Little Annie, Review of Cork Show, Interview and some other things
Photo: Simone Della Fornace
I had the great pleasure of exchanging correspondence recently with Little Annie. As you know, I was a huge fan of her album with Baby Dee last year on Tin Angel Records, State of grace. It had a great dignity about it, some wonderful instrumentation (especially Dee’s fluid piano playing at the core of it) and it brilliantly evoked real life, earthily, through a kind of debauched New York prism.
That moniker “Little” is no word of a lie by the way, she really is very dainty and looks like a puff of wind might blow her over. I know this because I was lucky enough to see her play live as well in Cork at the Southern Gothic Festival earlier in May, with Baby Dee and backed by a double bass player and violinist. In fact, she was carrying a walking stick that evening as a result of a leg injury, she told us. I wrote a review of that gig for WeAreNoise, here it is –
Sunday evening, bank holiday weekend, casualties/revellers on Pembroke Street and a brisk trade in Fast Al’s.
Inside the Crane, tables with candles and easy chairs are out for something like a New York cabaret. There are connections to Kurt Weill, between the wars, piano leading the way added to by tasteful, sliding violin to give the odd hint of French jazz. And the lush red velvet curtains at the back of the stage form a perfect backdrop for this music, vibrant, a tad decadent but with a certain dignity and head-held-high bearing.
The players arrive, Little Annie and Baby Dee joined by bass and violin. As companions, this pair couldn’t be more different – Annie, dressed in black, tiny, frail and hunched, using a walking stick, shuffling around carefully to accommodate her leg injury (according to herself), with a compelling, lived-in demeanour; Dee’s large, colourful frame on the other hand made the upright piano seem small, although she was capable of great delicacy on that instrument and a gentleness, poise in her vocal delivery.
They were soon into songs from their wonderful album of last year, State of grace, and none better than the great paean to lost friends ‘Angels gone before’ – matter of fact verses giving way to the wry, poignant refrain, and spirits kept up by Dee’s brilliantly nimble, swinging piano runs.
Annie took a moment after that to dip into her treasure trove of life experiences, dusting off a story about wanting to go to St Joe’s as a girl – the be all and end all, apparently. She took a swig from her glass of brandy, walking stick in the other hand, her prop and her crutch as she called them.
Anecdotes played a key part in the show in fact. Later the others left the stage to Dee for a few numbers and she told a hilarious story about spotting Jesus in the audience at a show in Detroit – “He loved us”. There was also her “amusing anecdote” about Bobby Slott and Freddie Weiss – she stood up and walked front stage to deliver off-mike, almost bumping her head off the low ceiling in the process.
Annie’s vocal delivery swung between plain broken – the heartbreaking ‘Perfect gift’ (“I’ve the perfect shade of lipstick, in a perfect case of platinum”) – and a Tom Waits-style growl – ‘Back in the day’, during which she danced tentatively around her walking stick, turning it into some form of Bronx maypole. This latter, and the rousing Bad Seeds-alike ‘Pilgrim traveller’, also featured a barrelling blues attack by Dee on keys. Her accomplished range of piano styles – allowing just as easily for a light touch you could associate with showtunes – was another central feature of the gig.
Like their contrasting physical appearances, the chemistry of their personalities onstage was intriguing. Annie was the wisecracking street talker, the kind of person you’d happily listen to for hours, sentences falling over each other, offering recollections and observations from what you could call a full life. A bawdy raconteur.
Dee was a different personality altogether, though no less interesting. There was a joie de vivre about her, a lightness but with plenty of hidden depths. Her solo “song about a stick” was a prime example. The audience initially sniggered at the thought (just as she intended), but as a song about protection and camouflage unfolded, she expertly drew us into her unique emotional world, with heart-stirring, broken piano chords and a lovely airy quality to her singing. Although arch and knowing, her delivery still had buckets of heart and soul.
They finished with the elegaic title track of the current album, a dignified call to arms, sung jointly by both women – “while we’ve got something left to lose, we’ve got to get out of this place, blow this busted city and find a state of grace.”
It was a stunning sign-off and they paraded through the audience, through the full room, to loud acclaim, these two kindred spirits, this impossible-to-pin-down double act.
As is usually the case, knowing the current album pretty well added a lot to the enjoyment of the show. A friend of mine at the gig - who is very familiar with Annie’s extensive back catalogue, something I am not - wasn’t convinced that she could still cut it as a live performer, that her singing voice wasn’t up to muster. I don’t have a problem with it personally - it’s not a conventional singing voice anyway, think Lou Reed in the early 70’s, but it is full of inflection and character and for me it works against the piano arrangements, making a kind of louche cabaret that’s sprightly enough to keep you entertained but leaves room for plenty of shading and poignancy.
The Q&A I did with her a couple of weeks before the Cork show was also for WeAreNoise, here it is –
Hi Annie, thanks for taking the time. You’ve had an amazingly varied career, which takes in visual art as well as musical projects. Do these different activities inform each other or do you have to cut yourself off, so to speak, in order to record an album for example?
THANKS FOR YOUR QUESTIONS;
UNFORTUNATELY THERE IS A DISCONNECT BETWEEN DIFFERENT MEDIUMS. WHEN PAINTING I JUST SET UP AND DO IT. IF IT ‘SAYS’ SOMETHING THAT’S AN ASIDE, BUT I JUST START AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS. MUSIC ON THE OTHER HAND HAS A LOT MORE CONSIDERATIONS.
FOR ME THERE MUST BE A CERTAIN LOGIC, IT NEEDS TO MAKE SENSE, NOT JUST LYRICALLY BUT ALSO STRUCTURE WISE. ALL OF WHICH IS THE OPPOSITE OF PAINTING. ACTING ON THE OTHER HAND IS A WHOLE OTHER THING AS IT’S INTERPRETING SOMEONE ELSE’S VISION – TAKING THEIR CREATION AND GIVING IT FORM – SO BACK TO YOUR QUESTION THEY’RE ALL LITTLE WORLDS UNTO THEMSLEVES.
Can you tell me a little bit about your painting and multi-media work?
MY MOTHER WAS AN AMAZING PAINTER. GENIUS. AS MY FATHER WAS A PRINTER WE HAD NO SHORTAGE OF PAPER. SO LIKE ALL KIDS I MESSED AROUND WITH PAINTING BUT IT WASN’T TILL THE 90S THAT I STARTED TO REALLY PAINT, AND EVEN THEN I WAS JUST MESSING AROUND TILL 1998 WHICH IS WHEN I STARTED MARATHON SESSIONS, I MEAN FROM EARLY MORNING TILL WAY INTO THE NIGHT.
IT WAS SUDDENLY SOMETHING I JUST HAD TO DO. AND OUT OF THAT CAME OUTSIDE ENCOURAGEMENT WHICH GAVE ME THE COURAGE TO ACTUALLY SHOW PEOPLE WHAT I WAS UP TO. AS FAR AS THEATER ETC, BASICALLY I WAS ASKED TO APPEAR IN THINGS, FIRST AS A SINGER, BUT THEN GIVEN LINES ETC. I LEARN AS I GO.
I’M MAKING IT SOUND MUCH EASIER THAN IT WAS/IS!! I SPENT MUCH OF MY LIFE NOT BEING IN A POSITION TO MAKE PLANS, HENCE THAT AFFORDED ME FREEDOM TO SAY YES TO PEOPLE WHO COULD MAKE PLANS. HOPE I’M MAKING SENSE. I NEVER TOOK A LESSON IN ANYTHING IN MY LIFE! GOD TENDS TO PROTECT DRUNKS, FOOLS AND CHILDREN!!
Your current album with Baby Dee, State of grace ON Tin Angel Records, was one of my favourite of last year. Firstly, how did that collaboration come about?
I AM AND HAVE BEEN AN ENORMOUS FAN OF HERS FOR A VERY LONG TIME. WE TRAVELLED IN THE SAME CIRCLES, HUNG OUT ALL THE SAME PLACES, LIVED WITHIN BLOCKS OF EACH OTHER BUT NEVER MET – IT WAS COMIC. WE FINALLY MET OUTSIDE MY OLD APARTMENT. EXCHANGED INFO WITH THE IDEA OF COLLABORATING, THEN LIFE TOOK OVER AND ANOTHER 10 YEARS WENT BY. FINALLY WE WERE BOOKED ON A TOUR OF SPAIN TOGETHER. IT TOOK A FEW MORE YEARS BEFORE WE HAD TIME IN OUR TOURING SCHEDULES TO MAKE IT HAPPEN BUT WITH A LOT OF ELBOW GREASE AND THE SUPPORT OF TIN ANGEL WE MADE IT HAPPEN. AND IT CONFIRMED WHAT I ALWAYS KNEW, THAT SHE’S GENIUS.
What process did you use to compose the album? Did you sit down to write the songs together?
WE MET UP IN CLEVELAND FOR WEEK LONG COMPOSING SESSIONS AND REALLY WORKED EACH SONG OUT TOGETHER (WHICH IS ALWAYS THE CASE WHEN CO-WRITING WITH SOMEONE). WE TWEAKED AND TWISTED AND I LEARNT A LOT – IT WAS HARD WORK BUT VERY SATISFYING AND JOYFUL.
Much of the album is built around Dee’s wonderful piano playing. Is that an instrument (especially as played by Dee, perhaps) that you feel a particular affinity for?
I ADORE THE PIANO AND DEE HAS A MAGIC ABILITY TO TURN A PHRASE IN SUCH AN UNEXPECTED YET CATCHY WAY – THOUGH HAVING BEEN PART OF THE WHOLE ON U SOUND POSSE I’M VERY MUCH ABOUT RHYTHM – IT’S HARD TO PUT ONE INSTRUMENT OVER ANOTHER IN A SENSE OF FAVORITES, BUT THE ELDER IN ME LOVES A PIANO!
Several of the songs are stories about departed friends (‘Angels gone before’) or lost love (‘Never dreamed you’d leave’) or the passing of time generally. Are you conscious of documenting your own generation to a certain extent?
I DON’T KNOW THAT I’M SO MUCH ABOUT DOCUMENTING A GENERATION, IT’S MORE JUST DESCRIBING MY OWN SURROUNDINGS.
There’s a certain lounge feel to some of the album. Is that a genre you enjoy appropriating or even subverting?
I LOVE CROONERS, AND THINK THAT MAYBE THE BARROOM HAS PENETRATED MY BEING – I’M NOT A BELIEVER IN GENRES AS SUCH – THAT’S WHY I LOVE HIP HOP SO, IT JUST DOES WHAT IT LIKES AND THAT’S HOW I FEEL ABOUT MUSIC. I LET THE SONG GO WHERE IT FEELS NATURAL. I THINK IF YOU TRY TO CONTRIVE A VIBE IT JUST FEELS RIGID. GOT TO KEEP IT TRUE UNTO ITSELF.
The title track of the album features twice, first sung by yourself and Bonnie Prince Billy, and then later sung by Baby Dee, resulting in two quite different versions. Can you explain the thinking behind including the song twice?
JUST THAT WE LOVE IT, AND LOVE WHAT RICHARD GUY AND MASON DID WITH THE PRODUCTION – I LOVE THAT WE HAVE THE SAME SONG WITH EACH OF US PUTTING OUR OWN SPIN ON IT.
I was also a fan of your 2011 album with Italian band Larsen (Cool cruel mouth also on Tin Angel). There was a great cover on it of ‘It was a very good year’ – a well-known standard thanks to versions by Frank Sinatra among many others. It had a really haunting air to it. What was it about that song that attracted you? Do you think these “Great American Songbook” type songs are ripe for re-interpretation or re-examination?
THATS A GREAT SONG, A GREAT NARRATIVE AND I LOVE INTERPRETING STANDARDS IF – AND IF IS THE BIGGIE HERE – I FEEL THAT I CAN 1) BRING SOMETHING TO THE TABLE OF MY OWN AND (THIS IS ANOTHER BIG IF) ONE MUST HAVE AN UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT THE SONG IS SAYING. I LEARNED THIS WHEN I COVERED CHARLES ASNAVOUR’S ‘YESTERDAY WHEN I WAS YOUNG’ FIRST IN THE 80S AND THEN AGAIN A FEW YEARS BACK – I HAD TO LIVE MORE TO KNOW WHAT THAT SONG TRULY MEANS.
Some very interesting things in there, considered answers. I'm with her on crooners.
In my follow up research I came across a few other things of interest. Firstly, an excellent interview with Annie by Valerie Siebert for The Quietus on the subject of her autobiography 'You can't sing the blues while drinking milk'. Well worth a read - the article I mean, I'm sure the book is too though, I must get my hands on a copy.
The friend I mentioned above, John Byrne, also wrote an alternative appreciation of the Cork show and included his own Little Annie playlist giving a fascinating overview of her career, the depth and breadth and longevity of it. Here it is, again hosted by WeAreNoise.
And finally these pieces Annie filmed with Southern Records a few years back, where she visited some notorious underground New York landmarks from the past and gave a brief background on each, including her own experiences of them over the years. They are superb and hilarious and engrossing and they beat the shit out of any travel guide. There are 12 in total and you should really check out the full catalogue, they are all essential. The Bowery, Studio 54 and The Plaza Hotel are just some of the locations featured. File next to (insert your New York Rock Family Tree publication of choice here).