Interview by Harry Kaplan
TL = TwangriLa AA = Amy Annelle
TL: It’s a pleasure meeting you. Thank you for doing the interview.
TL: I’ve been listening to your music in preparation for the interview, and your music has me totally smitten. I’ve never heard anything like it. I was wondering, what drives you creatively?
AA: That would be the muse. The creative force of the universe that manifests in us when we do creative things like make music and make art.
TL: Is there anything specifically as far as events or just certain times when you feel inspired?
AA: Music is something that’s always running through me. Woodie Guthrie had a really nice way of explaining music, and this is not a direct quote, but he said something like songs are like fish swimming by in a stream. Sometimes you reach into the stream and you pull out one that’s fully formed and ready to go, and other times you pull one out and maybe it’s not quite there yet, so you put it back in so it can grow some more.
I find that music is like that. Sometimes a song will come to me, and it’ll be just right there, whether it’s mine, or I’m working on a song that someone else wrote. And then other times, it just—I got notebooks full of unfinished songs. It doesn’t really worry me one way or the other. It just happens when it happens.
TL: I got you. That’s a great analogy, by the way, the Woodie Guthrie. I never heard that before. I like it. I think it’s a good way of describing something that’s very difficult to describe. How are you now physically? Doing pretty well?
AA: I wouldn’t say I’m doing “well”. I’m doing better than I was a year ago. I had my fourth major surgery for endometriosis last year, and that was different than the previous three in that I had done a ton of research, and gotten involved with this amazing endo advocacy group called Nancy’s Nook for Endometriosis Education. It was through Nancy’s Nook that I was able to find an actual specialist who did excision surgery.
A lot of doctors are not up to date with best practices or the newest research, even if they mean well. They tend to minimize it, but endo is a complex illness with far-reaching impacts. There’s not that many surgeons who do excision surgery, and Nancy’s Nook keeps an international list of these vetted surgeons so that people with endo can seek them out. They also have a detailed files section so you can become empowered about what is a poorly understood disease, for the most part. It can be quite a journey to find skilled care if you have endometriosis. Endo can range from mild to totally debilitating, and mine just happened to be on the debilitating side. It really trashed my body.
TL: I think your story’s so inspirational. I suffered my own catastrophic illness, but you can go one of two ways. You can retreat and concede or you can continue to fight and never stop. It appears to me, you’ve chose option number two.
AA: There were long stretches of time where I could barely sing, could barely leave the house. The illness took a heavy toll on my life and my relationships. But you’re right. There’s just this voice that kind of whispers to keep going and not to lose hope.
TL: I think we all have a survival instinct, where when our body knows something, we fight extra hard. Some people do. Not everybody. But it seems that you are, and that’s great. I hope for a speedy recovery for you.
AA: Thanks. There’s not a cure for endometriosis, so it’s a matter of managing the symptoms in the most skillful way that is appropriate to your personal situation. In my case, it was excision surgery. Unfortunately, there’s not a magic bullet. But excision surgery has helped me recover enough that I’m going to be playing my first solo show in five years.
TL: That’s completely amazing. Why don’t you explain this first one coming up.
AA: It’s at a folk club, an intimate listening room in Houston, and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s been a lot of work just getting everything—getting all the gears turning, but I’m so happy to be playing again.
TL: I think it’s fantastic. Hopefully more to come after that. I guess, take it one show at a time, right? I’m hopeful more will follow. You mentioned, are you working on a new album now? I assume you are.
AA: I am, yeah. It’s going to be called “High Country.” I’m just putting the finishing touches on the songs for that. I’m not in a big hurry to get into the studio. There’s a wonderful bunch of people I’ve worked with over the years, and I’ll be working with some of them again, I’m sure. It’ll be this year some time. I’m just taking it one day at a time, and one show at a time right now. Because I still have to really take care of myself and pace myself.
TL: Absolutely. But at least it’s good that there’s things that you’re planning, and then you’ll get there when you’re physically able to do so. That’s awesome. I think it’s great. I’ll be looking forward to it. So creatively, are you a words first writer, or do you go with the melodies, or does it just depend?
AA: It really kind of depends. Words and melodies will come together sometimes. I’ve worked a lot with unusual tunings that are my own open tunings, so when I find a tuning that’s magical, it’s almost like the song just comes out. It reveals itself out of the tuning.
TL: I think that’s a good description. The music inspires you, and then it causes your creativity to come out in ways that maybe it wouldn’t have.
AA: Yeah. I don’t know. I write some songs that are more traditional, and I write some songs that are more experimental.
TL: I really like the experimental ones. You use a lot of interesting sounds and timing. Not just tuning, but I think some of your timing structures are different, too, aren’t they? I’m no musician, but it sounds a little different. I really like it. I think it’s unique.
AA: Thank you. I feel like time is elastic. Time is just like melody in a song. Time and space is just like melody and words.
TL: I totally agree with that.
AA: I like to play with it. That’s typical of jazz, too, as far as the elasticity of phrases and tones.
TL: And the improvisation and having the basic song structure is the canvas, but the paint can change from day to day.
AA: I used to do a lot more of that back, maybe around early- to mid-2000s. My music was pretty improvisational because I was playing with different people on the road all the time. Lately I’ve been drawn to the challenge of simplicity. When I wrote the songs on the Cimarron Banks, I wanted to write almost the simplest songs that I could. The songs basically wrote themselves as far as the structure and stuff. I think hopefully as you mature as an artist, you get better at getting out of your own way, and trusting the sound of the voice that comes from yourself.
TL: It’s discipline, really. Sometimes less is more.
AA: I also don’t really feel the need to willfully obfuscate anymore.
TL: I think like you said, it’s an evolution, right?
AA: Yeah. There’s so much mystery to be found in any song that you don’t have to put more in, necessarily.
TL: Or force it. I agree with that. In your words, how would you describe your music?
AA: I don’t. I just say it’s music, because I don’t really believe in genres. I think that—some people like that, because it helps them contextualize my music with music that they already know, but I’m much more interested in the places that are on the fringes, on the margins. Things perceived but not fully seen. I’ve often found my inspiration in places where things intersect in an unexpected way. Whether that’s regions of the country, or styles of music, or even the backgrounds of the musicians who play with me. It’s in the way that I write songs. The way that I sing. I think that’s where the mystery is, where unexpected things are rubbing up against each other in the night. That’s exciting to me. That’s kind of getting into the hypnagogic state. You know what that is?
TL: No, hypno what?
AA: A hypnagogic state is the in-between place, between dreaming and being awake. I think that’s where good music lives.
TL: I agree with that. I think that’s the type of music that stays with you the longest, for whatever reason. That dreamy stuff.
AA: It doesn’t necessarily have to be “dreamy” to come from that state. It’s more of an intention. I think that our dreaming world is proof that every human is incredibly creative and incredibly weird, and has a beautiful language for allegory and metaphor. That’s what songs are. That’s what I mean about the dream place. It’s universal.
TL: I think it’s a great approach. So in other words, you’re sort of a willing participant. You let the music take you instead of the other way around.
AA: Oh, yeah. Who am I to get in the way?
TL: Who are your influences? Both present and past?
AA: That’s another pitch that I don’t really like to swing at. I mean, I think you can probably get an idea by listening to my music.
TL: I know that you’ve covered Townes Van Zandt, which I thought was a great cover.
AA: Thank you. He’s one of the greats.
TL: Absolutely. And I hear similarities between the two, not musically as much as lyrically.
AA: Wow. Thank you.
TL: Your music’s really good with exceptional writing.
AA: Thank you.
TL: Do you seem to go more towards the sad? Do you try to hit all emotions, or just again, it depends?
AA: It’s visceral. What is going to come out is going to come out. When I choose to sing someone else’s song, sometimes it’s something that I need to explore myself emotionally. Or it’s just some place I want to go. Because a song is like a vehicle. It’s like time travel, too. I love playing old songs, because it’s like you’re reaching across time to connect with this other voice and this other artist. I’m crazy about Jimmy Rogers and Memphis Minnie.
And Little Hat Jones, Hank Williams, but then all the British folk revival stuff, like Sandy Denny, Roy Harper and Bert Jansch. Different folk and experimental musicians of the world. My friend Michael Hurley was a huge influence on me, because I toured with him a lot and I got to see him play night after night. I think the world of his songs and his guitar playing. I think I kind of got my walking bass lines from Michael Hurley. And Mother Maybelle, too, though, you know.
TL: Mother Maybelle?
AA: Yes. Mother Maybelle Carter from the Carter Family. She’s influenced every single guitar player since she picked up a guitar, I think. But I also really love huasteca music from Mexico. It’s a rhythm called huapango.
TL: Oh. I’m not familiar.
AA: Yeah. You can hear some of those rhythms in my playing.
TL: So you take things from all over the world and incorporate. That’s great.
AA: Yeah. I can’t really take it, because it belongs to itself. But I—
TL: I didn’t mean take, more use.
AA: That rhythm is just so beautiful and it’s so close to the heart of everything. And it’s fun to play.
TL: Well, that’s what it really amounts to, isn’t it? You got to enjoy it, and you got to like it. It sounds like music is really important to you.
AA: Well, yeah. It’s been my life’s work.
TL: That’s great. I’m glad you’re getting back into it.
AA: Thank you.
TL: It’s exciting that you’re going to be playing a live show, and hopefully more after that.
AA: Yeah. I think I’m going to play some festivals and shows this summer.
TL: Good. I’ll keep my eyes open.
AA: Thanks, Harry.
TL: Where can people find your music and get information about you?
AA: I have a website, which is High Plains Sigh www.highplainssigh.com and a Bandcamp page, http://amyannelle.bandcamp.com. I’m not into social media that much but you can find me out there. I only recently started putting songs onto YouTube, because I didn’t trust it when it started taking off. I finally just said, all right. I want people to be able to hear my songs.
TL: Unfortunately people don’t listen to the radio nearly as much as they did 20 years ago. So YouTube is one of the only places that people can hear good music, in my opinion.
AA: Yeah. And community radio and freeform radio.
TL: I know, but they’re harder to find. I know you can still find them.
AA: Yeah. We got KOOP radio here in Austin, and we got KAZI, which is the African American community station. And there’s a couple pirate radio stations in Austin, too, so I’ve played on those. WFMU in New York. And then college radio, and public radio stations. I like playing live on the radio.
TL: People just need to know about your music, because people would love it.
AA: Well, thank you.
TL: Thank you Amy. I wish you good health and success in the future.