Musician Chat: Beth Bombara Speaks With Anna Burch About Transitioning Into A Solo Artist
- Written by Beth Bombara
Detroit singer/songwriter Anna Burch will be in town on Tuesday, June 19, 2018 sharing songs from her new solo album, "Quit The Curse." She will be sharing the stage at The Blueberry Hill Duck Room with Speedy Ortiz and XETAS. After many years of singing in the band Frontier Ruckus and more recently co-fronting Failed Flowers, Burch's collection of solo material slowly began taking form. Local musician and singer/songwriter Beth Bombara spoke with Burch recently on behalf of KDHX and discussed life on the road as a solo artist.
Beth Bombara: You’ve spend a lot of time in other bands in a support role. What drew you to start writing your own stuff?
Anna Burch: My musical path hasn’t always been a forward motion, I kind of stopped doing music for a while after I quit Frontier Ruckus, then when I moved to Detroit and rejoined the band, that’s when I started to write my own stuff. There are a lot of factors I think. After I finished grad school I felt a little lost. I missed music and kind of circled back into my old bandmates' paths. They played in Chicago a few times, so I’d come out to the shows and I kinda missed performing. We all thought it was a good time for me to hop back on. When I decided to do that and that music was going to be my life, I needed to find a way to make it different than it was the last time. I wanted to have more creative agency and I knew I wouldn’t necessarily get that in the band. Re-focusing on music in general made me want to work on my own stuff ... have an outlet.
Was transitioning from band member to front woman an easy transition?
Well, it kind of happened concurrently, so when I was on tour with Frontier Ruckus a bunch – that’s when I was working on my record and just playing around Detroit solo, and I think as I kept writing more songs and recording I started taking it more seriously. Once the record was recorded, I started playing around town with a band and doing short regional runs. The record became something I was really focused on and excited about. As my excitement grew, I found myself less engaged with FR, and feeling more excited about pursuing my own stuff. When the record was done and I’d sent it to Polyvinyl and heard back from them, it was like ... 'Oh shit, this is for real.' So that was the right time for me to step away.
So, you feel pretty comfortable as a front person?
Sometimes not, it’s not necessarily been the most natural undertaking, but I’m learning. It’s beneficial having been in another band, although a lot of ways I think bands that have been together for a long time are kind of set in their ways of doing things and it’s been interesting taking a look around and seeing there are different ways to do things and I can kind of make my own path if I want. Being a leader isn’t a super, natural role for me and I’m trying to improve. I’ve had to get a few different groups (band members) together just because of the amount of touring I’m doing, but I’m pretty lucky with the people I have playing with me.
How’s presenting your songs, which are sitting in a sweet spot between pop and indie rock, different than performing songs that are more folk leaning?
I think I see more visual enjoyment during my set, not because I think people are enjoying the music more, but just that with Frontier Ruckus, the lyrics are a little challenging and cerebral, poetic. It’s a little moody and dramatic in some ways, lots of dynamic shifts. And now I’m just playing pop music and it’s cool to see people bopping their heads along and smiling ... I think I see people smiling a lot more than at FR concerts. It's cool to get that feedback, but it’s still indie rock and people like to stand still with their arms crossed, which is fine because I do that too.
The one thing I love about music is the vast differences between genres and tonalities and how those can impact a listener depending on a specific time in their life, or even a certain geographic location. There’s a time and place for more cerebral stuff like folk music and there’s a time for bopping your head and just wanting to feel good in the moment. I guess I’m just rambling now ... so, what am I trying to ask you?
Ha, yeah, I get what you’re saying. Is there a zeitgeist for what I’m doing now? Yeah, I think the zeitgeist is oriented toward pop and indie rock generally. Maybe that’s just because pop is popular. It definitely seems like there’s more female-fronted indie rock bands lately. It’s kind of a funny thing to navigate, because 'female-fronted' is not a genre, but a lot of people like to treat it like it is. I think the amount of attention it has been getting in the press is a little counter-intuitive in some ways, you know, we’re all just trying to do our own thing and it’s annoying when people try to make a big deal about it.
What have the struggles been for you, if any, in trying to pursue music as a female?
I definitely felt like a bit of an accessory for a long time. It was hard to break through to any sort of role of import in my old band. There weren’t a lot of women around me who were fronting bands at the time. I knew bands that had a girl vocalist playing the tambourine or something, but being on the road was a lot different back then. I’m really happy with how things have changed in that sense. I just remember getting treated really poorly by venue people ... I remember one time I ran out to the van to get something right before we went on stage and the door guy stopped me because I wasn’t 21, and was like, 'Honey, you’re WITH the band…' because he didn’t believe that I was in the band. Just bullshit like that. One positive side of the women in music boom as of late, I think there’s a little bit more respect that comes from the business side of things, just because it’s not as rare and we’re talking about these issues a lot more openly.
A life in music is pretty varied between being on the road, writing and recording. Are there aspects of being a musician you enjoy more than others?
I like it all. I like touring, I like performing and I’m really excited to be creative again ... you know, the only gripe I have is that it’s really hard to combine both at the same time. I’m either deep in the creative writing mode and it’s definitely a more hermit-like behavior, then there’s the total opposite. Being on the go, playing shows and talking to people, it’s very outward mode of being. It’s been impossible for me to think about combining writing while being on tour. I know some people do it, but I don’t know how.
Talking about writing, you used the word vulnerable, which I can relate to. When I’m writing, in the moment I sometimes don’t know if anything I write is good or not. It could be complete crap. Do you feel that way when writing?
Honestly I think I super blindly never felt that way with the first batch of songs because I was just so happy to be writing, I was so pleased with everything. For the most part, I felt like 'Yeah, this is good.' But now I’m a little less sure and I don’t have that same excitement from the newness. I’m more unsure of myself and I can’t tell if it’s because the songs aren’t as good anymore or if I need to work with someone and arrange them and I’ll be more sure about them.
I’m glad writing the first record was such a positive experience for you. I think I’m probably a pretty jaded songwriter by now. There’s so many steps to making an album happen. It really takes planting that first seed, giving it time, letting it grow and seeing where it goes. But sometimes it’s such a long tedious process and then going out on the road to present those new songs and hoping people show up ... I sometimes wonder ... "Why do we do this?' It’s sometimes exhausting.
Ha ... yeah ... I think it feels good. I know it can be a little frustrating, but hearing those finished mixes ... there’s all those little elating feelings along the way. Of writing, of putting the puzzle together of the song itself and arranging and hearing it come together.
Do you ever experience this feeling where you’ve played a song you’ve written so many times that every now and then you have these flashes where you think ... "How did I write that?' It’s cool and dissociating in some ways.
OMG. Yes! It’s a very strange experience.
So you enjoy being on the road?
I do, yeah. It’s fun. When I’m home and I’m not writing and just waiting to tour, I feel purposeless. Like, 'What am I doing?' But getting on the road, it’s like, Oh, I’m working, but it’s a fun kind of work.' A lot of it is grueling in some ways and it’s not the healthiest lifestyle a lot of the time, but yeah. It’s nice to keep a forward motion, you know?
Have any tour advice for me? Staying sane and healthy on the road?
Uh, healthy and sane on the road, let me think. Man, I don’t know how I’m holding it together right now! I have no advice. I don’t think I have any advice! I feel like it changes for me every tour – my attitude and approach. I don’t know, it’s hard to set up good routines and practices. I guess, just walk when you can. Cherish alone time when you have it. Enjoy the little things, feel grateful about things when you’re aware of them. I think I used to complain a lot more, because I’m a complainer. I think just trying to focus on the good little things will keep you in a better frame of mind, than ruminating on all the little things that don’t go your way, because there’s so many opportunities for things not to go your way.
I find that a lot of musicians I know have other artistic interest. Are there any other creative interests you have besides music?
I wish I had a more developed artistic sensibility outside of music. I’m interested in video, but it’s also kind of a lot. I edited my first music video and I had a lot of fun doing it, and I think I’m pretty decent at it but it’s also such a time commitment. Maybe for the next record I’ll focus on one where I have more of a creative vision for and I’ll probably edit and maybe shoot some of it. It’s also just kind of a lot to take on, so I’ll probably focus on just one video for the record. I’d like to continue to have some videos that I have more of a creative hand in.
I really love all your videos! Thinking about creativity, what things tend to spark that for you, or make you feel inspired?
When I’m engaging with other outputs, like if I’m reading or watching movies. It feels more and more rare that I’m enthralled in a book. I mean, I like watching movies a lot. I miss living in Chicago because I’d go to moveis a lot and that was always really inspiring. I get inspired by movies, not in any specific way, but I just get really charged up. It makes me excited.
Any movies you’ve seen in particular lately that have done that?
Do you have FilmStruck? It’s a streaming service that has the Criteron collection and a bunch of classics. I just watched 'Sweet Smell of Success.' It’s like a late 50s sort of noir take on a publicist and columnist in NYC, it’s very cynical and shot really beautifully.
Anything else on your mind?
I’m just really excited to come back to St. Louis! I feel like there’s a nice little supportive community there and I’ve had a really nice time both times I’ve played there.