Little Annie is exhausted
Exhausted but exhilarated. She’s just returned home to New York after a week in Toronto prepping what promises to be her most eagerly anticipated album... ever? Certainly for a while. Because it’s also her first to be launched through the modern miracle of crowd funding, via a Pledgemusic campaign that, with two more months left to run, is already one-third of the way towards its target. It’s an exciting prospect, and the album itself is already sounding as good as it should.
She’s working (“tweaking melody lines”) with jazzman Ryan Driver - a surprising choice as she admits. “Though we share many of the same jazz soul references, we are coming from two very different musical places.” Driver himself compared their first session together to “kinda like going on a blind date where you cant leave.”
Luckily, Little Annie continues, “it was a great date. He has a way of taking a phrase or melody line that I had crafted alone here in New York, and looking at it from different sides of the prism. It was pretty magical as process although what it will be in the end - well, that’s like trying to predict what a kid will look like before its born. It might have such and such eyes or mouth whatever; or it might jump a thousand years back in the gene pool and look like neither you.
“We've got what I believe to be solid songs - now the fun starts. What Ryan and I do share is a love of a great torch song, yet a total disregard for genre.” Of course there’s the “jazzy, smoke blue vibe” that Annie has specialized in for her last few projects - for the last decade, she has written exclusively piano and vocal pieces, an she hasn’t changed that. But she also knows that a performance is only as strong as the song. “If you’ve got strong bone structure, you can play with a symphony or just do piano and vocals. But if you only have the symphony....”
Right now, the symphony is being driven through Driver’s collection of old synthesizers and noise generators. “So, short answer as to what it will be like? Don’t know!”
It’s three decades plus since Little Annie... or Annie Anxiety, as she was then dubbed... first broke into the public eardrum, first on the stages of post-punk New York, and then among the denizens of Dial House, the anarchist commune on the outskirts of London from whence emerged the mighty CRASS. The band’s Steve Ignorant met Annie in New York; a one off single with CRASS’s own label followed, but seething, confrontational savagery though Barbed Wire Halo was, it could not disguise either the beauty, or the mystery of the vocal behind it.
“Motown, James Brown, A Cappella groups...” Annie reels off the formative influences like the greatest jukebox on earth. “The Ink Spots, Sam Cooke, the stuff they’d play on the Golden Oldies Stations, Top 40 car radio, Sinatra blaring out of peoples windows... Soul Train! My sister and I would save up for the compilations.”
And then the personal impressions and private obsessions that sprang up around her own home background. “The Gospel records my agnostic father bought me... my mother’s enchanted eyes, turning even the mundane into the magical with her painting. All the various shrines, churches, synagogs, mosques, buddhas and everything Holy in-between that we were dragged to.
“Beethoven, Dvorak and Mahler at insane volume because my father was deafened from the printing press; the melodies I heard in between the sounds of the presses when I went to work with him. The rhythms of subway trains. The Carpenters, Jackson 5, Gary US Bonds, the Stylistics. Or, if we go to a pal’s house, her older sister playing The Doors and telling us antics that we were to young to understand.
“Sly and the Family Stone.
“My parents’ Helen Morgan and Bessie Smith records. West Side Story. Reading about Isadora Duncan. The old black and white movies with strong female leads - Dorothy Dandridge, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, that were on television every afternoon. Then sneaking in to see the Kinks, the Dolls, Lou Reed. Jaques Stern who taught me about Shakespeare and Easter Island, and a million other things with that brilliant mind. The street where I learned all things, from blissful to vicious...”
... and was able to repurpose all of them, through her music, of course, but also her art, her paintings, her writing... coming soon, an autobiography, You Can’t Sing the Blues While Drinking Milk. Her somewhat deliberately delayed autobiography. It was originally scheduled for publication back in 2001, but sundry circumstances held it back, and when Annie did consider updating a text that ends in 2000, she ultimately chose not to. “Otherwise it would have been longer than The Bible, and also I think one needs a bit of distance from events to understand them. It is by no means a tell- all - I have to live in my life and my criteria was that it should cause no pain to others, or further pain to myself. So it’s a tell-some book.” And if she ever gets the urge to write a second volume, “I’ve lived a hundred lives since then- which I guess is what its all about.”
Don’t hold your breath waiting, though. “I am so sick of the word ‘I’!!!!”
Those hundred lives fascinate the fan club, of course, because they incorporate the years during which Annie effectively faded out of the musical spotlight... before she faded back in again.
The two week vacation she intended spending in London when she came over with CRASS turned, to her surprise, into a decade spent working ... among others... with producer Adrian Sherwood, throughout those years when his On-U label was less a corporate entity and more a manic musical philosophy, one devoted to taking rock’s most sacred structures and... rearranging them.
His remixes for Depeche Mode as they stepped away from their earliest incarnation in pop played an integral role in that band’s development; his creation of the New Age Steppers, to be fronted on occasion by the magically mercurial Ari Up, both co-opted and confirmed the essence of dub reggae’s eighties underground; and the “Jailhouse Rock” he created with another New Yorker, Judy Nylon, is as close to seduction as you can come with your headphones on.
But Annie’s work with Sherwood tops even those pinnacles: Soul Possession in 1984; Jackamo in 1987; Short and Sweet in 1993, sundry singles in between times... Annie is adamant. “That was the best training on the planet - absolutely - and it was a blast.
“At the time, it was just my life and I loved it. It’s only in retrospect that one’s able to look back and see what blessing it all was. Where else could you hang out on couch in a studio and have Mark Stewart and Ashanti Roy, Bonjo and African Head Charge laying tracks in a twenty-four hour period? Adrian Sherwood and [his partner] Kishi Yamato were/are a mixture of family and heroes. By the second day with them, we were truly family.
“I left school at fourteen. CRASS opened me up to the world of books and thought, but Ade and Kishi opened me up to the world of doing. I haphazardly wandered into the best university on God’s Earth, and I can honestly say that everyone in the ON-U posse will be forever family. Every last one, from Bim Sherman to Judy Nylon. I could have lived in the studio - and, in fact, I virtually did.”
But Short and Sweet, and its Stateside counterpart of remixes an etceteras, Short, Sweet and Dread presaged a stepping back that took Annie through much of the next decade. Or so it seemed.
“I never stopped. I did tire of the 'biz,' but I never stopped working. I just made little attempt to be heard, for a while, and there are times when you feel you don’t have a helluva a lot to say, be it with sound or words. Ive always believe that if you do stuff just for the sake of it, that feels even slightly disingenuous, then you slight the audience and you slight yourself. And those relationships are too precious to screw around with.”
So she didn’t.
But there was a deeper personal aspect to her seclusion, too. “I had started losing friends to AIDS, and who was signing with what label suddenly became pretty irrelevant. I never had much of a stomach for schmoozing... I still don't... and I had been working since the age of sixteen.
“Maybe it was delayed adolescence, but I needed to have some fun as well. Fun without agenda. I did gigs for the pure joy of it, so it didn't matter where. And my muse took me down some pretty varied roads, and some gutters as well.
“I started doing theater, which was a whole new world, and I ended up in Mexico, living in a hut, where I started to teach myself to paint. I spent a year of very, very, intensive painting - a pot of expresso, a pack of Marlboro, and I painted at least twelve hours a day, every day.
I was asked to work at a Syringe Exchange after having ARAnGe and perform a benefit show. I wrote the bio, and a few volumes of poetry too.
But I never had stopped working on music. I never plan - I arrange the thing in front of me but, as we know, plans are in Gods hand’s. I did know that it was important to widen my vision, even if sometimes that took the form of looking thru pin pupils or bloodshot eyes... and coming back to it was equally as un-planned.”
The early 2000s brought a new single, “Diamonds Made of Glass.” With the band Legally Jammin’, she unleashed 2003’s Bleach, lurching electronics, shuddering rhythms, dangerous dub all underpinning a voice that sounded... a little more lived-in? Darker, deeper, bluesier? Strip back the electronics and her next shift was already drifting into view - 2006’s Songs from the Coal Mine Canary, the unwritten soundtrack to the undocumented evening that Louise Brooks and Anita Berber spent dancing for cameras that were never turned on. When Good Things Happen to Bad Pianos and Genderful, Annie’s brilliantly-titled and breathtakingly realized union with Paul Wallfisch; State of Grace, paired up with Baby Dee... it’s difficult enough for fans to play favorites with Annie’s output over the past three decades; is it any easier for her?
“That’d be like picking a favorite child! I don't listen to my own work, but I guess I’m finally at a stage where I can listen to them all without any ‘should have done this, should have done that.‘ They were all made with people I love... even if I didn't love them going in, well I loved them by the time we were done. And I’m proud of them all.”
Nevertheless, if someone has never heard her music before, and she absolutely had to pick one...???
“If I absolutely had to pick one, I guess it would be ‘Lying In Your Arms,’ which Kishi Yamato and I wrote and recorded for Jackamo. It was rhythm, serious rhythm, but it shades toward the melody of torch as well. I was learning how to say the most with the least - it was the bridge between then and what would ultimately become now.”
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