Anna Burch on “If You’re Dreaming” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Anna Burch on “If You’re Dreaming”

Dreaming, She Is

Jul 07, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Anna Burch’s musical path has been long and winding. After growing up singing in the church choir and taking piano lessons as a youth, she joined folk-rock band Frontier Ruckus at 18 years old, participated in the touring life, took a break for grad school, moved to Detroit, and subsequently co-fronted Failed Flowers with fellow Michigander Fred Thomas. However, for all her experience, she had yet to really write songs of her own. Once one song turned into more, which ultimately became her solo debut, 2018’s Quit the Curse, Burch realized that the sky was the proverbial limit for her own personal songcraft.

Now, two years later, and amidst a global pandemic, mind you, Burch has released Quit the Curse’s follow up. If You’re Dreaming smooths some of the indie-pop edges present on her debut in favor of a more luxurious, almost twee sound that is the mark of an artist who is coming into her own and finding out who exactly she wants to be, albeit with years of experience behind her.

Burch spoke with Under the Radar during the height of pandemic stress, about becoming a solo artist, creating If You’re Dreaming, and what might be next.

Frank Valish (Under the Radar): How is everybody coping with this weird pandemic? How are you doing? Is everybody safe and well?

Anna Burch: Most of my friends are safe and well. I think some family members may be not so well. Detroit has been hit pretty hard. I’ve been taking the quarantine pretty seriously, and I think most of my friends have as well.

Have you been able to be creative during this time or is it hard?

I really have not yet. I’ve kind of only recently started feeling like I’ve had the energy to even be productive. I set up my music room a little better so it would be easier for me to come in and sit down and start working. But I’ve been recording a couple sets. One’s for Rough Trade. I recorded one for a digital Bernie [Sanders] rally. So I’ve kind of been playing music and recording. Hopefully that will translate into creating some time soon.

I understand that your mom is a pianist and that you took piano lessons as a kid, and that she was also the church choir director. Did you take piano lessons from her and did you sing in the choir?

I did sing in the choir. I did not take lessons from her. We didn’t get along well enough for that to be a reality. She used to kind of oversee my practice sometimes, and I would get so mad at her. So she kinda knew better, that it would probably be better for me to have to have some semblance of social nicety with a stranger teaching me rather than lashing out at her.

Since you were certainly exposed to a lot of music when you were younger, do you remember the first music you liked on your own?

Yeah, I remember being really obsessed with this Diana Ross CD that my mom had, and I remember making up dances along to it. And I remember even wanting to make a music video for “Upside Down.” I remember being very young and envisioning doing this MTV-era video for that song. And then I think the first CD I bought on my own—well not on my own, it was my mom’s money but I remember picking it out—was Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. That one was really big for me when I was in like fourth grade. Probably a little adult for an 8-year-old, but whatever. Also Green Day’s Dookie was really big for me. I used to put on cartoons and put them on mute and put that album on in the background. Also, I had a family friend who was a cooler older girl, our mom’s were good friends. She was in high school and I was in elementary school and she showed my brother The Smashing Pumpkins, and I remember really loving Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

Did that stuff drive your mother crazy?

She was okay with it honestly. As long as she got to play her classical music station in the car, she was fine.

You said that you came to songwriting kind of late, given your being in music for a while, that you started in your late 20s. Was Quit the Curse the first songs you really wrote in earnest?

Yeah, absolutely. I had written maybe one song when I was in my mid-20s and I think I played it at a couple of open mics, but I kind of dropped it and I went to grad school and I wasn’t really doing anything with music. Then I became good friends with Paul Cherry, who helped produce my first record. We were really bored one day and he asked if I had any songs. I had that one song, so we just turned it into a little demo, and it was just so fun and it was really rewarding and encouraging, and Paul was really also encouraging and was like, “Write more and we can make a record.” So that was where I started writing my first songs, and all of those songs, except maybe one, wound up on Quit the Curse.

Did you feel comfortable with it at the start, given all the experience you had in music up to that point?

Yeah, I was just so motivated that I think my usually very critical inner voice was suspended for long enough to just be able to get those songs out, and I think having encouraging friends really helped. Also I had recently moved to Detroit, and it just seemed like a really friendly place to, I guess, debut—that sounds really formal—to just start something. People were starting new bands and people were working in multiple bands, and those were the people I was friends with, so it was just a very encouraging atmosphere.

When you talked to Under the Radar a couple years ago about that album, you mentioned that you recognized flaws, especially in the recording of Quit the Curse, and that you made mental notes about what you wanted to do differently with the new record. So going in to the recording of this new album, what did you do differently and how did you rectify some of those “flaws” you saw in the debut?

I was probably a little harsh to say that. I’m very, very proud of that record, and I think because the material conditions were what they were, I didn’t have a label, I was self-financing, and I was probably taking too much advantage of my friends’ time. We had to track it piecemeal, in apartments, on whatever gear was available. This time around, I knew that I wanted to track in a more live capacity, so instead of building up the tracks and soloing everything, I really wanted it to have more of an organic feel. I really wanted it to read as a performance. Luckily that was able to come to be. I think another thing I probably changed in my approach was my own attitude. With the first record, because it was my first, I think I was just really controlling in a lot of ways, and maybe not as open to ideas as I could or should have been. Luckily working with Paul he’s pretty stubborn, so he got his way a lot of times and a lot of times he was right. But I think I just wanted to have a more open attitude. And also working with Sam [Evian, producer], he made it really easy to be open and to just enjoy it. Just enjoy the process.

I understand that the writing process was slower this time around.

It was slower only because I think it was broken up. I wrote some of the songs, especially the ones that are set earlier in the record, before I put out Quit the Curse, before I started touring. When I left to tour Quit the Curse, I had almost half of the record done, if not more. Then I toured a lot, so I was not able to really put in the time or have the private time to really work. I would here and there write a chord progression or a little riff or something and record it on my voice memos, maybe a melody, so some of it was collected in pieces while I was touring, and then when I got off tour, I moved into the apartment that I’m in now, so I was able to really rest first of all, and then once I started feeling comfortable and not in the fight or flight mode that I’d been in for years, that really helped the creative process. So the last few songs on the record, those were all written right before the recording session, during the winter leading up to recording. I think I’m most proud of those last few songs. I think they sound really cohesive and they sound really peaceful to me.

So it’s kind of chronological then.

Yeah, it made sense sonically to keep them together. I was having a hard time conceiving of how to mix them together, because I did feel the difference, and also I think thematically it made more sense. I think there was a stronger emotional arc having the angstier songs up front and then resolving it toward the latter half of the record.

Do you feel your lyrical inspirations changed once you got settled and started writing again, those last few song to close the record?

Absolutely. It took me a while to shed this sort of antagonistic approach, or just way of viewing the world. Maybe it’s getting older, but I think also getting into a serious relationship and letting that play out in a way that I really hadn’t before, and then getting into a more domestic arrangement I think really contributed to feeling more stable, feeling more safe.

Can you tell me a bit about the time restrictions you imposed on the recording process for this album? What was your goal in doing that?

Basically, we had two weeks. Because it was a destination recording session, it’s not like it could draw out indefinitely. That was very different from making the first record, where there were not deadlines and I could come and go at will, and it wound up taking years. This time, it was like, ‘Alright we have two weeks booked out. The first week I’m going to bring my Detroit drummer.’ So he came with me and we stayed and worked in the same place, in Sam’s home studio, and the three of us arranged and recorded when we felt comfortable and got the bones of all the tracks done that first week. And then the second week was spent doing overdubs, doing vocals. What I left there with was a bit more of a minimalist version of what wound up being the final record. We decided maybe it was a little too sparse in some capacities, so Sam did some tracking on his own and did some really great stuff, and I was glad that we had that time alone to really shine. He put the saxophone on “Not So Bad,” he put the clarinet on that instrumental “Keep It Warm,” and a bunch of little keys or synths that are very tastefully, quietly filling in the sound. And then after that it felt finished.

I don’t know if this really a question that you can answer, but do you feel like people have a difficult time describing what you do, because I’ve read a lot of different descriptors, some things that I hear and some things that I don’t hear when I listen myself?

I would say that’s accurate. I think with the first record, there was maybe more of an attempt to lean into a certain sound. I think I was trying to go for more of a slacker rock vibe. Somewhat grungy. But that just didn’t really fit the songs that I was writing this time around. I think a lot of the edge from the first record just isn’t there. Maybe it’s peppered in certain songs, but I think for the most part that just didn’t feel like the right aesthetic to serve the songs. I personally don’t really know how to describe this sound. I’ve just been saying it’s more mellow, not like sub-genre categories or anything. It is kind of funny. For some reason, I keep getting Juliana Hatfield.


Yeah, that name has come up in reference to my music so many times. And I have never listened to Juliana Hatfield. I’m sure she’s great. I think I’ve maybe put on one song to try to understand the reference point, but I think because I felt so baffled that it kept coming up so much, now I can’t get into it. But I thought this time around, nobody is going to bring up Juliana Hatfield. There’s going to be different reference points. And the first review I read said Juliana Hatfield, and I was like, “What the fuck?” [Laughs] So that’s been following me around for some reason. But I was hoping for new reference points this time around.

Is that bittersweet that, with COVID-19, you can’t go out and support the record right now?

It is. But at the same time, I’m kind of okay with it. I love playing music for people, so I’m pretty bummed that the songs won’t be able to be translated live for who knows how long. But at the same time, I think the record will have its own life separate from the perpetual grind of the album cycle. So in some ways I think it’s kinda nice. And everyone can listen to it at their leisure, and hopefully people are hungry for something, anything, a diversion I guess, and maybe a distraction for a little bit. Maybe the silver lining is that our attention spans will flourish, but I don’t know. We’re pretty far gone at this point, so it’s hard to say.

Also read our 2018 interview with Anna Burch.

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