The song starts, and the scene is set: the rhythm and vocals instantly transport me to a theater, the articulation and projection of the vocals evoking the work of a skilled performer. It’s a piece that almost requires the accompaniment of a skilled choreographer to complete the picture.
Luckily, that too has been taken care of by its performer, Anna Haas, who – the classic definition of a triple threat in that she can sing, dance, and act – choreographed and co-directed the music video.
The song is “Maypole”, from her May 22 release “Crazy Is.” Catchy with a vintage-inspired, musical-theater-tinged feel, it reminds of the Dresden Dolls’ “Good Day,” with all the personality of Fiona Apple’s “Not About Love”. Composer John Kander’s influence can be heard in there, somehow, too.
Most interesting of all, listening to the track, I thought Haas sounded familiar; I quickly realized that her time at Emerson College in Boston had overlapped with my own. Between this, and the upcoming November 1 release of another video, “Find Your Home”, I knew I had to interview her. We recently talked about breaking into the Boston music scene, her time at Emerson, and exploring her multiple talents.
Q: What made you decide to go to Emerson? And why Boston instead of New York?
A: I’ve always been a city girl, and knew that I wanted to head north to a more urban city, after having grown up in Nashville. I also knew that one day I’d live in New York, that there was no need to rush it for college. Boston seemed like a nice middle ground, bigger than Nashville and less hectic than New York. I wanted to ease my way into big city life. Now, after having lived in New York, I can say that Boston is incredibly calm in relation. I would escape to Boston on the Chinatown bus when things felt too hectic in the Big Apple.
Q: You mention performing in blues clubs while in school. What was your experience with that?
A: People tell me a lot that I “sound like a black woman” when I sing. I’m not sure what that means. In Boston, I was always drawn to the clubs where the soul was, and would always try to find a way to the microphone, even if I was intimidated. One club that I performed at a bit was a blues club called Slade’s, in Roxbury. … I walked in one night when they were doing an open mic. Women were getting up there, giving their charts to the band, belting their faces off like Aretha [Franklin] and Diana Ross. I got up the nerve to sing and made my way to the stage, getting looks right and left, but I worked it.
That night, the leader of the band, Frank Wilkins, gave me a gig, told me to show up at MIT the next night. Having no idea what the event was, I showed up to find that it was an event – “Celebrating Black Women in Music.” I introduced myself to the other singers and said that I wasn’t sure why I was asked to sing. One of them looked at me and asked, “Can you sing like a sister?” I said, “Well…yeah. I think so.” She said, “Then you’re a sister.” That’s how I broke into that scene.
Q: As a fellow Emerson alum who spent a good amount of time in the performing arts department, do you have any names or events at Emerson that you feel shaped you as an artist? I feel that that time was so crucial for my career development and for opening my eyes to different paths. What do you think?
A: Absolutely. There are a few teachers there, in different departments, that influenced me an incredible amount. … Each one of these teachers had their own way of bringing the best out of me, telling me the truth. I hate when a teacher babies you. The faculty at Emerson … truly pushed me, and I’m truly grateful for that.
I chose not to go for a B.F.A. in musical theater, because I wanted to be versatile with my studies. I wanted to be able to take two dance classes and a musical theater class one semester, and then take an acting for the camera class and a movement composition class the next. I spent a significant amount of time in the dance world, choreographing modern dance productions … People often assumed I was a dance major.
For me college wasn’t about deciding my future. It was about tasting everything, getting inspired and taking advantage of a phenomenal faculty. Emerson filled my tool box for sure, and now I’m starting to get more focused as a songwriter and recording artist.
Q: I’m going to be doing a poll soon, surveying performers and how they feel about studying performance in college versus just going out as a performer and studying something else. What do you think of this? Was there ever a time where you thought of just going out without studying professionally?
A: David Mammett claims that school is unnecessary for artists in his book “Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor”. He claims that real education comes from working in the real world. I agree with him in the sense that there are so many intricacies and experiences in the real world that school can never teach you. There are dynamics and politics and (unfairness) that you can never prepare for. But, I also don’t necessarily think that that’s a school’s responsibility to prepare you for that.
Q: Was there ever a time where you thought of just going out without studying professionally? With the topic of loan debt flying through the headlines, do you have advice for young performers considering majoring in music or theater?
A: I never considered skipping college. If you have the opportunity to go to college, absolutely go. Regardless of whether or not you can afford to go to a premium school, there are professionals everywhere willing to teach young people what they know. It doesn’t always come with a $100,000 price tag. Just ask. And if you do go to a performing arts college, develop relationships with your teachers, and stay connected to them. There are plenty of successful artists who never attended school, but most did. Every person must weight what is practical for them.
We should always, as artists, be striving to educate ourselves, to find teachers and mentors. It never ends. Going to a performing arts school is one big, fat, four-year-long, amazing opportunity to hone your skills and to be guided by some successful people who, if you take them aside, will also give you a tip or two about the “real world.”
My big piece of advice is that if you’re able to go to a performing arts school, use it a means to fill your toolbox, to learn and to be inspired. But don’t let it define you. Technique is great. Skill is great. But new techniques and methods are being created every day. Take your education seriously, but don’t be afraid to break the mold. Always question and experiment.
Q: So, I would put you in the category of a triple threat (or at least a triple!). How do you feel this has helped you?
A: I’m always drawing from a skill I’ve learned from one medium to influence the others. Knowing how to act helps me tell the stories in my songs, and how to receive an audience. Being a dancer has taught me how to be aware of space, and has honed my sense of rhythm. It’s also very much helped me with the difficult skill of shaking my ass on stage.
I feel all of the elements of my training come together every time I step out on stage to perform my music, very powerfully. They’re all interconnected. It’s hard to imagine my life without any one of the three.
Q: How was it to choreograph your own video?
A: It was exciting, for sure. I’ve done a lot of choreographing in my life. It’s a big passion of mine. … It was definitely challenging to choreograph a piece that I was also a part of. It was a lot of switching back and forth between director and performer modes. My best friend, Rachel, was one of the dancers and took on the role of directing me when I was performing, so that was extremely helpful. It was difficult to choreograph my own video, but fulfilling. I got what I wanted in the end.
Q: I’m learning more and more about pop artists, often cut down by critics for lack of talent outside of the studio, who come from musical theater or trained backgrounds. Do you find it to be important for artists to maintain this credibility?
A: Absolutely. As I stated in an earlier answer, artists should always be striving to grow and to better their craft. There are certain artists whose raw talent gets covered by overproduction or the demands of the label, but I don’t think that there are any pop stars out there who aren’t talented or who don’t work their asses of. This industry takes everything you’ve got, and you’ve got to give it, or you’ll drown. There are thousands in line for the job. There will always be critics, but you’ve got to keep trekking. So yes, whatever your genre, stay in shape and keep growing. You’re not an artist otherwise. You’re a puppet, a machine.
Q: Can you comment on your songwriting process? And, perhaps, what some of your songs are about?
A: Charles Bukowski says in his poem, “So You Want to be a Writer(…)”, “If it doesn’t come bursting out of you, in spite of everything, don’t do it.”
I’ll never force a song. This is why it’s difficult for me to co-write, or go to a co-writing session, because my songs come from very personal experiences. I have to be very patient with them, let them come to fruition organically. It typically takes me six months to a year to finish a song, from conception to completion. It might start with a melody, a riff or a lyric that I’ll just keep in the back of my mind. The pieces come together when they’re supposed to, when the song is pounding from within, forcing its way out of me.
My songs, up to now, usually spur from life changing experiences or relationships. What I’m writing about has got to shake me up inside, otherwise it’s not worth it. It’s typically months, or even years after the event I’m writing about has passed. I like to come at my music from an objective place, looking back on the past, otherwise it’s overly cluttered with emotion and can become cheesy or cliché. I let my life inform my writing, and give myself plenty of time to live it. Patience is my secret.
There’s actually a “Behind the Songs” section on my website where I comment on the subject matter of each of the songs on the record and why I wrote them.
Q: Now, back to Boston for a bit…I’ve read a lot recently on Boston’s inability to retain talent. Even with schools like Emerson, Berklee, the Conservatory, etc., many people leave the city upon graduation. What’s going on with the artistic community in Boston?
A: There’s an incredible, thriving artists’ community in Boston. I miss it sometimes. Everybody thinks that you have to be in New York or LA to make it. It depends on what your idea of “making it” is. The scene in Boston may be smaller, but there’s an incredible sense of community, and you can work in your field in a city that isn’t as overwhelming as some of the larger ones.
Boston is definitely a college city, and I think that a lot of graduates in the performing arts have the notion that they have to move on to the “big leagues.” I think a lot of performers leave Boston out of pure expectation, taking the next obvious step towards New York or LA. New York has always been the epicenter for the arts, so it’s understandable that artists would flock there after school. I spent a couple of years in Boston after graduating, though, and was getting a lot of work as an actress and dancer. It has a small town feel though, absolutely. As much as I loved Boston, I felt that pull towards New York. It started to feel lonely after a while, as all of my friends moved away.
Q: What’s your next step?
A: Right now I’m focusing on getting “Crazy Is” out into the world, and playing as many shows as I can. I have a mini tour in November to promote my new music video for my song “Find Your Home”. The video will feature rare, historic footage of my grandmother in New York City in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s It’s going to be really powerful. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years, so I’m excited to get it out into the world. Other than that, I’m continually writing, and believe it or not, the wheels are starting to turn for the next record.
Originally posted on laparadiddle.com.