TT with HD: Annie Palmer
[Ed. note: Annie Palmer's MySpace is a place you can sample some of her
tunes, find upcoming shows, and even purchase the EP called Wake Up Son. Her 'Ypsilanti Won't you Let Me' is
featured on the Ypsisongs collection, which is available for purchase at Schoolkids (underneath Bivouac)
or at Encore Records (both in Ann Arbor), or online here.]
HD: Alright, ready to go?
HD: Well, first off, I apologize for that excruciating experience with the photography. It's dusk, and I don't know if we've ever tottered this late before. [Ed. note: the dim light affected the digital camera negatively]
AP: It's going to get worse and worse as it goes into the fall!
HD: That's a good point.
AP: You'll have to start scheduling people at four in the afternoon.
HD: Yeah, I'll have to keep track of when the sun sets, or something. So you did a show last night over at Dreamland?
AP: This is true!
HD: How'd that go?
AP: It was interesting. It was the debut of ...
HD: ... Superband?
AP: ... the Superband, which is a side project of mine and Patrick Elkins', who I believe you know. It's probably just a one-shot side project at this point.
HD: Did it not go well enough to want to repeat?
AP: Oh, no it went well, but I think that it's really only the sort of thing you could do once. There were fireworks involved.
HD: Inside the Dreamland Theater?!
AP: Yes. We got permission!
AP: They were very small fireworks.
HD: So you got permission from the owner ...
AP: ... yes ...
HD: ... or the fire department?
AP: No, we like to leave the fire department out of it.
HD: So I have to assume that at the show last night, you played your blue guitar?
AP: I did!
HD: You know, as I was looking through Brandon Zwagerman's Flikr set of photographs of Madisonfest this year, I noticed that Patrick Elkins, who you just mentioned, seemed to be playing what looked exactly like your guitar.
AP: And Gina Pensiero.
HD: So how did that come about? Did Patrick just forget to bring his guitar ...
AP: ... yes ...
HD: ... or did he just forget that he was playing?
AP: There was actually a string of performers who all--I don't know that they forgot to bring their guitars, but maybe they just assumed that there would be a guitar there. A lot of people ride their bikes to the show, when it's in the park like that.
HD: But if you know you're going to play, wouldn't you bring your own instrument? That strikes me as a little odd. It's like a baseball player showing up to the game without their glove!
AP: [laugh] I don't think guitars are quite so personalized in that way. I know a lot of people who'll do, let's say tours, entire tours, where they'll play house shows, and bars, and art galleries, and whatever, and won't bring an instrument with them, just assuming that somebody there will have an instrument. A lot of times they'll send out mailings or messages into the world saying, Can somebody bring me an instrument? Because they don't want to have to tote a big guitar with them.
HD: So it's not all that unusual then.
AP: It's not all that unusual and I'm more than happy to give my guitar the experience of being played by people who actually will play it loudly.
HD: Well, that's an interesting perspective, taking the guitar's perspective as opposed to the person you're lending it to. So you wouldn't just let anybody play your guitar, right?
AP: Nooo, I wouldn't let just anybody play my guitar, but I trust most people. I don't think there are that many people who would just wantonly mis-use and abuse my guitar. I don't think anybody would pour honey on it and smash it on the ground or anything. Although if there were one person who probably would do that, it'd probably be Patrick. [laugh]
HD: Well, I was going to say, Patrick seemed to have draped a shoe off the head of the guitar for his Madisonfest performance, obscuring the Ibanez logo. The folks at Ibanez might be upset about that.
AP: Patrick doesn't like to shill for corporations while he plays [laugh].
HD: Oh, okay. So what is that you like about that guitar in particular? What's so magical about it, that you would actually take the guitar's perspective in describing who you might lend it to?
AP: I think I just have a tendency to personify inanimate objects. It's not so much that the guitar is all that special. I mean, if I'm being honest, it isn't all that wonderful of a guitar. It's the only guitar I ever bought with my own money. I've had it for twelve or thirteen years. It's really the only guitar I've ever really used. I bought it when I was eighteen, from a friend. Before that, I had a little hundred-dollar guitar that my parents had gotten me when I was thirteen for Christmas. That, I would play in various coffee shops and stuff. But I also quit playing music for a really long time, so the guitar sort of got stuck in its case, and very rarely came out, for about five years.
HD: So did you have to have it totally redone and refurbished when you started playing again?
AP: I probably should have had something done to it, but I don't really know much about, nor care much about, basic guitar maintenance.
HD: But you notice when it's out of tune.
AP: Well, yes, but then I just tune it!
HD: And you can tune it by ear, I've seen you do that. That's just a natural gift that you have?
AP: I never knew that there are people who could not do that, until very recently. I've been on tour a couple of times now with people who get really frustrated, because they depend on their chromatic tuner, and when it doesn't work, they can't tune their guitars. Chromatic tuners are nice, it's nice to have a guitar be all in tune, and they're very very helpful when you're playing in a band, certainly. And I would never tune my guitar by ear, when I was playing in a band.
HD: So let me ask you about your contribution to the Ypsisongs collection. When I asked Sam Vail about having this assignment from Brian Wiard to write a song about or inspired by Ypsilanti ...
AP: ... Brandon Wiard?
AP: [laugh] Brandon Wiard?
HD: Oh, did I just call him Brian? Well, you know, that Wiard kid.
AP: The orchard guy!
HD: Yeah, that one.
AP: And speaking of orchards, this cider is top notch!
HD: Yeah? It came from Busch's Valuland, so from wherever they get their cider.
AP: I like the Busch's. It's a good place. There used to be one near my house and then they turned it into what now is Sheena's Marketplace-slash-Valuland. They didn't even change the sign, they just wrote Sheenas's over the top of it.
HD: So is that where you get your groceries?
AP: Yes, for the most part.
HD: Where were we?
AP: We were talking about the Ypsisongs collection.
HD: Yes. Sam Vail said that it basically just came to him instantly and in no time flat, he had the whole thing conceived, and he just went in and recorded it. Was it that quick and painless for you?
AP: No. Songwriting for me is very rarely quick. And I would venture to say, never painless.
HD: So did the lyrical element come first, or the musical?
AP: I tend to write music and lyrics at the same time. Sometimes I'll have little snatches. I've got a little book that'll have three lines written, say, that I thought of while I was driving or something. But I don't really write lyrics without having music in mind. It was interesting to be assigned something. But I don't think I went about it any differently than I would a normal song. I think the only difference was that I felt like I had to get something done, so I made time to sit down in my house and work on it, and not watch TV, and get off the internet and really buckle down and work on the song ...
HD: ... so that's not something that you typically do, say, I'm committed to spending X number of hours a day playing the guitar or composing ...
AP: Not at all. It's probably something I should do. But it is not something that I currently do.
HD: Why is it that you feel like you should do that?
AP: Well. I guess I don't feel like I should do it, but I suppose at some point I would like to eventually make a record. And in order to make a record, I need to have songs to put on the record. And currently my crop of material is pretty limited. There are songs that I've written that I play live, that I don't think I would put on a record.
HD: What's an example of a song like that?
AP: Oh, like Drag, I don't think I would put on a record. I'm a little over that song. [laugh]
HD: You're over it? This is the one with the refrain, 'You drag me down'?
AP: Yeah. It's sad, because it's probably the crowd-pleasing-est song that I've ever written, and I think that people really like to hear it. It's not that I would never play it, it's just that I don't feel as connected to it as I did when I wrote it. It was just kind of something I wrote when I was pissed off ...
HD: ... it seems that way ...
AP: ... and it's hard to stay pissed off about something for a year, or two years. At this point, it's fun to play and, you know, fast and jumpy. But I'm not that excited about the content of the song and I don't think the lyrics are the strongest lyrics I have written. I think I've written better lyrics since then. And I'm just more interested in what I've been able to write since then. I mean, I wrote that song about a year ago. It's aged a bit, I think.
HD: So 'Ypsilanti Won't You Let Me' is the title of the Ypsisongs contribution, right? That's anything but fast and jumpy.
AP: Yes, this is true.
HD: It's sort of plaintive, a lament almost.
AP: It is. Yeah, it is, and it's not really about Ypsilanti precisely. But Ypsilanti is certainly a character in the song. There I go, personifying inanimate objects again.
HD: When first heard it, I thought that there was a fiddle and a banjo, but it turns out that what I thought was a fiddle is actually a cello.
AP: It is a cello!
HD: Right, Colette Alexander is what it says [on the liner notes]. So but it doesn't say, what about the banjo? Is that not a banjo? Am I not hearing that correctly?
AP: No, that is a banjo!
HD: And is that you on the banjo?
AP: That is me on the banjo!
AP: I don't really know how to play the banjo, but I well, uh, I'll tell you a secret: I cheated. It's not a real banjo. It's a six-string banjo, which is a banjo that is tuned like a guitar, so it sounds like a banjo, but it plays exactly like a guitar. Whereas a real banjo has typically four or five strings and it's tuned entirely differently from a guitar so you have to learn entirely new chord shapes.
HD: Okay, and it sounds like you're actually strumming it as opposed to picking?
AP: I think I pick and strum. That's my guitar-playing style, a combo pick-strum thing.
HD: For this banjo, though on the record, thumb and finger picks?
AP: No, I didn't use finger picks. I don't usually use picks, ever.
HD: So Fred Thomas is also on that ['Ypsilanti Won't You Let Me'] playing the glockenspiel. How did that work? You had the banjo-slash-guitar and the lyrics ready ...?
AP: ... we'll call it a 'banjo-tar'.
HD: Yeah, whatever that was. Did you actually write out a score for Colette and Fred? I mean, how did it wind up that there's a cello and glockenspiel on this track?
AP: Well, I asked Colette to play with me. She and I have recorded together before. I recorded an EP back in March ...
HD: ... this was Wake Up Son?
AP: Mmhmm. I actually recorded it really close to here at Starling Electric's house. And they did a really good job. Well, Jason [DeCamillis] did a really good job [laugh]. The rest of them just kind of watched. Caleb Dillon played guitar and sang backup on a couple of tracks.
HD: And that was all live? Just played it right through?
AP: Mmhmm, yeah.
HD: Did it require multiple takes?
AP: We did a couple of takes of a couple of the songs. Some of the songs, like Come Home, that was the first take. Drag definitely took the most takes, just because Colette and I were not in the same room, we were separated. So we had to do a couple of different takes.
HD: The Starling Electric guys haven't built a giant glass window between the rooms yet?
AP: No, they just have an attic, which is sort of a converted bedroom. It's pretty homey. But anyway, Colette and I had played together before, so she and I got together and I played her the song and she made up a part for it. And we just collaborated.
HD: So when you say Colette just 'made up' a part for it?
AP: Well, I played along, she played some stuff, and I said, I like that, I don't like that. And she said what about this? and I said, That's good! How about this? And I said, That's good, too! We just sort of worked together to structure it. But we didn't spend too much time getting it perfect or anything.
HD: You didn't write out notes.
AP: No, no. We just went through it a couple of times.
HD: And the glockenspiel part?
AP: Well, initially there was no glockenspiel part. I don't know if you're familiar with the way that Fred works, but you pretty much just go into Fred's basement and it's all very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. Fred likes to do just one or two takes. He, at one point, just ran to the back of the room and started hitting the glockenspiel during the take. That's how the glockenspiel ended up on there. And I like it.
HD: So you did like it?
AP: I did.
HD: So if you had actually thought, God, that kind of sucks, would you have felt comfortable saying, No, Fred, no glockenspiel, no way?
AP: Umm, I don't know! I hope I would've. I think I would've. Yeah, I think I would have said, I hate that. The process was a little rushed. I was really behind everybody else on the comp. In fact, I think I might have been one of the last people to submit a song, so I just kind of wanted to get it done and Brandon [Wiard] was really eager to get it, because he had to send off the masters ...
HD: ... and he had 15 other people to ride herd on.
AP: Right, so I really didn't want to be difficult about anything. I have a tendency to want everything to be absolutely perfect. The good thing about Fred is that he's pretty good at getting you out of that tendency. And the more I listen to it, the more I like it. I really enjoy the little imperfections. I was really really sick when we recorded it. There are places where you can really hear my voice--or at least I can hear my voice--straining. But it works with the song. The cello kind of strains and the banjo kind of strains and the whole song, there's a tension in it that I think really got brought through in the recording. I think that's why Fred is so good at what he does.
HD: The opening line, which is what, 'I'm not from here'?
AP: 'I was not born here' That's true!
HD: And it continues 'But I could die here' and the tension of the ambiguity of that, I think, is just precious. You can take that to mean there's no other place I'd rather be than here, so I'm content to die here, or also this place is killing me.
AP: That's true, I never thought about that before.
HD: To me, that's what makes that opening line really work.
AP: I'm going to scoot back a little here.
HD: So you were not born there. Where exactly are you from?
AP: I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And I lived there for 18 years or 21 years, depending on how you look at it.
HD: How do you look at it?
AP: I think I lived there for 21 years, or 22 years, I guess. I went off to college, but you know how it is when you're in college. You go home a lot.
HD: Yeah, you can't count those years either way.
AP: Plus, I went to college in Ohio, and I don't really like to admit that I ever lived in Ohio.
HD: So Chattanooga is right down the road from Murfreesboro?
AP: It's like an hour and a half.
HD: So did you end up playing a tour date in Murfreesboro?
AP: No, we played in Nashville, at a house, I think. Did we play at a house? Yes, we played at a house. I think it was the house of a guy who's in the Silver Jews, actually. They're a quasi-well-known little band from down there.
HD: So the tour did actually happen, then?
AP: Mmhmm. Yeah, the three week one? With Tiger Saw?
HD: It was hard for me to tell exactly, but I think so.
AP: Yeah, we started here and went down through Louisville and Ohio and down South and made a 'U' and came up through the Carolinas and Virginia and Maryland and then went up and did a bunch of dates in New England. It was a really long tour.
HD: And how did it work that you're able take that much time off of your day job to go and do that?
AP: Well, my day job is very flexible. I don't work full time there. I'm part time, and it also happens that it's kind of a seasonal job: the big rushes are from fall to spring. Summertime is really really dead, so a lot of us who work there year round will get sort of 'lovingly laid-off' so I was not actually missing any work. But I did have a job waiting for me when I got back, which was nice.
HD: Did you wind up stopping through Rochester, New York? That was one of the tentative dates, I think?
AP: We did not. We couldn't get a date in Rochester, I think it fell through. We ended up in Canada.
HD: That's not so bad.
AP: No, the show in Canada was great! The border crossing was a little bit arduous, but the show in Canada was great. We managed to go into Canada the day before they uncovered that big plot, the terrorist plot?
HD: Oh, with the liquefied explosives?
AP: Yeah, the day before they changed all the rules so that you couldn't bring shampoo on the plane anymore. Basically the day that happened, we were in Canada, so then when we tried to get back over the border, it was a real big deal.
HD: Plus, you were a bunch of musicians, which automatically made you extra-suspicious.
AP: Well, we were trying to hide the fact that we were musicians, because you're not supposed to go over the border to play shows without paying some sort of a tax.
HD: So the fact that you might have had a couple of CD's that you could have sold after the show to people who wanted them, would maybe qualify as commerce from their point of view.
AP: Exactly. Usually, I think a lot of 'lower end' quote-unquote touring musicians--not lower end but lower-income musicians who are touring and who are driving in their Corollas, let's say, and not their giant busses--tend to, if not out-and-out lie, just omit that part that they're going over the border to play shows. I think we just said that we were going to visit friends or something like that.
HD: Well, you just described yourself as possibly a 'lower end' kind of musician! And earlier you said that one of your goals was to put out a record, like a real record, not CD-R, right?
AP: Yeah, I mean I think if I'm being at all even the smallest amount ambitious and actually want to do this as somewhat of a living ...
HD: ... that's actually where I was heading with that comment. Is that something you aspire to? That you could support yourself economically through your music?
AP: It's not a goal that I'm going to pursue at the expense of other things, but it would be very nice to make my money that way and continue to be happy. But I'm interested in doing so many different things, that I don't know that that is necessarily the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life. Honestly right now, I like my job a lot. I don't really have any interest in quitting my job and trying to make money doing music right now. I like making money doing music, but I also like having the quasi-steady job, where I like working there, I like the people who work there.
HD: I was talking to Dave Sharp, the jazz bass player, and he said that one of the mindsets that he thinks prevents people from really supporting musicians economically, as opposed to just consuming their product, is that the impression people have when they see musicians on stage, good ones anyway, it seems like they're having fun, it seems effortless. I've read a characterization of some of your music that I agree with, that it has a casual effortlessness to it. You don't seem to have to struggle to sing in key, you don't seem to have to struggle to actually play these intricate guitar parts--you're doing more than just banging on the thing--that it might work against people's inclination to want to support that endeavor. Because it just seems too easy. It seems like fun. It doesn't look like work. And you talked about how much work it is to write a song, but you don't see that on stage.
AP: No, you don't.
HD: You don't see the frustration, all the effort that went into creating that song ...
AP: ... and I don't think people want to see that either! There's a performer I saw, who comes to mind, but it was really very aggravating to watch, because the guy was not a very good guitar player and was just not a very good singer. All that could be completely negated: there's plenty of amazing amazing performers, amazing songwriters, who really don't have a lot of technical skill, but they're really wonderful to watch and to listen to anyway. But this person I was watching, you could see the struggle. He was having a really hard time and he was talking about what a hard time he was having. And he kept forgetting the words and saying, Oh, I'm so sorry, I just forgot the words! And he would stop in the middle of the song, then keep playing and I was thinking, I don't need to know all that. I just wanted to say, Don't apologize! Just be the performer that you are. If you are a crappy guitar player, own the fact that you're a crappy guitar player and just play. But he kept apologizing for how bad he was. I think it might have been okay, if he had just been quote-unquote 'bad'. Or if he'd be been 'unskilled', I guess, is a better word. If he had just owned being unskilled, it might have been a really solid performance. But yes, to get back to what you were talking about before, I don't know. It's strange. People put a lot of value on being entertained, I think.
HD: This is perhaps a different point, but one of the themes of that newspaper article that ran last Sunday in the Ann Arbor News about concert house venues ...
AP: ... [laugh] I don't read the Ann Arbor News!
HD: Oh, well you should read that piece, it's all about people you know! But anyway, one of the themes of that article was there's not a financial motivation. You know, We don't do this because of the financial motivation! And, Any money that might be collected goes to the musicians! But even the musicians don't seem to have a financial motivation. It's almost as if there's an audience that doesn't want to hear about or associate any kind of commercial enterprise with music, because that somehow makes it less pure or something?
AP: That might be true. I think there's also something to be said about people not wanting to give money to a human being, an individual person, as opposed to giving to an amorphous idea or a cause, or a ticket price. Because I find, just playing venues when I've been on tour, if I walked around and said, Hey, give me money for gas! then I think there's something a little offensive about that. If you just walk up to them and say, I need money for gas because I drove all the way here from Michigan ...
HD: ... isn't there supposed to be somebody who does that for you? I mean at the Old Town or the Crazy Wisdom Bookstore, somebody usually has the decency to say, We're not going to make the musicians themselves do the pitcher routine, because they shouldn't have to!
AP: Right. You shouldn't have to, but sometimes you do have to. I've had to ask, and I try to be charming about it as much as I can be charming about it and try to make a cute little sign with a bunny rabbit on it.
HD: Jim Roll has a very funny line about the pitcher ...
AP: ... he's got a lot of funny lines ...
HD: ... it's something like, Okay, if you have a few dollars please put them in the pitcher, if you need a dollar, take one out, but you better really need it. Which puts sort of a humorful spin on it. So you think it might have to do with the idea of giving another human being money?
AP: Maybe to some people, it feels like begging. It's tough. If somebody just walks up to you and says, Give me a dollar, you're sort of like, Why?! Why should I give you a dollar?
HD: And especially why should I give you a dollar to do something you like to do anyway? It's the same kind of mindset that people bring to teachers' salaries, I think. You should be teaching, because you love children, or you love teaching! What's with this unionizing and demanding higher wages?! I think part of our expectation is that they do it because they love it, and they should do it because they love it, and they shouldn't expect a commercial end to it.
AP: You know, I don't disagree with doing things because you love them. Obviously, I know that not everyone in the world is doing what they love. Ever since I've been old enough to really think about what I want to do with my life in a really serious way, the one thing that I decided was that I really did want to always be doing something that I loved, and I wanted to be doing something that I'm passionate about. It sounds like a really simplistic thing to say. You know, Duh, of course! But it's hard to do what you love when you realize that there's a whole lot of practical considerations to doing what you love. It's not just as easy as saying, This is what I'm passionate about, I'm going to make it happen! It's a hard road for a lot of people. For some people it's not, they just say, I'm going to do this! and things will fall into place for them. But to get back to the idea of paying for art, that seems to be true for a lot of performance art. Maybe it's because people want something tangible for their money. People shell out money for CD's, or for books, or for pieces of art. For things they can have, I think people will pay a lot of money.
HD: But for a live experience ...
AP: ... for a live experience, for some reason--I don't know why--it doesn't have as much value. You run into that thing all the time. I was a theater major in college and before I really started playing music seriously, I was an actor. I guess I still am an actor, I shouldn't speak about it in the past tense. I just haven't been doing it lately. But it's the same thing with theater. People have a tough time believing that any work goes into it at all. But if you really talk about the amount of work that goes into making a play happen, it's as much work as a full-time job, and it's very stressful, and it's a very emotional process, which is different from a lot of other jobs. A lot of jobs, people don't really express their feelings during work. But in music and theater, everybody's incredibly emotional and that takes a certain toll on you, I think. I've had jobs where I was a secretary and I didn't really ...
HD: ... you're not really allowed to emote as a secretary.
AP: Yeah, right, you don't really emote as a secretary, but when you're doing music, or you're doing theater, or a lot of different kinds of art, emoting is part of the job. That takes a certain toll on you and it's difficult--not that being a secretary isn't just as hard-- but I think that you can equate them to each other.
HD: You can?
AP: You can, I think. But most people probably don't see it that way. I think it's a job, just like any other job. You put as much or little work into it as you want to. In certain cases, maybe it's even harder, because you're not getting compensated enough to pay your rent, or buy food for yourself. But you still do it anyway.
HD: So what do you have coming up? You going to Dylanfest tomorrow?
AP: Gosh, probably. I didn't realize Dylanfest was tomorrow.
HD: I think it is, but I could be wrong.
AP: I'm a little bit out of the loop in terms of local goings-on. I have a lot of friends who are playing at Dylanfest, so I should go. I'm not really much of a Bob Dylan fan.
HD: But you're a fan of the people who are playing.
AP: Yeah, and my roommates are playing, and I'm interested to see what their band is going to do.
HD: You know what songs they're going to play?
AP: Something about--my total ignorance of all things Bob Dylan is showing--there's a song about something, something, Hattie Carol? [The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol] Or something like that?
HD: I can't help you out there, I'm sorry.
AP: I don't know. They're not playing Blowin' in the Wind, ...
HD: ... thank god ...
AP: ... or Knockin' on Heaven's Door. They're playing something that's obscure, at least to me. But anyway, my roommates are in the band Canada, who I play with sometimes, and they're doing some versions of some Dylan songs. I'm interested to see how that turns out. I don't even know who's playing Dylanfest.
HD: It's a very long lineup, the logistics of getting everybody onto the stage and off again is going to be challenging.
AP: They do it every year!
HD: I kind of feel like it's just right down the street and there's really no excuse for not going.
AP: Costs money! And nobody likes to pay for their art.
HD: Do you have anything else on your mind? It's actually getting pretty dark.
AP: It is dark!
HD: I can barely see you and you're just 12 feet away.
AP: But you can hear me!
HD: Well, listen, thanks for coming over to ride the teeter totter.
AP: Thanks for having me.