said recently by telephone from her home in Manchester. “It seemed like the first album was atmospheric, like I was trying to create a mood, not necessarily a melody.” The new effort ranges further musically as well, touching on guitar-driven rock, ethereal pop and raw, spare ballads. It’s the result, says Petty, of keeping an open mind in the studio with producer Jacob Detering.
“Jacob does so much and he’s got such a great ear for what works,” she says. “More often than not I’m sitting there worrying about the way something is going and he will just look at me and say, ‘You need to just settle down and know that this is going to be awesome.’ Four hours later I’ll be saying, ‘It sounds exactly right.’ It’s kind of nice not having to worry about that … because he will.”
Petty worked with mostly the same group who made Mystery Keeps You, with a key difference: Detering stayed behind the boards. “He really took himself out of the equation when it came to playing the instruments, so we had a lot more people coming in this time,” she says. St. Louis guitar legend Jimmy Griffin provided jangly licks for the most record’s most rocking track, “Spinning Plates.” Other guest guitarists included Don McMahon and Rockland, Ill., blues player Jim Peters.
One of the record’s standout tracks was shaped with help from keyboard player Dave Aholt. Petty wrote the loping ballad “Amelia” after a bout of insomnia one night during the sessions. She played it for Detering the next day, but they struggled with the arrangement — until Aholt heard it. “He said, ‘Well, I know exactly,’ sat down and played the track that you hear,” recalls Petty. “It was just the most beautiful … I’ve never really gotten that emotional in the studio, but tears came to my eyes when he started playing because it was just so perfect.”
Such collaboration was a departure for Petty. “It was very different than the first album in terms of how prepared I was,” she says. “Everybody did get to shine in their roles this way, instead of me feeling like I had to tell them what to do — because I’m not that great at it.”
Petty is a classically trained vocalist, and didn’t become a serious songwriter until only a few years ago. To be recognized for her lyrics is new and exciting. Reflecting on a well-received house concert she gave recently to a room filled with poets, novelists and other wordsmiths, she says, “I think now I’m in a place where … people really listen to the words … I didn’t know I was capable of doing that.”
For her Boynton’s Taproom show, Petty will bring a three-piece band — keyboard, bass and percussion. “I haven’t done anything with that band makeup yet, so that will be cool — and of course I’ll have my effects pedal,” she says. The latter allows for ad hoc incorporation of any number of instrumental and vocal elements into her performance, one of the reasons why her one-woman shows often feel like full band performances.
In early December she and her husband Billy Petty will travel to New York City to take part in “Tim Janis: An American Christmas Carol” at Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium. She will sing on selections written by Janis and 9-year-old musical prodigy Emily Bear.
Following that, she has a few more regional dates, along with a short tour of the Midwest in support of the new album that will stop in Denver, St. Louis and her hometown of Detroit. Of her popularity beyond New Hampshire — she’s even done shows in the Pacific Northwest — Petty says with a laugh, “It’s super inconvenient. In St. Louis they are totally the people I’m supposed to be with; I even considered moving out there. But besides my record label, there’s not a lot happening musically. This is a much better place for me to be.”
On the other hand, says Petty, “People are taking me more seriously when I play all over. They’re like, ‘Wow, why are you playing in Seattle? You must be important.’”