Photo by Carly Valentine
Since her debut as a solo artist, Annachristie Sapphire has drawn inspiration from the desert plains of Joshua Tree, California. They gave a sense of expansiveness to her 2015 EP, Sibling Rivalry, where soulful vocals and roomy electric guitar swept like the wind across the rocky landscape.
Her latest single, “Cut the Line,” is no less elemental, but its rich vocal layering and distortion come like a quenching rain. The moody solo intro flows through a desert river of reverb into a lush, Roy-Orbison-rockabilly chorus. That dreamy 1950’s melodicism mixes with 1990’s guitar grit to form a fresh flavor of hybrid nostalgia.
In her lyrics, companionship is as fleeting as a mirage–her narrator compares it to catch-and-release fishing–but Tim Sonnefeld’s production and Victoria Williams’ backing vocals give the track a sense of comfort and camaraderie. That makes it all the more impactful when the arrangement pulls back on the bridge, leaving her falsetto at the mercy of the arid atmosphere.
The full album, Desert Car, is coming soon, and a video for “Cut the Line” is reportedly coming even sooner. During a touring stint in Nashville earlier this month, Annachristie spoke to The All Scene Eye about the single, her songwriting influences, and her impending move to music city.
“Cut the Line” is a cool single; you put a unique spin on the “fish in the sea” metaphor. What inspired that?
I started writing the song when I was 21 years old, and I didn’t finish it until I was 31 years old. The person I started writing the song about, he’s a clown. I was so young, and I hadn’t dated very much, and he was basically the first person that–he didn’t believe in monogamy. And I didn’t even know what that word meant, when he said, “yeah, I’m not really into monogamy.” I was like, “mahogany? What?”
I guess the idea of it, it’s like, “I want to catch you, but I don’t want to keep you, I don’t want to trap you into a love. I just want to see it, and if I have to let you go, I will, but I want to experience the moment.” Being able to see something incredible and let it go if you have to. That’s what it’s really about.
What made you revisit the song after such a long time?
I was getting together to make this record with my producer, Tim Sonnefeld, and I was playing him songs I had been working on. I played him that one, like, “oh, well this one isn’t finished. I’ve been trying to finish it for 10 years. It’s something I would start writing, and put down, and start writing, and I’d write the bridge,” and he was like, “whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s that one?” And so me and him actually finished it together.
Also, there’s a couple of lines that Victoria Williams helped me with as well. In the second verse, she helped me with the lines about how “love is mirage / a sleight of hand, a joker’s art,” that section.
Can you tell me more about the dynamic of working with Tim Sonnefeld?
Tim was actually in one of my favorite bands in high school, called Townhall. I used to go to all of their shows when I was, like, 15, and he was my first guitar teacher. He was a friend when I was younger, and he went on to become a producer. He’s worked with Usher before, he’s done a lot of stuff, and we had been, not estranged, but not really that close, and he started working with Sharon Little, a close friend of mine. Then I was in Joshua Tree, and he was in Los Angeles, and we got in touch again. He was like, “hey, I want to work on a record with you.”
As far as writing with him, I just was so comfortable, and the cool thing about working with Tim is he’s really obsessed with the structure of a song. He’s really obsessed with choruses. I have never, as a songwriter, been obsessed with choruses, but since I started writing with Tim, it’s something I’ve become super aware of and also kind of fallen in love with–writing a chorus and making it something that people can also join in on and feel like, “oh yeah, I know this song.” Writing with Tim really opened my eyes to song structure and how you can be really impactful.
Not to ask for the secret sauce, but how do you make a chorus like that?
[laughs] I don’t know, you geek out for five hours, and just play with stuff, and you come up with really bad things, that you’re like, “this is cool!” And then you’re like, “oh my god, this is so bad,” and you mess around with chords. If you’re working with somebody, you wait until both of you are like, “yes!” And get so excited that you jump up and down, like, “that’s it!”
A lot of people have commented that the single has a little bit of a grunge sound, with the way the guitar is done.
I guess it has a sense of nostalgia to it. Because I was so inspired by grunge, and by music of that era, I think my writing lends itself to that genre.
What kind of a guitar rig are you using?
I have this absolutely amazing amp, and in a way it’s cheating, because I don’t actually have any pedals. It’s the Yamaha THR. It’s smaller than a boom box, like, a very small boom box. So it’s extremely portable, and it has all these effects on it. I’ve been using chorus, and delay, and then just a spring reverb. And it’s got built-in distortion on some of the settings. So, I’m really just playing around with the settings on this amp, and I love it.
It’s cool to have everything all in one place.
Oh my gosh, it’s amazing. And I can just bring it on the plane as my carry-on, you know? I’ll roll into a gig, and people are busting their ass with this huge amp they’re wheeling up a ramp, and I just walk past them with this little, tiny amp, like, “yep.” [laughs]
“Cut the Line” has a bigger arrangement than the songs on your solo EP, Sibling Rivalry. What has it been like working in that kind of a studio space?
I used to be in a band with my two sisters–we were called Sisters 3. Our band broke up, and I moved from Philadelphia to California. I essentially started over, being an artist and in every aspect. Sibling Rivalry was my first record since I was in that band, so I think that it really was just like, I hadn’t come to find my sound yet. By this record, I had been playing with a band, and had been able to experiment with rocking out a little bit more.
What were you listening to in the process of making this album?
Tom Petty was definitely a huge inspiration. Angel Olsen, Lucinda Williams, Victoria Williams. Jeff Buckley. I don’t know if they’ve influenced the record, but I’ve been listening to X a lot over the past few years. Bruce Springsteen. I feel like some of the songs on this record are a little more classic, in a way. That’s something that I was exploring in my songwriting.
There’s a very strong 70’s vibe that I get. On the EP, I also got a strong soul vibe from songs like “Palmistry.”
Totally, yes. That’s something that’s always in and out of my music. I mean, I love soul music, but it somehow just comes out of me, because I’m really a singer, you know? That, mixed with–you know the band The Weakerthans? That’s a band I’ve been pretty influenced by, that style of writing, that’s kind of explaining how you ate your breakfast, or something. [laughs] Lines that are explaining things very matter-of-fact.
You’ve done some moving around the country. Where are your favorite places to gig?
I’ve played in Ireland a handful of times, and I will play a show there any day of my life. Any excuse I could go to Ireland. I love playing in Ireland, and I love playing in New York City.
I’m in Nashville right now, and I have thoroughly enjoyed playing in Nashville, because mostly everyone in the crowd is a musician, and they’re super attentive, giving you the respect that they would like. I’m loving it.
How long have you been in Nashville?
It’ll be a month I’ve been here. I came to check it out and see if I wanted to move here, and I do! So I’m going to move here in May.
I was going to say, that’s a little longer than the typical touring stop.
Yeah, I wanted to really feel it out and see if I wanted to move here. Also, it just seems like while I’m releasing the record, it’s a really good place to be. So much of the industry is here, and it’s such a small place, it’s easy to set up meetings. It’s hard to be in the desert, because it’s so far away from Los Angeles, and I feel a little bit disconnected.
As an outsider, Nashville seems like a place where there’s so much community and infrastructure already built up, and that allows you to make those connections.
It’s cool, it kind of feels like you’re on an even playing field, in a way. Even musicians that are really big players, who play with really big people, they also play with other people that aren’t big, because they like their music. I’ve only been here for a month, but that’s what I’ve heard, and what I’ve caught on to. People are like, “this is really cool, so I’m going to support this. Not like, “this is really successful, so I’m going to do this.”
Have you met a lot of Nashville artists since you’ve been there?
I’d say I’ve only met four people who weren’t. [laughs] Really, I’m like, “what do you do?” or they’re like, “oh yeah, I’m not a musician,” and I’m like, “what?”
Who are some of those folks we should be on the lookout for?
Anthony da Costa, he’s amazing. A girl named Maya de Vitry; I didn’t meet her so much as I saw her play, and she blew my mind. Chris Kasper, he is astounding. Jillette Johnson, Black Moon Mother, Chill Witch. Charlie Smyth, Luella, King Corduroy–that’s kind of the bill I’m going to be on this Monday [February 12].
Another song I heard on your Soundcloud is “Police Brutality.” What prompted the writing of that track?
After so many deaths, I felt so incredibly helpless, feeling like I wanted to do something to stand up against it. And really, that song was hard for me to write. Well, it wasn’t hard for me to write. It’s just such a sensitive topic, and I want to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and make a stand against police brutality, particularly against Mexican and Black people. I wrote it just because I needed to say something, and I’ve felt a little bit lost in how to most effectively stand up against it.
After writing that song, does it feel like the writing process did something?
It’s interesting, because when I wrote that song, I played it live, but it’s a song I don’t play live that often. I play at this really fancy restaurant, and most of the clientele is upper class, white. And it’s the kind of song where it’s like, that’s actually the place I want to sing it, but I’m getting paid to play that gig, and I don’t know if the restaurant would want me to be playing it. [laughs]
It’s something I’m still working on, and working through. Also, I don’t want to alienate anybody in my audience. Even after writing that song, some of the lyrics, I’m kind of like, “you know, I don’t know if that best explains how I feel.” There’s one lyric, “did you know you won the lottery if you were born into white privilege?” Since I’ve written that song, I’ve thought, “you know, I don’t know if that line explains exactly what I want to say.”
We’re in a unique era of activism with things like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, where the barriers to entry have never been lower, and yet it feels thornier.
Yes, more sensitive. It’s a hard thing to talk about. And I don’t want it to be. I think it’s something in our culture that needs to be explored, and hopefully we’ll get there.
Is that something you could see yourself coming back to in songwriting?
I would like it to be. I used to write songs that were more politically charged when I was younger, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been like, “why don’t I do this as much, writing all these love songs?”
I think, really, I personally feel disillusioned by the state of things. It’s hard to even know how I feel about things, and how to word it, and also there’s the sense of, when you play music at a show, it’s bringing people together, and bringing people to a place of feeling happy. They don’t necessarily want to hear political songs, because music is a form of escapism. It’s like, “here, come to this magical, dreamy place, and live here for a little while, because things are really rough. Just come into this melody world and feel better.”
I definitely, as a human being, as an artist, would like to know how I feel, and put it so eloquently into a song, and have it recorded, and have people listen to it. As far as performing live, I’m not sure; maybe it is something people just have a recording and listen to.