kendall mascott interviews the detroit-based pop queen
anna burch makes music that is nothing short of addictive, with songs chock full of singalong choruses and lyrics that feel like secrets. she has been a music maker for a while now, performing as a side lady for michigan-based bands like frontier ruckus and failed flowers. listening to her solo music is like hanging out with the coolest girl in school who doesn’t care what anyone thinks: there’s just something about her that naturally exudes confidence. I absolutely loved speaking with anna—on one of her rare afternoons off from touring—about weird shows, being a bratty teenager, the nuances of jamming and the angel olsen show that inspired her to keep writing songs. (she’s about to head to the UK to play indietracks with girl ray as her backing band!)
intro & interview by kendall meade (of mascott, anders & kendall and red panda records fame, as well as a side lady in helium, spinanes and others) & photographs by gail o’hara
chickfactor: one of the reasons I was excited to talk to you is because I’m from detroit and it’s exciting to hear such great music coming out of my hometown.
oh, nice. I actually didn’t grow up in detroit. I grew up on the west side of michigan, right in between detroit and chicago in saint joseph. I moved to detroit four years ago.
cf: how do you like it? how do you like the indie music scene?
I like it. it’s small. I’ve got some good friends. there’s a lot of buzz. there’s a lot of talent here but it’s still a pretty small scene, but it’s fun.
cf: who are some of your favorite bands or favorite places to play? the magic stick?
I’ve only played the magic stick once and it was a really weird show. the metro times put on this brunch thing and they paid us all to do it, so we did it, but no one was there to see us. so, everyone was kind of talking over it.
cf: what are the local bands you love?
I would say stef chura, she’s a good friend of mine. it’s funny though because all my favorite bands try not to play in detroit very much so it’s hard to catch them. but stef’s one of my favorites. bonny dune is really excellent. I really love deadbeat beat. there’s also this band don’t that’s pretty new but they’re good. fred thomas is detroit adjacent. he’s in ann arbor now and he was in montreal for a minute but I think I can still safely call him detroit.
cf: I wanted to talk a little bit about your lyrics if you’re comfortable with it. from your songs it sounds like these midwestern boys are a bunch of heartbreakers! is writing about that subject cathartic? can you talk more about it?
yeah, for sure. it’s funny and [the record] definitely feels very time specific. there were just so many conditions that clicked with writing the record. like, you know, kind of refocusing on music, moving, collaborating, recording and then everything that comes with moving to a new scene that’s a smaller scene than you’re used to. and then the drama that I wasn’t really prepared for—small-town drama. It just felt really high school or something and my defenses really came up. it stirred up some old insecurities that I had from high school probably. that’s where a lot of the attitude comes from, if there’s any chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, it probably has something to do with that. like feeling kind of like the new girl and not knowing the ropes and making some missteps and trying to salvage my dignity.
cf: that’s a really perfect way to put it because I sense a bit of a tough girl in there and it sounds like you were just kind of protecting yourself.
definitely. I was trying. I was really trying. there was a lot of drama.
cf: if there was any advice you could give your teenage self in saint joe, what would it be?
man, teen me probably wouldn’t listen. I was such a brat. but I guess I would just tell me that no one’s, like, against you. I had this natural feeling that nobody likes you and I think a lot of teens probably feel that way. everyone’s just trying to get through. and it’s better to just find the people who will be nice and help you along and not to concern yourself with the people who just make you feel inadequate.
cf: I totally agree. my niece is a teenager now, and I’m always like, “listen, just FYI, you don’t have to be friends with the drama queens.” I wish someone had told me that!
absolutely. dude, I was friends with the crazy girls and I stopped being friends with them at such a fragile point. I stopped being friends with everybody when I was like a sophomore in high school and I was very alone for a minute. I had a best friend who I met in art classand she was great. we acted like we didn’t give a shit, but of course I still gave a shit. (laughs)
cf: what are some of your favorite spots in detroit?
I live in hamtramck now. it’s such a funny interesting place. two square miles and really densely populated, which is totally different than a lot of areas in detroit, so it is pretty walkable. I like going to yemen caféfor dinner late night. aladdin’s is probably my favorite. there’s just a lot of great middle-eastern food here. I’m not totally a vegetarian, but I like to eat mostly that way. there’s this little bar bumbo’s that I like. I like living in hamtramck. I used to live in corktown. I can’t afford corktown anymore.
cf: you look very confident when you play live. is it because you’ve been a side lady for so long?
yeah, for sure. being a side lady as you say is a role that I definitely got comfortable with but wasn’t initially comfortable. especially when I was just singing and not playing an instrument because I did that for a while. I had all these moves that I would do, like holding the mic stand in a specific way or hands on my hips or whatever. it was very sassy or something. once I started playing bass, it was really fun and I felt super comfortable and really confident just playing bass and singing. and, I mean, I did it for so long I got pretty used to it. but every different band has a different energy and there’s always an adjustment like, when I started doing solo stuff it was terrifying. playing shows by myself with my own songs for the first time was the most stressful, and I had some shows where I hated it. I would get off stage and I would be like, “this isn’t worth it. this isn’t fun.” I’m shaking I’m sweating like “this sucks.” but once I started playing with like a full band and—especially after the record started coming along—once we arranged it to a full band sound and I started playing with a band, it just became really fun and that’s where I’m at now. we’ve played a bunch at this point and we’re about to play a whole lot more. at this point every show is different. the energy is always different. but once you get up there and lock into the songs it’s just fun. so I feel like I’ve kind of beat the stage fright for now anyway.
cf: are you self-taught or did you have any training on voice or instruments?
when I was a kid, I took piano lessons. my mom’s a pianist and she also was the church children’s choir director. I took piano lessons and I was a total brat about it: didn’t want to practice, would cry at the bench. I wish I had been more of a serious student. in high school I picked up guitar and I would go to these lessons that was basically this amazingly cool middle-aged dude who just ran lessons out of his garage space. I would bring him CDs of music I liked and he’d just figure it out and then teach me. it wasn’t very theoretical it was just kind of like, let’s learn this weezer song today. I did take some voice lessons when I was in early high school. that’s something I should do again. I would really like to take some voice lessons mostly for breath control and being able to play as many shows as we do and learn how to save, save my voice.
cf: you have excellent pitch. did you have any training from your mother?
not a lot of formal training from her. we’d sit at the piano and sing duets together—disney songs or she had the sheet music to carole king’s tapestry. she would give me advice sometimes. my mom is pretty critical I think. but I did totally learn to harmonize from her because every song that comes on the radio she’s like, “gotta sing the third,” you know?
cf: that’s adorable.
that is one thing I learned from my mom.
cf: how does it feel in the studio working on your own stuff versus recording for other bands? do you like the recording process?
the record was mostly done with friends who are younger than me, kind of new and dabbling in the home recording world. it was a learning experience for everyone involved and the benefit of that was getting to spend a ton of time on arranging. I feel like we fine-tooth-combed all of the lead guitar parts and that was really, really fun. recording for other bands, I usually am just a pinch hitter. it’s kind of like, “okay, it’s your turn, go sing harmony vocals.” so this time I was way more invested in every little thing and that was super exciting. I only spent like a day and a half in a real studio. when I started working with collin dupuis, who wound up mixing the record, he came up to his detroit studio and we worked for a day and a half and it was very chill. I’ve been in studios where there’s way more stress and tension and competing ideas and all that stuff. but collin was just super-laid-back and we re-tracked like three of the songs mostly live and even used some scratch vocal takes so it was pretty painless. it felt great and I look forward to working in a studio environment again on a whole project.
cf: what are your favorite snacks and drinks to have on hand when you record, when you’re in the studio?
oh, man, I’m always stressing about my voice, so tea for sure. I’ve also tried different things like swallowing olive oil. I’m not sure if it helped. definitely tea, anything with caffeine, kombucha, coffee. I know coffee’s not great for your voice, but I don’t really like to drink alcohol while I’m recording. it’s fun when you’re demoing and arranging. but mood altering substances…I’m not interested in them when I’m recording.
cf: I read an interview with fred thomas (from failed flowers, etc.) and he mentioned that you are not particularly into jamming. I relate to that because sometimes jamming can be very stressful.
oh my god. I know. I thought it was hilarious that he used that anecdote but I was kind of like, “thanks dude.” (laughs) there are certain conditions in which it is fun. I recently was hanging out with my friends who are in this band called minihorse. they were working on their album and I sang some vocals on it. but then they had brought in our other friend to write a lead guitar part and we all wound up hanging out and I started noodling around on guitar and wrote this minuscule guitar line. I felt so proud of it and when they sent me their record I immediately went to that spot. I was like, “yay.” so it can be fun. the failed flowers thing for me, I kind of replaced someone in that band and I came to it when I was really busy working on my record. I would always have to drive to ann arbor to work with them and, yeah, it was kind of just like, “let me just learn new songs.” none of us really had the time or energy to do full on jamming sessions. just yesterday I started demoing out some stuff with my friend ben, who’s in minihorseand it was really fun. if it’s not clicking, it can feel kind of draining and a bummer. but once you hit a good thread it’s addicting. I wound up staying there until like three in the morning and I had not planned on it.
cf: do you know that you and dylan both have songs called “belle isle”? they’re both about this kind of idealized love that you kind of have to leave behind.
oh my god, that’s amazing. no one’s told me that. wow.
cf: are you a fan of dylan at all?
I am. It’s funny because I saw dylan play, when I was 14, with the dead and I was just like, “I don’t get it.” he’s like, you know, he’s very old and playing a keyboard and his voice is terrible. but then after that I really started digging in—context, time, it all matters. I was really into dylan in my early college years and especially when I first joined frontier ruckus. the songwriter was very obsessed with bob dylan so I kind of got sucked into that world through him and that band. blond on blond, blood on the tracks. dylan’s great.
cf: you’re on heavenly in the UK and polyvinyl here in the states. do you see any differences between working with the label in the UK versus the states? have you met all of the UK label people yet?
I did meet jeff from heavenly at sxsw and it was such a pleasure. I got to hang out with him after a solo set I played and we sat up on the balcony and drank beer and talked for a long time. he’s really funny, really charming and I just was not paying attention to the time or my phone when I was hanging out with him. I can tell the way he talked about the label that everyone’s like really excited and the label is the best it’s ever been. so for a label and jeff having such a long career, that’s really cool to hear that everyone’s really engaged and excited. so, yeah, I’m excited about heavenly. the heavenly thing happened through polyvinyl and it happened really quickly. they were kind of just like, “oh, they want to pick up the album for, you know, overseas.” and I was just like, “oh, okay. cool.” I was told they were great and I did a little bit of research and it just kind of happened. it was great actually meeting jeff and I’m looking forward to meeting everyone else. there’s definitely a huge difference in interacting with the polyvinyl crew versus heavenly. I get a lot of emails from polyvinyl. so, it’s a lot of emailing, but they’re really great. I got to hang with them down at sxsw too. and every time I’m in new york, they treat me really well.
cf: chickfactor is primarily about female musicians. could you name a few that have influenced you or that you just like?
from a young age I loved diana ross and carole king. I still love carole king. that’s probably the longest standing musical inspiration for sure. in recent years, I’ve been really inspired by angel olsen. I was living in chicago and wasn’t really doing anything with music and then I saw her play a little solo set at this like community center in logan square and I was just super blown away. I hadn’t seen a lot of women singer-songwriters. when I was in frontier ruckus, most of the bands we played with and toured with were all dudes and I played with all dudes, so seeing her play was really inspiring and after I saw her got my guitar out again. it influenced me to want to start writing my own stuff. alvvays is a band that came through detroit when I was in the very early stages or writing. they played at the UFO factory and I think I was there by myself. I was a little bit stoned and I watched them play. I was really sad, I remember, at the time. I watched them play and it made me cry. I was just like, “oh my god. this is so good.” her voice is so pure and the music’s so poppy and beautiful and it was just so unexpected. I hadn’t heard of them before and I just went because I needed to get out of the house so I was like, “oh I’ll check out this show.” it was described as canadian dream pop on the facebook event, so I just went and I was super blown away by them. cate le bon also is someone that I’m just completely enamored with. she just oozes confidence onstage, it’s so amazing to watch her play. I opened up for her project with tim presley in chicago, and she was really, really sweet and I was so nervous. I just felt like, man, I really want to be cool and talk to you but I’m just like, yeah, I’m fangirling. I saw her play a couple times after that and she remembered me but I just felt, like, so embarrassed. but yeah, I loved her. she was so incredible. her guitar playing is insane, just the most counterintuitive parts. and she carries the melody. it’s just amazing to watch. she’s so good.
cf: do you have any other musical crushes?
I just came back from south by southwest and I thought it was gonna be really stressful but it was actually really inspiring to see a bunch of bands that I had been listening to. I got to see and play with this australian band called hatchie and I’m obsessed with them. they’re so good, they kind of have a cranberries vibe. I got to see girl ray, this awesome band from the UK. their parents must have done them well. you can tell like they listened to really good music growing up, they’re so talented. those were my two big band crushes from south by.
cf: thank you so much, anna!