On Alison Pipitone's 1998 album, "Like Being Born," the Buffalo singer-songwriter set out to attract major label interest by putting a pop sheen on her trademark folk-rock stylings.
Recorded in several studios, including the Hit Factory in New York, the 35-year-old Pipitone's album succeeded in attracting major label attention - but with disheartening results.
"One label said I was too old, another one said they didn't hear a hit single, there was one that said they didn't know how to market me," she says, with a rueful smile, while sipping her lemonade at Cybele's in Allentown.
"It was so bad that I didn't play out for six months. That's when I decided I was just going to change everything."
Rather than figure out what the record companies wanted, Pipitone secluded herself in her apartment with a simple 8-track and recorded "Shake It Around." The result is an intimate collection of stripped-down music filled with her familiar lyrics that roil with human emotions - from the hard-won confidence of "Love Song To Me" to the mellow jealousy of the title track.
Pipitone wrote, recorded, produced and engineered the album, and also stretched her musical abilities by playing bass and percussion on four songs. She did so while saying goodbye to her former backing band, the Cash Cows (though drummer Eric Christcq plays on seven of the album's 12 tracks), and her independent record label, Hot Wings. She released the album on her own newly formed label, Slice Records.
Gone are the pastel blue and pink colors that graced the cover of "Born" with a made-up and gelled Pipitone wrapped in a fuzzy blanket on the beach.
Instead, the cover of "Shake" features a grainy, sepia-toned photograph of Pipitone playing guitar in her attic, her shoulder-length dark brown hair falling in front of her face. She's placed on an earthy brownish-gold background boxed with royal blue lines.
Pipitone has become a local musical fixture. Last month, she performed at Thursday at the Square, headlined a concert in Dunn Tire Park and performed at the Grape Jam concert at Kissing Bridge. On Saturday, she performs at Runwayz in Cheektowaga for an 11 p.m. show.
Pipitone also performed at the local stop on the 1998 Lilith Fair tour and on KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" program in California. Her song "Dynamite" from her debut album was featured on the "All Over Me" movie soundtrack, and "Life In the First Person" landed on the College Music Journal charts.
The changes Pipitone went through in recording her current album weren't the first time she had stepped back and reevaluated her musical career.
In the late '80s, Pipitone, the second of seven children, formed the Monas in Los Angeles with her younger brother, Damon, her older sister, Natalie, and Damon's friend, Aaron Britt. The band began while Pipitone was in her senior year at the University of Southern California, en route to earning a degree in English literature.
Pipitone wrote songs along with other members of the band, but she didn't sing then because she didn't feel confident of her vocal abilities.
"I remember it struck fear into my heart," Pipitone says. "One time, we got offered an opening gig for (national pop-punk band) the Muffs and Natalie was on vacation. Damon and Aaron wanted me to sing, but I was scared stiff, so we ended up not doing it."
The fledgling band worked to spread its wings and fly into a record deal, playing gigs and scrimping to save enough money to cut a record. By the time the group came out with a second release, its self-titled EP in 1994, Natalie had moved to Colorado with her family, so Pipitone took her first steps toward becoming a vocalist, singing three of the CD's four songs.
Shortly after the EP's release, the band's manager died of a drug overdose. Shaken, Pipitone decided to cut loose from the Monas and move back to the Buffalo area, where she had spent most of her childhood.
"I was burned out," Pipitone says. "L.A. is a very competitive city. There were a lot of superficial Hollywood types hanging around and we were trying hard to get signed. It stopped being about the music. With our manager's death, I realized my priorities were all mixed up, so I decided I was going to give up music."
Pipitone returned to Buffalo in '94 and enrolled in the University at Buffalo's graduate history program. Buffalo was a center of gravity for her, although she was born in Catskill, had moved with her family to Williamsville when she was 2 and again, to Hamburg, when she was 11. After Pipitone's parents divorced when she was 13, she moved once again, to San Diego, with her mother.
Despite the divorce, Pipitone says her family has remained close. In the liner notes for "Like Being Born," she thanks her family "for being as supportive as an 18-hour bra (and less restrictive, too.)"
"Real and honest'
Though Pipitone told herself she was swearing off music, she soon found her way to the Monday night open mike sessions at Nietzsche's. Host Michael Meldrum said he was immediately impressed by her.
"I thought her songs were real and honest," he says. "I'm a big fan of folk and country and she had elements of those - three-minute conversational songs filled with concise songwriting and characters that tell a story. She's a good singer, too. Her voice reminds me of Lauren Bacall; it's smooth, but it has a rough edge."
Meldrum persuaded Pipitone to play some solo acoustic gigs, which attracted the interest of local label Hot Wings Entertainment, who featured her song "Residue" on "No Illusions," a compilation of local female musicians.
Pipitone signed on with Hot Wings in 1995 and released her debut album, "Life In The First Person" followed by 1997's "Down To Money." Her energetic live shows continually won new converts.
One of them was Stephanie Gray, a local filmmaker and writer. About a year ago, Gray began working on a documentary, "Pulling Nickels From The Air," about three women musicians who not only live in Buffalo, but choose to remain in the city to launch their musical careers.
"I wanted to include her because she's one of the most genuine women singer-songwriters in Buffalo," Gray says. "She's very down to earth. I think in many ways she's representative of the city. She's working class and friendly, but not in a phony way."
The title of the film comes from Pipitone's song "Day 37." Gray says she picked that phrase because it seemed to exemplify the situation of the musicians she chose.
"These women are trying to save their money despite working low-paying jobs, so they can buy the equipment and have the leisure time they need to make their music," she says. "They just want to continue their art."
Pipitone, who works part-time as a prep cook, has two cleaning jobs and teaches songwriting workshops at Hamburg Music Center, says she has an affinity for Buffalo.
"I've always felt like Buffalo was my home. Moving back here was a conscious setting down of roots," Pipitone says. "After "Like Being Born' came out, I spent a lot of time in New York City playing label showcases and trying to get signed to a major, but I feel that I could easily live in Buffalo and be successful."
For now, Pipitone has a new album, new bandmates - guitarist Doug Yeomans, bassist Aaron Trubic, keyboardist JJ Moscato and brother-in-law drummer Ray Hangen - and a new outlook.
"I'm a perfect example of how you can improve yourself," Pipitone says. "I used to be a block of wood at the first open mikes and I've always been nervous about success, but this is the first album I've made where I didn't care what other people thought of it. I'm just starting to realize that I know more than I think I do. My confidence has been boosted and I think this change is really going to make me grow."