Years before kicking off her career as an indie-pop songwriter, a seven year-old Alicia Witt took her first classical piano lesson. She landed her debut movie role that same year, appearing in David Lynch's sci-fi epic Dune. Decades later, Witt has built both passions into a thriving business, balancing an acclaimed string of movie, television, and stage appearances with solo records like 2018's 15,000 Days.
Her fourth release as an independent songwriter, 15,000 Days is a sweeping, big-hearted record, its songs rooted in modern arrangements and timeless melodies. Witt wrote the material during a busy period that found her starring in the TV series Nashville, stealing the spotlight with an appearance on The Walking Dead, and playing shows — including a performance on the Grand Ole Opry — in the wake of her previous album, Revisionary History.
She had recorded Revisionary History with producer, songwriter and fellow piano-pounder Ben Folds, resulting in a collection of vintage-inspired songs that looked to the past for inspiration. Outlets like NPR Weekend Edition and the Nashville Scene loved it, with the latter publication calling the album "piano-pop gem that sounds by turns like 'Grey Seal'-era Elton John, an alt-universe Fiona Apple and a film-noir chanteuse notching her nights in cigarette burns on the fallboard." Building on that, with the 15,000 Days EP she sources her influences from the contemporary world, working with producer Jacquire King (Kings Of Leon, Tom Waits) along the way.
As its title suggests, 15,000 Days is a record about time — specifically, the number of days and life lessons that all led to Witt's full discovery of her musical voice. During the years following her introductory piano lesson at age seven, she became a childhood prodigy, tackling the works of Baroque composers, Romantic-era pianists, and other classical bigwigs before she was old enough to drive. When she moved from her Massachusetts hometown to Los Angeles as a teenager, she supported herself with a recurring gig at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where her repertoire also included show tunes, big band numbers, and pop standards from her parents' era. The experience felt like an education in the best music of the past, giving Witt a steady foundation upon which to build her own songs. Meanwhile, her acting career flourished, as well, with Witt appearing in Twin Peaks, winning an award for her appearance in the Sundance-approved "Fun," playing a woodwind in the musical film "Mr. Holland's Opus," and enjoying a multi-year run in the TV series Cybil.
The five songs that comprise 15,000 Days are rooted in the lessons learned during a life spent onstage, behind the piano, in front of the camera, in love, out of love, and en route from one destination to another. Combined, those songs tell the story of a journey — one that's both personal and musical, ultimately leading to a more mature perspective and fully-developed sound. With songs whose personal lyrics help shine a light on universal themes, 15,000 Days is Witt's more poignant material to date.
"In the past, I've written some very angry songs and some purely devotional love songs," says the singer, who whittled down her EP's final tracklist from a list of 20 candidates. "When I write songs now, I'm taking stock of the amount of time I've spent here in the world, looking at all the transformative experiences in my life. Naming it 15,000 Days was a no-brainer, because that's the amount of time I've spent in this world, figuring out what I want to say and how I want to say it. I've finally arrived at that place."
Joining her in the recording studio was Grammy-winning producer Jacquire King, whose resume includes albums like Kings of Leon's Only By the Night and Tom Waits' Mule Variations. King brought an ethereal quality to Witt's work, beefing up the songs' arrangements with percussive loops, '80s keyboards, stacked harmonies, and even a string quartet. They worked fast, spending four days at Nashville's Blackbird Studio before wrapping up the recording sessions at King's own studio. Throughout the process, they remained true to Witt's talent as a first-rate instrumentalist and vocalist.
"The fact that Jacquire had worked on Mule Variations made my jaw fall open," Witt says of her producer, who spent hours with the songwriter long before the recording sessions began, listening to Witt as she performed solo renditions of her new songs on the piano. The songs that truly resonated with the producer made the final cut. "That fact that he'd co-produced Only By the Night was really significant to me too," she adds. "I loved the way it sounded. It was great, anthemic pop music — music that makes you want to dance, or makes you want to listen while you're working out — but those songs are all about something so deeply rooted in a small experience."
No wonder Witt was drawn to King's work. Her songs, too, toed a similar line between personal experience and common themes, allowing the audience to see their own life reflected back at them through Witt's writing. King helped expand her music's reach, adding loops that broadened her sound without lessening her music's impact.
"He's good not only at knowing how to present an artist's sound, so others can relate to it and get inside it, but he's also very good at knowing what fits into the palette of popular music at any given time," she adds. "Those loops and sounds that he added wouldn't have been something I'd ever think would've had a place in my music, but I really love them. They fit. There's a bit of an otherworldly sound that he brought in, too, which still sounds like pop to me, and it doesn't take away the singer/songwriter vibe of it all. There's an etherealness and a grooviness that feels more indie-pop to me than other stuff I've done before."
On "Younger" — the EP's kickoff single, whose atmospheric verses build their way toward a supersized pop chorus — Witt sings about reclaiming the surety and freedom of youth. "If we can take all the wisdom we've accumulated during our lives, yet still keep that identity we used to have when we were spontaneous kids, that's a beautiful place to be," she explains. Later, she wades her way through the waters of an uncertain relationship with the percussive, piano-propelled "Earful," struggles against an absent-minded lover's gravitational pull on "Satellite," then strengthens her resolve with "Blinkers," a seize-the-day power ballad featuring sweeping strings and swooning vocals.
"People always say it's good to go into situations with your eyes open, so you're aware of your surroundings," she says of the inspiration behind "Blinkers," which closes the record. "I wrote that song by myself, about a situation where I need to keep the blinkers on. I need to keep the laser focus. I can see all the warning signs that say, 'This opportunity might not be everything you think it is,' but this is a moment where I need to stop worrying about that, because the possible payoff is worth it. 'Blinkers' is about taking that chance."
It took years — and thousands of days — for Alicia Witt to find her true voice as a musician. She unveils that voice with 15,000 Days, a record that's honest, heartfelt, and every bit as compelling as her work onscreen. A lifelong musician and actress, Alicia Witt turns a page with her new release, kicking off another chapter in a story that's still unfolding.