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Alicia Witt likely won’t be one of those who looks back on the pandemic and wishes she had accomplished more.
The veteran actress, who co-starred in last year’s Netflix hit I Care a Lot, is readying to release her latest single as a singer-songwriter, “Talk to You,” followed by her fifth studio album, The Conduit, in the fall; then comes her debut self-help book, Small Changes, out Oct. 5 from Harper Horizon.
Witt’s done it all from Nashville, where she’s lived for nearly five years, one of a growing contingent of creatives who are decamping from Hollywood. She got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter on a recent morning to talk about life in Tennessee, what she’s learned about herself during the pandemic, and the story behind her newest single.
I’m sure everyone asks about Nashville, so forgive me in advance but how is it down there?
Aside from the decision I made when I was 14 to move to L.A., the decision to live full-time in Nashville is the most important choice I’ve made. It’s helped me to feel authentic in every aspect of my life. It’s helped me to do better work when I am on set. Just the knowledge that when I’m asked where I live, the answer is Nashville, it just feels right. L.A. got to the point for me when it didn’t seem truthful anymore — it didn’t seem to describe who I was.
Nashville captured my heart over a span of many years. I was just reminded about the fact that at the very first show I played here at 12th & Porter in 2009, I was in town less than 24 hours, and something about the way I felt when I was here made me say from the stage that I had a feeling I was going to move here one day. Then I started coming out for songwriting and recording as all the producers I connected with happened to be based here. I found myself coming with greater frequency, and then after I was on the show Nashville in 2006, all the signs were so obvious and bright.
I made a group of friends through an Airbnb that I rented during that time, and I found a community of women and sisters by choice that I hadn’t quite found in L.A. I really feel like every morning when I get up, my first thought is, thank God I live in Nashville. It’s nothing against L.A. Now when I come to L.A. for business, I feel excited about it, and I’m excited to see my loved ones there. That’s just not where I’m supposed to be living, and we have to live where we feel happy.
There must be a fear among actors that if they leave L.A., they will miss out on x, y, or z. Did your agents ever say, maybe it’s not a good decision to move, or do you have actors calling asking you how you make it work?
It’s more the latter. I have those conversations with actors constantly, especially when I’m on a set. They’ll say, “I’ve been thinking about living elsewhere,” wherever it is their heart is calling them, “And I’m not sure how that would work.” It’s lovely to be an ambassador for living where you feel grounded and authentic. Especially during this past year, everyone has been sending in tapes and getting cast that way, but it’s been effective for me since long before that. When you’re on location working and you aren’t available to go in-person to have a meeting, it’s just accepted that you send in a tape. So, living in Nashville and auditioning that way, I haven’t felt that that’s in any way a deterrent. Now it’s just what everyone does. The pandemic and the way we’ve learned to cope has probably forever changed auditions. I don’t know that it’ll ever be the same where so many people come in and wait for what can really be done at home just as effectively.
Let’s talk about your new single, “Talk to You.” What inspired you to write the lyrics?
I wrote this song a few years ago while I was in Vancouver working. There was another group of people working on another project and we all went out for a fancy night out. There was one specific person I was really longing to connect with. It occurred to me when I got home that night that this is a feeling that I had many times before, and one I think most people have had. It can be about someone you like in a romantic way, or just someone you adore in a spiritual way. That sense when you connect with someone that you hadn’t met before, that they’ve been having parallel experiences to you from wherever their life has been leading them and all this time you didn’t know each other, but now it’s time to just compare and contrast. “You were there in 2003? So was I! And isn’t it funny we both had a significant relationship dissolve at the same time?” All those kinds of wonderful things when you’re making a new connection that you have a feeling might be in your life for the rest of it.
I almost forgot about the song, but when I got together with Bill Reynolds, who I co-produced some of the tracks on this new album with, it was probably the one he was most excited about. We got together with incredible musicians at Addiction Sound here in Nashville. We recorded it live and it has that evocative feeling for me of perfectly describing how I felt on that night. Now that we’re in the pandemic aftermath and still experiencing all of those aftershocks and trying to navigate starting to see people face to face and feeling safer now that so many of us are vaccinated. I think we’re realizing how artificial it’s been to not have that human contact for such a long stretch of time. I realized that the whole concept of connecting to somebody takes on a new significance, so I wanted this to be the first song that I released.
How did you find the process of stepping into your first time producing an album, and what was the biggest thing that you learned?
The thing that was most joyous for me to discover was that the collaboration was effortless and I never felt like our ideas were opposed. It was a pleasure to discover that when I had an idea, it would work. I felt like I knew what I was talking about after all of these years having produced or co-produced some singles. I wanted to make sure that the vibe of the whole thing feels cohesive and not like a patchwork, and I think that’s been accomplished, but in a way where there’s something for everyone on it, I hope. I think. I think the whole album is about the sense that certain people and situations come into our lives, not because they are the be-all end-all, but because they’re meant to take us where we’re heading into the next chapter, which is why the album is called The Conduit.
How would you describe the overall vibe or what story you’re telling with The Conduit?
I’m thinking that it will remind listeners of some of those classic songwriter albums from the ’70s, like Carole King and maybe Elton John’s Madman Across the Water. I’ve always loved Billy Joel and Paul Simon, so I think a song like “Talk to You” for sure has that influence on it. I always want to make sure that the story in the song is front and center. I don’t love the notion that an artist needs to put out an album that sits squarely in one genre or another, that even within the same album, as long as the main focus is paying tribute to whatever the song is meant to be, that’s all that matters.
You must be anxious to get out and perform some of these songs live. Do you have plans to do that later this year?
Yes, I do. I had a spring tour booked for last year that of course was postponed and then postponed again and now it’s being rescheduled for the fall. I believe in October of this year, I’ll be gone for pretty much the whole month with an album release tour, and I think it will also coincide with the book. One of the things I’ve been doing this past year that has been an absolute blessing and a godsend is playing online shows, and it’s connected people that would never likely have met from all over the world. These are people that, some of whom I’ve met at my in-person shows and some of whom hadn’t had a chance yet to see me at an in-person show.
I was playing one every week on Stageit, these people got to know each other and started communicating on the chat bar and they’ve now formed their own community and their friendships. There’s a group of about 50 die-hard followers who have been on board with my music for a while and now they have their own friendships. I log in and they’re talking about their lives and kids and whatever’s going on with their car or the tests they’re taking. It’s beautiful. It’s everything I could have ever wished for when I first started making music. The ultimate goal is to connect people. I just could never have imagined it would happen in this way.
There have been so many artists who have seamlessly moved between acting and singing, but I also know that it can be a challenge for others. Was it ever difficult for you?
It did feel somewhat seamless for me, and there have only been a handful of moments when an acting gig that I just couldn’t pass up clashed with shows that I had already booked. I’ve also been able to use my original music in a number of things that I’ve acted in. Once I made the decision to prioritize music-making, everything fell into place. I’ve wanted to do it for as long as I can remember, really, but working up the bravery to put songs out and take the chance that people weren’t going to like them or get up on stage and take the chance that I would not do well or people would laugh at me, once I got over that and faced it, I started realizing that part of why I was so scared was because it meant so much to me.
I had to just keep doing it until I wasn’t scared anymore. If it didn’t work out, then I would know at least I went for it. When you get to that point, the music just becomes something that has to come out of you, and even if it’s something nobody but you or your friends want to listen to, that’s when you know that you’re on the right track.
You’re on the right track. I will use that as the segue to talk about Small Changes, because I think that what has come during this time for so many people too, is how do they step into becoming the person that they want to be. How did this book come about and did that have anything to do with it?
The idea for this book came to me about three and a half years ago. I was on an episode of The Walking Dead that I’m really proud of. After the episode aired, I ended up on the top of the IMDb list that week, which of course has never happened to me in my life! A literary agent who happened to be in L.A. that specific week asked my manager at the time if I would meet with him. He noticed that I was on the top of the IMDb list and he wanted to know if I had any ideas for projects, so that’s how the first meeting came up with my now-literary agent Todd Shuster.
[Small Changes] was a concept I had been thinking of for quite a few years, but I didn’t know how to make it happen. I didn’t know any literary agents, I hadn’t written anything, and the idea was just living in my head. When we sat down and I shared this idea with him, he got very excited, and we started developing it. He’s been there every step of the way. I have a wonderful collaborative writer who stepped in and helped me to shape it into a book and on Jan. 1, we started going out with it. I had a number of meetings with publishers that were interested and the timing just so happened that a few days after the tornado, I was clearing out some of my valuables and preparing for repairs, the phone rang and [Todd] told me that we had fantastic news. Not only was it the publisher I had been hoping for, Harper Horizon, but they are based in Nashville. They love this city as much as I do and they felt so aligned with the message of the book.
I know the book is a bit of a hybrid of various topics centered around plant-based living, but what’s the pitch? How do you describe what it is?
It is a label-free, no-rules way, to incorporate more plant-based foods, more peace, more positivity into the life that you already have. And to encourage people to make whichever small changes and take whatever ideas that resonate with them from this book and see where they fit into their life. Getting to where I am right now, which is truly the most peaceful place where I feel able to deal with whatever comes my way, has taken many years filled with many experiences of not feeling grounded or like I was out of control in terms of my health, my body shape and what I was eating. I’ve not always had the healthiest relationship to food, which I share in the book. Once I understood that it was a series of small changes over many years that led to where I am right now, I realized that perhaps this was a concept that could help others.
You don’t have to have a specific diet and you don’t have to stick to it every single day in order to improve where you are. I’m not advocating that people who perhaps have a specific craving for something that they know isn’t good for them or they don’t want to cut out of their life, that’s fine. I’m going to offer ways that you can make a lot of the recipes that you might already love, but have them taste delicious and also cut back significantly on the cholesterol and saturated fat and those sorts of things.
Do you have a specialty?
I went to a birthday party over the weekend and I brought two desserts, one was a key lime pie and the other was a raspberry cheesecake. I set them out and people ate them, and I knew that there were some vegans in the party so I got close to them and let them know that those were vegan. But the other people who were there, there was a cattle farmer there, and he and his wife scarfed down the key lime pie, and they were raving about it, and she was saying, “This is the best key lime pie.” Never told her it was vegan, of course.
There’s a misconception that I think still exists that veganism is unhealthy, bland or weird. That if you’re vegan, all you eat are plain salads with no dressing or that you’re not getting enough protein. It fills me with such joy to help gently let people know that’s not the case and also to hopefully have a judgment-free approach. Most of the people I’m hoping to reach with this book may not intend by any stretch to become vegan.
What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic?
I’ve learned that my sense of discipline and strength can get me through even a day when I have no contact with anybody. When fear and uncertainty are all around, it’s a beautiful thing to have learned that my own faith and my conviction in being here for a purpose and needing to follow through on that purpose is stronger than any fear.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about something else that’s happening this year with the release of Dune, being that it was your first acting role ever. Will you see the movie?
I will definitely see it. I can’t wait. Based on the trailer, it seems to me that there’s a real sense of homage to the original, even some of the shots, they’re extremely similar, and I love that. I know that there was a lot of character development and depth to Frank Herbert’s novel that just because of time constraints didn’t make it into David Lynch’s movie, and he filmed a lot of that and there’s a much, much longer version that just didn’t make it into the version that was released. I’m excited to see how this came together and excited to see the cast. I love Timothée Chalamet. He’s a fantastic choice to play Paul Atreides.
Dune still has such a cult following. What’s the wildest interaction you’ve had with a fan?
Some of the greatest fan encounters I’m remembering involve tattoos. I’ve met at least three people that I can think of at conventions who showed me their tattoos. One person had my actual likeness as Alia on his forearm along with a line of dialogue. He felt a real connection to that character and the way that she had all of that knowledge and that quiet strength about her. He had been much younger when the movie came out, but it was a character that meant a lot to him over the years. The crazy thing about Dune is that I was just a kid from Worcester, Massachusetts. I thought that was what it was like to make a movie — a $75 million budget, 10 soundstages and all of these special effects and elaborate wardrobe choices. I will always be amazed that that was my first experience, and also, I know that that’s no coincidence, because if that hadn’t happened, I have no idea if I ever would have found this business. I’m grateful to David Lynch for being the most steady and inspiring role model. I know he was under a lot of pressure on that set in retrospect, but at the time I didn’t know that. I just had the most wonderful, blissful experience, and he made it really fun for me and made me want to do it for the rest of my life.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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