Nashville Country and Americana artist Michaela Anne has been garnering national attention since the 2014 release of Ease My Mind, an album that was named one of the year’s best country albums by The Village Voice. After the release of the album she moved from Brooklyn to Nashville, releasing her next album Bright Lights and the Fame in 2016, an album that featured guest appearance by Rodney Crowell and Punch Brother Noam Pikelny. Songs from the record have been featured on high profile Spotify playlists, as well as on the HBO series ‘Divorce’ and the album earned her performance spots at Bristol Rhythm & Roots, Merlefest and the US and UK versions of Americanafest. She has also toured the US and Europe with bands such as Mandolin Orange, Courtney Marie Andrews, Joe Pug, Ron Pope and Sam Outlaw.
Having drawn comparisons to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, she’s been hailed by ‘Vice Noisey’ as the antidote to commercial pop country. Michaela Anne has recently released her latest album Desert Dove, her debut album for her new label Yep Roc Records. The album represents a bit of a shift from her previous work, incorporating more modern production elements that showcase her indie rock influences in addition to honky tonk. Although the album has bolder and more adventurous arrangements, her crystalline vocals remain at the forefront. The album was produced by Sam Outlaw and Delta Spirit’s Kelly Winrich and was recorded with a band that included guitarist Brian Whelan (Dwight Yoakam/Jim Lauderdale), fiddler Kristin Weber (Kacey Musgraves/Margo Price) and drummers Mark Stepro (Ben Kweller/Butch Walker) and Daniel Bailey (Everest/Father John Misty). You can follow Michaela Anne and stay up-to-date on all upcoming artist, music and tour news, as well as stream and purchase her albums, via the following links. Check out the remaining October tour dates below. Photo Credit: Matt Wignall.
You will be releasing your new album soon and you have said it was a bit of a gamble for you to make. What can you tell me about your journey of getting the album made?
Since my last album, I was without a record label and was kind-of getting by, essentially. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make a record and was ambivalent about doing a crowdfunding pledge or kickstarter-type campaign. I had done one in the past and was in a place where I didn’t want to just keep asking people to contribute. I was just at a crossroads of “How am I going to make this happen on my own?” and a test really of how much I believed in myself and my career. I took out a bunch of credit cards and paid for the record that way and just basically went into it with the intention of “I have to get a record deal”. There was no other option in my mind. All of that debt, if I was on my own, I wouldn’t have had any more means to then pay for the publicity and marketing and all of that stuff. It was a “This has to work out or I’m just going to be stuck” type of situation.
You had a period of time where you grappled with the uncertainty and instability of the path you’d chosen. What can you tell me about the recording process for the album and how escaping Nashville for California to record helped you to re-evaluate your notions of success and sacrifice that had long guided you up until that point?
I think a change of scenery is always helpful. I was living in Nashville, but when you are surrounded by people who are all either making music or working in the music business, it can feel almost suffocating and like a bubble and you can forget that there is a huge world out there of people who don’t know that any of this even exists. With the recording and making of music in that process, I feel that it’s really helpful to get away from that and not let any of the thoughts of where your position or place is within your community, or this business or the industry, and kind-of shedding all of that and holing up in a place far away from that. We were in San Clemente, California, so it wasn’t even like I was in Los Angeles. It just felt very removed and I didn’t have a car or anything, so everyday I would just get up and have a cup of coffee and maybe go have a run on the beach and then we’d record all day long. We’d do this every single day with no days off, which felt very vital to creating this world for the record. That’s a privilege that I was able to create with the help of others, as well, that I wasn’t then going home and going “Oh, I need to clean the litterbox and vacuum” and things like that that can get in the way. I’m prone to stress and anxiety, so it’s very easy for me to get distracted by the doubts and thoughts of “How is this all going to work out?” and “Am I irrational? Am I just messing up my whole life by banking on all of this somehow working out and not getting a “real job”?”.
The album has been described as your most expansive work yet, with more adventurous arrangements. I read that you worked with producers Sam Outlaw, who like you appreciates the joy of a simple pop song, and Delta Spirit’s Kelly Winrich who helped you to hone in on an edgier sound. Was the sonic vision for your album set in place when you went into the recording process or did they nudge you into that direction with their input?
I had the ideas beforehand, and one of the reasons I decided to work with them was because they understood that and I felt that they as a team could provide that. We had a lot of conversations about, in reflection of my last record, where I wanted to go in relationship to stuff I had already made and what music I had been listening to and what was influencing me. It was really important to me that for this record that my vocals were really up front and were the main focus. I didn’t want to record a typical guitar-driven record and because of the live band setting that’s what it would sound like. I wanted to be more inventive and question “How should this begin?” and bring in the strings. I brought in my friend Kristin, who did the string arrangements…all of that was very intentional. I gave them a lot of records that I love listening to, even if it didn’t seem connected at all to the kind of music I’m making. They were really absorbing what I like and wanted to make and then helped create that.
You’ve been called (by Noisey Magazine) “the antidote to commercial pop country” and the person who will help usher country music into a new age. What are your thoughts on the evolution of country music to this point and where do you feel it is headed in the future?
It’s interesting because there are so many conversations about what is or isn’t country music and the whole “bro country” thing that’s happening. I’m by no means a purest or a traditionalist. Genres were created by marketing men. It’s funny to me sometimes how some musicians who I love, who are very artistic based, are so hung up on genres and labels and I’m like “But this was created by business people. I kind-of has nothing to do with us musically”. At the same time, I understand it and I have my personal tastes. When I hear a lot of what is considered country music today on pop country radio, I’m often not taken with it. It’s not really of my taste, but I also don’t feel like it’s important that I stand up on whatever small platform I have and proclaim “This isn’t country music!”. It doesn’t really sound to me like what I associate as country, but again, genres evolve. If people like that, then ok. What I do care about is creating avenues and speaking up about having more diversity on what gets invested in and why women aren’t as invested in as our male counterparts and why were kind-of hearing the same stories over and over again. That’s more important to me then if I think something sounds like country music or not. The tradition and base of country music, no matter who you talk to, is always about the stories, the real life stories. That’s what I grew up with and that’s what my dad told me when I asked him why he loved country music, and I don’t hear a very wide range of stories. As a listener and a fan, when I turn on the radio and hear the same thing over and over again I get really bored and then seek out music that inspires me elsewhere.
You have said that when you moved to Nashville, you were told the “rules of songwriting”, that women in country songs can’t ever be the victim but they also can’t be the perpetrator but that women are sometimes everything all at once and you wanted to write about those experiences. Your album has a focus on female perspectives and feminism, so why do you think those “Rules” existed?
I don’t know (laughs)! What that’s referencing is an experience of mine. There was a publisher that I shared a song with, and this was actually a song on my last record called “Easier Than Leaving”. It was about a woman who, and it could be a man, as well, knows that their partner is betraying and cheating on them, and saying “I don’t wanna know. I wanna live in this space even though I know there’s a truth that I’m denying because I can’t deal with that”. I played that person this song and they were like “I don’t like this narrator. This can’t happen”. I think it might come more from the stance of “The woman, if she’s being done wrong, she’s gotta be strong like in the Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert songs…like I’m gonna kick his ass or something”. But that’s not every story and I’m telling you that I wrote this song with another person and we created this story from experiences that we relate to. There are multiple songs on this new record where I kind-of heard the same things early on. With my song “Run Away With Me”, it was like “Is this an affair? What is this? Do I like this person? And “Desert Dove. Who’s this about?”. I was like “Why does it matter if you like them?”. It’s not about being liked. It’s about real life and a story and sometimes a likable person is not always likable. Life is complex and we make mistakes and love and desire and power, all of that stuff makes things really messy, complex and confusing as we’re learning and growing. That’s the stuff that I care about. I don’t think that these one-dimensional narratives of what a woman is and what a man is are one size fits all. That’s the stuff that I really want to explore in my songs and that’s the kind of music that I love listening to.
You lived in Brooklyn for 10 years before moving to Nashville and had planned to study jazz at Manhattan’s New School. What led you to transition to the Americana/Country music scene? What was it like to acclimate to the Nashville music scene after having lived in Brooklyn for so long?
I ended up at the jazz school because I didn’t really know where to go for music. I grew up listening to jazz and I was in Jazz Band in high school and to me, a lot of the American song book and early big band music has a lot of cross over with Country music and crooners such as Patsy Cline and western swing. I didn’t see a huge separation between the two genres. When it comes down to it, I love songs and interpreting them and creating them and telling stories. As I started writing the songs that were coming out of me, they sounded closer to the Americana world than the current day jazz world that was much more later jazz, like bee bop and improvisational music, which was not my forte (laughs). I realized that I wasn’t comfortable with improvising and I like song structures and telling a story. I started learning to play the guitar and was exposed to the roots music scene in NYC and I loved it. I sort-of seamlessly transitioned, which seemed like a natural progression to me, and I moved to Nashville because I wanted a more affordable way to live. I also wanted to be around songwriters and people who really valued the simplicity of a shared experience. I definitely found that in Nashville. There’s a bit of a cultural change to move from NYC to Nashville and there are things that are still challenging to this day, but I really value what I have here in Nashville. Living here in Nashville allows me to travel and tour easier and go back to places like NY and larger cities.
You have said that life as a songwriter is a roller coaster and that one day you will have a long dry spell and the next you’ll have a million ideas. How do you work through the dry spells and find your inspiration again?
I have no idea (laughs)! I tweeted that yesterday because I have for weeks been like “Ok. I finished recording this album over a year ago. It’s coming out next week and I’ve only written a couple of songs this year. How am I ever going to write another record?”. I keep stopping myself like “Don’t panic. The pressure is not on yet! You don’t have to record. Be in this moment. Be present for this and don’t worry about that”. I think that as a professional songwriter, you have to always be looking ahead and be like “Yes, I need to be here now but I also need to be planning for the future and keep this train rolling”. I’ve had a lot of time where I’ve just not felt like writing and then this past week, all of a sudden, a lot of ideas have been hitting me and I don’t know why that is. I’ve been really busy with other things. It’s not like I’ve been sitting around waiting for it (laughs)! Maybe that’s the trick? I do feel like there’s a trust thing that it always comes back and living your life knowing that the things that you do feed the inspiration. Luckily I have a lot of friends who are really, really good songwriters that I also will reach out to and be like “Do you ever deal with this? Am I alone in this?”, even when I know I’m not alone. It just feels reassuring when you can check in with somebody whose work you really admire and hear from them “Yeah, I went through the same spell where I couldn’t write”. I have some great people in my life who, I think it was Caroline Spence just last week, who I think is an incredible songwriter, was like “Go to a movie. Take yourself out to dinner. Take time for yourself to nurture those ideas and the inspiration to come and be easy on yourself”. We do that for each other in the community that I feel like I’m a part of, which is really nice.
Do you feel like there were any lessons that you learned early on in your career that have carried over to where you are currently that you have found helpful? What would you say is the best advice you ever received?
I think I have learned, and am continuing to learn, a lot of lessons. I think one of the hardest but best lessons is that no matter what you have to stay in touch with yourself and who you are. It’s really easy to get caught up in feeling like “Oh I need to try to do these things to try to gain success. I need to go to every party and I need to meet all of the right people and I need to sacrifice and push myself”. There’s very little that can come back to you from a lot of output, like the grind and playing really bad shows and losing money…just the endless perseverance of “Wow, there were two people at my show!”. Always connecting to who you are and why you do what you do is really important in this business. One of the greatest pieces of advice that I got was that I was lucky enough to have a job at Nonesuch Records straight out of college. I was an intern there and it just kind-of transitioned into a job and listening to the president of that label Bob Hurwitz and the little nuggets of wisdom I got have stuck with me. One of the things he always said was that you really just have to have blinders on. At any given moment, there are going to be tons of people who are doing seemingly better than you and you cannot get caught up in that. You have to keep your head down and do your work and don’t get distracted by trying to evaluate and judge where you are in relation to everyone else. It’s easier said than done (laughs)!
You’ve toured heavily over the past few years and have said that all of your ideas for making a living as a musician have been upended. What were your perceptions going into this career and how have those perceptions changed? What are the realities you’ve discovered? Has your approach to touring changed?
Yeah, definitely. I remember before I really started touring, one of the things I’m attracted to in old country music is honestly the emotional disfunction (laughs). I used to say things like “Yeah, but you don’t have to live a dysfunctional life”, like this idea that musicians party hard and are driven by their emotions and all of that stuff is not necessary. You can be healthy. But then I lived my life on the road for a while and it’s hard to stay healthy and it takes a lot of work to make the choices that are better for you in the long run and really recognizing the negative impact that drinking every single night can have on you. You have this feeling that living life on the road isn’t real life. But if it’s not real life, but you’re living that non-real life more days out of the year than your “real life” at home, you can make excuses for not treating yourself well because you’re kind-of living in an alternate reality. Luckily it didn’t take me too long to start to figure out that I have to be really conscious about the way that I live because I don’t feel well after a while or I don’t make healthy choices or behave in a way that I feel like is aligned with my integrity. It’s just taking stock of that and saying “Ok. I want to do this for my entire life so maybe other people can get by easier than I can but I have to make a conscious effort to take care of myself”. That was a huge part of it, that metal, physical and emotional health are really important and I sacrificed them for a while.
You are currently in the midst of a radio tour with just you and you guitar. What have been some highlights for you?
Well, I’m home now, but it was only a few days but it was fun. I haven’t ever done just purely a radio tour. It’s always just been squeezing it in before a show, so it’s been nice and relaxing to get to go and hang out with some DJs and play some songs by myself and my evenings were free, so I went to movies and hung out with friends. It was really nice and encouraging and to get out there before the record is out.
What’s next for you?
The record comes out on Friday and then we’ll start touring. We have dates starting on October 4th in Asheville, NC. I think we only have October announced, but more stuff is coming soon! So that’s what’s next! Hopefully some songs and inspiration will come through that.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me this afternoon!
Thank you so much. It was really nice getting to chat with you.