Amanda Wells:
destined from birth

It didn't take long for Amanda Wells to realize music would be a big part of her life.

"Literally, from the day my parents brought me home from the hospital, I was surrounded by musicians," she says. "I was either going to love it or hate it."

She loved it, but it took her a while to choose a path, instrumentally. She tried flute and drums but was unimpressed, she recalls. But her father, who repaired guitars as a sideline, urged her to give one a try. It clicked.

Her dad, although not much of a musician himself, loved music and often took Amanda along to bluegrass festivals and other live venues, even as a toddler. Some of her more musical half-siblings -- she's the youngest, with seven older brothers and one sister -- also practiced with friends in the family kitchen, and Amanda was always around to listen. Soon, she was carrying her guitar with her everywhere she went.

Her father encouraged her to do so. "A photographer is always going to have his camera. An artist will always have a sketchbook. So Dad always said I should have a guitar," she says.

One day, during an afternoon performance at the Pequea Tavern by ubiquitous local performer Stu Huggens, 13-year-old Amanda was moved during the break to play guitar out in her dad's car. Stu heard the music and invited her to perform during his next break.

"It felt natural, getting on stage, but I was definitely nervous," she recalls. "But I'd played in front of people at parties, so it wasn't my first time."

Amanda, now 27, hails from Peach Bottom, along the shores of the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, Pa. Now living in Lancaster proper, she plays her own brand of modern folk music -- usually performing alone, just a girl and a guitar or, occasionally, a banjo.

She has released two CDs, although she doesn't count the first, Sigh of Relief, which was a rough job recorded and "manufactured" at home. Her second disc, Ebb & Flow, was released in October 2010, was professionally recorded and produced, and was more widely distributed.

Her musical influences are no big surprise: Ani DiFranco, Lisa Loeb, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Sarah McLachlan, Neil Young. "The list goes on," she says. "It used to be that being a female performer was a big deal, but there has been a serious up rise of female performers in the last 10 years or so."

She's a prolific writer, although she admits that, in the days of those early Pequea Tavern performances, "I was writing really terrible songs."

She remembers, for instance, "Coming Home," one of her early efforts. "It was a terrible song," she says. But that didn't stop her and some friends from performing it at her sixth-grade talent show. She grimaces at the memory.

But she kept writing. She turned friends' poetry into lyrics. She penned a song about some friends in middle school who died in a car accident. As she grew into her later teens, her writing focused more on typical teenage angst and boys.

"It's a rite of passage," Amanda says. "You have to write really crappy songs when you're young. Then, hopefully, you get some constructive criticism, and you learn to do better."

She thinks for a minute and decides, yes, she has a few songs tucked away from those early days that might be worth digging out and reworking.

"Honestly, it's actually gotten harder to write now that I'm in a functional relationship," she says with a laugh. "I mean, even if you're not writing about romance, you still have that emotional stimulus. But lately, a lot of the songs I've been writing are about not being able to write."

She's keeping busy, though. She's taken a lead from her husband, Robb Graves, who writes songs based on books. Amanda has already gotten started, penning one based on the popular novel Twilight, written from Edward's perspective, and another taken from the work of fantasist George R.R. Martin.

Robb is in a fantasy-based metal band called Lorenguard and, although Amanda prefers working alone, she's performed and recorded with them as well.

"Robb's more of a methodical writer. I'm more emotional," she says. Their mutual love of fantasy informs much of their writing, she adds; in fact, the avid LARPers (in live-action roleplaying circles, Amanda is a well-known elven warrior) are working on tavern-appropriate songs and an ambitious musical adventure tale for them and their friends to enact.

But her musical focus remains on her solo career, although she has played at times with a percussionist ("We parted ways for personal reasons," she says) and a cellist ("She left me for her boyfriend!" she sniffs, with just a hint of indignation). Amanda, who has a percussive style on the guitar, admits she's a little hard on the instrument.

"I got my last guitar in 2006, maybe 2007," she says. "It's not lacquered -- I wanted a nice, wood-bodied sound." But Amanda, who uses a thumb pick and tends to slap the wood to keep the beat when she plays, says she's already wearing holes where her palm hits the surface.

"It's OK," she says with a grin. "They're character marks."

See Amanda perform later this month at the LAUNCH music conference and festival in Lancaster, Pa.

[ visit Amanda's website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

16 April 2011

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