Journey Through The Flame
A deep dive into the world of Anna Ash's new album
By: Matthew Gladly
Photo By: Matthew Reamer
The landscape of the modern music industry has changed over the last decade. There’s the boom in importance of streaming services, the necessity of touring as the most financially sustainable means of growth, and the emphasis of “brand over band.” Artists have adjusted accordingly, as anyone does when the market changes in their industry. But what exactly does that mean in terms of how the lifestyle of an independent artist has changed? What about when we consider the artists’ class, and how does that affect the actual art they create?
We explore the route of L.A.-based artist Anna Ash. She, like many others, are navigating the balance of working a job, networking and growing an art community, and juggling the radical increase in cost-of-living in large cities.
With over 25,000 monthly Spotify listeners and two full-lengths under her belt, by some standards she’s made it in the modern musical universe. Many young creatives would consider that a substantial level of success. But record labels? Booking agents?
I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna from her sunny living room in her Mount Washington home on the East L.A. Right as we started the conversation, she received an email of the masters for her new album L.A. Flame. That’s a very intense moment for a recording artist, as it signals the end of the creation phase and the beginning of promotion. That hat isn’t quite a musical one. It forces an artist to flex their code-switching muscles. Then their wallet.
Anna’s been in L.A. for the past six years, and L.A. Flame is certainly catching her at the pinnacle of her career. This record features Anna as the head producer and engineer of the overdub sessions, a common hat for independent artist to wear to save some extra cash.
The band she assembled features credentials as large as Vulfpeck and Aimee Mann, namely Ryan Freeland (Bonnie Raitt, Milk Carton Kids, Ray Lamontagne, Joe Henry). The 13 songs from the original tracking session were cut to 9, all written since she moved to L.A. The drummer was fired four days before they were going into the studio. Theo Katzland, a long-time musical companion since her college years in Michigan, was initially set to play guitar on the record. “So I called up Theo and said, "Change of plans, your playing drums.”
In regard to working with Freeland, she had her doubts initially. “He’s somebody I thought was really out of my league financially, but very interested in what I was making.”
"I think the more interesting point about working with people who feel out of your league to a certain degree, is maintaining your strength within the collaboration. So many artists get bulldozed by a famous producer or mixer or musician they're working with, they sort of lose their guts and say, "well, i'm broke, so i gotta take whatever they give me." And that's such dark territory."
"Ryan was out of my social network and felt out of my comfort zone, and i was like, “Jeez-o-petes this guy has Grammys, what the heck am I doing telling him how to adjust the EQ on my backup vocals. But he was really encouraging, and said, "Hey this is your record, it's going to exist forever, let's make sure we get it right.”
Our conversation followed by her speaking on how her strategy has evolved since the success she found with the Flood Lights EP. She also noted how financial instability has been the toughest part of navigating the industry.
"It’s really challenging. People don’t talk about money or a straightforward struggle in indie/folk or indie/rock. You just don’t hear those voices very often.”
“For me the biggest turning point financially was actually the stability of understanding my spotify streams. 2 years ago. It’s not huge, but its stable.”
That passive income kinda changed my mind about a lot of things. Well, if you can double that or triple that with the next singles. Nobody talks about that on Spotify. I mean it’s definitely a trash deal.”
“I’ve been very blessed as an unsigned artist by Spotify. They helped me grow pretty significantly as an artist.”
“It’s a story we don’t see often. In general, people are like Spotify is destroying the music economy . . . but no label or booking agent or management was interested in my last record but spotify has been and they’ve significantly widened my audience in lots of different places. Even if i don’t get a booking agent I can reach out to the cities where my listeners are. That’s a wild resource to have for such a small artist like me."
The musical honesty she brings to this record is second to none. Perhaps it is a testament to her working-class upbringing in Michigan, something she speaks about in terms of a paradox between a true inspiration she feels by her colleagues in L.A. and a longing for back home.
"Creatively it feels really good to be here. I’ve become way more active in the country scene and that’s really changed my tune . . . I feel inspired by the amount of creativity in L.A."
She continues . . .
“But, it's more about an eternal feeling of no matter how long I live here it will never be considered home. My connection to Michigan will never go away. I want to be able to live in both places a little bit more."
She spent a recent stint touring alongside May Earlywine in Michigan.
"The community there blows my mind and completely melts my heart to pieces. They’ve really welcomed me into a lot of small communities. Places in the northern part of the state people don’t really tour up there, and when you do people get really stoked about it."
"When I’m there, it feels really nurturing and fulfilling. The dream of being able to have two home bases is becoming essential for lots of different kinds of artists. To be able to be in L.A. and be present and active feeds my soul in a different way."
Our conversation closed with her disclosing some potential long-term plans of building a recording studio in Michigan and a very genuine quote about her holistic approach to the music industry and her colleagues.
“There’s not competition in songwriting. Everyone is their own person. I have my life that I write songs about. I’m drawn to people who have similar stories to tell as me. That’s what gets my heart moving.”
The album is moodier and comes at you with more intensity than her past releases. The instrumentation plays with tones that take the listener farther into the complex emotions at play. Visceral moments take you to the edge, only to be cradled and soothed back by the most tender vocal moments Anna has on record so far. The more recent country influences are palpable, and her dynamic songwriting reaches new heights on L.A. Flame. Her discography now feels so much more tied together, expressing a multitude of influences while maintaining the sanctity of her honest songwriting that's been at the forefront all along.