The Summer of Anne Malin

Photo by Abby Johnson

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I can’t get away from Anne Malin’s upcoming album, Summer Angel. After listening to it for the first time, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it until days later I found myself still thinking about its enigmatic narratives and her transfixing performance. Almost daily I found myself returning to the challenging comforts of Summer Angel, often overcome by the visceral directness of Anne Malin’s delivery and the latticework sonic environments constructed by her expert backing band. 

Summer Angel is expressive, confrontational, and resolute. Anne Malin doesn’t shy away from the hardest questions or harshest answers but pushes headfirst into the world’s unforgiving magic. Deep roots spread from Summer Angel leaving Anne Malin’s lyrics and voice steadfast and constant. 

Dear Life Records will release Summer Angel on June 17 and the third single, “Pink Blur,” is available to stream today. Pre-order the album HERE.

First off, how have you been managing these last two years, and what’s been helping you make it through?

It has been a really wild two years. I have been writing a lot, in spells, and that has felt soul-saving: first it was picking up a novel I’ve been drafting since 2015, then writing some gothic poems about deer and capitalism, then writing some poems about the body. This spring, I’ve been writing folk songs about my childhood in eastern North Carolina. These writing spells usually feel infrequent (albeit immersive), but looking back, I’m appreciating all of the places I have been able to go in my art-making on my own time. 

Still, I’m a creature of habit, so it’s been helpful to have a few regular practices in my life. Lately, it’s been a practice of being present in my body. I recently started strength training, which is something I never would have thought I’d do (or enjoy), but it’s providing another way for me to show up for myself and I really love it. I also love my friends very very much, and Will. 

Okay, let’s go a lot further back than that.. so I usually like to start interviews by asking about artists/musicians about their earliest experiences with music and sound, but I’m going to change it up a little since your writing and poetry practice is as important here. What are your earliest memories related to either poetry/prose or music/sound? I’m curious if one or the other developed first and regardless, how the two informed each other as you began to write and develop your own work?

Both practices developed at the same time, I think, although I first started exploring music on the cello. It’s still my favorite instrument. As far as writing goes, I started writing stories first; my grandparents used to give me nickels and dimes to write stories for them. I remember feeling so excited to share my writing with them and how supportive they were of me—they noticed details and ideas I wasn’t consciously aware of, and that taught me so much about attention, as well as art-making. The poems came a bit later, and they’ve been the center of my practice ever since.

I’m lucky to come from a family of artists. We’re not all artistic, but there are enough of us to count. When we were young, my cousin Heather and I were both training in dance, and we’d put on elaborate performances for our family. My dad even built a very basic plywood stage for me to dance on. When I performed, I felt writing and music come together. I recall some girl making fun of me for trying to do “too much” when I was a kid—like, I could only do music or writing or dancing, but certainly not all three. I didn’t listen to her, and I’m so glad I didn’t; it’s beautiful to see how these art forms continue to enrich each other. 

And now, how is the relationship between your poetry and your music different? 

I feel like my poetry and music communicate related ideas and symbols in wildly different forms. When I write a poem, I obsess over the substance of language—how it can be deformed, reshaped, echoed. When I write a song, I like to explore how sound can shape language. Of course, it all works together, probably more than I realize! 

Unsurprisingly, the first thing that jumped out at me when I heard about this record was the part about the album’s conceptual inspiration from the description: “Conceived in response to the poem ‘Summer Angel’ by Alfred Starr Hamilton and Marianne Faithfull’s rendition of Morrissey’s ‘Dear God Please Help Me.'” I wonder if you could expand on that a little and talk about the connection between those two things for you and how they sparked this idea that led to the record?

While “Summer Angel” and “Dear God Please Help Me” weren’t catalysts for my songwriting—in fact, they came into play years after most of the songs were written—they helped me identify the major themes and ideas at play in my songs, and ultimately the sequence (and title!) of the record. 

I’m drawn to the symbolism of Alfred Starr Hamilton’s writing, and his poem “Summer Angel” involves an intense meditation on art, dreams, and roses. His work has resonated with me during so many different phases of my life, and these themes (art/dreams/roses) provided lenses through which I could perceive the ‘life’ of my record.

Similarly, Marianne Faithfull’s performance of “Dear God Please Help Me”—its movement through desire, vulnerability, violence, grief, and the claustrophobic somatic experience at the intersection of these forces (“I’m walking through Rome / And there is no room to move / But the heart feels free”)—just guts me…and guides me.

That same sentence continues with this great bit, “playing with the lyric as a multilayered tool for self-expression and self-protection alike.” How do you see self-expression as a manner, or piece, of self-protection?

By the time I had a sense of what Summer Angel wanted to be, I knew that it would be following my hybrid memoir (The Wheel)—a book that laid it bare. I can’t do that all the time! Of course, the narrative of a record is totally different from the narrative of a book. There are so many stories and subjects in Summer Angel, and it was liberating to not feel like I had to be consistent in my narrative. These songs were written over the course of a decade; I was constantly changing! So, while my lyrics are deeply personal, they get to be part of a musical landscape instead of a reflection of a specific subjectivity in a specific time and place. A song from 2013 gets to speak to a song from 2021, and so forth.

Photo by Hannah Gray Hall

What was the biggest challenge with writing the album?

Letting the music do the talking! I didn’t really write these songs with the concept of an album at the outset. I think, at first, I had saved up to record two songs with Andrija at the Bomb Shelter—”Destroyer” and “Redeemer”—and I was hoping to see them released on a 7” by a label. That didn’t go anywhere, largely due to the pandemic, so I put that project on hold and started recording Waiting Song with Will in our basement. We hoped it might get someone’s attention, but really it was something for us to do besides despair in the early days of the pandemic.

Months later, and by some beautiful coincidence, Michael (Cormier-O’Leary) heard Waiting Song during its release cycle; he asked if I had anything else in the works. So I started piecing together lots of old songs—and writing a few new ones (like “Pink Blur” and “Roses” and “Burdens”)—thinking about how they might form their own story. Then, another year later, we were able to record (again, phew) at the Bomb Shelter. 

I would’ve written a record like this at one point or another, but hearing from Michael—and the coincidence of where I was at in my life when I did hear from him—certainly affected the Summer Angel that you’re hearing. That liberating feeling I mentioned in my last answer—when I realized I could let the songs create new meaning(s) together, even if the personal narrative behind them became nonlinear or even obscured—didn’t come easily, but after a while, I was able to see how playful that could be.

(Thanks, Michael <3 )

The band on Summer Angel is absolutely incredible. It’s such a diverse group that brings a lot of different strengths to the music, but it all has a common thread at the same time. How did you go about putting the band together and what surprised you most about the process of working with them?

The band is truly incredible! I’m so lucky to be able to work with trusted friends—and to be touring with them in June. I suppose it starts with Will, who plays pedal steel and bass on Summer Angel. Will has been collaborating with me since 2011, and we have a really organic process of working—and being—together. He could play any instrument and it would add new life to a song. Still, it’s been thrilling to see our process grow and deepen with other folks involved.

One of my favorite parts of living in Nashville is that almost everyone I know is creative—in equally intense and humble ways. Jake Smith (who plays lead guitar in the record) is actually based in Knoxville, but he and Will had toured together, somewhat chaotically, before Jake recorded with us. I love Jake’s enthusiasm, and it’s an honor that he’s so energetic about the songs I write. DJ Young was playing with us at the time, and he joined us to record “Destroyer” and “Redeemer.” It was beautiful.

Trevor started playing drums with us at the end of 2019, right when I was performing more regularly in Nashville. Will and I were at our friend Ziona’s birthday party and just asking around to see if any of our friends wanted to play drums at a few of my shows. Trevor was down to try, and it’s been a perfect fit. Trevor and Jake are both heavily improv-based, and they’re both genuinely kind people. I’m excited to see how our performances together transform during our tour.

Last but not least, JayVe is legendary, and it’s an honor to have him on a few of the songs. I met JayVe the same way I met Trevor—through Chris Davis’ experimental performance series, FMRL. I knew I wanted saxophone on some songs, and JayVe was able to join us in the studio on our final day of overdubs.

As far as surprises go, I feel like there’s a lot of openness in my conception of my songs, and I value letting my friends respond musically to the songs in the ways that feel authentic to them. Still, it’s just amazing to hear what everyone involved with my music brings into the fold, sonically and energetically. This is a record I’ve wanted to make for my whole life, but it’s not something I could have planned for super rigorously. When I listened back to the test pressing, I still found myself surprised—and moved!—by what I heard.

Everything about your performance on the record feels so vulnerable and close, and I think the way the album was recorded buoys that feeling. I wonder how performing these songs, especially the vocals, ‘live’ in one-take influenced your approach to the songs and how you think it impacted the final versions?

I don’t really know what it is about me, but usually, I’m happy with my performance on the first take. There’s so much urgency and anticipation in the recording process, and when I’m in it, I’m in it. I wish I could translate the feeling into language better. Certainly, another part of that being ‘in it’ has to do with the energy and play that Andrija conjures in his studio space. He’s engineered and produced a lot of Josephine Foster’s music, and she has been one of my favorite artists for as long as I can remember (I even write about one of her records, Faithful Fairy Harmony, in The Wheel…incidentally, this was one of Andrija’s productions). I knew I could trust Andrija with my voice, and I’m sure that played into the one-take energy. And, because practicalities matter, another part of it was being on a budget; we only had four days to record, do overdubs, and mix. 

And “Pink Blur” opens the album and sets the stage for the whole record so well. It’s such a powerful opening song and, at least to me, it sounds like such an obvious way to start this record, but that’s easy for me to say! What were some of the considerations you made when sequencing the album and how important is the sequence to telling the story the way you wanted to?

Thank you! Aha, I’ve probably already spoken around the ‘telling the story my way’ part—because it really was the music guiding me, not the other way around. Still, I knew I wanted to open with “Pink Blur” and close with “Burdens.” “Pink Blur” represents my personality more than anything I’ve ever written. I daydream and move forward. I try to be in my body. The song, to me, encapsulates all of that—as well as my partnership with Will, and my connection to my family across time and space. What follows is a kind of slip into the depths of trauma-time. I’ve been hesitant to bring up the (very true) cliche that healing isn’t linear, but it may also be the most direct way to answer your question. Since “Summer Angel” and “Mary (Dear God Please Help Me)” were explicit echoes of Alfred Starr Hamilton and Marianne Faithfull’s art, it made sense for them to go next; my “Summer Angel” is very much a descent into another realm, and the rest of the record charts my movements through (and out of) that realm.

Finally, Summer Angel is obviously the big thing in the coming couple of months, but what else are you looking forward to as 2022 rolls along?

Getting ripped! In all seriousness, I am excited to keep feeling my body change. That used to scare me, but it’s what bodies do. I’m really excited to go on tour, to see old friends while we’re on the road, and to get to Lake Michigan sometime in the next few months. I have some poetry news on the horizon, and possibly some interdisciplinary workshops on my Patreon to announce. Trying to ‘side hustle’ less and build a real art-life for myself. Trying to take my time, too. We’ll see where it takes me.

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