“Freedom’s on my mind again, so I feel like/ wandering through this town again, a passerby,” singer-songwriter Anna St. Louis sing-speaks on the opening of “Freedom,” over a minimal, persistent beat. “Past a little garden all blooming white, past all the houses, their roofs tight.”
ANNA ST.LOUIS with WAXAHATCHEE, NIGHT SHOP. 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12. Sold out. www.warhol.org
Like many of the other songs on her upcoming debut album, If Only There Was a River – out October 12 on Mare Records — it’s an argument for open-ended seeking and for being discomfited by constraints and expectations.
After last year’s sparsely-produced First Songs, a critically-acclaimed eight-song cassette which showcased her first efforts at solo songwriting on her own, If Only There Was a River finds St. Louis luxuriating in the possibilities that studio production and collaboration can deliver. The album’s co-producers, Kevin Morby (the founder of Mare Records and an acclaimed songwriter on the new-psych scene) and garage-rock slacker Kyle Thomas (a.k.a. King Tuff), inject a strain of garage-tinged psychedelia to St. Louis’ Country-Americana sound. St. Louis doesn’t seem to regard the hyped release as an arrival so much as a stop along the way. Music, as a vehicle for her art, was a concept she had to settle into.
She played in bands in high school, but mostly for fun. When she went to Philadelphia to study art, that fell to the wayside. It was not until she returned to her hometown of Kansas City and started playing in bands again that she realized how much she missed doing it.
“It was kind of a slow realization, honestly,” she recalls. As a form of expression, it seemed that she was better suited to make music. “Trying to create visual art took all this effort and then writing music was so natural and easy,” she says. “I didn’t know I had a talent for music. Playing in bands was just something that was really fun and easy and social. All my friends were also involved in the music scene and I just never took it seriously.
“Looking back, I was like, oh, wow I always had that connection with music, I just thought it was, like, some fun hobby I did on the side.”
Moving to Los Angeles brought the feelings of possibility in music into sharper focus for St. Louis. Free from the distraction of the social networks she enjoyed in Philadelphia and Kansas City, for better or worse, she became better attuned to her creative instincts.
“I was like ‘Huh, this is interesting,’ but again I just didn’t think of myself as a musician, I just kind of thought it was something I really enjoyed. Then, when I moved to Los Angeles, I didn’t have any friends to play with, so then I was like, well maybe I’ll just try to play guitar and that’s when I started to take it more seriously,” she says.
St. Louis is confident in her artistic sensibility without full knowledge of what it will deliver. That she doesn’t know what comes next is precisely the point. When she creates a song, the final result is as much a surprise to her as anyone. She is training her ear to the sound of her muse. Though somewhat menacing in its original context, a lyric from another River track, “The Bells,” could just as easily speak to her instinctive approach to creation. “In my mind I see a big sky, in my mind I see a cloud, I hear bells, they’re a-ringin’, somewhere far, not too loud,” she sings over plucked guitar and plodding drums.
“I’m just kind of following my curiosities and my intuition and just kind of letting the whole process lead me. So, in that way, it’s very much a work in progress,” she says. “It definitely takes some sitting in the unknown, which can be uncomfortable, but, yeah, I definitely think that it’s a good place to be.”
In putting If Only There Was a River together, she found herself sharing her spot in the unknown with Kevin Morby and Kyle Thomas, recording at Thomas’ home studio in Los Angeles. While no stranger to collaboration, the role of producer was something St. Louis figured out in the midst of the process. “Honestly, I don’t think I had much of an understanding about it prior to. It’s not a role that was ever really in my life before,” she says with a laugh.
“It didn’t feel, for me at least, like I needed someone to be like, ‘you need to freakin’ make some different kinds of sounds here,’ and really push me in a way that felt uncomfortable. For me, at least, it’s always nice to have support and I think you naturally kind of grow when you’re doing something new, anyway.”
There are no wrong answers. Whatever will be reveals itself in the doing. For St. Louis, if it moves someone, it’s a success.
“I don’t really set out with a big intention, I really like the hunt,” she says. “I like the whole process of creating and then seeing what comes out of it.”