Upon releasing her 2014 album, Ease My Mind (Kingswood Records), singer-songwriter Michaela Anne garnered considerable acclaim for her introspective songwriting. The New York Times praised the “plain-spoken songs of romantic regret and small-town longing” and the Village Voice listed it among its Top 5 Country Albums of the year. Since then, however, this once-solitary diarist has transformed herself into a gregarious storyteller. Michaela Anne has discovered her inner extrovert.
Bright Lights and the Fame (Kingswood Records), recorded at Farmland Studio in Nashville, is full of sharp observations and easy wit, with several upbeat numbers tailor-made for the dance floor of the nearest honky-tonk. While there are gentler, more personal aspects to it that recall her earlier work, Bright Lights and the Fame displays a newfound brashness, starting with the album’s cover image, in which Michaela Anne sports a bedazzled denim outfit, a vintage find that’s perfect for catching the spotlight.
Having recently relocated from Brooklyn to Nashville, Michaela Anne took advantage of the many collaborative writing opportunities Nashville has to offer as she developed her repertoire for the album. She’d met the Grammy-nominated producer Dave Brainard (Brandy Clark, Jerrod Nieman) after opening for singer Clark at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan and co-wrote two tracks, strikingly different in mood, with him: the heartbreak ballad “Everything I Couldn’t Be” and the up-tempo “Won’t Go Down,” a deceptively barroom-worthy number about the lines the narrator just won’t cross. Michaela Anne and Brainard had a lot in common: they both were raised in very disciplined military families but were drawn to the more freewheeling world of the musician. The song reflects that intriguing dichotomy in Michaela Anne’s own life: “It’s about being a bit of a square. I have boundaries. When I was a teenager, I was afraid of getting in trouble but I was attracted to the people who would. I always dated the bad boys. Dave and I were talking about treading this fine line. It’s a pretty autobiographical song.”
Their collaboration also illustrates the two sides of Bright Lights and the Fame. It’s pensive and tender on songs like the rueful “Easier Than Living” and the soul-baring “Stars,” but upbeat and swinging on tunes like the two-stepping title track and the hell-raising “Liquor Up.” Explains Michaela Anne, “My intention was to be honest with my songwriting but not just in a super-reflective way. I wanted to try and show the fun, free-spirited side of it as well. We can have all of these different parts to us and still be one person. You can want to go out to a bar and not worry about anything, but also sit and think, how am I going to buy a house and raise a family? I want to have all these different things and to reconcile that, to be deeply intuitive and emotional and self-aware, but also to throw caution to the wind at some point and pursue what some might call irrational dreams.”
Bright Lights and the Fame was produced by Dan Knobler, a guitarist who’d often performed live with Michaela Anne. He had run the successful Mason Jar Music audio-video company in Brooklyn before opening his Gooseland Palace studio in Nashville, where the album was mixed. When it was time to start recording, Michaela Anne and her band mates worked together in one room, cutting basic tracks live at Farmland. That gives the album a feeling of immediacy, a congenial spontaneity, as if you’re in the bar while Michaela Anne and her cohorts play. But she spent considerable time doing pre-production, even heading out for a string of gigs with Knobler before they hit the studio: “Between shows we’d woodshed songs, going through my repertoire, taking about arrangements. We had so much prep before we got into the studio that it was a very natural progression. We had a real understanding of each other, a respectful rapport, and we were able to bring out the best in everyone.” She took an equally careful approach to overdubs, spending a couple of months to add more instrumentation and vocal harmonies.
Along with producer Knobler, a few more Brooklyn ex-pats join Michaela Anne on Bright Lights and the Fame. Punch Brother Noam Pikelney plays banjo on “Worrying Mind” and singer Kristin Andreassen co-wrote “Luisa.” Other guest stars include singers Cory Chisel and Erin Rae, and Rodney Crowell, arguably the progenitor of today’s Americana sound, lends his distinctive elder statesman’s voice to the rollicking “Luisa.”
In fact, Crowell was an accidental inspiration for “Liquor Up,” a good-natured exhortation to let the good times roll: “I had written most of that song in New York and I think it was the night before we started rehearsals, my husband was watching a video of Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band from, I think, 1978, when Rodney was in the band. They were playing ‘Feeling Single, Seeing Double’ and I was in my office and I could hear it from the living room. I said, I want a song that has that vibe. It’s a really fun song, and it has such interesting lyrical content. Plus, I’m obsessed with the movie Urban Cowboy; I’ve watched it a million times. I love the music and the dancing -- the two stepping. So I went back to my notebook, picked out that song and finished it. I wanted to have an original song in my set that would make me want to dance. And to write it from a female perspective, about just wanting to have fun tonight.”
Given her dad’s military service, Michaela Anne’s upbringing was an itinerant one. As she recalls, “Growing up, I felt like a chameleon. I wanted to quickly fit in wherever I could. I would look around and figure out whom I needed to be friends with to survive. And that informed my musical tastes, I liked everything. Depending on who I was hanging out with, that’s what I listened to. My dad loved country and so did I, but I also listened to pop and hip-hop. I was a typical kid of the nineties and the early oughts.” Coming on her own to New York City, she enrolled in the School of Jazz at the New School in Manhattan, thinking that jazz, which she loved, was where her talent lied. “But I very quickly realized that was not for me. “ A chance introduction to the Brooklyn-based folk-bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves, who tutored some of her fellow students as part of their curriculum, changed her musical path forever. “I went to his house and we would transcribe harmony parts from Bill Monroe records. He taught me bluegrass harmony and we would sing together. And then he helped me pick out my first guitar and he taught me how to play it.”
That’s the circuitous way Michaela Anne found her voice and her calling as a musician –and earned a diploma. And with her move to Nashville in 2014, she may have found a home.
“I was in New York for ten years and I still feel like a New Yorker in many ways,” Michaela Anne admits, “but a lot of things about New York were stressful for me. A lot of my more introspective, self-reflecting songs probably dominated my records because that was what was dominating my mind. Moving to Nashville was kind of a dream experience, almost like I was experiencing my younger days. It’s such a vibrant, intimate and creative community. People actually want to get together and play music together every day and write songs. You go out and see the same friends you saw the night before. You start to get to know people. You go to a local bar and see the songwriters who wrote George Strait’s biggest hits or you run into Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. You can’t help but be inspired and changed.”
Bright Lights and the Fame clearly reflects Michaela Anne’s experience in Music City: It welcomes you in. Her work is candid and convivial, heartfelt and fun, like a night on the town or an intimate conversation with a friend. You’re definitely going to want to hang out a while.