One of the joys of travelling to Nashville every September for the AMA’s Festival is discovering artists not previously encountered and with over 300 acts on offer each year it’s not difficult to come across a number of new-sprung gems. 2017’s pilgrimage was no exception with a number of - new to me - acts particularly impressing, none more than Nashville resident Michaela Anne.
The 5 Spot on Forrest Avenue in East Nashville is where many emerging local artists cut their teeth, often at the renowned weekly Tuesday sessions hosted by Derek Hoke, which offers entry and beers at the princely sum of $2. Last year’s AMA’s Tuesday 5 Spot evening featured Nashville based band Los Colognes, listed to play the entire Neil Young Tonight’s The Night album in chronological order, but also to be joined on stage by ‘friends’. The mention of ‘friends’ immediately set off alarm bells that this was the place to be on that particular evening. True to form Margo Price, Caitlin Rose and Lilly Hiatt all joined Los Colognes on stage for what proved to be a memorable set with the venue full to capacity from early in the evening. The icing on the cake was the opportunity to also catch Michaela Anne’s splendid support set, a mixture of traditional honky tonk and bar room weepies, aided by a top-notch collection of musicians. A fellow annual Nashville wayfarer, who accompanied me to the 5 Spot, had met Michaela on a previous visit to the festival and made the introduction after her show. We agreed to make contact in the coming months for an interview with Lonesome Highway when she arrived back in Nashville following an extensive touring schedule as part of Sam Outlaw’s backing band.
Where do you call home today having relocated from Brooklyn to Nashville or did you even get a chance to unpack a suitcase given your hectic schedule last year?
Nashville’s home now. I moved there 3 years ago. My husband and I bought a house over a year ago but I’ve probably only lived in it collectively a handful of months. 2017 definitely was wild with how much I was on tour so I’m excited to be home a bit more this year.
The East Nashville underground scene is blossoming at present, populated in particular with an apparent endless stream of gifted female artists. On arrival did you find the environment supportive or competitive?
I found it really supportive. My first night in town I played a show at the 5 Spot in East Nashville and immediately met Kristina Murray, Erin Rae McCaskle, Derek Hoke and a handful of other local musicians who have all remained great friends. Erin Rae right away told me she thought Kelsey Waldon and I would hit it off, which we did, and that first year in town I felt immediately embraced and befriended by many of the women whose music I love. There are so many talented artists in town, especially of the female gender and I really do think we all genuinely support each other. Of course everyone probably feels envy or some sense of competition at different points as this is a tough business to keep going and survive in. But at the core I think there’s a sense of feeling like we’re all in this together. And we’re musicians, we love playing AND hearing music, so we genuinely do enjoy hearing each others work and being inspired by it.
I get the impression of Michaela Anne as a decidedly structured and disciplined individual, traits not always to be found in particularly artistic people but a huge advantage in someone focused on making a breakthrough. Is this an accurate assumption?
Ha! Well yes and no. I definitely work hard and am ambitious and driven and probably have a bit more “structure and discipline” then what some would assume the “typical artist” would have but I do also have my head in the clouds quite a bit. I did work for a record label right out of college so I learned at a young age some of the benefits of 9 to 5 office structure and the hard work that goes into promoting music. And of course the important lesson that just being good at music isn’t always enough to build a career.
Your 2016 album Bright Lights and The Fame is top drawer traditional classic country, avoiding the radio friendly pop crossover sound so dominant on what passes for Country Music Radio today. Did you make a conscious decision to avoid a mainstream sound on the album?
Yes and no. It wasn’t conscious in that we weren’t overtly avoiding it. We were just making the record we liked and wanted to hear. I don’t like hating on things so I wouldn’t speak negatively about it but I would say the pop country radio sound is not one I’m particulary drawn to. I’ll get into a song here and there but generally the production isn’t my preference. I definitely love some good pop music and love a lot of 90s pop country but for my album I was drawing more inspiration from records of the 60s/70s and my favorite old records by Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and early Lucinda Williams records.
I believe you had written a number of the songs before heading to Nashville. Were the finished versions dramatically different from what you originally intended?
The majority of the songs were actually written in Nashville. Stars I wrote in Brooklyn following the death of my grandmother, Luisa was in Brooklyn and Liquor Up I started in Brooklyn but finished the day before we started tracking in the studio. Writing in Nashville was the first time I had concentrated and dedicated writing time. In New York, everything takes longer and is more expensive so having a whole day to focus on songwriting was a very rare luxury. Nashville provided me with that and it was exciting to get to focus on songs in a whole new way. I remember when Dave Brainard and I wrote Everything I Couldn’t Be, we started at 9am and didn’t end until 9 at night. We took breaks for meals but I had never had that experience and the attention we gave that song was really exciting for me.
You co-wrote two of the tracks on the album (Everything I Couldn’t Be and Won’t Go Down) with Dave Brainard who previously worked with Brandy Clark. How did that relationship develop and is co-writing an experience you intend pursuing in the future?
I had met Dave when I opened a show in NY for Brandy and he was playing in her band. We kept in touch and started getting together when I moved to Nashville. He was one of the first people I really started co-writing with. I do intend to keep pursuing co-writing. I love writing alone as well and will always do that but it’s interesting to see how different the songs can come out when you team up with another songwriter. You can push each other out of your habits and go-tos in a way that you don’t on your own.
Not many artists can boast of breezing into Nashville and having Rodney Crowell appear on their first album recorded there! How did that come about?
Dan Knobler, who produced Bright Lights and the Fame, is married to Rodney’s daughter. We were good friends along with colleagues so I was friendly with the family and Dan suggested we ask Rodney if he’d be interested in singing. Luckily he was and squeezed in the session during a very busy year for him. He’s one of my all time favorite songwriters so it really was surreal and one of those ‘is this really my life?’ moments when I sat in his home studio listening to him sing my song. I’ll always be grateful to both Rodney and Dan for that.
The album was produced by Dan Knobler, who previously worked with Rosanne Cash, Tift Merritt, Erin Rae and Shannon McNally. I believe Dan also relocated from Brooklyn to Nashville and that you had previously worked with him?
Yes Dan and I were friends in Brooklyn and he had been playing guitar for me the last year I lived there. We started talking more about recording and did a couple trial sessions before he moved to Nashville and then ultimately started working on the record as soon as he arrived.
Tell me about your transition from a jazz student in Manhattan to a country artist?
Well they are definitely two very different worlds. I grew up singing all kinds of music: country, pop, musical theater, jazz standards, you name it. So when it came time for college I was a little at a loss for what to do. I ended up in jazz school because I loved the American Songbook and old swing tunes, many of which have a lot in common with old country songs and western swing. Patsy Cline used to sing Irving Berlin tunes. But I quickly realized that wasn’t the kind of jazz they were focusing on at the New School and sought out the rootsier music scene in NYC. Luckily I heard about Michael Daves (a great bluegrass guitarist) and started taking lessons from him. From Michael, I learned how to play guitar and he turned me onto the Louvin Brothers, which completely blew my mind. From there I got really into the thriving Bluegrass and Old Time scene in Brooklyn and naturally just progressed into owning the fact that the songs I had been writing for years were much more country sounding and jazz was not the genre where I would be having my career.
Solo shows, a showcase at the Americana Music Festival, playing in Sam Outlaw’s Band, tours of Europe and performing on stage with Ron Pope at Carnegie Hall. 2017 seems to have been a whirlwind year. Did you get an opportunity to do any writing while you were on the road or do you generally require a more relaxed environment for creative inspiration?
I have! I generally don’t write very much while on tour but occasionally a song idea will pop into my head that I’ll save to finish later. I often feel like I need relaxed and reclusive environments to really be able to write. I try to take self imposed “retreats” semi-often to be able to focus more and get some songs under my belt. I’m excited to currently not be touring and get to write a bit more (although I constantly miss the road).
Is it imperative to have a number of projects running in parallel to survive in the industry today given the meagre financial pickings available and do you foresee this changing looking forward?
I honestly have no idea! So many people refer to the music industry these days as the wild west. Formats and platforms keep changing rapidly as far as how/where/when people consume music and where the money will come from. So I’m really unsure of what the future holds for artists. I try to keep the faith that between live shows, selling merch and teaching music lessons I’ll keep getting by and hopefully people will keep valuing music and artists enough to pay for all of these things! I also try to focus on the connection with fans. Streaming/cds/vinyl whatever will all change and come and go but I really believe if you connect with your audience you have a better chance of surviving all of the changes in the long term.
Plans for 2018?
Record an album! I’m currently on a flight out to LA to record a couple new songs of mine with Sam Outlaw and making plans to record a full length by spring. I really really want to return to Europe in 2018 so I’m working on making that happen as well!
Interview by Declan Culliton Photograph by Kristine Potter