Michaela Anne Delivers Bright Lights and the Fame
You know you’ve succeeded as an artist when your new record gets people dancing across the floor from the first second the needle drops down. It happens on Michaela Anne's new disc, Bright Lights and the Fame (out May 13 on Kingswood Records), as Dan Knobler’s galloping lead riffs meets up with Philip Sterk’s soaring steel licks on “Living without You,” just before Anne’s vocals circle around and under the music, climbing higher and higher in her lament of lost love. You have to go back to Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac to find a tune that so sonically captures the “I’ll go on/I can’t-go on” feeling of the singer. The music has you moving, though, even before the words zero in on your heart.
The canniness of Bright Lights and Fame is Michaela Anne’s ability to weave heartbreak songs into the album’s narrative arc, moving from honky-tonkin’ up-tempo stories of life on the road and nights in the bars to a heartbreak ballad like “Everything I Couldn’t Be.” She follows up the album’s fast-moving opener with an introspective tune, “If Only,” narrating the story of coming to terms with a love that will never be:
Any chance for us was another lost
all we had left is what could have been and would have been if only.
Michaela Anne launches into the album’s title track, her riposte to Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” with a zestful energy. She and her able band carry us across the floor in this two-step waltz as she delivers a direct hit to the heart of the matter: the men who sing about the love of life on the road and its “dreams of hitting gold” leave their women at home alone with no love, with only with dreams of holding the family together. The woman left alone soon realizes that her dream is an apparition:
I would cook and clean
I tried everything to keep you as my own
But from the start I should have listened to my heart
that I could never be your home.
... The honky tonks and cowboy songs will always call your name
You’ll never love or want anything as much as the bright lights and the fame.
The singer quits holding on out of fear and sends her man off to “singing songs about the love and life you’ve lost all for nothing but the road.” In that last line, Anne reveals her shrewd way with words, as she plays with the all-or-nothing of life, love, and illusion.
On “Easier than Leaving,” a slow, almost languorous, ballad, the singer admits that even though she and her lover are having trouble, she can’t afford to lose him. Then, in the final line, she admits her double-edged need:
Living with your secrets and hearing all your lies
Is easier than leaving all that I love behind.
She follows this mournful number with a skitter across the barroom floor in the Cajun-inflected romp “Luisa,” which slows down only long enough for the singer to consider momentarily what’s being lost by leaving.
A holy host of others joins Michaela Anne on the album, including, in addition to Sterk and Knobler — the latter also produced the album — Aaron Shafer-Haiss on drums and Michael Rinne on bass. They're joined by, among others, Rodney Crowell's harmony vocals on “Luisa,” Noam Pikelny's banjo on “Worrying Mind,” and Erin Rae McCaskie and Corey Chisel's harmony vocals elsewhere.
Michaela Anne’s voice, meanwhile, recalls Elizabeth Cook, especially on songs like “Liquor Up,” a raucous shuffle in which the singer exults in her freedom from need:
I’m a girl with too much wanderlust to fuss
With anything more than a man out looking for some fun
…Cause I don’t mind being one of many girls you like to see
Just as long as tonight you make it a good one for me.
I caught up with Michaela Anne by phone recently for a chat about her new album.
Henry Carrigan: Tell me the story of this album.
Michaela Anne: I started recording about a year ago, in April 2015, and we cut the basic tracks live with the band in the studio. I moved to Nashville in 2014, not long after my first album Ease My Mind came out. Nashville has a culture of co-writing I didn't have in New York City, and I got to collaborate with some great writers on a lot of these songs. I knew I wanted to make an album with a diverse song list — with honky-tonkin' songs and reflective ballads. Like the song "Liquor Up": I finished that just before we went into rehearsal. I'd written most of that song in New York, but was having trouble finishing it. Then, one night I heard Emmylou Harris' "Feeling Single, Seeing Double," and I knew I wanted that kind of vibe, so I took out my notebook and finished it. This is the first time I've made a record that's felt so intentional.
How did you select the songs that ended up on the album?
When we started talking about the album, we had about 15-20 songs. We'd drop a song if we felt like we already had that vibe or if we'd already covered a certain topic on another song. I created the order of songs on the album based on feeling — what feels right. I love deeply emotional songs, but I don't want an hour of that, so I tried to follow that up with a palate cleanser of a good time song. I hope the album takes you on a journey through many different feelings. Music is so situational, and context is so important. How people feel about music is informed by what's going on around them and in their lives.
How did you come up with the title for the album?
I always sing Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man" at my shows. The sentiment of that song, I've always thought, is a half-hearted apology of a man to his woman at home: "I love you, but I love the road more." It's funny that this idea of the road is so romanticized, and everyone romanticizes Waylon and Willie. I think a lot about gender issues in music, so I decided to write a song that responds to Williams' song. What about the women who were left at home and didn’t get to go out on the road. There are all these stories that we didn't get to hear from the women who stayed home with the family.
What's your approach to songwriting?
It feels so intangible, in a way. I don't have any one approach. If I'm writing by myself, something — a lyric, an idea, a melody — just pops out and I can't figure out where it came from. Sometimes it takes a lot longer. With co-writing, we sit down sometimes and make decisions about what topic we're going to write about or the melody we'll be working with. Oliver Craven of the Stray Birds and I were writing once. We started talking about life and my fascination with the idea that we're all made from the same stuff of the stars and the cosmos. That conversation encouraged me to write "Stars." Songwriting is this kind of mysterious thing that can be very academic or mysterious in the way a song presents itself to you.
Who are your three greatest musical influences?
Emmylou Harris is always in my top three. She has always picked such great songs, picked great bands, and she has such an emotive voice. Lucinda Williams, because her songwriting is incredibly raw and descriptive. I'm always pushing myself to do something like hers. Rodney Crowell, for the incredible diversity of his songwriting. He's very versatile, and he writes some great stories. My goal is to tell stories like him.
What's on your turntable now?
I try to listen to a lot of current stuff, but I have a pretty diverse collection. Some of the artists I'm listening to now are John Prine, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Rayland Baxter, Kathleen Edwards, and Neil Young. I love Neil Young's voice; he always makes me feel better.
Rodney Crowell plays on this album. How did you meet up with him?
I got to know Rodney because I got to know his youngest daughter, Carrie. Her husband, Dan Knobler, is my producer. We recorded all the acoustic guitars at Rodney's little home studio. I think he's one of the great American songwriters.
When did you start singing and playing?
My mom tells the story that she knew from the time I could move that I had music in me. I stole my brother's piano book and taught myself to read music when I was four. I was always in band, orchestra, and I was on the hip-hop dance team and in musical theater in high school. My Grandpa turned me onto Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. I went to jazz conservatory at the New School in Manhattan because I thought I wanted to be a jazz musician. Once I got there, I quickly figured out that jazz wasn't what I wanted to do. I found out about this great guitar player and teacher named Michael Daves, so I started studying with him. The first week with him, we transcribed Louvin Brothers songs. In my second term with him, I told him I wanted to learn to play guitar, so he found a guitar for me to buy.
Through him, I found out about the bluegrass scene in New York City, and I was also studying about the folk revival. After college I was an intern at Nonesuch Records. My journey has all been very organic.
How do you think you've evolved as an artist?
Well, I am still evolving, but I think this record is a sign of my evolution. I'm putting my own personal stamp on my music. I'm evolving to be much older. I mean, I'm learning to say what I want to say and not to be restrained by fear of not being accepted. Besides, I've often said I know what it's like to feel like a misfit from a very young age — because my dad was in the military and we moved a lot, so I was always the new kid at school — and that's given me a thick skin.
What's next for you?
I'll be touring behind the album. I'd love to do a covers record of my favorite old country songs, as well as a covers record of Rodney Crowell songs. I love learning other people's songs. I daydream and have lofty dreams. One day I want to write a children's book series. Also, music education is important to me, so I'd like to open a school for kids who can't afford private lessons.