Don’t Worry, She’s Not Quitting Her Day Job

Amalea Tshilds has been making music in Chicago for 15 years, first in the funk collective Uptighty, then in the harmony-pop band Tallulah and the roots-folk outfit Paulina Hollers. Since 1999 she’s also been co-owner of Lula Cafe in Logan Square, but despite the enormous demands of running a successful restaurant she still feels the itch to play. “Cooking satisfies a little bit of my creative desire,” she says, “but it’s more of a craft than an art. Playing music is a different thing.”

Tshilds’s bandmates in Uptighty included Leroy Bach, who went on to play in Wilco, as well as future members of Tortoise and the Eternals. In Tallulah she wrote songs with co-front woman Amy Warren and bassist Troy Morris, and Paulina Hollers is the brainchild of Califone multi-instrumentalist Jim Becker. But this week Tshilds is releasing her first solo album, Painted Tiles, which she’s been working on in fits and starts since 2002. Its moody, twang-tinged pop places her in the company of country dreamers like Edith Frost and Shelley Short.

A North Shore native, Tshilds graduated with a BFA in painting from Bard College in 1990, then returned to Chicago. In 1994 she began working at the Logan Beach Cafe, the restaurant she’d reopen five years later as Lula. “I was just living across the street and needed a job,” she says. “I started as a barista, and then I kinda asked the owner if I could start cooking.” At Logan Beach she met her future business partner, Jason Hammel, who became her boyfriend and then in 2004 her husband. “He was cooking at another place, but he would come in and we got to know each other,” she says. “Logan Beach went through a couple different owners and then eventually went out of business. I don’t know why, but Jason and I thought, ‘Well, let’s start our own place together.'”

Since 1999 Lula has grown slowly but steadily, expanding into an adjacent space in 2002, and these days it’s one of the city’s most beloved contemporary American restaurants, emphasizing fresh, seasonal ingredients from local organic farms. Tshilds consistently puts in 80-hour weeks, but for the first few years her schedule was especially grueling and she saw less and less of her bands. Tallulah broke up in 2004, shortly after the long-delayed release of their only album, Step Into the Stars, and by then Paulina Hollers gigs were few and far between.

But not having time for a band isn’t the same as not having time for music. In 2002 Tshilds started writing her own songs, with Hammel pitching in on the lyrics. “I had this creative spurt,” she says. “I’d go home from work and four-track at night.”

With Becker as coproducer, Tshilds began recording the new material in late 2002 at North Branch Studio on Goose Island, working mostly on Tuesdays, when Lula was closed. Later the sessions moved to Clava in Bridgeport, continuing intermittently through early 2004 and including an impressive roster of support musicians Tshilds had recruited from among her friends, among them bassist Doug McCombs from Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day, the Coctails’ Mark Greenberg, who mostly played vibes, and Boas drummer Graeme Gibson, who also helped with recording and mixing. Becker played banjo, keyboards, and guitar, and some folks from her old bands helped out too, including Bach and Warren. Instead of paying the musicians, Tshilds rewarded them with food, on one occasion showing up with a banana cream pie. “Those guys are all really talented, so there were a lot of cool surprises as we were working, just watching them layer things onto the songs,” she says. “It was really a creative process in the studio.”

The music on Painted Tiles is tasteful and tender, its warmth and charm a perfect complement to Tshilds’s featherlight singing. But despite the fragility of her voice, she wrings every drop of longing and melancholy out of the lyrics. “I just wanted to make something that was dreamy but not cheesy,” she says. “There’s probably a heavy old-timey influence in there that I’m not even realizing–that whole singsongy kind of sound. I caught onto that when I started playing with Jim, really.”

The album was finished by mid-2004, but Tshilds was distracted from her search for a label by her wedding and a surge in business at Lula. “This past year or so has been particularly intense,” she says. “We were featured on Check, Please! and we just got really busy. It was kind of brutal. So I didn’t have a chance to figure out how to release the record, unless somebody was gonna be pushing me to do it.”

That somebody turned out to be one of Tshilds’s employees, bartender Mike Eggert. A musician himself, he’d been toying with the idea of starting his own label and releasing Tshilds’s record; this past winter he was playing a CD-R of the album at Lula, and a restaurant regular who liked what he heard offered to loan him money to help get the project off the ground.

Painted Tiles comes out May 30 on Eggert’s new Fallen Fan label. Most of the key contributors from the album will back Tshilds at a release party Tuesday at the Empty Bottle. (Another friend, Reader photographer Jim Newberry, will open with a set of stand-up comedy.) Right now the only other show she’s got booked is a Paulina Hollers gig at the Hideout on June 16, but she hopes to play several more solo dates in support of the disc. “I’d like to do more music–I’ve continued writing new songs, but it’s tough to balance,” she says. “With Lula we’ve finally gotten to the place where we’ve hired managers and sous-chefs and people like that, which helps take the pressure off a little, but it’s still very much a full-time thing. For me, the music is an escape.”

Closure and a New Beginning

The surviving members of Silkworm, bassist Tim Midgett and guitarist Andy Cohen, have just finished mixing the last songs they recorded with drummer Michael Dahlquist before he died in a July 2005 car crash along with fellow musicians Doug Meis and John Glick. Four originals and a rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Wrote a Song for Everyone” were tracked at Electrical Audio last spring; these, along with an old live version of Bob Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident” by the Crust Brothers, Silkworm’s covers project with Stephen Malkmus, will be released as an EP on Gerard Cosloy’s 12XU label, probably in the late fall.

In August the Michigan label Genuflect Records will release a Silkworm tribute, An Idiot to Not Appreciate Your Time, which has been in the planning stages since before Dahlquist’s death. The final track listing isn’t settled yet, but the disc will include at least 20 Silkworm covers by indie acts from around the U.S. and Europe.

Bottomless Pit, Midgett and Cohen’s post-Silkworm band with Chris Manfrin of Seam on drums and Brian Orchard from .22 on bass, will begin recording its first dozen songs in June with engineer Greg Norman. The group has played a handful of shows since debuting quietly last November and is tentatively planning to tour a bit with Magnolia Electric Co. in the fall. On June 14 they’ll share a bill with Portland’s Eux Autres at Schubas.

Amalea Tshilds, the Children vs. the Children of Doom, Jim Newberry

When: Tue 5/30, 9:30 PM

Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western

Price: $8

Info: 733-276-3600 or 866-468-3401

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.