Girls Rock: An Interview With Musician Anna Vogelzang

In an era where manufactured pop princesses rule the airwaves, and even some “indie” female singers have a heavy scent of branding about them, it’s always refreshing to stumble across a singer/songwriter that goes against convention. Hailing from Madison, WI, Anna Vogelzang has carved her own path in the music industry, looking up to musicians like Ani DiFranco and The Dresden Dolls along the way.

Vogelzang plays comforting folk music, infusing a unique spin to her songs to make them truly her own. With a blend of playful quirkiness and soulful seriousness, Vogelzang creates lively stories within her songs – the mark of a true folk singer.

In addition to creating her own music, Vogelzang has worked hard at helping young girls produce their own, teaching at Girls Rock Camp (GRC) in Wisconsin. I was curious to know more about why Vogelzang chose to work at GRC, and whether it influenced her own music. Vogelzang is currently in the midst of a tour, and has a new album (Canary In A Coal Mine) coming out at the end of the month, but she was able to find some time to speak with me about her music and experiences at GRC.

Avital Norman Nathman: As somebody who writes about feminism and issues surrounding women & girls, I have always been incredibly curious about Girls Rock Camp. I remember hearing about when they first started (I was in college at the time) and I had a flash of jealousy, wondering if I would have had the guts to go as a young girl. How did you get involved with GRC?

Anna Vogelzang: I had the same thought when I learned about GRC! I actually saw a fellow local musician advertise for a GRC Fundraiser on her show calendar, and immediately e-mailed her, asking how she had gotten involved. It turns out that she was the acting music director for the upcoming summer, and I basically begged her to let me become their voice teacher. I studied classical vocal performance in undergrad and have always loved working with kids – I’d actually taught at a big chain, co-ed rock camp during one of my college summers, but found the experience weirdly corporate and not quite as fulfilling as I’d hoped. When I saw the chance to work with a camp that specifically empowered girls, I was stoked. The rest is basically history. We’ve had two summers of GRC here in Madison (as well as 5 sessions of Ladies Rock Camp), each session bigger than the last. Each GRC is different in each city, and here in Madison it’s run by a staff of professional musicians, so the girls get to experience what it’s like to sing rock & roll from people who are actually singing rock & roll (or folk songs!) out in the city that weekend.

ANN: What have you gotten out of your experiences at GRC?

AV: It’s one of my favorite parts of the summer. It’s exhausting and frustrating and you feel like you’ve been run over by a truck at the end of the week, but helping these kids write their own song is one of the most rewarding things about camp. I’m both the voice teacher for all the singers and a band coach, so in the afternoons a co-coach and I are assigned to a specific band, and we basically run their band practice and help them write a song. Each band works on their one song all week and performs it at the end of camp at the big show. The song is the vehicle for teamwork, and for showing off what they’ve learned at camp. If the guitarist is new to the guitar and only confidently learned one chord, the song is all one chord. If the keyboard player figured out how to do arpeggios, we work arpeggios into as much of the song as she wants. I also teach songwriting, a group class, where we give the girls a basic framework for song structure, as well as tools to express themselves through lyrics. I spent so many years – especially middle school on – writing poems and songs and diaries upon diaries. A lot of these girls are in the same boat, and giving them a public place to express those thoughts, though it’s scary, is such an amazing experience. It’s a safe space, and if one of her bandmates says, “awesome! And then we should say this!”, then the writer’s thoughts and perspective are justified. The girls mostly write about summer and fun and friends, and the songs get stuck in your head like nothing else. I’ve also gotten to teach some of the same girls two years in a row and become friends with them, either seeing them to give them private lessons or having them come out to my shows with their parents. It’s connected me to the community in such an extraordinary way, and has broadened my thinking on audience too.

ANN: I’m sure many of the girls who attend GRC are inspired by a variety of female artists. What musicians have inspired you along the way?

AV: So many! Practically too many to count. I spent most of my junior and senior years of high school listening solely to a rotation of Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, The Dresden Dolls, and Regina Spektor (which was when she was playing small clubs and even weirder, lyrically, than she is now). I loved people who told stories, were outsiders, talked about their experience in such a way that suddenly turned it into your experience. Thanks to the lady singer-songwriter it felt like I had lived in New York City, traveled to Europe, etc. It made me want to write songs more than anything else, to have experiences worth writing about. The lady-voice is such a powerful thing.

ANN: Have you found that your time spent at GRC has informed your current music at all? If so, how?

AV: It has! My scope of audience has widened significantly. I actually have much younger sisters (10 and 14), and my rule of thumb for albums is that I want my sisters to be able to enjoy them. It’s not about self-censorship as much as it is creating accessibility… I’m still writing for myself firstly, but I strive to avoid being so convoluted that my songs are unapproachable, and keeping different audiences in mind is helpful with that feat. That said, I think the younger audience is often underestimated and dumbed down to. It’s apparent that adults, as a whole, tend to discredit young women; it’s assumed that they’re hormone driven and their actions are perceived as superfluous, temporary, flippant. I remember how dramatic and huge everything felt at that age, and definitely have caught myself undermining the actual importance of kids’ feelings without meaning to. GRC brought that awareness to the forefront for me. One part of camp is bringing in musicians for the lunch hour – each day there’s a totally different, female-fronted performance from a local band. I got to perform during two of the sessions, and having a room full of 40 girls (ages 8-16) respond so enthusiastically to my live set offered physical, tactile proof of the potential for a real connection with a younger audience. I had been engaging the idea using my sisters as a starting point, but never had enough evidence that I could make a true difference with that age group. It was an idea floating around but hadn’t felt real; I think I’d assumed that my songs would go over their heads or not be dancey enough when it came down to it. But now there’s now a group of young women who adore my songs because they speak to their experience. Just knowing that is amazing, and pushes me to keep doing what I’m doing.

ANN: Tell me about your new CD coming out. Where did you draw inspiration from for Canary In A Coal Mine?

AV: That’s a tough one. Just life, I guess! In comparison to my previous releases, this album has been the longest-time-coming for me. The writing process began while I was on tour and really came to fruition on a self-imposed writing retreat that I took in northern Wisconsin during December of 2010. I had a handful of songs that were done and dozens that were just small melodies needing to be fleshed out, or a verse scribbled out on a receipt with no real plan. So I basically locked myself in this cabin and tried to create a whole body of work. A lot of the songs had started in relation to my family and its history, and while I was on the retreat my grandfather, who had recently been diagnosed as terminally ill, took a turn for the worse. A lot of mortality and fear and grief showed up in the songs, some plainly about death and some touching on the same themes in relationships. There’s a lot of hope on the record, too, though. For every song that feels like my heart must have been broken, there is a partner song that basically comes back to persevering. Giving up is such an easy fantasy to go to when you’re frustrated and upset in this business. Especially while grieving a loved one or a relationship, just getting back in the car to play another show seems an impossible feat. The hopeful songs keep coming, though, so I guess I’m not quitting anytime soon!

As for the recording, I wanted to do something that really did the songs justice, so after raising the funds on Kickstarter.com (a fan-based fundraising website), I brought the songs to New York to work with my friend and producer James Frazee. We enlisted an amazing cast of musicians – Franz Nicolay (former Hold Steady), Brian Viglione (the Dresden Dolls), Todd Sickafoose (Ani DiFranco/Righteous Babe), and Emily Hope Price (Pearl and the Beard) just to name a few. We spent two weeks recording and James continued the mixing process after I headed back to Wisconsin. It is, without a doubt, the thing I am most proud of so far in my life. All of the musicians did such an amazing job & brought so much of themselves to the songs, and I feel like the album sounds as full and realized as it possibly could – a hard task to both accomplish and continually enjoy after all of the hours spent recording. I’m so excited for it to be out in the world – it’s released to the public on February 28th, and you can pre-order it (and get the first 3 tracks instantly!) here: http://theanna.bandcamp.com.

*A shorter version of this interview can be found at Lip Magazine

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