If you like your folk musicians salty, bitter-sweet, and satisfying as hell then you should know Anna Coogan, and that she’ll be playing in Glasgow at the Woodend Bowling & Lawn Tennis Club on October 8th. Prior to her tour we caught up to talk to her about fish biology, hangovers and the changing role of the artist.
Hi Anna, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions!
Do you think you’ll miss the U.S.?
I definitely miss the US when I leave for a long period of time (some of my tours have been more in the six-seven week range). But for three weeks, probably I’ll just be grateful to be on the road. I do miss my lovely hometown (Ithaca, NY) and my dog and my husband. And I don’t sleep too well on the road, so I do miss that.
What’s next for Anna Coogan, post-tour?
Sometimes things are pretty quiet post-tour, but not this time around. I’m scoring a film for a local film festival (a horror film festival at that!), and I have three weeks of rehearsals when I get home with Willie B and another local musician, Michael Stark. In the New Year, Willie and I are going to make a new record, so I am going to take a short songwriting retreat before that to get all the tunes ready. I’ve also started producing records for some NY artists (including Canen and Beverly Stokes, take a look at them), and I’ve got a release to finish by the New Year, so it’s a lovely, busy time. I am a workaholic, and happiest when things are jam-packed.
Aside from Willie B, you’ve worked with Johnny Dowd and JD Foster. Who else would you want to collaborate with in future?
I’ve been really lucky in the past few years to work with some amazing players. Johnny, JD and Willie have been huge influences on how I write and work, and have really stuck by me as I’ve figured out the new sound. I also play guitar in a woman named Mary Lorson’s band, and she is an incredible powerhouse. She always has so many projects on the burner and just churns our good material. It’s super inspiring. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with Hank Roberts, Jeremy Chatzky, Austin Nevins, and my old touring partner Daniele Fiaschi. As far as life’s goals, I’d love to work with Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot in the not-to-distant future. It’s all about guitar for me right now.
Some of your music (as well as tour names) seem significantly influenced by the oceans and stories related to bodies of water. Was this influenced by your degree in Fisheries Biology? Or does your interest in the water stem (ahem) from somewhere else?
I was a white water kayaker all through my formative years, and spent many, many hours a day on the water. We started paddling just as the ice on the rivers was melting- the first few weeks were so cold when you flipped and rolled that it stole all the breath from you. Traveling around in a van with the rest of the team is some of my happiest memories, which is possibly why I now lead a lifestyle involving so many long drives in vans. I stopped kayaking abruptly after several tragedies and incidences of abuse took all the love out of it for me. But the smell of rivers, the white and green water, always sends me straight back. Later I worked on a boat in Seattle and in Alaska as a fish biologist, which was always full of adventure. Now I live in the Finger Lakes region of New York, which is full of huge lakes, gorges, rivers, although I keep my interactions with the water pretty tame…
Living or dead, who are your biggest influences?
Oh man. I listen to a lot of classical these days, and Dvorak and Copland carry me through a lot of difficult times. Living artists though: Johnny Dowd has re-worked the way I think about music on almost every level. Ithaca (NY) is so full of inspirational, hard working artists, that I am lucky to have a long list of living, breathing artist to be inspired by, included Jennie Stearns, Richie Stearns, Mary Lorson…. the list goes on and on.
What other things and people really influence you?
Dogs. Walks with dogs, snuggling with dogs, petting dogs. Dogs.
Do you have a pre-gig routine, or anything that you like to do before you come on stage?
I don’t have much of a ritual, especially when I’m solo, although I do always have my guitar and warm up and tune up and such. I do carry a small good luck totem on each tour, often a stuffed Scottish sheep I got a few years ago. And when I’m touring with others, we usually have a pre-game huddle to get in the zone. It’s carried over from my years on sports teams.
Is there a particular mood you find is especially conducive to creating songs? Is there anywhere special you like to be when writing lyrics?
I live a pretty clean lifestyle these days, but I used to write my best songs while hungover. Something about having been so emotionally exposed the night before carried over the writing. These days, it’s more about persistence. I write every single morning of my life. Most of the days there is nothing, then every once in a while there is a burst of inspiration and a song that follows. I do believe it’s all about showing up. That’s about all you can do. So I show up. I have a lovely room in my house that’s filled with instruments and tour posters and records I’ve been involved with, and it’s my favourite place to write. Although a London Heathrow hotel room has sparked many a lonely country song.
As a singer/songwriter do you have any goals in your head for what you want to achieve in future as an artist?
The older I get and longer I am in the industry, the more I move away from any fixed idea of what “making it” means. The rulebook is so outdated, if there ever was a rulebook, so for me it’s about enjoyment from here on out. I’m really digging producing records right now- all the fun and creativity of the studio and getting paid to do it- and I love scoring this movie.
I derive a lot of joy from writing and practicing, and my main goal is to move my guitar playing ever-forward. Would I love to tour the world and make vast sums of money doing it? Sure, but probably unlikely, and touring is pretty difficult on the body, not to mention family dynamics. My goal is to give everything I have on the creative and music fronts, and see where that takes me, be it up the hill to Cornell or across the silver sea to Glasgow. (And I really, really love visiting Glasgow).
What about outside of music, is there anything else that you really want to do?
I’m pretty music focused these days, but I’m hoping to integrate my teaching into a bit more community service in the next few years. Cornell has an excellent program for teaching inside local prisons. The prison industrial complex in my country is out of control, the numbers are staggering. I’m hoping to work with the program to develop a vocal curriculum in the next few years. To me, this is one of the most pressing issues of our era, and there are a lot of prisons in Upstate New York. Baby steps.
What do you think about the artist’s role in society today? Do you think it’s become harder for serious musicians to become successful?
I do think it is harder these days overall, although there is certainly some people who have done very well in the new internet era. But overall, I think the internet has saturated the market with talent (and not-so-much talent), devalued music and ruined attention spans (mine among them). The funding for the arts has been slashed the world over. Touring is often a break-even-at-best deal for many artists. It’s hard to fulfill a societal role when you have to work multiple jobs just to break even- many of my closest friends who are incredibly talented artists are working 2-3 jobs in addition to playing music. But we are not alone in that, at least. To me, it seems like a whole societal shift needs to happen to provide more of a safety net for our working poor. And maybe artists can lead that charge.
Is there anything about the music industry that you’ve found particularly difficult to deal with or would like to change?
(Laughs), yes. I could go on about this for a while, but I’d need a stiff drink.
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