Interview: Anja McCloskey
We meet the accordion-playing German-American singer-songwriter, who’s making waves in folk circles after taking an inspiring eight-month American road trip
nja McCloskey released her debut album, An Estimation in late 2012, winning acclaim from both mainstream press and in the folk circles too. Before that, she played accordion in The Irrepressibles and led Southampton folk-rock trailblazers Haunted Stereo. Since releasing her debut album Anja moved to America, and then back to Germany, all the time playing live and writing new music. Then, earlier this year, she came together with singer-songwriter Dan Whitehouse to release the joint EP, Still, as well as recording a remix of a Moulettes song with Dan Smith of the Noisettes, released as part of a special bonus EP for their recent album.
Released this August, Anja’s sophomore LP Quincy Who Waits follows the winning formula of her debut; an eclectic collection, embodying elements of alternative, folk and traditional, built mostly around Anja’s masterful accordion. However where An Estimation was an album about friendship, roots and belonging, Quincy Who Waits covers issues of displacement, searching for a cultural identity and of leaving it all behind.
And, talking of travelling…
Where are you now?
“I’m in my flat in Brighton overlooking the sea.”
Really? We read you lived in Iowa.
“I did. I lived in the UK for 11 years and went out to Iowa and toured the American Midwest for a year. Then I went to Germany for a year, and came back to the UK two months ago.”
Can you remember when you first started making music?
“Yes, very keenly. When I was very little I grew up on my grandparent’s farm in Northern Germany and my grandpa played the accordion – I always thought it was lovely. He was a very old-school musician, I think he taught himself and could play anything, and I was really fascinated by that. So I started playing the accordion myself when I was five years old – following the family tradition!”
When did you begin pursuing a music more seriously?
“When I grew up in Germany, I played a lot of traditional accordion music like Russian marches and I kind of thought that was all there was. There wasn’t even that much mainstream music that you could get hold of. Then I moved to the UK when I was 18 years old, went to university in London and I was overwhelmed by how music there is over here. That’s when I realised the accordion is quite unique and interesting. In Germany, it’s definitely not a cool instrument to play, but over here people said, ‘You play the accordion? That’s amazing!’ So I guess that’s when I started exploring the instrument a bit more. I started playing in bands and really unleashed the creative thing in me, that I didn’t admit I had beforehand.
“I started playing in a band called The Irrepressibles, playing very orchestral, beautiful arrangements with strings, and it really inspired me. At first I started writing accordion and piano parts, but from there I developed the urge to write my own songs. It took a very long time to acquire the confidence to do that. I started writing little instrumentals at first, then I started playing in different bands and writing songs, then eventually started singing. Then after probably four or five years I thought I could probably try this on my own.“
And you’ve also played with Helen Reddington?
“Yes Helen’s wonderful, she lectured at my university. It was through her that I met my fellow singer-songwriter colleague Dan Whitehouse who I released an EP with this year, and we went to Canada on tour together.”
Tell us about the new album Quincy Who Waits. What does it mean to you?
“I’m really happy with the second album, because it’s the first one I feel I’ve really done by myself. With the previous album I had a band that I took on tour with me and we came up with parts together. Whereas with Quincy… it was really me doing more of the arrangements. I recorded it in Hamburg, which was interesting as it removed me from all my connections in England, who I’d spent time with.
“I wrote most of the album when I was on tour in America, by myself. I bought an old car in Iowa and went on an eight-month stint of touring the Midwest in 2012. I spent a lot of time driving through stark landscape – it was quite a sullen experience and I ended up writing a lot of songs about it. When you’re so far away from anything it’s a strange experience. I found it quite inspiring in terms of my creativity, because I really had a long time to think about things.”
Did you know an album of material was going to come out of that experience?
“No, I didn’t. After that first eight months I looked at what I had and thought, ‘Gosh, that’s quite a lot of material. Maybe I should record an album now!’ But no, I hadn’t set out to do that. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to do the second album in that format, but it kind of evolved. At first I thought about recording it in America, but I really wanted to have the people who’d helped me, to play on there.”
The album is very cinematic and evocative of an American roadtrip, almost like DeVotchKa’s soundtrack to the film Little Miss Sunshine…
“Great, I’ll take that! I think DeVotchKa are a wonderful band.”
Do you need that movement and travelling to help stimulate your creativity?
“I think travelling helps remove you from your everyday life. It’s quite easy to get stuck in routines and busyness and not write anything for months. So I try to occasionally remove myself from the things I usually do, to get a creative bug going.”
Do you have plans to go travelling again to inspire your next album?
“I’ve actually already written a lot of what I think the next album will be. I had a very creative phase when I went back to Germany to record Quincy… I moved back to my home town which is quite a small place and it was quite a bizarre experience, because it brought out my 16-year-old self in me, involuntarily. That made me really creative and, because it’s such a tiny town, I pretty much had nothing else to do other than play an instrument.”
Were you just playing the accordion or the piano?
“I’ve written quite a few songs on the guitar and ukulele, which I can’t actually play, so I think I’ve come up with a lot of things I wouldn’t have naturally come up with. It makes me think out of the box. As a musician there are certain patterns and chord changes that you fall into, so I think if you play on something you’re not familiar you manage to transcend that a little bit.”
Is it about keeping it fresh, so songwriting doesn’t just become a habit?
“Yeah, definitely. I actually want to write a little bit more on the piano. I used to have one at home. I’ve spent the last year just playing my accordian and I’m really getting bored with the sound.”
It sounds like you’ve got itchy feet and need to keep moving?
“I think that’s quite a true statement. It comes to me naturally, in that my mum is German and my dad is in American, so I’ve always had those two countries that I can spend time in. Then I went to live in the middle: England. I’ve done a lot of travelling in the last year and I feel like this is my time to be a little bit more settled… Having said that, I’m going to spend the whole of October on tour across Europe!”
Interview: Aaron Slater
Anja McCloskey’s album Quincy Who Waits is out now on Sotones Records, and you can watch the brand new video for new single Henry Lives. For more information take a look at her official site: www.anjamccloskey.co.uk