January 02, 2014

An Interview with Von Grey's Annika von Grey

Von Grey: (from left to right: Annika, Petra, Kathryn, and Fiona)
Establishing a style and sticking with it may work for emerging musicians looking to build a loyal following but it can prove stifling for the artists themselves. At least that’s the belief which seems to guide Atlanta’s own Von Grey, who made their debut in 2012 with a critically-hailed eponymous EP of acoustic, string-rich pop and modern folk. In fact, even as they saw the five-song set edge into the iTunes Top 10 on the strength of the vibrant lead single, “Coming For You,” and the visibility afforded by high-profile appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and Conan, the group’s members—siblings Annika (violin, banjo, guitar, keys), Kathryn (cello, bass pedals, mandolin, keys), Fiona (guitar, violin, percussion), and Petra von Grey (keys, lap steel guitar, electronic percussion), each classically trained—were already plotting a new direction. 

“We played violins and cellos and stuff like that,” Annika explains, “so it was natural for us to gravitate toward more acoustic music genre-wise just because that’s where we had our foundation instrumentally.” 

For their follow-up they composed edgier, more adventurous music with electronic elements and fuller arrangements. “We have a huge range of influences sonically that we pull from,” Annika says, underscoring not only the eclecticism but also the ambition that distinguishes Awakening, Von Grey’s sophomore EP, due out January 21. “Trying to incorporate textures that are a little bit more synthetic is something that we’ve been interested in for a long time.” 

Was there any reluctance within the group about working in these new electronic textures in the sense that you risk alienating listeners who connected with the more acoustic sound on your debut?

A little bit, because I do think when some people have a first impression that can really be the foundation for every later impression. We wanted to make sure that we still sound like we’re being true to ourselves, which we are. But when we’re in the process of writing and recording and getting things to be in a solidified state, we try to make sure that the last thing we’re thinking about is how others will respond to it and more just being selfish and trying to make sure that what we’re creating is a pure and true representation of who we are as artists and what we want to express. 

Are the new sonic directions on the EP also reflective of a new or expanded knowledge of the recording studio? Is that something you all are learning to embrace as well?

We’re starting to really understand and appreciate the power of production, because it can transform a song. We go in with pretty solid ideas of what kind of parts we want to be added to it or just what kind of textures or what vibe we want the songs to embody in their finished state. We’re not at the point right now [though] where we’re completely self-producing.… We’re not completely well-versed in that side of things. It’s something that we’re definitely trying to develop so eventually maybe we can be independent in a studio environment, but right now we’re still collaborating with producers and engineers to make sure that we’re working with people that truly have a grasp and a really deep knowledge of what they’re doing in the studio. We don’t want to take chances just experimenting with things we don’t know very well. 

Is songwriting something that you all have to set time aside for, or are you always aware and receptive to ideas?

We’re always trying to make sure that we’re in a somewhat creative mode, so if we happen to in our mind hear a melody that we like we’ll be able to remember it and make sure we don’t waste ideas. Fiona and I are always thinking about songwriting, but it is something that now we usually set aside time [to do]. For us, when we have a very focused environment and we’re able to kind of be secluded, it’s when the best songs come about. We get rough, little melodic riffs and stuff when we’re just out and about, but it’s usually a pretty concentrated and focused time when we actually solidify the songs. With this EP, we wrote all those songs within a two-or-three-month period. 

As the group’s lyricist, primarily, is there any apprehension on your part about revealing too much of yourself in what you write? Is that something you run into, or is it just something you work around?

It is something I’ve become increasingly mindful about. Writing lyrics, it’s hard to do that in a way that’s very calculated. You need to make sure you’re being open in a stream-of-consciousness style, and then later you can organize those thoughts and try to figure out exactly what they’re about. Sometimes, when you find that out, it’s something you’re not eager to let everybody else know if it’s a song about something very personal, but as someone that’s writing lyrics for the band the only way that I’ll be able to emote when I’m singing—or that everybody in the band will be able to feel really attached to it—is if it’s something that is kind of genuine and that forces you to feel a little bit uncomfortable. It’s something that I’ve tried to embrace rather than run away from. 

Plus, in a part of your mind you almost have to acknowledge that if you’re writing about someone else or about your response to someone else then you may have to consider that person’s feelings if he or she recognizes themselves in your song. It can be a dicey proposition. 

I try to make sure that when I’m writing—I don’t know if I always accomplish it—I’m doing it in a way that feels human and relatable. It’s not that it’s just my own personal, selfish experience or that I’m exploiting somebody else’s emotions. It’s more taking those feelings as inspiration and trying to write in a way that is all-encompassing, because I do think it’s rare to come across an emotion that no one else has experienced before. So, trying to write about in a way that allows others to partake in the feeling is kind of the goal I try to pursue. 

To what do you attribute the group's work ethic? You all seem completely committed to the idea that whatever success comes your way is something that you have to work for. That is not always the case with people.

From a very young age we were taught that hard work is paramount to success. We started with classical music and we were home-schooled from a pretty young age, so time management was something that was a very important thing for us to learn. We practiced every day and it became something that our parents weren’t forcing us to do. We enjoyed scheduling our time, making sure we were really honing in on what we were passionate about; making sure we understood the gravity of taking something and trying to make it professional...; and making sure that we can also feel a sense of pride in what we’re doing and feel like we’re responsible for it. 

That has helped a lot, especially recently when we’d be touring and then trying to fit in songwriting time and recording things and just trying to present ourselves throughout all that in a way that seems professional…. Creating art is a big responsibility, even if it’s just a personal responsibility for yourself. We want to make sure that we’re not taking anything for granted and that we know we’re surrounded by excellence all the time, so there’s always something to aspire to as far as knowing your instrument and craft. All of those things have really helped us to stay grounded and [to] remember that you always have to work to get what you want. 

Awakening, featuring the new single, “Come On,” is scheduled for release January 21. For additional information, please visit Von Grey’s official site.