by Christopher Treacy
Ana Egge is going wide for the win.
Her twelfth album, Between Us, recently out on Story Sound Records, finds the 45-year-old Brooklyn-based musician taking chances, taking responsibility, mining new musical territory, and confronting demons.
Written and recorded during lockdown, Between Us is the sound of Egge taking stock — as a mother, daughter, wife, and queer artist — amid a confluence of circumstances largely outside her realm of control. If there’s a takeaway, it’s about living life unapologetically. After all, that’s something she can control.
“Lockdown allowed me to get out of my head and avail myself to different perspectives on the same issue,” she mused during a recent, illuminating phone chat. “My daughter Roxy is a perfect example: any possible thing could be happening, and you can bet that she’ll have a totally different view of what it is then I will.”
Learning to deal with differing viewpoints has been a struggle for many Americans over these last few polarizing years. Many of us have snapped, our levels of tolerance tested beyond what we perceive as reasonable limits.
As if dyed to match, there’s a sense of brokenness permeating some of Egge’s new songs that seems to emulate the division in the United States. The word ‘devil’ gets mentioned repeatedly on Between Us, and Egge says she was hyperaware of the looming concept of opposition.
“So, how do we overcome this and get to where we can communicate again? That’s the idea behind the cover photo and the album title,” she explained. “There’s so much trash between us in this country, these opposing views, this vitriol, so much anger. Such a huge, gaping wound. It’s garbage. And the image on the cover (a photograph by Joslyn Richardson) is a pile of pokey metal, but it’s recyclable. This is a recycling pile. So the idea is that we could still do something about it; it’s not over. We can recycle this shit into something new. And really, that’s what we have to do; we have to work through it because it’s not going to magically disappear.”
Born in Canada and raised in North Dakota, Egge (who is married to Emmy-winning filmmaker Amy Foote) describes her childhood as revolving around an unhealthy, drama-steeped family dynamic, where her concepts of self were directly tied into her ability to mitigate disasters. For Egge, putting out familial fires provided her sense of belonging. She touched on some family issues with her Steve Earle-produced 2011 disc, Bad Blood, and the 2015 documentary film, Bright Shadow, also explored aspects of this topic.
“And then there’s the situation with my father,” she said. “He’s someone that has voiced and expressed anti-Semitic and anti-Black racist views and words all my life. I’ve been trying to figure out how to communicate with him. So, all these things were staring me in the face.”
Serendipitously coinciding with the beginning of lockdown in NYC, Egge embarked on a workshop through the Western States Center, an Oregon-based NFP that strives to empower individuals looking to build inclusive democracies nationwide.
“It was a community-building exercise with twenty-two Americana musicians from around the country and in Mexico,” she explained. “It was a mixture of education and empowerment around social justice issues. We learned more about anti-Black racism and practices for confronting bias. Some of the attendees just came with a desire to reach more people with a message of unity. And so that was a weekly Zoom group which was pretty mind-blowing and heart-opening. After that, I also did an anti-Semitism master class Zoom through the same organization, learning about the history of anti-Semitism and its influences. Both of these things had a massive impact on my songwriting and overall frame of mind making Between Us.”
She also approached many of the new songs with a co-writer, celebrated Irish singer-songwriter, Mick Flannery. The two communicated regularly via Zoom and Facetime, exchanging ideas about words and melodies, the latter of which sometimes came to Egge in dreams.
“This is the only album I’ve made that was, for me, completely sober from the beginning of writing every song to every recording session and every mixing session and mastering and everything — no drinking, no pot, no nothing,” she said. “I think maybe a little bit of my widening awareness is to do with that. And my dream life just has been so vivid! I would wake myself in the middle of the night, hearing melodies and hum then into my phone and then check them out the next morning.”
Egge would then message Flannery with her humming and ask him to turn the melodies into actual sound files, which he’d send back to her. But songs aren’t the only things she found lurking in her brain after the lights went out.
Trying to understand her dreams is providing another portal to healing.
“This concept of being wide seeps into everything, and it challenges me, but I’m still grateful for it,” she said. “I’m trying to transfer lessons from my dreamwork into my waking life. Part of that process is learning to see everyone in my dream as me. Even animals or objects. When I find myself laying blame on one thing in a dream, I have to consider: Well, who’s dreaming that? See, it’s all a product of my own mind. I was surprised how often I’d be stuck thinking, ‘so and so did this to me in my dream.’ Now I have to ask myself, ‘But what if I’m that person?’ And, of course, emotionally, there’s resistance there. But in real life, this can be so useful as to build our compassion and allow other people to test us. Because we’re being tested for our own good.”
From her Austin Music Award-winning debut, 1995’s River Under the Road, right up to 2019’s Is It The Kiss, Egge’s catalogue is unified by her unmistakable voice – a mix of bluesy lilt and breathy yawn – and a gift for convincingly inhabiting hard-luck tales. This time out, more of the tales happen to be her own. But rather than pare her new record down to the ultra-personal space of just voice and guitar, she chose to run in the other direction, inviting more guests than ever to the table, many of them queer.
“Another wake-up call for me is prioritizing queer musicians,” she said. “I had more queers in the recording sessions this time than I ever have. Because, like, why haven’t I done that in the past? After all, I’m the one that gets to prioritize that. I think for me, as a gay person, the craziness of the past two years — the murder of George Floyd, the election, January 6 — it all drove home the idea that now’s the time to be 100% me all the time. While I don’t necessarily feel like I haven’t been, I can always be more out. We all can.”
In that spirit, she recently cut her hair off after a decade of wearing it longer (“I’ve wanted to cut my hair for years, so, again, why haven’t I done that? Whose choice was that?”) and bought herself a suit — a pricey endeavor that she’s found very liberating, (“Life’s too short… The only person I get to be is myself.”).
Widening Sonic Dimensions
Egge’s brand of Americana has always been progressive. Jazzy organ forays, horn-blown countermelodies, and woodwind flourishes have all recurred on past releases, but Between Us sounds like no other Ana Egge record. Not surprisingly, it comes at a time like no other in her life: a time of discovery and renewed queer spirit, all against the tragic backdrop of COVID 19. It’s a study in contrasts. Fortified with electronic beats (“Be Your Drug”), ongoing atmospheric swirls, and occasional bits of punctuation from a menacing electric guitar (“You Hurt Me,” “We Let the Devil”), there’s also a contagious pop sensibility that floats in and out of focus (“Wait a Minute,” “Heartbroken Kind,” “Want Your Attention”), as if to offer the hope of better times. If anything is startling about it all, it might be how at home she seems amid the flurry of stylistic shifts.
“There’s just another dimension going on, sonically,” she said. “That’s the producer, Lorenzo Wolff, who I hadn’t worked with before. But I had heard the last record that he made, this inventive tribute to Judee Sill, and I loved it. I thought, this is so intensely creative; who is this person? I was immediately intrigued. I’d actually been trying to find a person of color to work with in production, but I kept coming up empty-handed. I just couldn’t find the right connection. And then I heard Lorenzo, and I was like, ‘if only,’ you know, because he’s white. When we first met, he asked me what kind of a record I wanted to make, and I said, ‘Well, I want to make the kind of record that you and I will make.’ I told him that I’d realized how very few people of color and women I’d worked with in my career. And just like in my dreams, I was like, well… who’s responsible for that?”
Egge explained to Wolff that she was looking to widen her world and, in turn, expand her sonic palette. Together, they reached out to people with whom she’d had no prior relationship. Then, after they’d finished most of the main tracking, he tweaked the songs for a couple of additional weeks, alone, doing what she calls ‘his mad scientist stuff.’
While she may be a bit out on a limb with her new record, time and experience have helped Egge develop more confidence in her creative decisions. Sobriety, she says, allows her more objectivity regarding her work and also the trials of daily life.
“It’s less sticky,” she said. “I’m much less worried about what people are going to think. I’m getting less entangled with attachments and potential upsets.”
But there’s one current upset that’s hard to get around: right on the eve of releasing Between Us, Egge’s fall tour with Iris Dement (booked during an optimistic Spring season) was canceled for all the reasons you might expect. Egge says that the stories she hears from other musicians who’ve ventured out on the road just don’t jibe with the projected low number of breakthrough cases that government agencies have touted. It’s worrisome.
“We’re all getting better at rolling with the punches and accepting the losses, but this was a big disappointment,” she said. But despite deeply missing the adventure of being on tour, Egge refuses to be complicit in spreading the virus from either side of the stage. She says if she’s not comfortable attending shows, which she isn’t, then it’s not fair to ask that level of comfort from her audience. And, as she accurately points out, expecting people to put their masks back on in between each sip of beer isn’t realistic.
Unable to tour her new record is frustrating, but tour or no tour, Egge is still very excited that Between Us is out in the world, and she hopes it inspires people to try and better understand one another. In her humble way, she’s aware that she can write songs with the potential to penetrate consciousness and dissolve boundaries. Songwriting is her ‘superpower,’ as one friend put it.
“I’m still doing what I do,” she said. “And I’m making this music, and I’ve got my heart on my sleeve. And, even though I know most folks have no idea who I am, I do have some sort of platform from which to spread love. And that’s coming from a super-queer, you know? And the more honest I can be about my self-love, the more love I can give freely to others.”
Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, among others. Additionally, he’s written for myriad LGBT outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He currently resides in Buffalo, NY. His new website is currently under construction.