By David Nilsen
“We’ve been waiting here
For far too long, our shoes are wet
Waiting for this rain to pass us by”
So begins the title track on Umbrella, the debut album by musician Anna P.S., and those words convey the weariness that weaves its way throughout the album’s simple but resonant songs. It’s a weariness that keeps a blanket of hope tucked up under its chin, even as the rain keeps falling outside the windows. Grace always lurks around the corner on these tracks that layer delicate vulnerability over the hearty stock of this songwriter’s spirit.
After Anna’s recent show at The Coffee Pot in Greenville, Ohio, I asked her where that sense of weariness on her album comes from. “Life,” she offered, and after a beat she laughed with an energy that belied the emotional fatigue of her lyrics. She went on to explain that she started writing songs when she was thirteen or fourteen, and those private musical creations had provided her a sense of companionship during teen years in which she often had few friends. “Even if I’m not in a lonely place anymore, a lot of my songwriting comes from a place of loneliness. People are really lonely. I want my songs to be hopeful, but hopeful in a way that says, ‘Me too. I see you, and I’ve been there.’”
Anna has had the chance to begin making those connections more over the last year since she quit her previous job and began her journey as a full-time musician. After spending years as a sound engineer, Anna wanted to spend more time playing her own music for live audiences. A few years ago, she spent time in the band Shiny Shiny Black before making her first forays as a solo artist. “They gently kicked me out of the nest,” Anna says when talking about her former bandmates, “They told me, ‘You need to work on your own music, and you’re not doing it, because you’re taking all this time with us.’ It was the most loving and good thing they could have done.” She’s been writing and performing as Anna P.S. for three years now.
In concert, Anna plays acoustic guitar and—unexpectedly—the flute. She uses a looper pedal to sample her own guitar and loop it back while she plays flute interludes during her songs, bringing a unique element to her concerts. At some point, she hopes to add another vocal mic that will allow her to loop the flute as well. “Everything needs flute and foot percussion,” she laughs.
The flute wasn’t always Anna’s favorite instrument, but she stuck with it after picking it up in the fifth grade. Her parents made her and her siblings take up both the piano and a band instrument in grade school, and paid for lessons. If the kids worked hard enough, their parents would buy them better instruments. Whether or not she always enjoyed the work at the time, those years of instruction and practice provided Anna with the classical training that would form the foundation for what she’s doing now.
Born and raised in the small town of Greencastle, Pennsylvania, Anna grew up in a religious household, and while her relationship with faith issues is more nuanced and complex nowadays, that upbringing informs the vocabulary and imagination of much of her writing. Songs reference the Psalms and the travails of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness in the book of Exodus. She speaks of the church with the blend of wistfulness and angst I’m familiar with from my own life. “I’ve been missing community, and the church can provide that,” she said over a beer as we sat in The Merchant House in Greenville after her show. “I think it can be a really inclusive and accepting and loving place. But it can be hard to find that.”
Finding “that”—community, home—has been a journey that has brought both discouragement and hope to Anna and her husband, Jonah, whose parents live here in Greenville. After years of both frustration and possibility in northern Indiana, the couple bought land in rural Michigan, and have set about establishing a life they can sustain, and one that can sustain them. They’ve planted fruit trees and built a small greenhouse, and they’re hoping soon to raise animals on their land and perhaps even sell produce at local farmer’s markets. When they bought the tract, it didn’t even have electricity or running water, and their first project was to dig the road that would lead to the small house they now live in. While Anna was away for a short time last Fall, Jonah built her a small studio among their trees. They dug a well and installed solar power. The hard work and reward of taming this wild space into a home is an apt metaphor for these last few years that have instilled Anna’s current musical efforts with their distinct mix of weariness and hope.
During her Friday night show in Greenville, Anna interspersed her own songs with an eclectic list of covers, including tunes by The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkle, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Ohio songwriters Over the Rhine. On stage, she had an easy rapport with her small crowd, and her earnest songs—delivered with her gentle but unyielding voice, simple guitar parts, and lilting flute—felt like the perfect soundtrack for the early Spring evening as sunlight faded behind the downtown buildings.
As we sat at The Merchant House late into the night, Anna and my wife Melinda and I swapping stories of life’s victories and defeats, we returned more than once to the struggle of trying to support yourself doing something creative in a society that values pragmatic productivity more than anything. “It’s hard as an artist to ask for money,” she said after discussing the endless phone calls she makes trying to schedule gigs. “When I’m on stage, I try to just say, ‘if this has benefited you or touched you in some way, I appreciate anything you can contribute. I’m trying to make a living at this.’”
As any artist can attest, that’s not easy, no matter how simple you try to make the life your art is hopefully supporting. When asked about her plans for growing her musical career, Anna smiled warmly but sighed a bit before responding. “Keep chipping away,” she offered.
The song “Free” on Umbrella starts out, “I want to be with the sun and the green, and the wild things beneath my feet.” After a few drenching years, Anna and her husband are ready to put away the umbrellas. Either way, they’ll keep searching for community, whether at their Michigan homestead or on the road as Anna tours, and Anna will keep translating life’s ups and downs into songs that help her listeners feel less alone.
Anna P.S. will be performing in at The Spirited Goat in Yellow Springs, Ohio, on August 4. Be sure to follow her website and Facebook to find out about other upcoming shows in our area!