Photo by Todd Cooper
The Blessing & the Curse
Next Big Thing winner Anna Gilbert’s search for the perfect melody
by Rick Levin
As much as anyone can be born into her calling — fate being what fate is — Anna Gilbert was born into music. The Eugene native’s earliest childhood memories are suffused with sound, melody, the songs of James Taylor and Ricky Skaggs, Joni Mitchell — artists whose work she seems to have breathed through the gills. Gilbert’s father was a music major and teacher before becoming a minister, and both her parents were in a bluegrass band. They taught her piano and encouraged her to sing. “When I was 4 or 5, my Dad would play chords on his guitar and I would make up songs about whatever was in my head… flowers, cookies, Grandma,” Gilbert recalls. “Music was always in the background. It wasn’t a question of whether or not you were going to like music in our family.”
Gilbert, the singer/songwriter, remains a relatively unknown quantity in the Eugene scene, at least for the time being. She’s a mystery in her own town, which may or may not have something to do with her identification with the Christian music scene (but more on that later). Like some exotic plant left to grow and bloom in a private greenhouse, tended to carefully by a tight-knit clan of cultivators and admirers, she has kept herself close to home, literally; for instance, the album of holiday music she released this year, aptly titled Christmas, was recorded with a group of musician friends at her parents’ house, all of them playing live into a single condenser mic. This stands as a fitting symbol of Gilbert’s career to date — which is not to say she lacks ambition or know-how. Her musical apprenticeship includes time spent in Nashville with some pretty big-name players, and her list of collaborators thus far is impressive.
But home — with its strings and heartstrings, its Bibles and bluegrass — is where the fire was kindled.
A Room of Her Own
For Gilbert, then, appreciating and enjoying the surrounding soundtrack of her childhood quickly evolved into something more inspired and hands-on: a desire to make songs of her own. Music became her lingua franca, one she was, and is, intent on mastering. And, at just 28 years of age, Gilbert’s made some pretty impressive headway. On her song “Room to Breathe,” for instance — which garnered this year’s Next Big Thing single award, voted on by EW readers — she sings: “I know there will come a day when we never felt so free, if we found the room to breathe,” after which she floats a fragile, whispery string of “la la las” that perfectly accents the song’s gossamer melody. Don’t for a second take those la-las lightly; their very simplicity can be a signal of top-notch songwriting. Whether it’s Van Morrison’s sha la la-ti-da in “Brown Eyed Girl” or Mick Jagger’s yeah yeah yeah whooo in “Brown Sugar,” a few well-chosen, well-placed syllables, repeated like an incantation, can work a kind of pop magic, causing a tune to stick pleasantly in your craw for days on end.
Of course, there’s more to a good song than do-re-mi and hummable hooks. What Gilbert strives to capture in her songwriting, she says, is the combination of “a really great lyric with a really great melody,” citing songs like James Taylor’s “Copper Line,” Joni Mitchell’s “River” or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as classic examples of the kind of word-music melding “that kills people.” She says that those composers who are able to concoct a sort of melodic alchemy, turning the intimate and personal into something universal, gain a “major street cred” that she’s always admired. The Beatles, Paul Simon, Alison Krauss, Norah Jones — “That’s sort of where my side comes in,” Gilbert says of her interest in songwriting.
“It’s really quite amazing when a songwriter captures something so universal about life, turns it into a beautifully written lyric and then marries it to the perfect melody,” Gilbert explains. Let’s call this the Good Vibrations Theory, courtesy the perfectest pop song ever written: The search for what Gilbert calls the “magic” resonance that occurs when one person’s thoughts are orchestrated in such a way that they “conjure up an emotion or a memory” in just about anyone who hears the song. The devil is in the details — such as “the way the sunlight plays upon her hair” — but the universal is the domain of the cosmos or the creator or what have you.
As with any artist devoted full-time to her craft, Gilbert understands that perfection is not an end in itself but a process. And a goad. “After I’ve finished a song,” she says, “there is this brief feeling of satisfaction, but it is quickly squelched by this sense that I’ve still not quite done it yet. I’ve not said ‘it.’ And that’s part of what drives me to write song after song… I suppose the plight and tension within every artist is that they will continue to reach for their most inspired piece for the rest of their lives, but that piece will never come.” She describes this missing piece — or perhaps, artistically speaking, peace — as “the blessing and the curse” of self-expression.
What has not been missing in Gilbert’s life of late is a swell of professional recognition for her work, even though she remains fairly unknown in her own hometown. Her EW Next Big Thing award was only the most recent in a pretty good run of industry nods and lauds. Gilbert was twice named “Inspirational Artist of the Year,” in 2007 and 2009, by the Nashville-based Indieheaven.com, and she recently sold publishing rights for two of her songs to Warner/Chapel. This summer Gilbert and her band — which includes her husband and all-around career manager/helpmeet/bodyguard Koa Paakaula — played a Washington, D.C., gig hosted by the ONE Campaign, an international aid organization funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and named after the U2 song. And she has two early albums under her belt, God Sees (recorded when she was 19) and Falling in a Beautiful Place, both of them self-produced and independently released.
Maybe the most significant turning point in Gilbert’s career, however, came as something of a lark — a simple twist of fate. In 2008, while attending a music conference in Seattle, her work caught the attention of Charlie Peacock, a Grammy Award-nominated singer, songwriter, producer and label head whose long and storied career has crossed paths with such diverse artists as Al Green, Marc Ribot, Amy Grant, Sal Valentino and Mitch Easter. This little bit of serendipity — Gilbert was sitting in a hallway when Peacock surprised her by asking for a CD of her stuff — sparked an artistic collaboration that led to Gilbert’s third and latest full-length album.
Recorded at The Art House, Peacock’s studio in Nashville, Your Love My Medicine is an accomplished piece of work, full of songs that are at once intimate and accessible. Gilbert’s vocals are gentle but assured, her writing searching but never querulous — like a kinder, gentler Aimee Mann. Despite the occasionally overt Christian leanings of her work, her songs nonetheless fit snugly among the mainstream offerings of any number of contemporary female pop vocalists like Krauss or Swift or Jones, or even that moodier clutch of crooners like Mann or Chan Marshall of Cat Power. There are would-be or could-be radio hits on Your Love My Medicine. All things being equal, and with a little luck, it’s only a matter of time before Gilbert breaks out, as they say in the biz.
Photo by Trask Bedortha
But in the beginning…
… before Peacocks and Nashville apartments and Next Big Things, it was just young Anna and a tape deck — one of those old-fashioned boxy jobs, Gilbert says laughing, where you have to press the record and play buttons at the same time to capture something on tape. This is how she got her songs down, sitting at home, just a teenager and a machine.
“I have really bad stage fright,” Gilbert says by way of explaining why, as she made her way through the Eugene school system, from Churchill High to the UO’s English department, she rarely performed in public. She notched a few solo singing parts in jazz choir and church, but other than that she “didn’t think much past songwriting,” she says. Part of that reluctance to show off her talent beyond the comfortable confines of home, Gilbert says, came from a sense of alienation, of being an outsider and loner at school. “I had a physically awkward phase in elementary school, like many kids do, and got teased because of it,” she says. Bullies: the unacknowledged legislators of art. Nothing like a little adolescent hazing to plant the seeds of a good song.
“Songwriting is how I process life’s quandaries,” Gilbert elaborates, “and that’s why many of my songs are not tied up neatly in a little package full of conclusion and closure.” She points to “Save You,” inspired by a friend suffering from a life-threatening disease. The song displays Gilbert’s gift for balancing her strong religious faith with a more vulnerable exploration of uncertainty and the pain of being. “I want understanding,” she sings, “a humble view, patience to need no rescue from the absence of answers…”
“There is beauty in subtlety and patience,” she says. “I am a true minimalist at heart. I love simple. Yet simple can be so complicated for people.”
Entering the limelight can be complicated as well, however broad or intense its arc of illumination might be. As a performer who wants her music to reach — and hopefully help — a wider audience of potential fans (at least wider than her circle of family and friends), Gilbert is learning that she can’t have her cake and eat it, too. The show must go on. Unless you’re as fucked-up nuts as Brian Wilson or decide to pull a Cat Stevens repudiation of the whole wild world of celebrity, any singer worth her salt eventually must meet her audience face to face, from atop a stage, where the only legitimate thing she has to hide behind is, ironically enough, her substantial talent.
So, following the April, 2009, release of Your Love My Medicine, Gilbert and husband Paakaula embarked on a whirlwind summer tour of the states, booking their own shows and driving themselves in a ’96 Toyota Tacoma to whatever place would have them — from the Curb Café in Nashville, where they were living at the time, to Portland’s Mississippi Pizza, and seemingly all points between. “It was crazy,” Gilbert says of a tour that included more than 60 performances and featured such bizzaro events as driving through a killing heat wave in Missouri (minus air conditioning), running smack into a tornado in Nebraska, and spending their fourth wedding anniversary camped out at a rest stop in Pine Bluff, Wyoming. “As far as you have to pay your dues,” Gilbert says, “we were paying our dues.”
Despite the trial of tornados and dues paid, playing live remains a work in progress for Gilbert. “How do you captivate an audience?” she asks rhetorically. “Even the talking between songs. It’s the most difficult art to do. I don’t consider myself a great performer, but I always try to be honest, prepared and as authentic as possible when I play live. I love playing with the band,” she says, a revolving cast of musicians that includes Paakaula on bass, Wilson Parks on guitar, EunJu Kim on cello, Andy Gilbert on mandolin, Josh Harman on violin, and percussionists Erik Baker and Grahm Doughty. “We always have fun,” Gilbert says of playing with her band. “But I think half the battle of being a singer/songwriter is getting back into the same headspace I was in when I wrote the song.”
We Interrupt This Program
At this point in this particular article, Dear Reader, I’m compelled to break in with a more-or-less graceless authorial intrusion and address what some of you might be considering a rather lumbering elephant in this particular room — an elephant whose name, in this particular instance, is Contemporary Christian Music, or CCM (as it’s known in the biz). But let us first make an important distinction, one that may play out just down the road a ways: There are bands that happen to be Christian (U2 being perhaps the most notable example), and then there are Christian bands, the latter of whom are often pigeonholed — some might say ghettoized — in a sub-category of popular music that some of us, for reasons artistic, spiritual or otherwise, wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot staff. I’m thinking of artists like Amy Grant, Petra, eleventyseven.
For many CCM artists, their medium of music is also, or even primarily, a means of proselytizing or otherwise spreading the good news of their Christian faith. Granted, this is as much a marketing strategy as a missionary position — we don’t slot Al Green, Bach, Prince, Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Mozart, Johnny Cash or Handel into some closet labeled “Christian Music” — but for an artist of faith, the issue becomes one of portrayal and presentation, and its attendant risks. Even Charlie Peacock, Gilbert’s most recent producer and collaborator, has said in the past that he feels “conflicted” when he contributes to “Christian Music” as a genre, preferring to carry his work out “in the arena where I began my musical and spiritual journey: the realm of popular music.”
And while it’s hardly the case that any of Gilbert’s songs are overtly or athletically Jesus-y, raising the roof for Christ, her faith does remain an integral component of and inspiration to her songwriting (those “yous” occasionally get capitalized in the lyrics), and she remains linked to artists and publications and producers like Peacock, Indieheaven.com and RELEVANT magazine that, although often progressive and cutting edge within their scope, nonetheless tend to lead strongly with their Christian identities. Maybe it’s merely a matter of degree, but at any rate it had to be asked: Beyond the personal aspects of her faith, upon which I would never presume to intrude, what are Gilbert’s feelings about being more or less identified as a Christian music artist — or does that even apply at this moment in time.
“I am definitely, absolutely a Christian,” Gilbert says. “My faith wants me to do something great in this world,” adding that “the U2 side is kind of where I fall” when it comes to being both a musician and an individual of Christian faith who wants to use art and celebrity to do good in the world. And yet, like Peacock, Gilbert seems to have qualms with any category that might be limiting, whether artistically or in terms of what audience hears or doesn’t hear your work. For instance, “World Music,” as a category in and of itself, has always seemed a sort of amorphous squishy balm that white, middle-class liberals rub on their consciences in order to feel, well, appropriately worldly and liberal. But music is, after all, for the world, right?
“If there’s anything that I would hate it would be to be categorized,” Gilbert explains, adding that she means no particular disparagement toward any one genre. “I want to be a good songwriter, and a good songwriter should be able to write for any genre. Good songwriters write from their heart, and that’s what I always strive to do. Sometimes I’ll write a song based on my faith in God, and other songs are about people or friends, relationships or heartache, good times and bad.”
In other words: Good music is good music, period, and, for the record, Gilbert is an excellent songwriter and mature vocalist who is willing to tackle the tough, low-flying stuff of everyday life — the meat and gristle of our emotions, the ups and downs of our days and loves — without always falling back on treacley platitudes or easy answers. But, through it all — and this is perhaps the most impressive aspect of Gilbert’s writing — runs a strong current of empathy and understanding for our all-too-human foibles. Gilbert’s strong suit as a writer is her sense of forgiveness and grace, her openness to address the many ways people continue to let each other down, abandon each other, hurt each other, fall in and out of love.
In “Stand on Me,” Gilbert sings: “But the more you live the more you see, that people hurt when they don’t know what they need,” and it sounds like a therapist’s permission to free yourself from unhealthy resentment and angst about past transgressions. As a songwriter, Gilbert is really, really good at pulling the figurative blade out gently, and doing the hard work of loving her friends and enemies alike. It appears she takes Jesus’ lovely Sermon on the Mount seriously, as a way to focus her art — comforting the mourners, rewarding the peacemakers, satisfying the hungry.
A Small, Good Thing
Gilbert’s prolific production schedule and her creative drive are the twin engines on a locomotive that just keep chugging along. In December of 2009, Gilbert released Like a River, an EP produced by Peacock’s son Sam Ashworth; the 5-song disc was recorded in a week with Ashworth, Gilbert and Mark Slocum playing all the instruments. That sense of immediacy and close collaboration comes across in both quality and content. The album’s spare title track, which pulses with foreboding, was inspired by the twister she and her husband drove up on in Nebraska, and overall the EP finds Gilbert and gang moving toward an edgier, sharper sound that still buoys the fleeting beauties and human frailties that capture the singer’s eyes. Minneapolis songwriter Paul Westerberg titled a song “Sadly Beautiful,” and this sentiment perfectly captures that certain haunting something about the sound/word journeys of Gilbert’s music. The clarity of her oft-heartbreaking vision and the beauty of her melodies are oddly uplifting. It’s the same reason all those smart, mopey kids in high school listened to The Smiths or The Cure. Gilbert has a similar burnt romanticism that draws folks in.
So, where to from here for an artist seemingly able and willing to challenge herself in ever-new stylistic directions? Arena Metal Rock? Hip Hop? Gypsy Punk? Nope. “I’ve been writing a lot of material on my acoustic guitar lately,” Gilbert says, “and some of the songs would sound super cool with a mandolin and some dark angsty fiddle. I’ve been talking to some of my Nashville friends about helping me produce a ‘New Grass’ CD and so far no one thinks the idea is crazy,” she adds. She and Andy Leftwich, a member of Ricky Skagg’s Kentucky Thunder band, have already recorded a bluegrassy song Gilbert and Peacock wrote a couple years back. “It was such a fun recording session,” she says. “And honestly, that style of music is a no-brainer for me.”
For the immediate future, however, Gilbert is back to hunkering down. “I am planning on doing a lot of songwriting in the next few months,” she says. “I feel like I have a handful of songs incubating and I just need to give them some time and space to come out.” There will also be some touring next year, and the type of touring she plans on doing, Dear Reader, brings us full circle, right back where it all started. “We’ve talked about doing a ‘living room’ tour with some Portland friends,” Gilbert explains. “The idea of sharing story and song in an intimate environment really appeals to me… It’s a good thing.”
Next Big Thing CD Release Party
Winner Anna Gilbert is joined by finalists Adventure Galley on Saturday, Nov. 20, 9:30pm at Luckey’s
Other Next Big Thing CD Release Party dates:
Endr Won & the Cave Dwellers play this Friday, Nov. 12, at Diablo’s Downtown Lounge
God’s Machine Gun plays Doc’s Pad on Thursday, Nov. 18
ATA GHOST will be at The Black Forest on Friday, Nov. 19
All showtimes 9:30pm. See NIGHTLIFE listings for details