An interview with Annabelle Chvostek, a Montréal-based folk singer and songwriter. She is currently working on her new solo album after recently leaving the popular Canadian band, The Wailin' Jennys. Her career has taken her across the ocean and back; her roster is filled with road songs attesting to her journey, as well as political pleas and tales of love. I had the pleasure of interviewing Annabelle after her show at Casa Del Popolo earlier this month.[By Mél Hogan for Art Threat]
Art Threat: Hi Annabelle. You're show on Thursday night was amazing—great vibe and high energy. You played quite a few upbeat songs in a row—is this a new direction for your music?
Annabelle Chvostek: Thanks! Well, I’m certainly having fun with the more upbeat stuff. I’ve been fairly gentle in the music I’ve been putting out there for the last few years, so there’s part of me that has been dying to bust out and get a bit crazier or heavier, or louder. I still love the intimate contemplative beautiful stuff, but I also am liking the grooving and the catharsis.
AT: You played a lot of “road songs”—is this a sign that you are happy to stay put for awhile or will you be touring a lot this year?
AC: Well, I seem to be still moving around a fair bit, but not with the full speed ahead tour schedule that I had with the Wailin’ Jennys. The idea right now is to lay low until I have another record out, enjoy building my little home nest again, get some living happening, get to some universals and some basics that seem to disappear with road life. I love the road, but I hate it too. It’s a mix of feeling completely ungrounded and like life is constantly on hold or uprooted, and being elated by contact with audiences, new people and new scenery.
The road songs come out of that struggle, figuring out how to live within the flux, the shifts, the always being gone. I am actually very happy to be staying put for a while though, doing short trips out for shows and coming home again. I am loving soaking up Montreal. And visiting places for more than a day. It’s pretty luxurious actually, but something I’m letting myself indulge in. Who knows, maybe I’ll start writing songs about tulips and tomatoes soon. It’s the first summer in a while where I’m getting to garden. You write what you know. In nine months, when I have a record, I’ll hopefully start touring a lot again, but I will always incorporate more home time, and/or work towards sharing the road life with people I love.
AT: Having recently stopped playing with the WJ, how does it feel to be an independent solo artist again?
AC: It feels wonderful and a bit scary too. I am so happy to have the freedom to work on whatever the heck I feel like, to really dive into creation and development again, to take the time I want to soak up the world around me, to get strong and healthy. I’m also making my own schedule all of a sudden, which is tricky, and having to deal with all the business of things again, making my own machine to drive, instead of riding around on one that is already built. I love it. It feels very real.
I also feel like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. But I think that’s life. You just have to make it up as you go along. Ultimately, the creative part is very fulfilling, and there is a more personal connection for me to the community that comes with my audiences and collaborators. I feel like a learned a ton from working with the Jennys, and it was such a fantastic and beautiful experience in so many ways, so coming back to my solo work, I have a better sense of how to make it work, how I want to do things, how I want to interact with people, and who I want to reach out to.
AT: What I really love about your songs is that they are fun, traditional in one sense but quirky if you pay attention to the lyrics. I love that a few of your songs are explicitly about love, and about women… which is still rare, especially in folk-genre of music. Does being “out” in your song matter or are you just writing what you know?
AC: Being out in my songs always feels a little nerve wracking, but is just a risk I need to take, and when I do, I am rewarded by the connections that happen. It is still pretty exciting to be identified. I don’t want to lie about anything. While I want to be able to speak to anyone without discriminating, I also know how much I myself need to see lesbian identity reflected in culture. So while I don’t make and perform music to be a big dyke, I still want it to be visible, and want to be a part of queer culture. Really though, the songs come from needing to express an experience or a story that I care about or fall in love with… and so there are girls in there, all mixed in with your basic being human.
AT: Some of your songs carry a political, social and environmental message—can you talk about these songs?
AC: In 2003 I put out an album called Water. While it was a mix of heart/body/mind songs and social reflection, it was unified by themes of water—from beautiful rivers to flowing girl-cum (it’s subtle) to ice-melting relationship illusions. All part of life. And in the artwork I used the space to write about water issues. The title track was the most politicized song, using some actual text from the Cochabamba Declaration which came out of that Bolivian peoples struggle against privatization of water. I had initially written the song after an experience of getting sick from a water-born virus while traveling in India, losing most of the water in my body while hanging out in Varanassi which is all about the river Ganges that runs through it. The song got amended after swallowing teargas at the FTAA rallies in Quebec City, where I went as part of a group called The Living River.
More recently, on the album I put out with the Jennys I contributed a song called Apocolypse Lullaby. It’s less specific in a way, more about choosing to face the hardships in the world while envisioning and realizing the connections on this planet between everyone and everything. It’s kind of a prayer towards a massive shift in conciousness that I like to believe is in motion and unstoppable, despite the destruction everywhere. It’s a peace song.
Sometimes now I find myself writing about love stuff and within that embedding some kind of social reflection, just observation of the details of life and mixing up the metaphors. Like for example, the impulse of wanting to get to some kind of romantic intrigue while being on the road driving through mountains dug out by mining. I think the personal integration can be a gentle and enjoyable, yet powerful way to say something.
AT: MySpace is a website that a lot of musicians use to promote their work—do you use it? What kind of feedback do you get? What are some of the talents you've discovered on the site?
AC: I do use it. I just did a show in Ottawa with Mélissa Laveaux and Blue Venus, and it is through myspace that I first heard their music. In fact I’d never met Mélissa, but her tunes really struck me as presented on MySpace. Sometimes I look up random things like electronic country, just to see what happens. There’s always something interesting out there. One thing it has made clear to me is the sheer volume of people making music.
AT: Who are your musical influences?
AC: I have so many influences, I don’t know where to start and I know I’ll miss something important. So firstly, ma and pa, in true folkie style, passing on songs and showing me how to play instruments. Singing in the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus as a kid informed my sense of harmony and drama… There are songwriters I like, there is groove based electronic music I love, there are big ‘ol rock bands, there are little old men from the Balkans who scratch at fiddles, there is sitting in kitchens and jamming with new and old friends… Dance really influences my music. Etc, etc…
AT: How has your music changed throughout your career? What was Water about?
AC: My first album , Full Stop, was this very strange mix of acoustic music and electronic experimentation. Then I decided to get serious and produce some CBC friendly Can Con, place some of the songs I’d been singing for years, and that was Water, pulling in all the cool jazz cats I’d been hanging around. Then I just wanted to Go nuts and be raw with Burned My Ass, and enjoy some of my Slovak heritage at the same time. With the Jennys I’d already started getting into “Americana” and got to have my tunes placed and produced in a super glossy professional way. I think the next thing I make might pull from all these moments.
AT: Burned my Ass has a much more humorous feel to it—What inspired the switch?
AC: Burned My Ass came after the biggest break-up of my life… It’s the initial sense of freedom and abandon before the loss actually hits. It’s that sensation of being slightly crazy and fully alive, ready for anything in a way, ready to throw yourself into the world after sitting in stasis. Musically I was getting into all kinds of roots in a big way, kind-of left behind the jazz influences of Water and got into something more raw and raucous. I wasn’t careful or meticulous, I just wanted to make something, and that’s what happened. I suppose that window allowed me to take myself less seriously, just have some fun with things.
AT: You said you were producing a new album, due out in 9 months or so. What can you tell us about it? How will it be different from the other three?
AC: Well, I am hoping it will be my best album yet, and something that travels well. I want to make it gorgeous and professional, but also leave room for sonic experimentation. All of a sudden I have more options in terms of getting it out there – a record label that should be putting it out if all goes well, and a production team I can bounce ideas off of and who will make sure that the sound quality is amazing. I think my songwriting has been refining itself, really evolving. There’s a clarity and simplicity I’ve been enjoying. I’ve started to learn how to say a lot in a few words and notes. I’ve got more musical tools, I’m playing more mandolin and violin, and I think I’ll bring back some subtle electronics. I think the emotion is perhaps closer to the surface, my voice has gotten such an amazing work-out over the last few years and it’s ready to let it rip, to express with abandon and clarity.