September 27, 2009

An Interview with Anna Rose

To borrow a phrase from one of her musical heroes, Anna Rose is set to break on through. Having spent years writing songs, studying the guitar, learning a bit of piano, and paying her dues on barroom stages in L.A. and New York, the 24-year-old singer/songwriter will release her self-titled debut on Tuesday.

The 5-track EP reveals Anna Rose as an artist equally intuitive and proficient, imparting elements of classic-rock influence—like the slow, thick riff that anchors “Picture,” and the Winwood-esque organ refrain running through “Willshire Blvd.”—along with contemporary folk and pop distinctions. It’s a promising work that not only serves as an introduction of sorts, but also as a preview of her upcoming full-length album, Nomad.

Recorded with executive producer Bruce Botnick—whose extensive credits include such classics as The Doors’ L.A. Woman and Love’s Forever Changes—and with Anna Rose co-producing with Billy Sullivan, the LP is slated for release early next year.

In a conversation with Donald Gibson, Anna Rose discusses her music and gives insight on how she approaches and appreciates her craft.

Where did the title for Nomad come from?

When I was recording the album, I was living in L.A., but I’d moved there with no friends or family. I moved there for college and then I ended up dropping out and pursued music full-time. But I was traveling a lot and I didn’t really stay in one place—even in L.A.—for more than two weeks to a month.

What did you learn in working with Bruce Botnick?

When I first started to record Nomad, I was nervous about wanting to do full takes and having my band do full takes over and over again because I didn’t want to cut certain things up; and having my lead guitarist do his solo for the song “Picture” over and over and over again until it had the perfect arc to it; and [I was] kind of nervous about asking people to do things, because my band is all guys and co-producer is a guy. I felt a little shy. And Bruce just made it very clear to me that “this is your album; this is your music. And you have to follow the vision that you have in your head.” Bruce has this incredible sense of where things should fit in the mix…He’s been doing it for so long that there are things that he just inherently knows.

As far as the craft of your songwriting, what do you find most challenging? What drives you?

Songwriting is challenging to begin with, for me. I grew up with a father who was a composer and a songwriter [Academy Award winning musician, Alan Menken]. And he’s given me a lot of valuable tools to keep the songwriting going. The foremost thing he’s done for me is be my dad…but he always supported my career and my desire to keep working, keep writing. [That] even when you feel like you don’t have something to write, you want to just put something down. Even if it sucks and it’s terrible and it’s the worst song you’ve ever heard. If it’s out of your system—at least this is my perception—if it’s out of my system, then I feel like the next thing I write will be amazing.

If you get anything that you would consider substandard out, then maybe that pushes the good stuff to come next.

Absolutely. I’m kind of in a period right now where I have about 50-60 other songs written that maybe I think are worthy of being put on a record. That being said, I kind of want my second record to be all new things that I’ve just written that are really about my life right now. And not everything’s about my life, but…

They’re things that you wouldn’t feel comfortable singing at this stage?

Yeah. There are certain songs that didn’t make it onto the record. There’s one song that’s called “Sleep’s Not Easy” and I didn’t put it on the record because I can’t relate to it anymore.

Was this something you’d written a long time ago?

Yeah, it was something I’d written when I was 16. And granted there are other songs that actually made it onto Nomad that I wrote when I was about 16 or 17 years old, but those songs are in a place where I can still relate to them. But “Sleep’s Not Easy” was a song that I couldn’t relate to anymore. And I’d rather have another artist—who can relate to it—sing it.

One song in particular on the EP that struck me was “You Got It For Free.” Is there a story behind that?

Some songs I don’t remember all that vividly where I wrote them because I write them over a period of time; “You Got It For Free” was a song that I remember exactly where I wrote it and I didn’t even have a guitar with me. I wrote the melody and wrote down the lyrics and then got my guitar was able to write it all out. But I already had the song in my head, which is kind of a rare thing for me… I was in Vermont and I was on a trip with my family. And it was in January; I remember it was freezing cold. It was one of those moments when I kind of woke up and I realized I’m really different from a lot of people [Laughs]… I wanted to pursue music and I had gone to a high school where everyone was pretty set—well, everyone’s going go to college and to business school. For me, I always knew I wanted to do music; I always played guitar. I felt very isolated at that point.

Things you didn’t relate to in your peer group…

I always had people supporting me, pursuing music. My parents supported me endlessly in that. And I have friends who did too and always encouraged me to play my new songs for them…

But they were going off to college...

And I went off to college too. I chose to try to live this normal life and I realized that I really couldn’t do it. It didn’t feel natural to me. It’s not who I am. That’s kind of where that song came from.

Do you feel like you’re on the right track now?

Yeah. I left school when I was living in Los Angeles, played up and down Sunset at random, different clubs. And I started out playing just acoustic, by myself, at these shitty biker bars, where people would throw things at me. [They were] like, “What is this annoying hippie chick doing playing in a biker bar?” [Laughs] But I got experience from doing it.

A lot of songs today—especially on the radio—sound interchangeable; any artist could do them and they’d yield the same results. What about your music distinguishes it as yours, which no one else could emulate?

I think it’s hard to emulate someone’s passion for the entire business of music and the process. I think you can hear that in my music… I’m not just a vocalist or just a singer/songwriter. I’m a trained guitarist. The guitar, as an instrument, means a lot to me. And I co-produced the record. I had a hand in every aspect of the album. I didn’t leave the room until it was done being mastered. When those things are happening, you get those personal touches… You’ll never really hear an Auto-Tune on my voice. That’s just something I can’t do; it feels wrong to me. I’d rather leave a raspy note in there if it’s a great performance.

So you’ll leave an imperfection if the energy and the performance and the vibe are right.

Oh yeah. [On] some of the best albums in the world, you can hear those little imperfections. And I love playing live—I really enjoy recording and I actually enjoy producing too—but I crave playing live. I feel more alive on stage than I do in my real life… And so I think that in recording and performing my music, I just like things to be really authentic.

Are you going to cover anybody in your live shows?

I do a cover with my band of “Jolene,” which has started to become kind of a staple. We are slowly adding in these different covers; I want to take them and make them my own.

As far as recording other people’s music...

I think covering other people’s songs is a really cool concept that’s sort of gone away. Personally [though], I don’t feel ready to record another person’s song especially because…I really idolize a lot of artists from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s that I listen to. And so, to me, recording one of their songs is, like, blasphemous in a way.

It’s only blasphemous if it’s bad.

Yeah, well [Laughs], I think it’s unnecessary pressure right now. I think the pressure that I put on myself right now should really just be my music. If my music sucks, then it’s only on me.