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Fans have been rallied and funds have been raised to help support Madison musician Anna Vogelzang’s latest full-length endeavor, Canary In A Coal Mine. Backed by talented musicians like Franz Nicolay (formerly of The Hold Steady) on accordion, The Dresden Dolls’ Brian Viglione on drums, and local jazz group Weather Duo, Canary expands Vogelzang's folk-pop sound with the help of some full drumming and inspiration from a Will Smith movie. Already making the rounds in Madison as one best local records of 2011, Canary will get a national release Feb. 28 and get a chance to make an impact on a larger scale. The A.V. Club sat down to talk with Vogelzang at Espresso Royale coffee shop right before Valentine’s Day about how she couldn’t resist giving Madison a sneak peak at her album months ahead of time, her take on alternative Christmas music, and the flavor of her songs.
The A.V. Club: For your new album, Canary In A Coal Mine, you have an array of talented backing musicians. Are the people in your live band the same as those who did the studio recording?
Anna Vogelzang: No, the band on the tour is a local band called the Weather Duo. They are kind of like an experimental jazz duo. They went here, to UW-Madison, and have been really involved with the local scene. We had played some shows together and just started chatting about it because the band on the record is all pretty much in New York, and they are all wonderful musicians, but it’s kind of hard to afford a giant group. So finding a balance that can represent the record while out on the road is great. I actually did a tour this past fall by myself, and I had just kind of brought the record out even though it wasn’t originally released yet. That was really hard playing all of the songs by myself. It was like “If you could just imagine there’s drums here, and this here!” [Laughs.] Actually, my fiancé was my upright bass player when I first moved here, and another friend of mine plays cello, but she’s about to have a baby, so it was kind of awesome since the Duo is upright bass and cello.
AVC: So is that the standard live setup, with three total musicians?
AV: Yeah, that’s it right now. And we’ll probably be doing that again. We’re doing that until the end of this month, and then in March I’m touring solo, and then in April and May they’ll be on tour with me again, so we’ll be a trio.
AVC: Does playing with jazz musicians add a different element of musicality to your performance?
AV: The nice thing is that jazz players tend to be really versatile, and they both went to school for classical music. [Vogelzang stops to say hello to a friend and laughs.] Whenever I come down here, I see all these people I don’t normally see!
So yeah, jazz, they’re classical musicians, but they’re both such great players. I have ideas of what I want, and here’s what the record sounds like, and here’s the feel. And within that framework they can really do whatever they want. It’s been really great to work with them, I think more of their classical side has brought in some different stuff. I’m used to playing with people who are more in the folk tradition. Revisiting the classical stuff has been nice in terms of arrangements. They’ve offered a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Like, “What if we all pause here?” Things that I think of as classically driven. It’s really nice and refreshing. It’s always nice to work with new musicians because they can bring themselves into the songs.
AVC: Your new album came out this past September here in Madison, but it’s not being released nationally until Feb. 28. Were you super excited to get it out in Madison early?
AV: Pretty much. [Laughs.] I made it in April of last year, and it was all fan-funded, so I had a lot of people who wanted to hear it. My plan was for it to come out in the fall, but basically at the beginning of 2011, my record label and I very amicably parted ways. So I turned to Kickstarter because I couldn’t fund the record anymore. But then I didn’t realize how much extra work that still had to get done. So there just wasn’t enough time to get it out in September, and I wanted to do it the best I could and to do it right. But at the time I had already had my CD release show scheduled in September, so I kind of just kept it. It caused some confusion on the home front. I also went on tour right after the release show, so I had advanced copies of it with me on the tour. It was actually really nice since it’s not online and it was only at the shows that people could experience it. Sort of like a sneak preview, but now it’s actually coming out soon.
AVC: You mentioned the website Kickstarter, where you were able to garner support and have people donate money. Without a record label, was that your strategy to still get this album done?
AV: For sure. The great thing about the Internet is that there are so many resources that otherwise wouldn’t be available. For me I found a lot of fans and patrons, people who wanted to help. It was really encouraging. I did a $5,000 campaign, and I made a little over $7,000. I didn’t even think I was going to make five, people were just so enthusiastic, and it was really amazing.
AVC: About how many recordings have you put out since your start as a musician?
AV: This is my fourth full-length. The first two full-lengths I did in undergrad, so I don’t really count them. I mean, they’re full records and it was a huge learning experience, but I don’t really sell them at shows anymore. I have some EPs and home recordings that I did right when I moved to Madison, so 2008 and 2009. Paper Boats was released in April 2010, so that’s the predecessor of Canary. The Christmas EPs are something my fiancé and I do. It’s the fourth year where we make a Christmas record just for our family as their gift. We record six songs and one of the songs is always an original. We do covers, too. It’s really silly, but everyone loves it. This year someone knew I was doing it, and people were posting pictures of us in the studio and others were like, “Wait! I want to hear it!” So this year we put three of the songs, each from the three previous albums, on an EP.
AVC: Are there any Christmas originals on the EP?
AV: No, they’re actually all covers. The originals are really, really insane. One of them is like an ’80s rock opera-style song called “Jolly Warrior” about Santa Claus. It’s really out there, but it’s super fun. We actually had a show at the Project Lodge right before Christmas and, because I was putting the EP out, we decided to play a bunch of the really weird originals, but it went over really well! Laughs. I think we’re going to try to do it next year too. It was super fun.
AVC: At the time of Canary’s production, you were without a record label and were in the midst of fundraiser. What else inspired the songs on the album?
AV: I’m always writing songs, basically. There’s always the process of whatever’s happening in my life or in the media. There are a lot of songs in here taken in part from a friend’s life, or something I’ve read or seen. There’s a lot of fiction. This was the first record where I tried to make a continuous group of songs. I tried really hard to create an arc and a set of songs that really related to one another and felt knit together. There’s a lot of my family on this record. My grandfather passed away while I was making it, so there’s a lot of that. Friends’ lives, my life. You know, late 20s ... stuff gets weird. Some fiction, some movies. I went up to Green Lake, Wisconsin, to my friend’s cabin and just recorded and wrote. I feel like the record really happened there.
AVC: You mentioned that movies influenced your song writing, were there any movies in particular?
AV: It’s sort of embarrassing.
AVC: Scenes from The Notebook?
AV: No, no, nothing like that. [Laughs.] I watched Seven Pounds. I think I drank a bottle of wine and watched it by myself. I ended up using a lot of the imagery from it and kind of took the idea of the Will Smith and Rosario Dawson relationship and tried to write it into a song a little bit. Inspiration comes everywhere, and when something like that happens I tried to take myself out of it and then looked at it as this other character. There’s so much more freedom to do something with it.
AVC: On this new album, you have a great group of backing musicians. How did the addition of these musicians change your typically solo-centric style?
AV: It was the first record in a while where I really used drums. In Paper Boats there’s drums, but it’s really auxiliary. This was the first record where we really got to use a kit. That was the foundation for the realization that this album is up a notch. There’s the instrumental basis and the pairing of instruments. When you have drums at the base of everything it’s just bigger. The rhythm section was basically Brian and Todd on upright bass. They are just such incredible players; it was kind of like a dream. They both brought a ton of themselves to it but were also willing to recognize that needs to be this here or there. I feel like after that everyone else started to fill out. My friend Emily Hope Price played the cello and she also sang a bunch on the record, which was great. She and my friend Emilyn Brodsky did backup vocals. The nicest thing was that I felt like I had ideas where I wanted the songs to go, and then when we got into the studio we would collaborate. It’s everybody’s record and everyone put so much of themselves into it.
AVC: Who does the art for your albums?
AV: The artist for Canary is someone I found on Etsy, Brooke Weeber. And it’s actually a whole watercolor panel when you open the album up. The drawings are also based on the songs on the record and reflect the imagery. I did the needlepoint for Secret Cedar Room. All of the other art have been other talented folks, I just kind of hunt around and find all sorts of visual artists that might want to work with me.
AVC: I read that you were an instructor for Girls Rock Camp here in Madison. Did you start music as a result of a similar experience of going to camp or having someone encourage you, à la School Of Rock?
AV: Not really. [Laughs.] I’ve been singing forever. First in church and in school, and then I started to play guitar around 12 when I got one for Christmas. I hated it; I was like “This is terrible!” I put it in my closet and then took it out again when I was 16. And then I just started writing songs because it seemed like the thing to do. I was writing a lot of poems. I would play at open mics in high school, but I was also in a funk band called Random Robot. [Laughs.] There were three dudes and I was the singer. It was pretty hilarious. My mom’s a singer, so it wasn’t super shocking that I am, too. So I guess it wasn’t just one thing that encouraged me. Girls Rock Camp has been amazing in Madison though. For Girls Rock Camp, I am the voice teacher, and I get to help with songwriting instruction. It’s awesome. It’s super inspiring and exhausting. You kind of feel like you’re going to die by the end of the week, but it’s also just so fun. These girls write their own songs and play in bands.
AVC: What band would your fans be most surprised to see on your “most listened to” playlist?
AV: Whitney Houston is on there a lot. I was super surprised when I found out she died. I had just gotten off the stage two nights ago in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and got a text and was just like “What?!” I had gone to the sound guy and was like, “We have to put some Whitney Houston on,” and he was like, “I don’t have any Whitney Houston!” I had just said to him earlier in the night that we had the same playlists. So I was like, “You don’t have Whitney Houston?! But we’re playlist soul mates!” That must be where we diverged. I love Beyoncé. I would say anything that’s mainstream or Top 40 is kind of unheard of in my circle. I listened to the new Adele record quite a bit. I liked at the Grammys when she was like, “I have snot on my face!” I was like, “Yes, you go!”
AVC: If you had to describe you favorite songs in terms of taste, like salty lyrics or bittersweet, how would you describe them?
AV: It’s sort of saccharin-sweet and two-fold. First, the songs that you dance to and are cheesy. Songs I usually really like, like I had to have at least one on Canary.
AVC: Which song is that?
AV: “One And Only.” It’s very girl-group, stomp and clap. The others would be songs that are well crafted and clever but also heartbreaking.
AVC: So maybe like color-changing Bubblelicious?
AV: [Laughs.] Yeah! That could work. I guess the stereotypical dark chocolate answer though, like it’s super sweet but also super bitter. It would have to be the 80 percent cocoa kind. Something that is a totally well-packaged dessert of a song, but totally undercut by this other thing.
AVC: So are you planning on serenading anyone on Valentine’s Day?
AV: That’s what I could do! [Laughs.] I have a fella, and because I was on tour in Minneapolis, I drove all over the place trying to find him Surly, which is a Minneapolis beer. Everybody was out and the brewery was closed. I was like, “I have absolutely nothing.” Maybe that’s what I’ll do, I’ll serenade him. One of my best friends is moving back to town today, so we’re going to have a lady day where we drink and go shopping and get our toes done and be like “Screw love!” Then I’ll have to go home and like ... I don’t know.
AV: [Laughs.] And cuddle! So it’ll be the best of both worlds.