Alicia Witt | Photo by Travis Commeau

A Conduit of Inspiration: Alicia Witt

This is an Alicia Witt story. It is also, to a degree, a David Lynch story. It is not, however, a Lynchian story. There is one timeline and one reality. And on that timeline, and in that reality, David Lynch gave Alicia Witt her first acting role. So, without David Lynch, there would be no Alicia Witt — at least not in the current reality, which is the only one, for journalistic purposes, we’re talking about here. Follow?

It was 40 years ago when Witt, a precocious, home-schooled five-year-old from Worcester, Massachusetts, performed the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet on a national television show in front of a live audience. “I loved being on stage, and parting was such a sweet sorrow,” she recalls. In short, that’s how she caught the acting bug, and that’s how the legendary filmmaker found her two years later, casting her in the intergalactic sci-fi behemoth, Dune.

“In the movie Dune, I needed a small girl,” said Lynch in a recent interview with The East Nashvillian. “So, there’s lots of small girls in the world, but this particular small girl had a genius IQ and memorized her part completely — memorized all kinds of different things, came in for an audition just completely understanding the whole script and her whole part. She eventually memorized the entire script, knew everybody else’s lines, and so she was consequently very easy to work with, having this great understanding. So, it worked out really well — she was the right size with a mind that was able to be reasoned with.”

Alicia Witt | Photo by Travis Commeau

As Witt grew up, her body of work grew too. You may not know her name, but with an impressive filmography spanning more than three decades, you’ve seen her in something. Maybe it was Lynch’s groundbreaking television series Twin Peaks, in which he cast Witt at age 12 (and again for 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return). Maybe you saw her in the ’90s sitcom, Cybill. Or The Sopranos. Or films like Urban LegendMr. Holland’s OpusVanilla Sky, and 88 Minutes (with Al Pacino). Recently, you may have seen her in Orange is The New BlackThe Walking Dead, or the Netflix film, I Care a Lot. She’s quite good at her job — especially for someone with no formal acting training. But don’t take our word for it.

“You know, as they say, some people have it, and some people don’t, and she obviously had it,” said Lynch. “But I think having this intellectual — this capacity, mental capacity — helps her understand the human condition, you know, quite a bit. And therefore, [she’s] able to at least know what to portray and finding a way to portray it; being a musician and a singer helps too, for timing and a feel. And, so, she’s got a lot of things going for her. And when I work with her in the acting, she just is great. She’s unafraid, she understands the thing on a deep level and is able to pull it off.”

Adding to her talents, Alicia Witt is also an East Nashville-based musician — a pianist and singer-songwriter, who recently cracked the Billboard charts for the first time as an independent artist with a song she co-produced. “Chasing Shadows” is a wistfully romantic and autobiographical piano-pop jewel that Witt said is about “two broken people trying to repair themselves with each other.” It will be on her fifth album, The Conduit, out Sept. 24.

On top of that, she has a book coming out Oct. 5, a cookbook/memoir/lifestyle guide, titled Small Changes: A Rules-Free Guide to Add More Plant-Based Foods, Peace & Power to Your Life
(Harper Horizon).

Alicia Witt | Photo by Travis Commeau

“We’re lucky to have her in our neighborhood. She’s gifted and driven too,” said the poet laureate of East Nashville, Todd Snider. In May, the songwriters’ songwriter invited Witt, who has lived in East Nashville since 2017, to join his live stream at The Purple Building in Five Points. They did a duet of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” that’s worth watching for Witt’s piano solo alone.

But now we’re jumping ahead. We are messing up the timeline. Perhaps, we are getting Lynchian here. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that Witt was a classical piano prodigy, who won awards and began playing professionally at age 10, doing so until her acting career took off at 16. And we haven’t clearly and emphatically stated the fact Witt isn’t just some actor who decided to try her hand at music — her music and acting have been so intertwined, for so long, that these biographical threads cannot be unwoven.

You see, many of Witt’s acting roles have showcased her musicality, from performing an awkward family piano recital as Donna Hayward’s younger sister Gersten on Twin Peaks; to years as a rebellious, teenage piano virtuoso on Cybill; to singing with Randy Newman on Ally McBeal; to, more recently, owning the stage as country star “Autumn Chase” on Nashville. In muso-speak, the girl has chops — she even learned the clarinet to play a struggling young clarinetist in Mr. Holland’s Opus, but then had to unlearn it, because she had learned it too well.

I think the best artists that I can summon to mind are the ones that channel a specific feeling and deliver it to the listener or the watcher.

Alicia Witt

And in a way, music also helped Witt land her life-changing acting role, playing a teenage killer in the 1994 indie drama Fun (for which she received a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Recognition award). She was discovered by the film’s director at her five-night-a-week gig, playing standards and show tunes, in the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. This kind of thing, however, was not the norm for the aspiring actor.

“I was tremendously grateful I could support myself with the skill I’d worked so hard to build — even though, on a daily basis, I was faced with well-meaning patrons who’d ask me what my plans were, assuming I was planning to study at a conservatory,” Witt writes in Small Changes. “When I told them why I was in L.A., they’d wince in dismay and reply, ‘Oh no, you don’t want to do that. This town is full of actresses — you should be a pianist. You’re really good at this!’ I’d smile while bristling inside, thinking, ‘Well, you don’t know this yet, but I’m a good actor too.’”

Witt said she wanted to prove everyone wrong and prove everyone wrong she did. But at some point — we’re jumping way ahead in the timeline now — Witt’s musical and artistic evolution took a very natural course, a course that needn’t be explained to a Nashville readership: She started writing her own songs.

“It wasn’t until around 2008 that I started consistently going out and playing shows and writing songs,” said Witt. “[There were] shows where I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath, and I questioned what I knew in my core, which was that I was supposed to be doing this. That was something that kept me going forward, and I knew in a way the nervousness was because I was supposed to be doing it, not because I wasn’t.”

Witt said she knew because it was the same nervousness that she had felt when she first stepped on a stage to perform theater. It was as if her acting experience had in turn started informing her music, with both serving the same underlying purpose.

“My primary reason for being on a stage or in a studio playing songs is to communicate, and when that’s the main focus, I think everything else kind of falls into place,” she said. “It’s not the question of, ‘Do I belong up there or not?’ It’s ‘I have these stories to tell, and these people came to hear them, and we’re all going to connect tonight.’ And I have that same sense of responsibility when I make an album, especially this one.”

Witt still gets excited about challenging acting jobs, but said her heart is “way more” into music these days. And with music’s return to the forefront, Witt suggests that her life has come full circle. And perhaps she’s right. But perhaps her life has not come full circle. Perhaps, the artistic journey is a never-ending, forward march of discovery, and The Conduit is another important waypoint on that journey. Call it what you will, but the fact remains after years of working with other producers, including former beau Ben Folds (2015’s Revisionary History), and Grammy-winning Jacquire King (2018’s 15,000 Days EP), Witt took a new step forward, producing The Conduit herself.

“I felt I wanted to know each song on it was a genuine reflection of how I heard it in my head, rather than give that vision to someone else,” said Witt. “I wanted to be able to say, ‘OK, each of these songs feels to my ears exactly as it felt to my heart when the song was born.’ And we accomplished that, so I’m very proud of that.”

The Conduit finds Witt working alongside Nashville co-producers Jordan Lehning (Lydia Luce, Andrew Combs, Caitlin Rose, Rodney Crowell) and Bill Reynolds (Band of Horses, Lissie, Milo Greene, Avett Brothers) to create a reflective, cinematic album indebted to the piano singers of the ’70s, a little modern indie pop, and, mostly, her own
meaningful relationships.

Alicia Witt | Photo by Travis Commeau

“I wanted it to all tie together with a theme: what a conduit is,” said Witt. “The idea that we meet these people as we go through these incredible lives, and sometimes we know that that person is so significant to us. We might believe that that’s our life partner or our forever best friend, [but] I think what is to be most celebrated about all of these connections we make is what they bring to us, and where they lead us — whether or not that relationship is the be-all, end-all.”

The album’s title track is a delicate and bittersweet rumination on the difficulty Witt had letting go of a past love until solace — along with the song’s lyrics — arrived by way of an illuminating realization.

“It was something I’d been thinking of for a while, as I was sorting out what this relationship was, and what it was meant to be,” she said. “And when I landed on that notion, ‘I’m finally on to it, you are the conduit,’ it just locked in, and made my feelings around that relationship a lot more peaceful.”

Witt has spent her whole life telling others’ stories, and while the album is personal in nature, she continues to use her voice and experiences to honor others throughout The Conduit. However, the story of Alicia Witt — actor, pianist, singer, songwriter, producer, author — is the story of an artist. (“A talented artist,” said Lynch.) And artists are conduits too.

“Truly, I believe being an artist is being a conduit, which is another reason why I call this record The Conduit,” she said. “I think the best artists that I can summon to mind are the ones that channel a specific feeling and deliver it to the listener or the watcher. And you do, as an artist — or at least I do — regularly feel some sort of entity or energy come into you, and then come out through the song or the character certainly, and it might be your story, but it’s not you, it’s from some other place. … If someone’s a conduit for me, then I get to be a conduit through that inspiration to someone else — and maybe lots of people, and maybe everybody who reads the book and or likes the music, maybe they will then be conduits for someone else; a whole network of conduits.”

Alicia Witt’s latest album, The Conduit, drops Sept. 24. Find the self-produced, self-released album, as well as October tour dates, at aliciawittmusic.com.

She performs at City Winery Nashville Oct. 10. Tickets are available here. (Guest must be fully vaccinated to attend.)

In her forthcoming book, Small Changes: A Rules-Free Guide to Add More Plant-Based Foods, Peace & Power to Your Life, Witt offers readers a stress-and-judgment-free approach for enacting easy, incremental changes across all areas of life. Available Oct. 5, from Harper Horizons.