Photo | White Light exposure
Band: Anna Larson
Date: Saturday, February 29 at 8 p.m.
Venue: The Peoples Room of Mobile, 78 St. Francis St., thepeoplesroommobile.com
Tickets: $20 (Call for reservations: 251-367-4599)
The aural purity of The Peoples Room of Mobile will be the perfect environment to experience Austin modern folk artist Anna Larson. Acoustic guitar dominates the folk world, but not in Larson’s corner. With extensive experience in classical piano and theater, Larson has found success in the Austin scene and beyond with a folk style built on a foundation of keys.
Songs from her debut solo effort, “Shifting Sands,” earned her the top place at the 2019 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival as well as a spot on NPR Music’s “All Songs Considered.” Before her return to Mobile, Lagniappe’s Steve Centanni had the opportunity to get acquainted with this folk up-and-comer.
Steve Centanni: It goes without saying that the Austin music scene is pretty tough for up-and-comers. How would you describe your experience?
Anna Larson: You know, I think there are so many great musicians here. That’s something that everybody realizes. There’s a lot of community between songwriters. I have a lot of good friends, and there’s a lot of camaraderie. There’s a lot of us here working hard. There’s only so many venues on any given night. That can be tough having things oversaturated in the town that we live in. It can be a good thing and a bad thing. That’s why I really enjoy playing outside of Austin. I meet a lot of folks who maybe don’t have as much music in every square inch of their towns as Austin does. It’s good to get out of town and get a different perspective.
Centanni: How did you make the transition from classical piano to folk?
Larson: [Laughs] I think people are curious about that. I always say that I bring a piano to a guitar party, when I play Folk Alliance and places like that. I’m not really sure how I got into classical piano. I grew up listening to country music. My dad is a huge music lover. We were always listening to classic country and bluegrass. I also grew up in a charismatic church in a really strong church family. So, there was a lot of gospel.
For whatever reason, piano is the instrument that called to me from a really young age. When you’re taking formal piano lessons, that’s the direction that is really common for piano students to go. Piano was the thing that allowed me to go to college. In music school, classical is the main focus. I really wanted to stay in college and get a college degree. I was the first person in my family to get to do that. Piano allowed me to do that. I put a lot of energy into it for a long time, but there was always something about it that wasn’t the best fit for me.
I’ve also always been a writer, but I never really brought the two things together. I was always playing somebody else’s music but writing stories and plays. I was involved in theater for a long time as a playwright. I started writing a little bit of instrumental music for live theater. I think that was the moment that it clicked. I could take all my skills as a pianist and write my own music and bring my own voice to it. From there, it exploded into singing a lot more and becoming more of a songwriter. I haven’t looked back and tried to say “yes” to things as much as possible. I can still play Beethoven if I have to.
Centanni: Writing is one thing, and performing is another. How would you describe those first live shows featuring your original music?
Larson: When I was playing my own music in a theater context, that was a pretty safe place for me. Music in a theater context is not the focus. It’s the thing that supports the story and what’s going on. Whether I’m playing my own songs and singing or playing keys in another band or giving a traditional concert, I’ve always felt at home at the piano on stage. Even in situations where I might feel nervous, I always knew that if I could just get to my instrument, then I could feel confident.
So, with playing my own music and singing, I don’t know that there’s a huge difference to me in performing that way versus other situations. I’ve been really fortunate that in addition to my own solo work, I’m also in another group in Austin called The Wheelwrights. I’ve written a lot of music with those guys. We do a lot of three-part harmony. Singing harmony with folks was a really good way to grow into my own as a singer. There’s something about singing with other folks that’s comfortable and a wonderful experience.
Centanni: You’ve been getting so much positive feedback from your solo debut, “Shifting Sands.” What do you think about the response?
Larson: Well, I’m so appreciative. There’s so much good music in the world. I’m just appreciative for people to choose to listen to me. You can listen to anything you want at any minute of the day. It’s been really gratifying. When you’re in a band and co-writing, you have a greater sense of bouncing things off of each other. You’re in solidarity with each other, whether an idea is great or needs work. So, for these songs, I didn’t have that same kind of process. Even though I felt great about them and loved how we worked on them in the studio, you still don’t really know until you have a larger group of people listening to your music. So, it’s been really gratifying as a songwriter.
When you’re doing creative work, you just need that continuing sense of whether you’re heading in the right direction. It’s a long path. I don’t know if you really feel like you’ve gotten to the place that you’re trying to get to. You just want to know that you’re heading in the right direction. All those things encourage you to keep going, that you’re doing the right thing and in the right place at the right time. I was so grateful for being included in “All Songs Considered” a few months ago. It was surreal to have my music in the same playlist like Brittany Howard and people who I really look up to. It’s been really great.
Centanni: You’ve got a new single called “Whippoorwill.” What’s the story behind that song?
Larson: I kinda poke fun at it on stage and say, “Well, here’s my song about a bird.” I’m in a songwriting group that I stick with weekly. Pushing yourself to write every week, you never know what you’re going to come up with. When I sat down to write that song, the word “whippoorwill” kept coming to me. I didn’t know anything about whippoorwills or why that word felt like the right word. I looked up the legend of the whippoorwill. One of the legends is when a young woman is out in the woods and hears the call of the whippoorwill, and it’s not returned, then she’s doomed to be alone for another year.
I started thinking about that legend. I thought, “What if this is the story of a person who is blaming circumstances on a legend or a story?” I started thinking about people waiting for something to happen to them. What makes people wait for something versus people who take action and move forward in life? I like to think about characters, and I think it comes from working in theater and writing plays. Even if I’m using first person, I always have in mind a fictional character. I’m telling somebody else’s story sometimes. There’s a lot of stuff about me in there too.
Centanni: Tell me about the new album coming out this year.
Larson: I’m not sure exactly how it will turn out just yet. There’s still stuff that I’m still working on. It’s going to be a little bit different direction and different side of my playing. “Shifting Sands” has a lot of dreaminess and has a lot of strings. I’m going in a direction that has a little bit more acoustic guitar. I’m playing guitar on several songs. I’m not sure if it will be an EP or album. I’m using the piano in a different way and bringing in some acoustic and electric guitar. I’m branching out from the keyboard-centric stuff. The thing that is best about music is a solid melody and something that you can sing along with and sticks in your ear. A really strong melody is what makes a song. If I listen to a song and want to sing along to it or sing harmony, those are the best songs.
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