Photo by Matt Wignall
On her third record, Bright Lights and the Fame, Michaela Anne cemented herself as a key voice in a rising wave of artists who are challenging the narrow representation of women in country music. As she told Chris Shiflett, the title track was written to flip the now-tired script of Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man,” embodying the other side of a relationship broken for the sake of the road.
Her forthcoming follow-up Desert Dove takes that fascination with fictionalized tropes to a new venue–exploring the dry, southwestern states with a fresh infusion of indie-rock atmosphere–and reveals more pieces of herself in the process.
It’s a change of songwriting scenery, but she comes well-prepared for the trip. From the glaring sun of lead single “By Our Design” to the wind-whispered closer “Be Easy,” Michaela Anne still wields her sharp sense of ‘90s-style country-pop composition as she offers glimpses of her private life and unpacks hard-won wisdom gathered over years of touring.
She also packs plenty of wit, as on “If I Wanted Your Opinion,” a bright and boppy takedown of mansplainers in the spirit of Shania Twain. Co-written with fellow Nashville transplant Mary Bragg, it shines a light on the disrespect women in music disproportionately face–something that shapes Michaela Anne’s perspective throughout Desert Dove as she grapples with the expectations of womanhood.
The album comes out on September 27, and in the meantime, Michaela Anne spoke to The All Scene Eye about managing privacy in the era of digital music and reclaiming power over her emotional life.
You’re in this interim stage now between finishing the album and the upcoming release. How does it feel?
It is a funny period because you’ve finished all the work. There’s all these different phases of creating music, recording it, and putting it out, and this specific time–I like it because it feels almost like a breather. I’m not touring yet. I have little things here and there, but leading up to the release, I’m mostly home, and it’s interesting.
I haven’t put out that many records, but I’ve released a few, and there’s always so much anxiety and anticipation. “How is it going to be received? How is it going to do?” You have this make it or break it, “is this the last record I’m ever going to make?” kind of feeling, and I currently feel very calm and just really glad to enjoy some time at home before I start playing shows–I haven’t been performing these specific songs on tour yet–so it’s a nice time. It’s like a continuation of the gestation period where it’s still growing before you introduce it to people.
How does it compare to the way you’ve felt in the run-up to your past albums?
Past records, I was way more stressed out. [laughs] This is my third professional record, plus one other one that I did completely on my own early on, but this also is the first time that I have a substantial team, and my first release on Yep Roc, who’s a reputable, like, really great label that’s been around for a while. There’s a lot of things that I just don’t have to do in comparison to my last releases, and the growth over where I was, writing a press release myself and mailing out all the records to press–there was so much more work on my end.
I’ve been conscious about being in this moment of feeling grateful that it’s in the hands of other people and not trying to micromanage, but still really being involved. I’m grateful that I have people who know what they’re doing advocating for this record, so I’m not as stressed out, which is awesome. I’m trying to enjoy the process and have goals and expectations–I guess goals instead of expectations is my plan right now.
When did you first start working on the songs that would become the album Desert Dove?
Some of these songs I started, like, six years ago. “Child of the Wind” I started before I ever moved to Nashville, but I finished it in Nashville with another co-writer, so it’s kind of all over the place. There are some really old songs and there are a lot of songs I started writing within the last three years, some of which I was writing up until we started recording.
To sum it up, the past three years since I put out my last record are the bulk of the time. I do feel like this record is a really strong reflection on what I’ve been going through. I would never call myself an autobiographical writer and I never want anyone to take things too literally, but it does feel like a much more personal deep-dive record than I’ve done in the past.
You released a video for the first single, “By Our Design,” featuring you and your husband. It’s a very personal video and a very literal interpretation of the song itself. Was that an intentional autobiographical turn?
There’s a vulnerability in this record that I’ve been embracing, and in the age of social media, I’m constantly questioning how much to share and how much to keep private. You can sometimes forget that you don’t have any control over this stuff once you put it out there, and what kind of things to intentionally keep sacred–I think about these things on a daily basis.
I’ve been with my husband for twelve years. We met in college, we’ve grown up together, essentially, and our relationship is such a significant part of my music and my career–he’s a musician and he’s played such a strong role in that–but we also have been together over a decade as kids and young adults, so what comes with that is a lot of hardship as well. There’s an aspect of measuring how much I want to share while at the same time really believing in being honest and vulnerable because I think social media feeds this unrealistic ideal. Even the healthiest of minds will have a hard time looking through social media and not fighting feelings of, “whoa, they seem so perfectly happy. They seem so successful, and it seems so easy. How come my life’s not like that?” So I feel really responsible, and just being honest that nobody’s life is what we put on Instagram.
So yeah, that was kind of a measured look at how to be vulnerable and honest, but also protective of privacy, and how much to share of your personal life when it informs your art and your music.
Tell me more about the feeling of filming that video.
We shot that out in California with my friend Amelia, who had done photographs for me in the past. I asked her if she could just do some easy video footage, and we used her apartment and her cat [laughs] so it’s not our real home or our cats.
You got a professional.
[laughs] Yeah, we got a professional stand-in. It was really fun. We were kind of joking the whole time, like, we both kind of felt like we were doing an engagement photo shoot, which we had never done in our real life. We just spent the day hanging out with Amelia, and it felt–you know, it was in the midst of my husband being on tour, and he had a day off. I had come out to visit, and it just felt very fitting and real. Then it was important for me to mix in a lot of the iPhone footage that I just take on my phone incessantly when touring around the country and the world. It just felt very natural, like I was sharing a little glimpse of life.
It also introduces the desert imagery, which is so crucial to the themes and motifs of this album. Can you tell me about “Desert Dove” and how that became the title track for this album?
Well, for one, the record is very California-themed, which was not intentional. I just noticed that in a couple of different songs, I mention California, and the southwest and the west coast in general have always held a special place for me. I grew up moving but spent most of my childhood in Washington state, and so always felt like a west coast person even though my adult life was spent in the east, and now the south.
I went to Cave Creek, Arizona for a few days last winter to write and hike, so I was in the desert, and the song “Desert Dove” is a song that I’m still figuring out how to talk about. It’s a song I feel like I could write a novel about, and there’s a part of me that wants to leave it to people’s interpretation. It has many, many layers of meaning for me, and it’s a song that I felt like was brewing inside of me for many years.
It was all very serendipitous the way it finally came to fruition in Cave Creek. It’s a song that I just–I opened my mouth and it came out. I wasn’t even sitting down writing. I was in the kitchen making a sandwich, and the song just came out. Without saying too much, that song says a lot to me about femininity and about women and men, you know, the gender and the power dynamic, and sexuality. It has a lot of layers, to me, that felt like–it felt fitting to name the record that. It could be a skinny little thread that I could figure out ways to connect all the songs to.
I won’t ask you to compromise your desire to not say too much, but one thing that seems to tie that song into other things happening on the record is that refrain of “who does your heart wish to please?” You talk a lot in other songs about being responsible for your own happiness.
Definitely, that’s a great perception. “Desert Dove” the song, to sum it up to the most simple storyline, is inspired by a story of a prostitute, so that line, “who does your heart wish to please?” is asking the woman, “who are you pleasing?” I think that question does go to so many different levels of the choices we make in life, the relationships we choose, and the things that we think make us feel good but might be making us feel good out of this false validation.
This is where I say I could write a book about it [laughs] because I go down a rabbit hole of, “what have I just bought into?” What have I believed that my role is as a woman, as a partner, as a wife, as a musician, whatever it is? What does my actual real heart and soul want? Does it differ from what society, or the internet, or my circle of friends, or my family, or my partner–what pleases them, so therefore I think I’m pleased because it pleases them? It’s a many-layered feeling of learning about yourself in the deepest of realms, which is hard to do, I personally think.
It’s something that recurs a lot on this album–the way you choose to relate to people and the paths that you choose for your life, whether you realize you’re choosing them or not. How did you come to that understanding of the role of choice?
One thing that my mom has said for years since I was a young kid is that we’re responsible for our moods–nobody can make you feel something. You give them power by telling them “I’m unhappy because of you,” or whatever. She tried to instill in me and my brother that we have power over our feelings, our–you know, our actions. So much is within our mental and emotional power, but we give it away constantly, and I think I’m someone who’s prone to that.
I will give a little tidbit that the song “Tattered, Torn, and Blue,” [laughs] that song is very autobiographical. I had a friend who decided to not be friends with me anymore. It was extremely painful, and I am almost sadistic in the way I put salt on the wound and dwell on these things that hurt. My husband actually one time said, “you know, Michaela, it’s almost like you intentionally rub your face in shit, and then you look up and go, “ugh, I have shit on my face!” [laughs] I chose to say it in a little more poetic way, but that’s where that chorus comes from.
I feel lucky that I have people like my husband and my mom in my life who put it back on me and say, “where are you feeding these negative feelings? Where are you stuck in your habits?” I think in today’s world, it’s so easy to feel bad about ourselves and it’s so easy to dwell on that. You lose a friend or you break up with a relationship–that would always be painful, but now, you can scope them on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter constantly and be like, “oh my god, they’re doing this without me. They’re friends with those people still and not me.”
That’s very new to our social dynamics, so I’ve been reflecting so much on what internal suffering I keep choosing over and over again–how to break those habits and choose a life that is happy and grateful because sure, we all have struggles, and struggle is relative. You can always point out the ways that what might be paining me is nothing compared to someone that has real suffering, but it’s all relative–but wanting to be someone who’s not choosing the “poor me” role all the time and not giving my power away. I have these conversations with people constantly, so it’s a form of trying to help myself, but also what I want to help the people I love with–what I want to say to them when I want them to live happy, healthy lives.
Another song where you show a firm grip on that power over your life is the song “If I Wanted Your Opinion,” which you co-wrote with Mary Bragg. What was it like working with her?
Well, I love Mary Bragg as a person and a writer. I could sing her praises forever, but she and I, I think we got together three different times before we finished that song. It went through a lot of different forms. I had started it on my own and brought it to her, and honestly, we were venting. Being a musician, I regularly have conversations that are, you know, offensive. [laughs] I get asked questions or, for lack of a better term, mansplained to very consistently in my life, and also have wildly inappropriate things said to me. It’s something that many women deal with. I never feel like creating this black or white argument of, “women are the oppressed gender and screw all you men”–I never feel like that gets you anywhere, so I’m always careful of doing this blanketed, “this song is a kiss-off to men who are assholes,” but it is, kind of. [laughs]
We talked about our different experiences. We talked about the different things that have been said to us. I tour with mostly men in my tour van and I share these experiences, and a lot of these men are not having the same experiences over and over and over again. They’re also floored that I’m dealing with this every night at the merch table, so that’s where that song comes from. I’ve had different people ask me, like, “hey, can I give you my feedback on your show?” and I have, honest to god, started to say, “thank you, but no thank you,” because I’ve probably already heard it, and that’s my whole world. I subject myself to criticism. I put stuff out there for people to have opinions about, but I don’t need you to tell me, especially when you’re not a musician and you’re going to probably tell me something I’ve heard and heard the opposite of many times over.
It’s an interesting dynamic, so I wanted to write a fun song that reminded me of the sass and attitude of Shania Twain that I loved so much when I was a 12-year-old girl. That empowered me and made me feel like I could grow up and be beautiful and like girly things but know that that was only one aspect of me and I could also have a strong personality and do whatever I wanted to do.
You’ve talked about the issues with social media. Is that another venue where you’ve had that experience amplified?
Honestly, I feel like I should knock on wood to not change my luck, [laughs] but my experience has been pretty minimal. I know a lot of other females who’ve gotten a lot of unwelcome advances and comments on their social media. Most of the time I get respectful comments and messages, so I hope that doesn’t change.
How did you and Mary Bragg become friends?
Mary and I both lived in New York, and we didn’t know each other, but we played a lot of the same venues. Before I moved to Nashville, I came on tour to Nashville, and she messaged me on Twitter or something and just said, “hey, I used to live in New York and I saw your name around a lot. I see that you’re playing in Nashville. I’m going to come to your show.” We met that night when she introduced herself and we stayed connected and became really good friends.
She has an unending amount of energy to, one, work and create, but also to support and connect with other artists. She’s like, always at shows. I’m always finding reasons why I’m too tired to go out, and I’m always like, “Mary Bragg is always there supporting everybody.” [laughs] So yeah, she’s someone I look to for inspiration. She just keeps going and she has a huge heart that is really welcoming to everybody.
You recorded this album in California, and you worked with Sam Outlaw and Kelly Winrich on production. What was that dynamic like?
I toured with Sam for a while, and early on in meeting him, he had thrown out, “oh, I want to produce your next record,” and I honestly laughed at him. I thought it was a joke, but then as we toured together for a while, we vibed on a lot of the same stuff musically. For me, coming from–I went through jazz conservatory, I lived in New York, and I worked at Nonesuch Records, so I was always in these circles of really high-caliber music that, for whatever reason, also made me feel guilty about the things that I loved that weren’t considered as quality, you know?
It’s taken me a long time to not feel bad about liking the things that I like, and to fully take ownership that, yeah, I grew up loving pop music and I still love a lot of pop music. I have my opinions about what comes out these days, but ’90s pop country, I love it, and Sam was on that same wavelength. We connected over that and a mutual love of musical theater, and Aladdin, whatever Disney movies, so we kind of reconnected me musically to the source of how I loved music to begin with.
He mentioned Kelly, who then did a month tour with us, and Kelly has this other element that I would always feel like I was searching for, which is the indie rock element. He was in this band Delta Spirit for a long time. He can play, like, every instrument, he can sing really well, and he’s an incredible songwriter on his own. He’s just kind of a magical element to me, and it was his family’s home studio.
I had never worked with two producers at the same time, so we did a two-day session a few months beforehand to make sure it would be okay that I hadn’t worked with them in that setting. I wanted to test it out before I committed, and it was great. The three of us worked together well as a team, and there were also aspects of the record that were maybe broken off into pairs or singles, work load, so I feel really lucky. From start to finish, it was a great production experience.
Do you have a favorite moment from those sessions?
We worked for three weeks, but the first week, we had the rhythm section and the guitarist there–Whynot Jansveld was the bass player, Mark Stepro on drums, and Steve Elliot on guitar. They’re all incredible musicians and have an incredible resume, and that was the first time I was hearing these songs come to life. They all had such positive attitudes and it was such a collaborative experience. Everyone was chiming in and giving ideas–that was like breaking ground, so that was probably my favorite aspect.
On the other side of things completely, the last track on this album, “Be Easy,” is just you on acoustic guitar and vocals and it’s an iPhone voice memo. How did that decision get made?
That song I wrote years ago and I never knew what to do with it because the form is kind of like ABC. There’s no repeating chorus, so the songwriter in me kept being like, “this doesn’t fit the form. I don’t know what to do,” but I kept hearing it in my head, and it felt like an important song. We had gotten to the house, I was playing through some of the songs for Sam, and I said, “oh, there’s this one other one I really don’t know what to do with.” He was like, “alright, well, let’s go upstairs to the deck so you can play it for me so I can hear what it is. I’ll just make a voice memo while we’re doing this.”
That was the first time I had played it for him, and when I finished, he was like, “I think that’s it. That’s all we need,” so that was that. [laughs] Yeah. I like that because you can think things to death and like, add, subtract, and edit, but that song was a record in the truest form. It was a record of a moment, and I didn’t go back and say, “ok, well, I think I could sing it better. I think–” you know, all of those things that you’re always pushing yourself. It was just, that was what we wanted to represent it.
You mentioned having not expectations, but goals with this album. What does that mean for you? What goals do you have for this record?
Some of my goals that I hope come of this record are–hm. Growing an audience, reaching more people. I’ve toured in Europe quite a few times now, but I’ve never done my own headlining show, so my goal is to headline my own tour in Europe. There’s lots of little bucket list goals, venues that I hope to play, and, you know, ultimately I share music because I want to connect with people. Otherwise, I would just do it in my house and never put it out there, so my goal is to connect with more people and meet those people on the road.
Are you the kind of songwriter who’s always writing, or are you more project-focused?
I wouldn’t say I’m project-focused, but I’m kind of period-focused. [laughs] I have periods of time, and I do feel like when–I have not been writing the past several months. The last song I wrote was in January, and I’m definitely not your textbook disciplined, studious songwriter that’s working every day. I’ve kind of come to terms with that as well. I felt really bad about myself for a long time that I wasn’t that type of songwriter because I was told that’s how you’re supposed to be a songwriter, but you know, life is whatever we do with it, so it can get in the way.
It’s another one of those things that’s not black and white.
Exactly. I feel like I have to process a lot internally before I’m ready to put it to paper, and I’m one of those people that’s always starting ideas. I have, like, 100 voice memos over the past six months where I’ve started a chorus, I’ve started an idea, or I’ve written down a line. I have bits and pieces everywhere that I’ve been gathering, but I haven’t yet sat down to work on songs. I feel myself getting to that point where I want to, so it’s coming. I no longer have that panic of, “oh my god, am I never going to write again?” I know it always comes back around, but I do have times where I feel like I have to take in before I can put out.