Anna Rose Finds the Light

By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor  •  October 17, 2019

“I’m no one, in a no-name town / I’m no one to you,” sings Anna Rose on “Anonymous,” the opening track on her third album The Light Between. It’s an apropos way to begin an album with so much to say about how we define ourselves. But once she sears the chorus of “Anonymous” with her fiery vocals, you’re unlikely to forget the name Anna Rose.

In the years since her last full-length, Rose relocated from New York to Nashville. You can hear the subtle influence of Music City on The Light Between – while it’s just as hard rocking and soulful as anything in her catalog, it’s also earthier, more organic-sounding. And in return, Rose is preaching the gospel of loud guitars and badass belting to Nashville audiences, most recently at the ASCAP stages at Pilgrimage and CMA Fests.

Rose’s geographic move was far from the only big life change that impacted her new record. We checked in with Rose about her unexpected path to The Light Between.

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You’ve had this strain of Americana going through your music for years but to my ears it's really come to the fore on The Light Between. Does this album feel like a stylistic change to you?

Yeah, absolutely. I think the biggest change was writing and recording and setting up a life for myself in Nashville, despite the fact that I still am a New Yorker – you know, the house that I reside in is in New York. But as I wrote the songs for this record and then as I recorded it, Nashville really began to feel like home, being able to connect with other artists who were a little less of country and had pop running through their veins and rock ‘n roll and blues.

You know, I’ve felt very lonely in making music because I didn’t feel like I had a place that understood me. Making this record was the first time I really felt like I found a scene that understood who I was, and got the vibe. I don’t know how else to describe that. It was just – there was a lot of freedom in making this record, a lot of letting go of labels that I had put on myself over the years… “I need to label myself in rock music, because if I say that I’m in pop music, that’s going to get too close to what my dad [Disney songwriting legend Alan Menken] does.” There were all these strategies of how can I separate myself, how can I set myself apart? And this was really the first record that I’ve made where I haven’t put any of that on it, and I just made music, and it’s been so refreshing.

Does being in Nashville make a difference in the music that you create?

It’s the first record that I’ve made without my band, which I played with for over 10 years. They are still some of my dearest friends and I still will play music with them whenever I get the chance to…but in making this record, it was literally just about working with different people, and people who I didn’t have history with.

Part of that too was I had to let go of the idea of playing guitar on every song on the record. If you had asked me four years ago would I ever make a record where I wasn’t playing guitar on every song, I would have said “Hell no.” Even if I’m a terrible guitar player, it’s the way that I write.

But this time, a lot of it was a letting go of the ego. There was so much of that for me, of just throwing away anything that didn’t serve the music, and a lot of that was my own ego as an artist. I just decided to not be too precious about it and to let it flow.

And making music with Paul Moak was amazing for that reason, because I think he saw what I was trying to do…it was just easy. There was no fight in the studio, there was no tension in that way. It was just “Let’s sit down and make these songs come to life and let the musicians that we’re bringing in bring their ideas to the table and spill it out in a way that feels inclusive.” It was the best process.

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Cover art for The Light Between. Photo by Greg Manis.

Can you talk about the songwriting process? Did you tend to start with a lyrical concept that you brought in and work from there?

Yeah. I have co-writers on every song on the record except for “Lessons for Liars,” which was really exciting for me, because I’ve co-written before but not with this amount of people. And it was so cool to see the through line of working with different co-writers, and seeing that the through line was me!

That’s why these songs were chosen for the record. Because I was writing for other people and for film and television and there were songs that just really hit exactly on where I am in my life and were very personal to me, and those are the ones where I hoarded them for myself [LAUGHS], like “Oh, they’re mine! So nobody record those.”

But the way it usually starts with me is that someone just throws something out there or it’ll be in conversation. They’ll be talking about something and the conversation will turn. I remember distinctly that kind of conversation with [co-writers] Skip [Black] and Cat [Gravitt]. We were just sitting around and having that conversation about how sometimes in a relationship you just want to throw it all away and start over, but you want to throw away all the history. And it was that conversation that spurred “Set the Bed on Fire.”

My personal take is that if you come in feeling like “I have to write about this today,” or come in with a melody that’s like “I have to do this,” you have to be willing to – not throw it away, but you can save it for later maybe. You have to be willing to put it aside for what’s happening in the moment in the room with that other person that you’re creating music with, ‘cause that’s the magic. Otherwise, you might as well just be sitting in a room by yourself writing. Which is also a great thing, and I love writing by myself, but they’re two very different things.                                                                                         

I wanted to ask about “Broken Is Beautiful,” which I understand is about your battle with Lyme disease. Can you talk about how Lyme disease has impacted you as a music creator and a person?

That song is at the heart of the entire record. That song is about me getting very real about how I felt, that Lyme disease had affected not just me, but my relationships and my relationship with songwriting and with being a performing artist.

I was told for years that I had early signs of lupus or the beginnings of MS…I had a lot of inflammation and I wasn’t in pain per se, but it was very clear that something was off. And then there came a big shift moment where it just exploded. I was on tour and I remember when it happened during the first show – I was onstage and essentially my hands started to tingle and it felt really strange. And then the tingling over the next few weeks went from just feeling weird to feeling a bit of numbness in the tips of my fingers and then to my, my feet and my ankles really swelling, and then just starting to forget my lyrics.

I didn’t tell anybody except my husband – because I was really scared. I was on tour with a lot of men and I didn’t want to show weakness. And I want to be really honest about that because I think it’s important that people know that it’s not weak to show when something is going on. It’s actually an incredibly powerful tool, of connecting [with] other people around you…I let it go undiagnosed for a while and I really just chose to suffer.

How it affected my music and my songwriting: I think there was that element of real fear for me, especially when my hands started to go and my lyrics started to go, that my career was over. And that was what I didn’t want to talk about with anyone. I was very scared that I couldn’t write a song. And that was the biggest thing. What I realized through the whole thing, first it was “Well, if I can’t perform who am I? If I can’t get onstage anymore, if I can’t remember my lyrics, who am I? “If I can’t play guitar or piano, I can’t write a song, how do I keep going?” There was so much fear in it.

And this record is literally a recording in time of what it was like for me to get back in the writing room not knowing. One of the first songs that I wrote in Nashville after being diagnosed was “Nobody Knows I’m Here.” And I remember being so scared in the room – just completely petrified that I wasn’t going to be able to hold up my end of the bargain, you know? That I’m supposed to be a songwriter before anything else, that if this disease had taken that from me, who am I? And that song came out, and I remember feeling like, “Oh God, maybe I can do this. Let’s write another one.” And this record really chronicled me getting sick to getting better, and not just that, but from feeling helpless to feeling completely grateful for everything that I had gone through.

The songs on The Light Between deal with some really heavy, dark subject matter but they still manage to be uplifting. How do you strike that balance?

I make music for myself, because that’s how I process the world around me. Once a song leaves my hands and it’s out in the world, it’s not mine anymore. It belongs to everybody else and it belongs to that collective unconscious of the musical tapestry that makes up our world. And I believe that really, really strongly.

For me, it’s always about the message. If there’s a message in it, if there’s a lesson in it, if there’s something that someone can take from it, what I’ve found is that if I’m really writing my truth, someone’s going to connect to it.

I’m aware that the lyrical content in the songs, just the songs in general, can feel pretty dark. For example, a song like “The Chariot,” that is one of the darker songs that I’ve ever written. I continually get people writing me messages and coming up to me at shows saying that that’s their favorite song, and that’s the one that they feel the most connected to.

And I think sometimes when you write out your pain it allows someone else to feel seen and to feel heard and to feel like they’re not alone in it. And you know, that’s my only goal…it’s really just about connecting to the people who are listening to your music.

I have to ask about your relationship with your dad, Alan Menken. I imagine you have a very different perspective on songwriting because of who your father is. What was it like growing up with a master songsmith for a dad?

Growing up with it was cool. Once you go into the music business, it’s like [his] 11 Grammys walk in with you, you know? For a very long time in my career, I was new and, at the same time, I had a reputation. It’s frustrating when I’m really proud of the work that I’m doing and, at the same time, I’m being defined by someone else’s success.

All of my own BS aside, my dad has been the most awesome person. We’re doing a couple of projects together now, and I think we’re able to do that because I did the legwork and because I have the same struggle like everyone else out there. There were certainly no steps that were skipped because of who he was.

In terms of growing up with him as a songwriter, there are two very distinct moments I remember when I was young. One is a memory that I have of sitting in the backseat of a car and Barbra Streisand came on the radio. When you’re little you just imitate, so I was just singing, and I remember both of my parents turning around from the front seat and looking at me, like, “What the f**k just came out of her mouth?”

Then I remember the moment where I wrote my first song that I was willing to share with him. I remember around five, I picked up a guitar at a family gift exchange and I just started writing songs on guitar…it was a couple of years later that I played my dad my first song that I’d written to share. I remember that his eyes kind of lit up and he goes, “Okay, now go back and write this song in the style of Sheryl Crow” … “I wonder what that song would sound like in the style of Nirvana…”

I definitely feel like I got a boot camp in a way. But on the other side of it, he would take me out of school to go see his sessions. So I got to see 80-piece orchestras playing his music at Todd-AO Studios in LA. I’m so, so fortunate to have had those experiences and they really taught me how much work it takes to get there, and how much reverence to have for the collaborations that go into those sessions. It was such an eye-opening experience to see that at a young age, and I think it just made me really reverent of everyone else around who make that happen because, because it’s not just the songwriter, it’s not just the artist – it’s everyone else around them who lifts them up.

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Anna Rose with ASCAP's Beth Brinker. Photo by Ed Rode.

And in particular for me at the moment in my career, ASCAP has been front and center of lifting me up, and helping me push my career forward. It’s not lost on me. I wouldn’t be playing Pilgrimage without ASCAP. I wouldn’t have done CMA Fest. It’s really the people – being reverent and respectful to people around you who help you do it is everything. Really – ASCAP has made a huge difference in what I do, so that’s super cool. I do everything myself, so having the support of ASCAP has been unreal. It’s been so incredible.

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The Light Between is out now. Stream or download it here: https://soulspazm.lnk.to/GlzPg

Visit Anna Rose online at annarosemusic.com