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The Reluctant Romantic

Amy Rigby softens her cynical edge with the pop-inflected Sugar Tree

Amy Rigby didn't set out to be a musician. When she moved from her native Pittsburgh to New York City in the early 1980s, Rigby's plan was to study art. As for music, she was merely a fan in those embryonic days of punk rock, when just about anyone could strap on a guitar and hammer out a tune.

"I went to see shows all the time, and dabbled with playing drums, but I never felt like I was going to get up on stage," she recalls. "It wasn't until everyone in our scene in New York started listening to old country records, and a song popped out. I just started thinking, 'My gosh, I like these [country] songs, and they speak to me. And I think I can do this, write songs like this.' "

So Rigby got a guitar, and the songs indeed started coming. She then joined up with her brother Michael McMahon and some friends to form Last Roundup, a New York group that introduced an old string-band sound to the mid-'80s country-punk movement. A stint in the all-female trio the Shams followed. After a decade or so of intermittent music-making -- occasionally recording independent albums and touring -- Rigby found herself on the verge of a full-time career in the biz, yet not quite able to let go of her day job.

Amy Rigby: An indie darling with an appetite for a major-label chart-buster.
Glen Rose
Amy Rigby: An indie darling with an appetite for a major-label chart-buster.

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Then in 1996 she released her solo debut, Diary of a Mod Housewife, on Koch. With what sounded like a wry and pointed account of her marriage to now-ex-husband Will Rigby -- a drummer who has worked with the dBs, Matthew Sweet and Steve Earle -- Rigby struck a chord with other young women trying to balance a family, a career and an independent sense of self. Housewife became a critical hit and an indie sales success, and Rigby discovered that she had in fact stumbled into a life of music.

"It started to seem like I was spending a lot of time on it and really loving it," she notes. "It wasn't what I was planning on doing. It's now hard to picture myself sitting at a drafting board or computer doing artwork. What I really love about music is the contact with people and other musicians. And I love traveling around with other musicians and talking to people at shows. I don't know how I would have found that as a graphic artist."

For her second solo project, Middlescence, Rigby again addressed a major theme, this time a woman coming of age. But for her third outing, The Sugar Tree, Rigby purposely went the opposite direction, away from an album with a sweeping, overarching motif. She wanted to dispel the gathering image of herself as a thematic composer. "I knew that I didn't want any grand concept, any theme that was going to unite all the songs or give me a topic to write about. I just wanted to take a group of songs I felt happy with and wanted to perform," she explains. "I wanted to write an album that anyone could listen to.

"I just wanted to be thought of as a good writer and not, like, 'a good divorced mother writer.' "

Although The Sugar Tree is Rigby's first release since relocating to Nashville, the city whose music originally inspired her, the album is her most pop-inflected disc to date. It wasn't what she intended, but as she says, "It's funny, because when I first started putting the songs together for the record, I thought it was going to be an acoustic album, because I thought it might get me more shows if I switched to being a folkie," Rigby explains. "But it didn't work out that way. In the end, you just have to do what seems to be the best for the songs, and then worry about getting the shows later."

In moving away from candid, slightly cynical observations, Rigby feels she is allowing another side of herself to emerge. "I'm finally seeing that I am a closet romantic. I guess I've been afraid to fully express that. But I'm finally making some stabs at that," she says. For those who enjoy her harder-edged statements, there's at least one song on the new album in that vein, "Balls," which boasts the hook line "I wish I could grow a pair."

It's that sort of sly statement on the male-female dichotomy that has endeared Rigby to critics, though she's quick to caution listeners from reading too much into her tunes. She feels sometimes that people too closely identify her songs with her real life, "although I guess I am guilty of encouraging that," she says. "Because a lot of times when I am writing songs, I am not really picturing myself. I'm just picturing someone other than me," Rigby explains.

Her writer's gift has enabled Rigby to make that fateful step: to quit the workaday world and become a full-time musician. "Only recently has it started to seem at all plausible that it could be a career, i.e., that I could make a living at it," she says, a note of caution still in her voice.

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