A Wee Chat With…Anna Burch

words fae madeleine dunne (@kohlgrrl)
photo fae louise patterson

Michigan-born singer and songwriter Anna Burch spent her emerging years as a supporting player: first, as a band member of folk-rock band Frontier Ruckus and later in 2014, co-fronting the four-piece Failed Flowers.

The world finally got to hear Anna in all her creative agency with her powerful solo-debut, ‘Quit the Curse’, released through Heavenly Recordings and Polyvinyl back in February of this year. It’s diverse, tight and upliftingly honest – a relatable record that can rouse you from the throes of heartbreak with its catchy melodies.

I talked to Anna about the shift from band member to solo artist, musical identity and earnest lyricism ahead of her show at The Hug and Pint.

There’s quite a diverse sound running through ‘Quit The Curse’, particularly with tracks like ‘Belle Isle’ and ‘Asking 4 A Friend’. Was that multiplicity an intentional choice?

Anna: I didn’t set out to make a very eclectic sounding record. Like, we used all the same instrumentation, it’s all a four-piece rock band, and I didn’t feel like there was a wild difference between songs while I was writing them. The sounds changed when we were getting into the arranging process and making aesthetic choices along the way, like “oh, this one has got a bit more of a grungy feel, we’ll put some distortion on the guitar”. The mixing engineer Colin Dupuis put this insane fuzz on a solo in ‘Asking 4 A Friend’ and it was jarring to me when I heard it because it had been so clean before. I think I hated it at first and then I sat with it for a bit and I was like, “oh, that’s cool”.

The production stage took a really long time. First the solitary writing, then the demoing where we incorporated bass and a little bit of drums. I was on tour with Frontier Ruckus during that time, so I was gone a lot and driving four hours to work with my friends.

I think I was really frustrating to work within the demoing stage. I would get asked to pin down the vibe or for reference tracks from other artists, but I was still unsure about pinning down the sound. I wanted to stay in this nebulous stage of indie-pop-rock, without leaning too hard into anyone else’s shit.

Recording the proper album went on for a really long time because I was recording in apartments and everyone helping had their own commitments. Then the album got handed over to Colin who helped me record in Detroit. It was a big personnel shift, and it experienced a lot of phases from the different musicians who helped me. We re-tracked like three songs, but Colin mixed it all and it sounds cohesive to me, which is surprising considering the lengthy and spotty nature of that timeline.


While a lot of the tracks are lyrically quite earnest with darker themes, they’re often counteracted with bright and uplifting melodies. Is that a juxtaposition you set out to make?

Anna: I wanted to preserve a balance. When I perform I want it to be a fun live show and people to be uplifted, I don’t want people wallowing and I don’t want to feel drained after the performance. You can dig too far into the melancholic and it just drains you after a while. I like the tension between the two. When I play with a band it’s less strange because I’m more feeling the music and it’s more of a performance. I try and tap into the emotions to keep it authentic but it’s not like I’m lost in a revere of emotions. But when I sing solo, which I rarely ever do, I feel much more vulnerable. It’s not something I’m super fond of. It becomes less fun.

When I was arranging the album, I went to see an Alvvays concert in Detroit and that was a big inspiration for me. They just blew me away, the soaring elation of their melodies was really moving, and I had this emotional experience, even though it was an uplifting one.

While creating your sound as a solo artist, what inspirations did you draw upon?

Anna: A lot of the choices for the album that came through subconsciously were percolating for a really long time.  I think that came from being in a band, being around musicians and people who love and share music. I grew up in a home where my mother played piano and my dad was a big music lover. We bonded over that, and I developed a relationship with my dad which revolved around him showing me the classics, like Joni Mitchell. I had a lot that was swimming around in my brain which I hadn’t had an outlet for.

I’d been with Frontier Ruckus on and off for a long time and I felt like my identity was wrapped up in it. It was interesting being associated with it because I’m not even that into roots music on my own, so it wasn’t an expression of me. When I was younger, I was really into indie music but in general that was much more folk-oriented, so it made sense. But as my tastes changed and indie music became more guitar focused I realised I was enjoying a lot of the music I had been listening to in high school like Elliot Smith, Modest Mouse, Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins. I felt like that, the indie music that I listened to in high school before I got wrapped up, was more the direction that I could express myself in.

Moving from the solitary stages of writing, did you find it difficult to let people take control and make choices about your work?

Anna: I really appreciate the fact that I can collaborate with people and relinquish a little bit of control. It’s been kind of a lot … like, all of it. I’m not saying like “wow, whirlwind success” or anything, but my life has changed so much. My work bleeds in to my life and it’s all the time, it’s constant, be that social media, answering emails, playing gigs. A lot of it is fun and a lot of it is work. It’s nice to work with people that are talented and that I trust. We might not completely see eye to eye, but they don’t have my brain – they aren’t inside my head. It produces some really interesting tensions, and I honestly like that. It’s like, “it’s not what I would have done but hey, that’s kind of cool”. You’re never going to be able to present yourself exactly like “this is me”, because that changes all the time. I’m really grateful that I have people taking charge and making certain aesthetic decisions, because I would just be completely overwhelmed.

Have you seen yourself adapt the way you communicate with the people who work with you as a result of the role shift from band member to solo artist?

Anna: Absolutely. I think I was way more of a brat being a member of a band. I just had one opinion that was a small voice in a machine. It was easy to be a contrary nay-sayer and just be like “whatever, nah, fuck that, I don’t like that”. Now I have to be considerate of all these people who are spending their time with me, like the bandmates that come out for weeks at a time. I can’t really pay them enough to make it their full-time job, so I need to be considerate that they’ve taken time off work for me. I’m constantly trying to make sure no one hates me and they’re having a good time. I feel like I’ve had to become more of a diplomat and a leader, which is not a natural role for me. But this is the first tour I’ve worked with a tour manager and it makes it so much easier. It’s amazing, it’s so life changing. Being a solo artist, you can’t disperse responsibility because everything changes, it’s never the same line-up or the same bandmates. It’s really nice not being the first responder to everything. I like that little bit of separation from running all the minutiae of everything.


Album Review: Lotta Sea Lice by Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile

By Rory McArthur (@RoryMeep)rating 8

Despite being separated by over 10,000 miles most of the time, Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett and US multi-instrumentalist Kurt Vile have more than a little in common. Both adored by the Pitchfork crowd and sharing a love for a deadpan, 90s influenced approach to music, the two have always wound up on the same Spotify playlists; probably one ironically titled ‘Slacker-Indie’, or something like that. And while that label probably does a bit of an injustice to the songwriting and lyrical skill both parties possess, their music certainly doesn’t sound out of place played back to back. And now, like some kind of hipster avengers, the two have teamed up and traversed an ocean and most of the globe to bring us a new collaborative LP, Lotta Sea Lice.

A loose feeling and breezy project, the album sees the pair cover each other, cover others, and just generally have a lot of fun. Never totally emulating the sounds they’ve dealt in before, these 9 tracks are the sound of two immensely talented musicians just throwing ideas at a canvas and seeing what sticks. And luckily for us, what did stick is rather fantastic.

Originally written a few years back, Over Everything opens the record with an ode to songwriting itself. ‘I wanna dig into my guitar, and bend a blues riff that hangs over everything’ drawls Vile, with Barnett soon responding with her own densely packed lines. While not quite hitting the golden bone dry witticisms these lyricists are capable of, there’s still a lot to enjoy in the conversation-esque structure of the track. Barnett and Vile exchange observations on their own creative processes like they’re chatting backstage at a gig, their voices almost tripping over each other at times, as if they’re excited to find someone who understands the trials and tribulations of being in the business. It’s not a vintage track by the standards of either artist, or by the standards later set later on the record, but as a route into the album, it sets the tone beautifully.

The loose and casual vibe of the opener is carried through the entirety of the remaining 40 minutes or so, with lyrics largely sticking to the somewhat meta-themes of song-craft, touring, and musicianship. It’s certainly an interesting route to take, what with Barnett in particular usually specialising in themes more relatable to the average listener, but its a slight risk that pays off for the most part. Rather than feeling alienating or smug, the lyrical content serves as an endearingly honest peek inside the creative minds of the pair. Whether singing about tinnitus (Over Everything), writer’s block (Let It Go), or touring (Continental Breakfast), the sheer skill these two have when it comes to words makes every last detail sound poetic. Instrumental wise, there’s not too much to shout about, but it provides a more than pleasant enough backdrop for the lyrics and vocal melodies to unfold over.

And anyway, there’s some slide guitar on closing cover Untogether (originally by Belly), and it’s bloody lovely.

Clocking in at 45 minutes across 9 tracks, each song is fairly chunky, shall we say. No song dips below the 4-minute mark, with a couple running over 6. And while this is sometimes welcome as it allows as much to be packed in as possible, it does reveal the records biggest flaw. With fairly little sonic variation, there are periods of the album that drag a little. The previously discussed opener certainly outstays its welcome by a good two minutes, and if giving the whole thing a close listen, you may find yourself longing for some of the shorter, lighter packed tracks Barnett tends to break up her own records with. It’s an album to revise to, an album to write to, an album to chill to, but it’s not necessarily always the greatest album to sit down and concentrate on and pick apart. The phrase ‘too much of a good thing’ perhaps rings true every now and again.

While Lotta Sea Lice is flawed and unlikely to be viewed as the pinnacle of either artist’s career, it will certainly go down as an experiment well worth the undertaking. It may not really pushing any new boundaries but it can’t really be sincerely criticised for playing it relatively ‘safe’. This just feels like two friends just writing whatever came into their heads, simply wanting to have fun. And what fun it is! For fans of Kurt and Courtney, it’ll be a genuine thrill to not only hear the two writing songs together but also to see such genuine appreciation and respect for each others work. The rambling, ‘yeah-sure-why-the-fuck-not’ attitude on display here is genuinely heart-warming, with the covers of each other’s tracks, and of Barnett’s partner Jen Cloher, providing an even deeper personal resonance than was already present. Kick back, relax, and get ready to add a few more tracks to your ‘chill’ playlist.

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