The clues are in the music. Wells' 2012 LP, Mama is an album about loss and grief. A new companion piece, Mama Acoustic Recordings, out yesterday, features pared down versions of the same songs. While a typical performance might find Wells, 31, playing a dozen instruments, she made this latest LP using just her voice and a guitar, recording each song in one take. She sings quietly on the new album, because, she says, she felt quieter about the subject matter this second time around. The stage of grief that these two albums represent, Mama Acoustic, Wells says, is acceptance.
Born in Texas to musical parents, Wells lived all over with her family, attending high school in Indiana and then settling in Los Angeles for eight years. When she decided to move away, she gave up her cabin in Topanga and headed first to New York City and then to Portland. In Oregon, she took a break from her fast-paced touring schedule, staying with friends and "learning how to eat really well and run long distances and be really wholesome" while also exploring her acoustic side.
She found that the technique, so different from her typical production style, allowed for a new level of honesty in expression. With just a guitar, there was simply less music to hide behind. Re-recording her songs with no plans to release them, "allowed me to be totally tender with the music." But then the desire to hear the new versions on vinyl led to to the project becoming an album.
Music of such pared down contemplation is an about face for Wells, a musician since childhood who came to prominence in the local folktronic scene on the power of mad scientist style performances that find her oscillating between piano, violin, a beat machine, drums, guitar, banjo and more, layering their sounds along with her own haunting voice via live looping.
The result is big, sometimes orchestral and often moody music that comes to life during live shows and on albums including 2008's The Symphonies: Dreams Memories & Parties and the following year's Dirty EP. Wells worked with composer Clint Mansell on the soundtrack to the movie Stoker, and the debut album from Pillowfight, Wells' collaboration with producer Dan the Automator, was released earlier this year.
There is one new song on Mama Acoustic, the only thing Wells wrote during her Portland sabbatical. It's called "Los Angeles." Wells wrote the track for a friend who had just moved to the city and calls it a love song to the place and people she left behind. "I missed it like you miss a lover," she says of L.A.," I ached for it. I romanticized it, but this song is about loving people and a time and a place."