Amy Rigby was already a veteran of two New York indie bands—proto alt-country quartet Last Roundup and female harmony trio the Shams—when her first solo album, 1996’s Diary of a Mod Housewife, drew critical raves and catapulted her into the national spotlight. By turns angry, funny, and heartrending, its songs fused folk-rock melodies with country-western lyrics as they chronicled a disintegrating marriage (to drummer Will Rigby of power-pop legends the dB’s) and a life of transient, low-paying office jobs.
Since then Rigby has maintained a cult reputation as one of the country’s best songwriters, with a mordant wit and a keen eye for emotional detail. After relocating to Nashville and recording another four solo albums for small labels, she struck up a romantic relationship with Eric Goulden, aka Wreckless Eric, whose British punk single “Whole Wide World” she’d bopped around to back in the late 70s. The couple moved to France in 2006, married, and toured regularly in support of their self-released albums; in 2011 they returned to the States, settling in Catskill, New York. When Rigby isn’t touring or knocking out blog posts for AmyRigby.com, she works at Spotty Dog Books & Ale in nearby Hudson.
“As you step out onto that Nobel stage, spare a thought for the man who labors on the page,” Rigby sings in her 2018 song “From philiproth@gmail to email@example.com,” where she imagines the reaction of the great novelist (a Nobel also-ran) when Bob Dylan won the prize for literature. After laboring on the page for a decade herself, Rigby has published an engrossing memoir, Girl to City (Southern Domestic), that chronicles her Catholic childhood in Pittsburgh, her young adulthood in the East Village during the heyday of New York punk, and her yearslong quest to establish herself as a musician as she struggled to raise a daughter. Rigby performs and shares stories from Girl to City on Friday, October 25, at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square.
Girl to City: A Memoir with Amy Rigby
The singer-songwriter shares stories from her new memoir and performs. Fri 10/25, 7 PM, Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln, free, all-ages
J.R. Jones: You explain in the book that you had to learn how to write before you could attempt a memoir. When you started trying to write prose and started blogging, did you feel that your songwriting had prepared you?
Amy Rigby: I think it probably did, in that I’m a writer in general. I can say things in a form, like in a song or in a blog, that I have a harder time saying in real life. I can kind of distill things. . . . I knew back in the early 2000s that I wanted to write a memoir. I thought it would be an easy thing to do. I thought, “Oh, this’ll be a good way to find more of an audience,” because writers tended to like my songs.
A promo video for Girl to City
Then I started writing my blog, and that form was really easy, because a thousand words—it takes the length of listening to a song to read a thousand words. So it felt very comfortable. But the idea of the sustained—you know, page after page. That felt like, “Wow, I didn’t really think this through when I started.” It took a lot more effort than I would have imagined. But the actual writing, putting words together, that felt like something I’ve done before.
Writing songs, it’s art in a way. It’s not you; you’re constructing something that is removed from you and who you are. Writing a book that’s about [your] experience, you have to put yourself in there. I don’t know if the word transparent is right, and you still choose what to put in, what to leave out, how to frame it, and all that. But you have to put yourself on the line in a way that I don’t think you really have to as a songwriter.
I was struck by how much social and cultural detail there is in the book. Not just people you met and artists you heard perform, but also records and books and movies that intersected with your life at a particular time. Do you have total recall of that stuff, or did you have diaries to draw from?
It’s a little bit of both. I do have a pretty amazing memory, I have to say. A lot of times I’m almost embarrassed by my memory, because I’ll see someone and go, “Oh, I remember we went and ate that dinner, and you said, ‘Blah blah blah.'” And they’ll be like, “I don’t remember this.” And I feel like, Why was it more important to me than it was to anybody else? But I did keep journals and kept a lot of my ephemera, like posters and tons of photos. Then I’ve got all my songs, which are good markers for me, and so are other people’s songs. Books and movies too, and TV shows—they just had such a power back then. They stood out because there wasn’t as much.
I enjoyed the parts where you recalled reading Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann and The Group by Mary McCarthy, these books that gave you glimpses of what adult women’s lives were like. Have you ever revisited any of those books as a grown-up?
Yes, very much so. I have!
Is it different to read them now?
It is, but at the same time, you know, when you look at photos—let’s say you look at your high school yearbook, and the kids who were older than you then still look old to you? I did get a copy of The Group last year, and when I read about these women, and they’re 20, or 23, they still seem so much more mature and sophisticated. It’s kind of that way with Valley of the Dolls too. I got a copy of that. There was one called Chocolates for Breakfast [by Pamela Moore] that just seemed like, “Oh my God, this is so racy and sophisticated, and they’re in a prep school.”
I’ve been working in this bookstore since I moved to upstate New York, and that’s been fun. I can get these things into the bookstore, and it’s always a little victory when somebody buys one of these books from my past.
You saw so many of the great punk bands at CBGB and other clubs in New York City, and you went to the UK around that time. What were your favorite shows of the era?
X-Ray Spex at CBGB felt like such an event. There was a positivity to Poly Styrene that we didn’t feel so much off of other people at the time, a self-acceptance that felt very liberating. Seeing the Clash at the Palladium, their first New York show. It felt like we’d been waiting so long to see them. The anticipation was so huge that it was a relief. They were great too, but part of it was [that] it capped off two years of waiting. Seeing the Slits at Tier 3, the club where I was a coat-check girl, and also the Raincoats, those really felt like, not secret, but kind of like membership in this special club.
There’s some overlap between episodes in the book and songs on your album The Old Guys , like that song “Bob” [about a high school boyfriend who mentored her in rock ‘n’ roll] and “Playing Pittsburgh” [about her mixed feelings for her hometown]. Did the writing of the book prompt the songs, or was it the other way around?
I think maybe the writing of the songs prompted some of the stories in the book. “Playing Pittsburgh” I actually wrote back in the late 90s and never did anything with. But when I was working on the book, it felt like it really tied into talking about Pittsburgh, so it kind of revived my interest in the song. The same is true of “Bob.” I wrote that in 2003, 2004, and played it a few times, even put it on a live-and-demo disc called Faulkner, Dylan, Heinz and Me—just made copies myself and sold that in the mid-2000s. But yeah, writing about those things kind of revived the songs for me.
The book has reminiscences of your mother, and a little bit about your daughter in the frame of the book. You can tell from the book that they’re two of the most important relationships you’ve had, and yet they turn up in your songs only rarely and, in your mother’s case, only from a distance. Was that a matter of protecting their privacy, or are those relationships just too hard to write songs about?
I did talk about my daughter in a little bit of this song “Genovese Bag,” that’s on A Working Museum, the record that Eric and I made in 2012. That feels very much like an encapsulation of our young life, when she was young and I was in my 30s. That just poured out like a poem. I feel like that was definitely informed by writing the book. It came out at a point where I was really working on writing about this same stuff.
And then that song “Don’t Ever Change” [from her 2003 album Till the Wheels Fall Off], it kind of refers to my daughter in there. That was the point where she was becoming a teenager. When she heard the song, she said, “That isn’t me. That does not describe me. It doesn’t sound like me at all.” At that point I did become really conscious of her having an opinion and maybe getting to have a say about how she was portrayed by me or even whether it was OK.
I was a little bit worried when it came time where I was actually laying out the book to print it. I said to my daughter, “Oh, by the way, I don’t know if you remember this conversation we had where you said, ‘I just wanna ride around in a van and play music.’ I used that to frame the book. Do you feel OK about that?” I kind of put her on the spot! And she was like, “I don’t remember saying that, but no, that’s totally fine.” She’s so cool. It was important to me to put her in there. When I’m reading Chrissie Hynde’s book, I want to read what it was like for her to be a mother and play music at the same time. And she really dropped it, she didn’t go into it at all. So I wanted it to be in [my book] somewhere.
With my mother, to write about her, even to the extent I did, was really hard. I think I felt much more about the loss of my mother [while] writing about it than I ever had while it was going on. So I did about as much as I could. Writing about her after her accident was really hard, but it also felt like a good thing to do. [Rigby’s mother, Lynne McMahon, survived a serious car crash in 1988 but was never the same person afterward; she died in 2003.] If you lose a parent when you’re 30—which I kinda felt like I did lose my mother when I was 30—it’s so huge you can’t even take it in at that point. It’s taken a lot of years to process it or absorb it, and I just did the best I could with that.
I was surprised to learn from the book that your solo career was so contiguous with the Shams records, I guess because your solo work seems like a quantum leap over those records. Did it feel like that at the time, when you started doing the solo stuff, that you were really excelling?
To go along with the book, I put together a disc of demos that I made in the 80s and 90s and never played for anybody. They’re just song demos, and I’m pretty amazed when I hear them: “Wow, I was pretty good!” I didn’t think I could get up by myself, I didn’t think I could be a solo [act]. I just didn’t feel like I had the nerve; I didn’t think I was good enough. And I hear stuff that I recorded all by myself—no producer, no other musicians, just on a four-track—and I think, “Wow, I did know what I was doing. I just didn’t have the confidence.” When I was able to get a solo record out, I’d already put in a lot of years of pretty hard work. I could’ve made another Mod Housewife album that would’ve had maybe a darker cast to it than the one I did. Just loads of songs that I never did anything with. I was probably hoping to send some to Nashville, and wanted to get a publishing deal. I did eventually, but not so much in the course of this story.
There’s a song on Little Fugitive  called “I Don’t Wanna Talk About Love No More.” That song always struck me as a career signpost, as if you were tired of writing these kind of songs and wanted to turn to something else. Has it been more satisfying to you to write songs about Rasputin and Philip Roth?
I definitely felt that song coming on, and even when I play it, I always feel like that’s a turning point for me. I teach at this songwriting workshop [Lamb’s Retreat for Songwriters in Harbor Springs, Michigan] every couple years. The guy who runs it [John D. Lamb] gives out these assignments, and he’d given me an assignment that turned into that song about Philip Roth and Bob Dylan. The last time I went, which was a year ago, the assignment was about something involving an ex-boyfriend and laying bricks to build a patio. He writes these little short stories and gives the assignment to everybody, all the campers and all the teachers. It unleashed something in me, and I wrote one of my angry-at-a-guy, end-of-a-relationship songs, which felt so satisfying. I hadn’t summoned up those feelings in so long, and it was about something way in the past. But it felt really good, like, “Oh well, I guess I could still do that.” Maybe I’d almost have to play another character to do that, but that might be part of becoming a mature artist, that it doesn’t all have to be you. You find other themes and stories and characters outside yourself. Maybe some people do that right out of the gate, like when they’re in their 20s. But for me, it was always my life that was the fuel.
As the book chronicles, you had a big punk awakening in the 1970s, and you had a big country-western awakening in the ’80s. Have you had a third awakening since then? Where have your musical tastes gone since the closing of the book?
The Ken Burns country-music documentary has brought it back to me how affected I was by country music and how much I loved it, and I still do. I listen to so much music; that’s something I like about working in a bar. I find myself going back to songs—maybe it’s comfort food, I don’t know. I want to hear Roger Miller, I want to hear Tom T. Hall, I want to hear Bob Dylan. Kris Kristofferson—I’m sorry, I know they’re all old guys, I can’t help it! I like to listen to old reggae, and I love Curtis Mayfield. I like to listen to what my young coworkers play. But yeah, I lean on some of my old songwriting heroes. I will never get tired of it. . . . When I saw [Dylan] two summers ago, I felt like he was as good as he ever was, in terms of being an artist, interpreting other people’s songs, interpreting his own songs, having a band that all worked together to bring his vision to us, the audience. Having the clothes, having the look, having the lighting and even the mike stands be right. All the details were there, and it was just so good.
You’ve been married to a musician who had a separate career from yours, and you’ve been married to a musician who’s your primary collaborator. Has the latter made for a happier marriage?
If you’re gonna be in a couple and you’re a musician, it probably is good if you somehow work together. . . . I think being older makes for a happier marriage. Being in your 20s and 30s and having raging hormones, and ambitions and dreams and aspirations that maybe aren’t always in sync with reality or what’s possible at that time, all those things can make it—no matter what business you’re in, and what your husband or wife or partner does—can make it hard. Being older [means] having more knowledge about what you’re trying to do, what’s possible, what’s necessary. But yeah, definitely, having somebody else who’s learned some of those same lessons and is still—I mean, Eric and I laugh that we’re both deluded; we still think we’re ready to have a hit any time now! So someone to share the delusions with is important.
One of your best-loved songs, “Knapsack,” is about unrequited love for a bookseller, and now you’re a bookseller yourself. What are your literary tastes these days?
I do love reading memoirs and autobiographies and biographies. . . . I like Tracey Thorn, her books about being in England in the 80s, being a pop musician. I like the Viv Albertine book. I loved Rod Stewart’s autobiography! I do like when people are themselves in a book. Roger Daltrey’s was great too. I always loved the Who, but I ended up understanding more and loving them even more after reading his book. . . . I didn’t read Pete Townshend’s book. It’s quite a big book, and Eric practically threw it across the room! He hated it so much that he won’t even listen to the Who anymore. And that used to be one of our funnest things we would do on tour, was listen to them and talk about them. So it can really go so wrong.
Is the excitement of having your first book come out comparable to the excitement of having your first record come out?
My first solo record, I felt a feeling of possibility and a new world opening up. And I guess I do feel that way. Also, similar to my first solo record, it was so many years of effort to make [the book] happen, without any sort of publisher or book advance or person saying, “OK, this has to happen.” It was the same with Diary of a Mod Housewife—there was nobody who was gonna keep plugging away and make it happen if I didn’t make that happen. It was all down to me.
- Rigby performs the Diary of a Mod Housewife song “Don’t Break the Heart” in New Jersey in 2018.
I guess I still feel that need to prove myself. I love this interview I read with Patti Smith the other day in the New York Times, where she said she did her best work after the age of 57. That made me feel so good, and so hopeful and happy. Because if you’ve been chasing pop music or rock music from the time you were a kid, there’s that feeling always looming that you’re gonna be too old. So that’s a great thought, that it can keep building and going someplace else, even after 60. I remember in the 90s reading, “Oh, Neil Young just turned 50,” and jokes about wheelchairs and stuff like that. And now that seems young to me! v