“Faking the Fall”
An Interview with Anna Burch
words by maria sledmere
Anna Burch cut her musical teeth by singing for other people, as a member of folk-rockers Frontier Ruckus and more recently, Detroit-based indie dream-punks Failed Flowers. As a result, her first solo record, Quit the Curse – set for release via Polyvinyl and Heavenly Recordings on 2nd February – feels both tightly composed and breezily self-assured.
It might still be winter, but listening to Quit the Curse gives you that loop-the-loop feeling of summer in full swing. Burch immerses us in familiar themes that stir with the roses: negotiating relationships, loneliness, freedom and how it feels to nourish new crushes. With lilting, syllabic lyrics like, “From what I can see reciprocity is boring / But I’m tired of unrequited love stories”, Burch delivers a refreshingly honest take on contemporary romance. Its sincerity bristles at the edges with energy and wit. You can picture her solitarily scribbling passages in sun-drenched cafés amid the hubbub of downtown gossip as much you can jamming out in sweaty Detroit basements.
With butter-wouldn’t-melt vocals, harmonies indebted to sixties girl-groups, intricate bass parts and lush surf guitars, you’d be forgiven if she flirted with languid, Lana Del Rey daydreams or went the opposite way of stylising such fantasies with cynical irony. But in all the beautiful jangle, Burch avoids being one thing or the other. She manages the contradictions of modern life—falling for someone or faking that fall—with deliciously unsparing effect: “I forgot to fake / The way that I was feeling”. Her smooth and sometimes deadpan vocals add irresistibly frank contours to the usual pop gloss of love songs. She sails coolly through tales of everyday drama, prising apart the sense of a self in transition, while striving for emotional clarity. There are traces of the sugary pop cadence of bands like Alvvays and Best Coast, mixed with a lovably scruffy Tiger Trap liveliness—Burch mixes spontaneity and polish with total aplomb.
Quit the Curse feels self-complete but emotionally open: confident in its sound and ripe for an exciting live show without bringing closure to its subject. Its summertime palette of disappointment and joy, nonchalance and care, getting high and sinking low, romance and friendships, paint a life in transition, pink and cerulean. Like all great pop records, Burch’s debut wears heavy-hearted words with sparkly poise and a sense of potential.
It’s a delight to find that Burch brings a similar eloquence and enthusiasm to her interview. Over email, GoldFlakePaint caught up with the Detroit-based singer to find out more about the origins of her solo project, as well as musical influences, creative catharsis, collaboration and tarot readings.
Check out her brand new single right here, and find the interview below…
“Quit the Curse” raises a lot of interesting questions! It recalls a sort of hyperbolic public health slogan on smoking, but also something you might casually scrawl in your diary, a message to the self. Toxic relationships seem the most obvious target – could you talk a little about what you mean by ‘the curse’ and maybe the role of music as self-help in a sense?
Quit the Curse does sound a bit like a PSA slogan! Or maybe a self help book title. It’s the name of a track on the record, but I thought it made a good album title because it seemed to encapsulate the themes of these songs in a direct yet vague enough to sound mysterious kind of way.
I was never much into journaling, but I think working on song structure was an incredibly helpful way to organise my thoughts without getting overwhelmed, because it all had to fit together sonically. I tried to examine a lot of my own behavioural patterns, expectations and insecurities in relation to what was happening “to me.” I came to songwriting pretty late for someone who had been involved with music extensively for many years.
Retroactively the title means more to me than it did at the time I named the song. I like to think Quit the Curse relates to the act of writing the record, which required me to confront a lot of self imposed obstacles that had stopped me from having creative agency. So, yep, it’s a self-help record.
One thing I really love about this record is the oscillation between sugar-sweet sincerity and deadpan delivery. Is this an expressive balance that comes naturally to you or is it inspired by other artists—I’m thinking in particular 1960s girl group icons, but equally you could point to Mac DeMarco or Angel Olsen in this vein?
I can’t be sure, but I think one of the results of not writing until I was a bit older could be the balance you’re talking about. Or maybe it’s a self-consciousness of being overly sentimental and the fear of not being taken seriously for it? Teen culture played a lot into the girl groups from the 60s—like they’re constantly fighting with their moms—and I was in my late 20s when I started writing, so I had to find a tone that reflected my experience.
The deadpan delivery of a lot of the vocals was I think partly a function of me wanting to shed any affect I had picked up from singing in a folk band for years, and figure out what my solo singing voice should even sound like. I had spent almost a decade focusing on blending my voice to harmonise with one person’s very specific voice and words, and it wasn’t so intuitive shifting to singing lead for my own songs.
I am definitely inspired by Angel Olsen. I was blown away when I saw her play solo a few times in Chicago when I lived there. I wasn’t involved with music at all during that time, and I’ll say it had an effect on me. But I really didn’t want to try to emulate her singing style. I don’t think I’ll ever be described as having “pipes” and I do also love very steady, clear voices without a lot of vibrato, like Trish Keenan from Broadcast. I trust a voice like that—it’s approachable but special.
Your voice throughout the album is sharp and self-aware, but there’s also an earnest yearning for romantic dreams: “I know there won’t always be fireworks / But we saw them that night for a while” (‘Belle Isle’). Even though much of this record feels like a breakup album, there’s a definite redemptive thread running throughout. What do you think about the role of pop in relation to romantic love? How important is it that we allow space for the fuzzy and sweet in a cynical world?
Belle Isle to me is a bit of an outlier on the record. It was the first song I wrote that made it to the record and I’d consider it the only ballad. It’s somewhat embarrassing to me to listen to now, even though I really do like the song. I’ve had a few people tell me it made them cry, so maybe the embarrassment I get comes from the vulnerability that they’re connecting with. It’s also the only song on the record that has noticeable elements of folk/country, which I think further lends it that quality of earnestness you mentioned. I feel like I consciously steered away from that quality in the other songs.
Maybe I felt a little hardened afterward. Even though this might be the sweetest song on the record, it’s probably the saddest, too. There’s an underlying cynicism and sense of loss, despite expressly longing for a redemptive kind of love. I think for most of the other songs I tried to take on a somewhat analytical perspective rather than leaning into the sentimental. I’d rather be honest than earnest if that makes sense.
But for the most part, yes I think romantic love, and longing are the major preoccupations of the record, and pop music generally. It’s something most people can connect deeply over, and if a pop song can accomplish that then yes I’d say it’s absolutely important.
There’s a strength, maybe, to writing about the struggle for affection and communication that ultimately results in greater self-knowledge. What did you learn about yourself, I guess personally and musically, when writing this record?
Truly, a lot. I learned to trust my ideas. I had wanted to write my own songs for as long as I can remember, but I just couldn’t make it happen. I think it clicked at a time when I really needed something to focus on and feel good about. It might sound hyperbolic but I feel fundamentally different after making this record. I learned how to channel feeling bad into something creative and productive, rather than fuelling self destructive behaviour. Musically, I think I developed a pretty cohesive sound with these 9 songs, which I’m proud of. There was a lot of collaboration that went into arranging the record, too, and I think that helped me articulate a lot of my implicit tastes and ideas that wouldn’t have surfaced on my own.
Often you effortlessly set pretty heavy-hearted lyrics (“strange, the ones you love / can bury your body underground”) over super light surf guitars and infectious melodies. Is that a conscious, maybe ironic contrast or is it a reflection of a more whimsical, carefree attitude to life that the record builds as a sort of catharsis?
The songs all sounded way more melancholic when I first wrote them in their stripped down forms with just vocals and acoustic guitar and set a few bpm slower. But I knew that I wanted to make a pop record that would be catchy and yeah, cathartic. Tea-Soaked Letter is definitely a little heavy, but also sarcastic lyrically, and there is a bit of play within the song structure which I think reinforces that tension. I worked really closely on filling out the band arrangements with my friend Paul Cherry, who wrote and played most of the lead guitar and bass parts. He’s got a very playful approach to music, and was always pushing to make things a little more intricate. He was also constantly asking me to articulate the vibe of the songs. I want to say that the arrangements help lift the songs out of sad sack singer/songwriter territory, but I wasn’t going for overt irony ever.
This is your debut solo album. What’s it like having significantly more creative control, and how did the idea for a solo record come about? Were these songs you’ve been working on for a while or stuff you came up with specifically for this project?
Making this record was a whole new experience for me, and I can’t even qualify how thrilling it was at times. It’s sort of a funny timeline getting to that point. I had taken a few years off doing anything musically, when I rejoined Frontier Ruckus. At that point, I was just happy to have music back in my life. The solo project really came about because of my friendship with Paul. He and I lived in the same neighbourhood in Chicago, and we became close friends out of the blue really. He was a few years younger than me, was going to school for music, and I really liked being around him. One day we were kind of bored during a winter storm and he asked if I had any songs we could work on. I played him the only song I had written from a few years prior, and we worked on it and recorded a demo that we were both excited about.
Shortly after that, I moved to Detroit. I told Paul I wanted to come back and visit and he told me I should write more songs so we could record an EP or something. So I started writing, and driving back and forth to Chicago to record in between being on tour with Frontier Ruckus. We started taking it more seriously, I kept writing more songs, and we decided to treat what we had done as demos and start over on a full length. So I was very much writing the songs for this record we were making, but without really knowing where it would go at first.
I believe it was fellow Polyvinyl artist, Fred Thomas, who tipped your music. There’s something about Thomas’ work that has this almost documentary vividness, observing all these scenes and firing in personal reflections. I get a similar sense from your record: its ability to conjure these languid, restless summers, fidgeting in bars and worrying about boys. The world can seem pretty crazy and fast-paced, but you channel your energies into all these quotidian thoughts and feelings—it’s like this effervescent reinvention of the domestic! How important is writing about the everyday for you—I sense there’s a whole philosophy of like playful self-endurance here?
I’m honoured at the comparison to Fred, he’s a master lyricist and if his work has rubbed off on me at all then I’m grateful for it! When I was in the beginning stages of writing this record, right after I had moved to Detroit, he had just finished his album All Are Saved and sent me a private stream after I probably too boldly asked to hear it. That record became very important to me. I listened to Bed Bugs and Bad Blood on repeat for months. He’s got an amazing ability to pull all of these hyper specific memories together that centre around a very humanistic theme, which isn’t always immediately apparent. They’re the kind of lyrics that continue to develop meaning well past the first listens.
I think the lyrics on Quit the Curse reflect the sense of urgency I felt to turn everything I was feeling and experiencing into song form for the first time in my life. It’s all pretty direct and of the moment. There’s not a lot of memory, nostalgia, or tangents in the writing, and very little figurative language. But I think you’re right the there’s something playful about the lyrics and I’m happy that comes through.
And yes, back to Fred, he did introduced me to Polyvinyl, like as the final mixes were coming in, and primed them to listen to my album in that very thoughtful way he communicates. He helped me out a lot over the course of making the album, and was always generous with his time and advice. He was very honest with me when I came to him feeling discouraged at certain points, when he could have just been like, “cool, sounds good.”
How is it being signed to a label like Polyvinyl, and working with Collin Dupuis on the album?
I feel very lucky to be working with Polyvinyl. I certainly wasn’t expecting to even be considered by such a reputable label, and they were the first and only label I sent the record to. They’re very communicative, and enthusiastic. I feel like I’m in good hands and I definitely owe Fred for that introduction.
Collin is insanely good at his job. He’s super smart, and loves the technical side of things, but is also very creative. My drummer, Matt, introduced me to Collin with the idea that he would mix the album. We talked for a while about some of its weaknesses and decided that he would work with me for a couple of days in his Detroit studio (he’s based in Nashville) and re-track 3 of the songs with the band I had started playing live with. He seriously helped elevate the project, and his mixing choices made it more dynamic. The jarring fuzzed out lead guitar on Asking 4 a Friend was a choice of his that caught me majorly off guard when I heard the first mix of it. I almost didn’t like it, but after a couple of listens I was super into it.
This record had some pretty humble beginnings, so it’s kind of crazy where it’s wound up.
Could you tell me a bit more about the Detroit scene generally? Do you spend a lot of time going to local gigs; are you still based there?
I’m still in Detroit, yeah. When I first moved here in 2014 I was going out all of the time and I also worked at like four different bar/restaurants within the first year. I guess you might say I got kind of burned out on being social. I also toured a lot those first couple of years, so I was in and out of the city a lot too. I’m a total hermit these days. My favourite club to play and see shows at had to close down after it was damaged during a 40 million dollar condominium development construction “accident” and I miss it a lot. They’re rebuilding though, so that’s something to look forward to! The music scene here is kind of strange because it’s legendary, but it’s also pretty small. I do have some super talented friends here, and every now and then I’m really struck by how special it is. It’s not the most functioning city, and it’s hard to describe without feeling like I’m under a microscope, but it’s been a good home base for the last few years, and I plan to stay for the foreseeable future.
The suburbs seem to haunt a lot of the songs on Quit the Curse. What is it about this particular space, do you think, that drives so much inspiration (Arcade Fire, Pet Shop Boys, The Virgin Suicides—to name but a few)?
I grew up on the opposite side of Michigan from Detroit in a pretty small town. But most of my friends who live in Detroit grew up in its suburbs, which are incredibly vast and they all seem to have very distinct personalities, though the nuances are lost on me mostly. My former band has 6 albums worth of material about these particular suburbs, and I could never really connect with it since I was the only one who didn’t grow up there. I think the suburbs show up in my record as a foil, at least in 2 Cool 2 Care, because I didn’t have that same access or relationship to them. In the 2 Cool 2 Care video I wanted the suburban backdrop to encapsulate the feeling of complacency, avoidance and regression.
Is that a Tarot pack I see in the video for ‘Tea-Soaked Letter’? Have you ever done/had a reading before—if so how did it go?
Yes! It’s my deck actually. Shooting the stop motion tarot scene was my favourite part during the making of that video. But yeah I’ve been doing readings for myself somewhat regularly just for the past year. Sometimes I’ll do a reading for a close friend. I’m still not that familiar with what all of the cards represent, so the internet has been a crutch. I want to get better at reading, it’s a good way to organise your narrative. I like that there’s a structure to it, the tropes are universal, and you make meaning through all of the corresponding elements.
‘Quit The Curse’ is released on Friday – via Polyvinyl & Heavenly Recordings
UK Live Dates:
Sunday 6th May – MANCHESTER – Sounds From The Other City (Heavenly Stage)
Monday 7th May – BIRMINGHAM – Hare & Hounds
Tuesday 8th May – GLASGOW – The Hug & Pint
Wednesday 9th May – LONDON – Old Blue Last
Sunday 20th May – LEEDS – Gold Sounds Festival
Monday 21st May – BRISTOL – Crofters Rights
Saturday 21st July – NORTH YORKSHIRE – Deer Shed Festival
30 August – 2nd September – SALISBURY – End of the Road Festival
Anna also tours the U.S throughout February and March – full details can be found here