How the pandemic changed the Detroit singer-songwriter’s relationship with her sophomore record.
When I called Anna Burch, she was sitting on her balcony in Hamtramck, Michigan. She should’ve been on tour plugging If You’re Dreaming, her excellent sophomore album. Alas, the pandemic had other plans.
While Burch couldn’t have possibly envisioned the series of events that would bring normal life to a standstill, the 12 songs on If You’re Dreaming will deeply resonate with anyone currently grappling with profound isolation. It’s a lonesome record, by turns more patient and more ambitious than her gorgeous debut LP, Quit the Curse. The record acts as a showcase for a songwriter who understands when to narrow the aperture in their compositions and when to allow the listener to draw their own conclusions. If You’re Dreaming was completed well before concepts like “social distancing” entered the vernacular, but it still emerged from a place of “destabilization” according to Burch, spurred on by “sleeplessness and anxiety and uncertainty.”
While it’s difficult to expect any works of art released during a global lockdown to emerge untethered from what feels like a historic inflection point, certain projects make for quarantine companions, their themes only deepened by days spent shying away from crowds and seeking comfort in solitude. If You’re Dreaming fits squarely in that category, an album that can define—but not be defined by—this peculiar, overwhelming moment.
AdHoc: What’s it like releasing your album in the midst of a pandemic?
Anna Burch: It feels weird. During the release week, it felt good and I felt excited that it was out in the world and people seemed to be enjoying it. It’s nice to get that feedback. But it feels weird now. I keep looking at my old tour dates and it’s like, “Oh yeah, I’d be in Vancouver tonight.” It’s almost like it doesn’t feel real to me because I’m not playing the songs live. I have a more tenuous relationship with it. I’m not listening to it. I listened to it on release day. I played the vinyl and I was like, “This is so cool.” It felt like the last step. You hear the rough mixes, then the vinyl mixes, then the mastering. Hearing it put on the record felt like the final listen, it’s completely done.
But it feels weird not being able to play the songs live and keep engaging with it. I feel like it’s out in the world, I’ve shipped my child off to boarding school. I’ve heard from a few people that it’s been a fitting quarantine companion, so that feels good to know that people are engaging with it.
How do you think you changed as a person between your first record and If You’re Dreaming?
I feel like I changed a lot, both in my life, but also as an artist. Both go hand-in-hand and inform the other. I feel like my life is much more stable. I feel a little more secured, a little more confident in my abilities. I feel like I had more of an edge and energy when I was working on my first record, but now I feel a little older, a little wiser. Things have definitely changed for me quite a bit.
What was the first song you worked on for this record and what was the last song?
The first song that I wrote for the record was “Go It Alone.” That song opens the second-half of the record. The record mostly flows somewhat chronologically. The older songs, aside from “Go It Alone,” are on the first half of the record and the newer songs are towards the back. The last song I wrote for the record was “Not So Bad” and I wrote that on the day before I left to record. I sent Sam [Evian] a demo of that song at like 1 a.m. the night before and then I went to New York to record with him.
What were your expectations for this record when you first started out creating it, and how do those expectations contrast with the finished product?
I wanted to approach it a little bit differently than my first record and I was able to, thankfully, due to having a label. That helped a lot. With my first record, I was self-financing so it took a really long time and involved a lot of help from friends, so it was a more drawn-out process. Because we did most of the tracking in apartments, we couldn’t really track it very live.
So with this record, I knew that I wanted it to have a more organic feel, more of a timestamp of a recording session. We did it in 2 weeks. [For] most of the songs we tracked drums, bass, and guitar as a trio, so that was really fun. I wanted to expand the sonic palette a little bit: add some keys, some other flourishes that I wasn’t really able to think about with the first record. I felt the pared-down instrumentation, the rock band setup of electric guitar, bass, and drums was all I could wrap my head around back then. Being able to record with someone like Sam, who is a super-talented multi-instrumentalist, his home studio was perfect for the kind of setup that I wanted to work with.
The process was much, much different, A much shorter amount of time. Because of that, it feels like such a cohesive memory for me. The recording process was just two weeks, and it’s great to have that memory of that intense period of creating. It was also very relaxed. I say “intense,” but it really felt pretty, pretty easy.
How did you collaborate with Sam Evian on the album?
I loved working with Sam. He’s a really excellent bass player. He’s talented in so many ways, but I loved his bass playing. It was very cool to arrange the songs as we were recording. I brought my drummer from Detroit and we were able to mess around with a song and hit record whenever we felt like we locked in. So that was really fun. It was fun to have him as a bandmate for the recording process. His demeanor is just very calm and very friendly and open. It was just so fun to both agree about something and get excited about something and be like, “Yeah.” You know? So it just felt like a very natural partnership. I loved working with Sam.
One of the reasons the record has resonated with me is because of the distinct visual companions you’ve made in the form of music videos. Could you walk me through what it was like working on those videos?
I had a lot of fun working on the videos. It wasn’t necessarily my intention to direct all three videos from the start. I talked to some other directors, but I realized I wanted my context. I really enjoyed working with my friend Ben Collins who shot everything. He’s really amazing at the technical stuff. After working on the first one, it was like, “We know what we’re doing here.” It’s fun and it’s spontaneous, but it was also pretty well-planned-out.
The first video we shot was “Party’s Over” and I started visualizing that as early as the recording sessions. Hearing back what we had tracked, I started picturing something like a ‘60s beach party movie, maybe a runaway bride scenario. And the more I kept thinking about it—I don’t know why I had the idea for the fish monster (laughs). The lyrics are a little bit voyeuristic, so I think the idea of being watched was appealing to me. It just went from there with the ‘60s sci-fi theme. That was the first one I came up with.
I think because I started thinking about classic movie genres, I kind of wanted to make a musical for “Not So Bad.” I started watching these technicolor musicals, like MGM musicals from the ‘40s and ‘50s. I worked with a choreographer that I went to high school with, so that was cool to reconnect with her in that way. There’s this beautiful old theater in the west side of Detroit and they let us have the run of the place. They have amazing spotlights and stuff. It was super fun, we did it in like 12 hours. It was really great, my feet were really sore by the end of the day, just running around and dancing in vintage high heels.
And then the last one we did together was “Tell Me What’s True.” That one came together super last-minute. I was feeling a little bit of seasonal affective disorder. I was a little bit depressed from the winter and not feeling like I had a lot of energy or ideas. I was on the fence about if we were even going to make another video. And then I was watching “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” by Martin Scorcese and there’s this amazing scene where she’s auditioning to perform at this bar and she’s playing electric piano. I loved the cinematography and I loved that little moment in the movie, so I decided to recreate that scene. It came together so last-minute. We shot it during a snowstorm and I think we only shot for an hour-and-a-half. It was crazy. Luckily, this place we filmed was this little micro-cinema in Hamtramck. It’s a bar and they screen movies, but they have this little side room with a piano. I brought a change of clothes and I didn’t even know why, but we were able to get the two different scenes quickly, thankfully. I was a little worried it was not going to come together, but Ben’s great at what he does. It was really fun.
How do you think Detroit helped shape the artist you’ve become?
I moved to Detroit right as I started writing. Every song on my first record I wrote within the first maybe 9 months or so that I lived in Detroit. So it’s had a huge influence in that way. I lived in Chicago before that, but I grew up on the westside of Michigan. I’ve always been a Midwestern girl. The particular scene in Detroit at that time was really fun, but it was also a little draining. It wasn’t conducive to taking care of yourself. I was going out a lot and working at bars. Playing around a little too much. I was really putting myself out there and meeting new people, and I think it lent itself to a little bit of small-town paranoia (laughs). I moved from Chicago, and Chicago’s not a huge city, but it’s a pretty big city. It’s had a bunch of different scenes. And then moving to Detroit, I didn’t realize just how small it was. I liked how small it was, but I had a knee-jerk reaction of “Oh god! I need to calm down and maybe lock myself inside for a while.” So that experience of moving to a new place, in Detroit specifically, really influenced the first record.
And with the second record, I had a bunch of really crazy things happen: housing changes and housing things fall through. That kind of destabilization informed the lyrics for the new record. A lot of the sleeplessness and anxiety and uncertainty. Then I went on tour for Quit the Curse, and when I came home, that’s when I wrote the latter half of this record. So there’s a definite mood shift with the last few songs. They definitely came from a place of rest and stability, I thought it was nice for those songs to all be together and close out the record.
How have these past few months affected you creatively?
I wish I felt more creative. Every now and then, I feel like I get inspired, but I’m still so scattered and I feel like my brain is total mush. So it’s been really hard to be disciplined about writing. I don’t know. I’m really slowly chipping away at one song. I don’t usually work that slowly on a song, so I’m not sure if it’ll survive (laughs). I don’t know if I’ll get too sick of it by the time it’s complete. I’m hoping it will survive because it would be interesting to have a record of this weird-ass time (laughs). I’m also trying to not push myself too hard. In the spirit of everything shutting down, I feel like what can I do but do the same? We’ll see. I have no idea when things are going to start opening up. There’s a lot of pressure here in Michigan to resume life as “normal.” But I really don’t know what that’s going to look like. If it doesn’t, I hope that something shifts in my mindset and I’m able to be productive. But for now, I’m taking it a day at a time.