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Stylistically unbound, idealistically sound [2010-09-29]

Many fans of Little Annie were first beguiled by her unique vocal style and the wit and wisdom of her words through disparate entry points - since 1981 she has been regularly championed by many artists treading the left hand path, from the Crass and On-U Sound collectives through Current 93, Nurse With Wound and Coil to COH and Larsen. And, once arrived most choose to remain, turned on to her recordings and performances that can bear little relation musically to that of her collaborations, but retain a charm and power that reaches beyond musical form. More recently, her work with fellow New Yorker, Paul Wallfisch, a classically-trained pianist who has a equally distinguished list of collaborators (including Love & Rockets, Kid Congo Powers, Stiv Bators and Johnny Hallyday), has seen the release of two critically-acclaimed albums including the triumphant ĎGenderfulí, along with a regular sell out performances. Little Annie kindly answered our questions on the eve of a European tour, this time collaborating with Baby Dee in support of Marc Almond, giving insights into her many incarnations, aspirations and inspirations musical and otherwiseÖ

m[m]: Your releases over the past few years arguably presents your most faithful adoption of cabaret styles, bringing to mind the likes of Kurt Weill, Nina Simone and Tom Waits. And many of your post-punk contemporaries (from, say, Nick Cave to Diamanda Galas) have also chosen a similar path despite sharing your much looser and noisier origins. Why do you think this is and what has attracted you to this tradition?

A) Thank you for your questions.
OK. How to start. My father is a WW2 vet so he sang the songs of Brecht, Weill, Marlene Dietrich, Piaf while working so I grew up knowing the words of Pirate Jenny, and Lily Marlene for example. We also had old 78s of torch singers such as Bessie Smith, Helen Morgan, Fanny Brice so the tradition you speak of is as much of my musical DNA as is Gospel and Soul which was also ever present.
I'm not sure I'd call it cabaret, just natural progression of learning the craft and meaning of adult artists. I recorded Heir Encore when I was in my 20s, then again a few years ago, needless to say I now have a greater understanding of the meaning of Asnavourís lyrics than I did 20 years ago. You have to know what youíre singing about or it sounds insincere, and that knowing comes from experience. I sometimes ask myself if the trade off is worth it... that old saying "play like Charlie Parker, don't live like Charlie Parker" but who knows what he would have played like without the life he led. When I was making albums with Adrian Sherwood they may have been groove based but they also had elements of what has now flowered. You have to be honest to where you are at the time. I never made a conscious decision to take certain direction, life takes me where it takes me and with that I met the musicians Iíve worked with. I never sought anybody out to make music with, it just happened, and hence the music changed accordingly. You mentioned Nick Cave & Diamanda and like them both I too did my musical maturing in public. I think the common ground that we also share is that none of us allowed ourselves to be trapped by the concept of genre.

m[m]: True to the form, your lyrics are often very sad, but also wonderfully tender, exposing tales of characters struggling under the poverty line. Have you seen any improvements in the standard of living over the years, particularly in your home town of New York, or does inequality seem to remain constant?

A) I'm basically an optimist, that having been said, New York has changed, not because the standard of living is better for the poor, instead they just made it impossible for the middle class and poor to live here.
So the problem has just been moved. Whole communities have been basically destroyed which were once the backbone of what made New York special. It feels like a stage set! I'm sure this is happening in most major cities. Just sometime the obscenity is glaring, for example they built an art museum on the Bowery which used to be full of menísí shelters so you see groups of girls with $400 dollar shoes stepping around a man with one leg lying on the street.

m[m]: Is this an observation you indicate in your song ĎCutesy Bootsiesí whose over-privileged, ďblandĒ ďinterlopersĒ are ďconquering your cityĒ?

A) For the most part yes. Before the recession everything was so expensive that a lot of people left or were forced out. Neighborhoods replaced with Condos. BUT I was on my the city has changed so much rant to my friend Andrew WK who besides being an amazing musician is an amazing and wise person, and he turned it around and said look at it from the perspective of someone who is seeing the city for the first time, how exciting it must look to them. I love that. Itís perspective. I remember my father saying when I was kid when the city was falling apart and very dangerous, that ďitís not the same New York he knewĒ...

m[m]: Would you say itís getting harder to be an optimist these days (or is this just a pessimistís viewpoint)?

A)I think itís more a choice. Its always taken work to be an optimist but the choice not to be, though easier, does not make the world better and itís a sad path. And in some ways things are better. For example up until the later part of the 90s I was losing lots of friends to AIDS. Now I have more friends managing their HIV with medications, instead of dying .So now the issue is how do we get these medications to everyone on the planet. Take for example the USA: in the 1960s in some states there was still segregation, and interracial marriages were not only frowned upon, but downright dangerous. We now have a President who is the product of an interracial family, this is so wonderful. My father again has said he was so happy to live to see this day. This is a huge step toward a better world. Again, people use to be arrested or beaten for being Gay. After much sacrifice and hard work, we have Gay rights, and in the USA what we call hate crime laws, so if someone is attacked for their race or sexual identity or religion, itís a felony. In a few states we have Gay marriage. So now the job is to prevent attacks from happening in the first place and make Gay marriage legal for the whole country. Better is better. Itís far from perfect, people still die of starvation or lack of clean water, new problems, challenges, crises happen all the time, and probably always will. During the 1930s with the Great Depression and WW2 it must have felt like the end of the world then.
So maybe instead of the word optimist, I think itís for myself anyway Iím Idealistic.

m[m]: Your last two albums, ĎGenderfulí and ĎWhen Good Things Happen to Bad Pianosí, have been collaborations with Paul Wallfisch who youíve also regularly performed with over the past three years. How did you meet and do you plan to continue working together in future?

A) I met Paul while he was playing for Congo Norvell, which was Kid Congo's and Sally Norvellís band. I knew in my bones that he was the collaborator I had prayed for, literally asked God. So I asked God again and asked Paul and we have had an amazing 11 years since, and will definitely be working together again, actually we just recorded a new song before he left for Germany. I miss him already but will be seeing him in a few months when Dee and I will be playing some German dates with him.

m[m]: I was surprised that you hadnít worked with Baby Dee before as your current styles clearly indicate you are on similar wavelengths. How did this collaboration come about and will the two of you be releasing anything together?

A) Dee and I have been trying to work together for at least 10 years it's just that our schedules clashed, life stuff clashed etc. We knew one another via Antony and met outside my old building for a second where Antony and I both lived, wrote one another but we always had time and location constraints, that was it until we both got booked on the same bill in Barcelona along with Marc Almond years ago. Paul is in Germany for the next year or so where he now Music Director at the Stadttheater Dortmund.  So my options were to take a year off, which is not even conceivable for me, get a make believe Paul, which would not work, Paul is irreplaceable, or do something new. Since Barcelona, Dee and I are often on the same bill, and I realised this is finally a time we can do what we had talked about for so long. We are great fans of each otherís work and both strong enough in our musical identity to not so much as to change but to combine our vision. I called Dee and here we are! I just spent three weeks rehearsing with her in Cleveland and we composed some new stuff which will come out at some point. We have 25 shows lined up starting mid October so will be composing more pieces on the road.

m[m]: What processes do you adopt for songwriting? Do the words precede the music or vice versa? Do they evolve when touring? Or do you enter the studio and start from scratch?

A) The words come first; sometimes I hear a vocal melody at the same time. Then with Paul we'd get together, after he's had the chance to see the words or hear the words and vocal line and he does his magic, then we get together and tweak and fine tune things. If we have the chance to play them live before recording them itís great as often you hear new possibilities while playing them live. With Dee I again worked on the words but the difference is we were at the piano creating the song together, take a break and each of us would come back as to where we could change or edit something,. When doing dance stuff or reggae or writing for other people the lyrics were written to the music, very often while in the studio recording.

m[m]: Your first release was on Crass Records in 1981 and your most recent album, Genderful, was released by Southern, the label that grew out of Crass Records. So arguably this sees you coming full circle. What first attracted you to Crass and what prompted you to return to its matured incarnation?

A) Crass found me, literally I met Steve on my stop in NYC. Lovely people. But the label Southern is not the same as Crass Records, they are indeed related via the late John Loder, but separate entities. But some of the same faces around so thatís nice, Allison from Southern and I go back about a hundred years so thatís great to have more contact with her. 

m[m]: Might this renewed relationship with Southern mean that your elusive ĎSoul Possessioní album from 1984, your first of several collaborations with Adrian Sherwood, may be re-released?

A) Absolutely!

m[m]: Southernís website has featured extracts from your memoirs. Are you planning on publishing an autobiography in the near future? How has it felt stirring the sediments of your early life?

A) I was commissioned to write my autobiography by a big British publisher in 1999. We were at the point where the covers were being printed when 9/11 happened. Like many companies around the world people got nervous about the economy and there were major shifts going on internally, so it didnít happen but they not only paid the full advance but returned the rights of the book back to me. l've a whole second life in the nine years since 9/11 so Iím glad that the book did not come out as planned. At some point I will write about life since which is interesting as reading back the first incarnation I was struck how many things I left out that became the focus of life since. So indeed some day I am assuming it will be published, but Iím not actively seeking a publisher at this point, instead will see what comes along. Itís a big job and with touring as much as I do at present would be a commitment Iíd have to set aside time for. In a way it was very reassuring to see what seems like the end of the world at the time, in retrospect isn't, you survive, sometimes flourish even. The discipline of writing a book was an interesting exercise in itself. That was a hell of a schedule to be on!

m[m]: In one extract from your memoirs you state ďa lot of my endless quest for excitement and trouble was a misguided search for a God I could understandĒ. Youíre an ordained minister and yet not of any specific church, so have you now relaxed in your searching?

A) God is always there (it was me who was on the missing list) so I need not search but I need to see. Itís so easy to forget that, so I can relax knowing that he's there, the work part is applying the faith to the footwork. It takes effort to keep oneís faith. I plan on remaining an interfaith minister as I want to live inclusively, not exclusively. The fact that people are still doing awful things in Godís name breaks my heart (and probably Godís heart too). We must learn to respect all faiths including atheism.

m[m]: You say it takes effort to keep oneís faith, what do you find helps to keep it secure?

A)Itís again a choice, faith is something that comes and goes, and for myself, and I can only speak for myself, faith means having faith that when I have no faith, I know that if I hold on it will return. Also as much as one can get away from the jail of self the better life is, so faith is action and something that one doesnít secure,  itís a flowing and shifting and changing thing. Again thatís not easy and not something that is there all the time, but from experience for myself again as Iím not a preacher. Just another screwed up human like everyone else. If I pray God always gives an answer, and itís usually, "Get over yourself silly bitch and stop taking yourself so seriously.". God indeed has a sense of humor and laughter is prayer too.

m[m]: Your many collaborations have included both Current 93, Nurse With Wound and Coil, what was it about their so-called Englandís Hidden Reverse that attracted you?

A) Just about every collaboration Iíve ever done be it from Current 93, Coil, hip hop reggae etc I was asked. For example Iíve known David Tibet for years and through him Coil contacted me. My criteria is whether I feel I have something to add to a track. I was asked to take part in an Albanian opera, but the time commitment was enormous. There were projects I wanted to do, but just didnít have the time to do a proper job. So the question is good but doesn't really apply as I don't see stuff as genre, just as music.

m[m]: In addition to your musical work you are also a visual artist having your paintings exhibited regularly. What visual artists inspire this work and does this cross-fertilise with your music or do they serve separate strands of your personality?

A) Painting is more like praying, that's why I prefer to see myself as an icon painter, itís a way of connecting and focusing on God. Once I exhibit them then they hopefully connect with the viewer or buyer, though the process is ultimately between the Creator and myself, (the exception is a commissioned piece or a mural, then it's to convey the viewers vision) but with music, it comes from my life experiences, observations or feelings. It is absolutely for the audience, music, once you decided it's for public consumption, is an interaction between the performer and listener it has to connect or there's no point. So back to your question, they come from the same source, but the motivation is different.

m[m]: You recently did a spoken word performance supporting the paperback book launch of photographer Ruth Bayerís ĎPoppersí. How did it go? Is this music-less performance a new departure for you and can you see yourself doing a lot more of this type of thing in future?

A) It went very well, and wonderful to see Ruth, she is a talented and beautiful soul, but I have done a number of readings over the years and they never gets easier. I can tell a story off the top of my head, or act in a theater, but reading off a paper makes me so uncomfortable. Even though itís my words they feel like my throat is full of marbles. So I'm sure I will read again, but not often! I admire people who can do spoken word, itís hard to do.

m[m]: Your song Strangelove that you co-wrote with Antony Hegarty from your 2006 LP ĎSongs from the Coalmine Canaryí was chosen as the soundtrack to a Leviís television commercial of the following year. How did it feel having your music used in advertising?

A) I'm fine with it. I think the director did an amazing job; itís smart, funny and very well made. I am proud to have my music in that commercial. So it felt good! I love a number of French cosmetics and designers so house of Chanel if youíre reading this...

m[m]: Genderful namechecks a range of musical artists including Al Green, James Brown, Bootsy Collins, Mavis Staples and Donny Hathaway. Does this represent your current choices for home listening? Are there any more recent artists that have grabbed your attention of late?

A) No these are not new inspirations. They are musicians who have consistently grabbed my heart. My first love to this day has always been soul, gospel, Motown, along with great crooners, Sinatra, Judy Garland, Serge Gainsbourg, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Billy Holiday, Stevie Wonder, Teddy Pendergrass, Karen Carpenter, Marc Anthony, Frankie Vallie, Nina Simone, Piaf, Grace Jones, Tom Jones, Dusty Springfield, Barbara, Candi Stanton, Marc Almond, Scott Walker, Bessie Smith, Dalida,..I could go on. Then there is jazz; Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Charlie Parker. Hip Hop and Rap; The Last Poets, Public Enemy, MC LITE, Snoop Dogg, NWA, Montel Jordon Old School. Reggae; Dr, Alimatado, Dennis Brown, Culture, Horace Andy, Bob Marley, Bim Sherman...I can keep going forever, haven't started on classical yet, Disco, or 'world music'! (I hate the term it implies that if it isn't American or European, then itís not part of our world) As long as it makes me feel something, that's the test.

m[m]: Are there any particular styles of music that you would like to work with but havenít as yet?

A)But though these are all styles, I'll give you that, they are all music, so genre is not really a concept I prescribe to and I donít really break things into categories, and the 'biz' came up with that, itís for marketing so they know where to slot you in the album racks, which is too small a world to limit oneself to, but for the sake of saying my wishes aloud I would like the opportunity to make a real jazz album. You canít be a jazz dilettante or it sounds phoney. Iím still learning. Would like to do more Gospel. Though Iíve done 'hip hop' and rap there are some great, great hip hop and rappers out there that I would absolutely love to collaborate with. And though Iíve sung in plays, live theater, I think my voice is strong enough to do musical (and some stuff Iíve already written I believe would translate into theater well).

m[m]: Aside from the tour with Baby Dee supporting Marc Almond, what else have you planned for the future, musically or otherwise?

A) Well before tour with Marc and Dee I have a week or so of European dates so I'll be on tour for almost 7 weeks until mid December, after that will be recording with Dee at some point, doing some acting for the director John Jesurun, and return to Europe in February to do an Italian Tour. Apart from that it's a hard question because I never stop working long enough to make plans. Painting I do anyway and the same with writing. I would like to do more film acting, I keep saying I'm gonna take a break, but the last break I took I ended up violently ill and having a family emergency, so maybe I better stick to working!

m[m]: What has made you laugh recently?

A) The idea of taking any time off!

Thank You!

Many thanks go to Little Annie for finding the time to answer our numerous questions so extensively while preparing for such a busy tour. The interview pictures were taken by Greg Cristman  and used by the kind permission of Southern records
Further information on the tour and her other activities can be found on the following links:

Russell Cuzner
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