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.

September 18, 2009

Just An Old Sweet Song: Willie Nelson & Ray Charles Together On DVD

What was likely regarded as a run-of-the-mill, made-for-TV music program in its original 1985 airing, now — almost twenty-five years later — inspires richer appreciation. Filmed at the Austin Opry House, The Willie Nelson Special features the Red Headed Stranger hosting a somewhat informal though thoroughly enjoyable one-hour performance.

Before what looks to be an inebriated dinner-theatre crowd, Willie exhibits his wide musical taste and versatility, dipping into his own irascible brand of outlaw country, bluegrass, standards, and pop with equal conviction. From the ramshackle shot of “Whiskey River” to the pensive lament in “Without A Song” to a poignant rendition of “Always On My Mind,” the latter complemented by his sister, Bobbie Nelson, on piano, Willie's genuineness comes through all that he plays here.

Photos and footage of his hometown in Abbot, Texas — complete with requisite commentary by childhood friends and neighbors who fondly reminisce about little Willie — interspersed with a few songs, but they add little to the overall presentation.

What does make The Willie Nelson Special, well, special, is the presence and the passion of Ray Charles.

Above a measured arrangement, Ray holds the reins at his piano for a valiant duet with Willie on their classic, “Seven Spanish Angels,” which was a contemporary hit at the time. In turn, Willie leads the way through “Georgia On My Mind,” reprising his cover from Stardust only a few years prior. Of course, with the man whose version is Georgia's official state song sitting next to him, Willie (wisely) lets Ray have a go at it as well.

After trading verses on “I Can’t Stop Loving You” — and, more to the point, once he hears Ray's voice follow his own — Willie shakes his head in awe. “You’re pretty good at that,” he teases him afterward, understating the obvious.

The camaraderie that Willie Nelson shares here with Ray Charles is, in various yet fundamentally similar ways, mirrored in how he relates and performs with his band, which in turn enhances the overall performance. And so, while the audio on the DVD (5.1 Dolby Surround and DTS Digital Surround) is pristine and the video has been well preserved, it's the music that ultimately makes The Willie Nelson Special as good as it is.

September 11, 2009

An Interview with Alison Sudol of A Fine Frenzy

Jet-lagged from having flown from Berlin to Los Angeles, Alison Sudol at first sounds a bit groggy on the line. Back home in time to mark the release this week of Bomb In A Birdcage—her sophomore album with A Fine Frenzy—she eases into the telephone conversation like settling into a comfortable chair. She’s been on the road with her band for the better part of two years, performing tracks from A Fine Frenzy’s critically acclaimed 2007 debut, One Cell In The Sea, as well as, more recently, some of her latest work.

“We’ve played a few shows so far with the new music,” she says. “It is so much fun.” Part of that fun is due to the precocious spirit and spunk of Bomb In A Birdcage, a creative shift in some respects yet one which Sudol is all too happy to explore. Speaking with Donald Gibson of Blogcritics Magazine, Alison Sudol discusses A Fine Frenzy's new album, how she bolstered her confidence as a songwriter, and her thoughts on another band who also released music this week.

Your first album had kind of a melancholy vibe to it and this new one—at least musically—is a lot livelier in some cases. Is that something you wanted the music to reflect this time around?

Definitely. I was in a very depressed head-space, really, from creating the first one. And I wanted different things for the album, but also for the live show. I really just wanted to let loose and have fun. Also, I was pretty worn-out when I came home from touring for a couple of years. And I was kind of using the music as a rope to pull me back into feeling positive about things again. As a result, there’s a lot of energy in there to help myself find it again.

Was it hard to write that kind of a song when you weren’t feeling particularly energetic?

No, it was actually great because it brought me to that place. At first I just would start writing and then I would end up feeling the way that the song dictated.

Like a self-fulfilling prophesy.


“Electric Twist” strikes me as something that’s going to go over real well live. Is that something you’re looking forward to, doing these songs out on the road?

Yeah I am...We’ve been opening our shows with “Electric Twist” and people who’ve seen us before or who’ve heard One Cell but aren’t familiar with this new album are kind of shocked at first.

The cover of Bomb In A Birdcage is striking in comparison to the first album, which had such bright, vivid imagery. This one is stark, black and white. Was that intentional and does it reflect anything about the music?

I’d say that the music is a lot more colorful this time, which is funny, because the first is much less. But the clean lines in the album cover are followed through on this album. There’s a lot more space on this album, musically. Stuff isn’t just layered like crazy like the first one was. Really, with this particular cover, it was just it. It was just the picture. There are a lot of different pictures from that particular photo shoot that we went through and that we toyed with, but this one really had the attitude. And it was in black and white. And my hair’s kind of messy [Laughs]. It was just it.

It has rawness to it, playfulness.

Yeah! It captured a real moment and that moment kind of sums up the album—not just the album, but how I feel now. It captures the spirit.

How has your songwriting developed or changed from the first album?

I’m definitely more confident as a songwriter and more willing to take risks. And to express the messier side—not only of myself, but just of life, stuff that I wasn’t really willing or able to connect with or delve into on One Cell. I feel like I’m much more ready to take on this time. It means not necessarily always [expressing] the prettiest sentiment—more of a raw feeling—and just being comfortable with going deeper…

With that kind of honesty?

Yeah. There’s a lot of freedom in that, too. It feels really good even though sometimes it’s a bit scary.

It can be cathartic, though.

Sometimes you just really need to open up…stuff that you would keep under wraps normally. It’s good to air that. Life is not always perfect and polished and well contained.

There’s a chaos that’s good to get out.

And chaos is kind of great. It’s real.

Your album just happens to come out in the same week as sixteen Beatles records.

I think it’s awesome. I don’t think we’re in the same category at all, [though], the Beatles and I.

But people who go to the stores to get their favorite Beatles albums can get yours as well.

Exactly. Something old but new, and something new.

Abbey Road and Bomb In A Birdcage.

Exactly! We can totally harmoniously exist, the Beatles and I. I think it’s a great sign. I love it!

September 03, 2009

For Whitney At Her Best, Look Elsewhere

It seems a bit ironic that, at 46, Whitney Houston has released an album mostly influenced by youth-oriented R&B and hip-hop while, at 26, she was the prime purveyor of adult-oriented schmaltz.

For all their melodrama, though, those songs especially are what (for better or worse) defined Houston at the peak of her success. Such distinctiveness is lacking on I Look To You. With few exceptions, the songstress forgoes the sentimentality and powerhouse vocals of her hit-making, record-breaking heyday for a batch of indiscriminate grooves.

In fact, there’s little among this material — composed by a hodgepodge of writers and arrangers, most with credentials far edgier than this assignment — for Houston to really dig into and make her own. Whether on the drab, techno throb of “Nothin’ But Love” or the frenetic fuss of "For The Lovers" or the utter inanity of “Worth it,” Houston is either buried by or lost within a series of lifeless, synthesized loops and beats.

Then there's "A Song For You," the Leon Russell classic that far too many artists continue to cover either in acts of self-indulgence or ostentation. Outside of Donny Hathaway and Ray Charles, though, most of them haven't done it justice, and Houston has only lumped herself in among that bunch with her distracting, disco-laden version.

Though not enough to save the album as a whole, Houston nevertheless delivers a pair of solid, soulful performances. First, on the Alicia Keys co-written “Million Dollar Bill,” she relishes an old-school vibe that brims with playful exuberance. And with the title track, Houston exhibits that she can still summon her best when interpreting a song that suits her vocal command.

And such has been the case with Whitney Houston all along. However histrionic her singing, her voice was and remains her most redeeming talent. On I Look To You, that talent is undermined by a misguided showcase of slick productions, making for a disappointing comeback.