Where do you see yourself in ten years? Are you doing the same job? Or do you see yourself picking up a secret passion and taking it out on the road? Musician Anna Connolly spent her teen years romping around the D.C. punk scene, hanging with bands like Minor Threat. A few decades and two kids later, Anna Connolly has picked up a guitar and is making music her own way.
“The waves kept coming in / but the air was getting thin / and the best I had / was to blame it on my dad,” Anna’s halting, raw style of singing feels fresh and familiar all at the same time. While Leonard Cohen and Bright Eyes are clear influences on the music, the stripped down vocals have a marked punk vibe to them: direct, brash, with a sly sense of humor. “Stars” has an unwinding quality to it, the words coming out carefully, a kind of forced memory. It is a great teaser to Connolly’s debut album After Thoughts; it seems to mirror the album’s cover photo of a girl sitting astride a horse, gazing out on a landscape that is both her past and her future.
Listen to “Stars” below and read our full interview with Anna:
AF: In the 1980s, your family moved from California to DC. You and your sister Cynthia got involved in the punk scene there. Can you give us a feel for what that was like?
Anna Connolly: It was pretty small at the time. I was still pretty young, and so it wasn’t like I was part of the LA scene much, but it felt bigger and a little more intimidating in LA. In DC, we just went to a record store, and immediately met a guy named Danny who worked there. We just spent some time at the store, and more kids came in. I definitely felt very welcomed by people. It felt like a community from the beginning. I admit that I knew a certain group of people – mainly the kids around the Dischord Records scene. It’s not like they were the only people around, but that’s who we met first and sort of “fell in” with.
AF: What drew you to punk music?
AC: My sister Cynthia, who is 2 years older than I am, was into punk and new wave before me. That’s how I first learned about it. I remember going to see Devo at the Santa Monica Civic Center, and a really young punk kid called me a poseur. He might have been the first “punk” I’d seen in real life! I was probably 12 or 13. But I loved music, and Cynthia was going out to see bands, and I guess I was just curious and went with her.
AF: Let’s say I don’t have a background in punk music…What bands would constitute a quick education?
AC: Well…. that’s a big question! The bands that shaped me, or that I was listening to at the time, were bands like the Circle Jerks, TSOL, Black Flag… I liked Crass, and I was obsessed with the Damned. I’d throw Minor Threat into the mix as a very influential (and a very good) early punk band. And Big Black. This is only scratching the surface of course.
But I also always liked what I would call “sad” music like the Cure, Joy Division, New Order, the Cocteau Twins, Bauhaus… I listened to those bands in the ’80s too. And Siouxsie and the Banshees. I’m sure there’s a better term than “sad” but music that is somewhat melancholy in sound and in lyrics has always resonated with me.
AF: A birdy told me The Cure is coming out with a new tour / album. My soul takes flight.
AC: Wow!!! They’re just amazing.
AF: In your press release, you said, “It just didn’t cross my mind to try to play when I was younger. Maybe I was rebelling against my rebellious friends.” When did that spark hit you? The need to write your own music?
AC: This reminds me of what we were talking about before… Well, I have two kids, and when they were really little, I took them to a “music class” which in hindsight I realize was kind of silly. But a woman had an acoustic guitar and would sing songs and do other activities with them. So, I bought a cheap acoustic guitar with that in mind – I thought, “I’m going to be this wonderful mother who sings songs to her kids!” Ha. Well that didn’t work because they just saw the guitar as something that came between me and them!
But I liked it, so I took lessons with an old friend. I think it was just nice to have something to do for myself, that wasn’t about my family. And then I tried playing songs that I liked, and then I finally wrote a song.
AF: Very Loretta Lynn of you! Are your kids still firmly annoyed or are they getting used to the idea of you as a musician?
AC: Ha! Well…. it’s been an interesting journey in many ways. They actually haven’t seen me play because I always felt like my lyrics in some of my songs are pretty intense. But they’re coming to my record release show and will help at the merch table.
I had played out a little bit when my kids were small, right when I was learning, and for some reason, I stopped for about eight years. I started again in 2016. So it’s really only been in the past two years that I’ve been playing out regularly. My kids are older now, so they’re quite aware of what I’ve been doing, especially around the recording sessions, making the vinyl LP, the t-shirts. I try to involve them in those aspects of it. My older son wore one of my t-shirts the other day, which was super nice!
AF: What kind of music are they into? Do your music interests cross paths?
AC: I realized recently that I think that music was to me what video games is to my kids. For me, music was the way that so many of us connected – by sharing music, listening together, going to record stores (or working there), going to shows, etc. And for others, playing together. For my kids, they connect on the xbox and talk there while they’re playing. It seems like that’s their milieu. But, I do feel like I didn’t do the best job in this regard. I mean, they listen to what I listen to in the car, etc. But they’re not into unusual music or anything. Maybe now that they’re older and can go to more shows, I can take them.
I did take them to see Arcade Fire once, and they covered Fugazi’s song “Waiting Room” in their encore. I was so excited and was telling my kids, “That’s Ian’s band!!!” but they didn’t seem too impressed! (I’m still friends with Ian, and I live pretty close to the Dischord offices, so my kids know who he is in that way.)
AF: Ha! I love it. “Ok, Mom!” I was reading an interview with Noah Lennox (Panda Bear, Animal Collective) and he said his daughter was thoroughly unimpressed with him. I guess no matter who you are inevitably your kids gonna be eye-rollin’.
AC: Yes, I think that’s true. That’s why I was happy when my son wanted to wear my t-shirt! The thing that affects my music though is that I’m a single (divorced) mom, and so that aspect of my life gives me ideas to write about… At least, that’s been what’s moved me to write so far. If I were happily married, I’d have to figure out something else to write about!
AF: In terms of a writing process, is your music mostly autobiographical or do you draw from other sources?
AC: My songs so far have all been autobiographical except for one, which was written about a guy in my area who killed his girlfriend at college. It was in the news a lot at the time, and I was struck by the story. A journalist interviewed neighbors where the guy had grown up, and one talked about how well-raised he was, that he went to really good schools (a private all-boys prep school in Maryland, in fact), and had great manners. And the neighbor said he was 99% good. Which made me think it only takes 1% evil to kill somebody. Anyway, that’s my song “1% Evil.” All the others are based on my own life experiences.
AF: Tell us about the picture on the cover of After Thoughts. The photo is so haunting and beautiful.
AC: Wow – thanks for saying so!!! And that’s an example of a funny twist of fate, in a way. I had a friend take some photos of me that I thought would be on the cover. And then I posted that horse photo on my Facebook page, and everyone said – that looks like a record cover! So after taking the photos for the cover, I ended up instead using a photo that I had sitting around my house the whole time. That’s me on the horse when I went to visit a friend. It was taken at Frying Pan Ranch in Amarillo Texas. I’m guessing I’m around nine years old? I love that the original photo is square, and faded like that. And I feel like it’s a very evocative photo and makes you wonder, “Why is that girl riding such a huge horse in the first place, and also without a saddle?” You might say that I was brave, or reckless.
AF: Has it been a fluid process, taking the record from studio to stage?
AC: Interesting question! In my case, I write my songs alone, and have played solo a lot. I had started playing with a bass player and drummer, and for my record, I really wanted something more in terms of arrangement. So I found Devin and Don (my two co-producers), and we did some practicing together and played a few shows together, then went into the studio. Some songs on the record are still quite minimal and like how I wrote them originally – “1% Evil,” and “Max On The Black Sea.” Other songs have drums, bass, and more. So, the album is like the live shows we played together, with some additional touches here and there. But since we’re not really a band per se, I need to explore a bit about what exactly I want for my live shows. I’ve played a few with my friend Hannah Burris on viola, just the two of us. But I miss the drums and the louder full band thing for certain songs. This is one of the first things I want to tackle now that the record is almost out – that and also making a video, which I’m dying to do but I haven’t quite figured out how to make that happen yet….
AF: You’ve had a lot of guest performers at your shows, including Devin Ocampo on drums (the EFFECTS, Beauty Pill, Faraquet, and more), Joe Lally on bass (Fugazi), Don Godwin on bass, horns, percussion (Slavic Soul Party), and Hannah Burris on viola (Teething Veils). Who’s been your favorite collaboration so far?
AC: I’m going to get all of them at my release show, which is so exciting!!! Plus I got to play with a couple of other friends in other cities last summer – it was so fun to play music with people who knew me back when I wasn’t playing. Everyone’s so great in their own way…. It’s hard to answer your question! Joe definitely felt that my songs were good in their basic way, without a lot of accompaniment. And some people have said that too about the live shows with just Hannah on viola, that you can really absorb the songs better when they’re that way. We’ll have to see how it works out. I know labels shouldn’t matter, but I’ve noticed that people seem to think if you play solo acoustic, that you are a “folk” artist. I don’t think of myself that way. But yeah – working out this band/arrangement stuff is important going forward for me.
I also have the beginning seeds of about five songs that keep going around in my head that I need to write! I’m really hoping the next album will go much more quickly and easier – like delivering a second baby!!!!
AF: Oh don’t even start! Ha! But seriously, we’ll be on the lookout for that.
AC: No more babies for me though, hahaha!!!! Only more records!
AF: Who do you have spinning at home right now?
AC: I’m a big Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes fan. It’s absolutely because of his music that I started writing. I listen to his music a lot. Also recently I was on a local radio station, and my friend who was DJing asked me to make a short playlist of music to share there. I’m liking that playlist which was supposed to be a list of DC music I like, so this was just a few things I grabbed that I’d been listening to:
- Snowblinder by Lilys (they were based in DC at some point)
- Torso Butter by Happy Go Licky
- Stolen Wallet by Minutes (they’re half in DC and half in Kalamazoo so I guess I cheated a little)
- Back and Forth by the Effects (Devin is in this band–I love this song, it’s in 3/4 time like a lot of mine are)
- Stars by Swoll (this is a solo project by Matthew Dowling, who plays bass in the Effects).
AF: What advice do you have for people starting their creative lives later in life?
AC: First and foremost, there is NO REASON not to try something creative. If you don’t try, you will never know what could have happened. In my case, it really is so surprising as I have never thought of myself as a creative person. I studied computer programming, and Russian, and business. Yes, you can be creative when doing those things, but what I liked about all those things is that you have rules to follow, and you mostly know when you’re right or wrong. That’s a safer place to operate, at least for me. It is so completely different from creating something out of nothing, taking an idea, and making it into a poem, or a story, or a song.
Also, I’ve really grown so much as a person doing this. It can be quite challenging putting yourself out there. I remember the first time I played a show, and there was a couple sitting and talking, and I thought, “I wonder what they think of me?” You’re really making yourself vulnerable in so many ways. It’s forced me to become more resilient. And also, because I want to grow and explore as a songwriter and musician, I am motivated on my own to improve and try new things. Lastly, I have been just blown away by how supportive other musicians are. It’s a very welcoming community overall. People want you to do well, and they’ll help when they can. It’s really unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
Oh, and about doing it later in life in particular. For whatever reason, I didn’t think to try anything like this when I was younger. And I do feel that all of my life experiences are a key part of my songs, since my songs are so lyric/story-driven. If I was a lot younger, I think I’d have less to say! I’ve lived in different places, including Russia, I’ve done a lot of different things over the years professionally and personally, and that gives me both a lot to work with as well as a perspective that I wouldn’t have had when I was younger. I just don’t think I had as much that I wanted to express back then – it seems like my time for this is now!
Preorder Anna Connolly’s debut album After Thoughts HERE.