Name: Anne Malin
Members: Anne Malin Ringwalt, Will Johnson
Interviewee: Anne Malin Ringwalt
Occupation: Singer, guitarist, songwriter
Current Release: Anne Malin's Waiting Song will be released through her bandcamp store on October 2nd.
Recommendations: Shake ‘Em On Down by Mississippi Fred McDowell and Scardanelli by Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Jonathan Larson).
If you enjoyed this interview with Anne Malin, find out more about her on her homepage. Or head over to her Facebook page and bandcamp profile for more music and updates.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing music as a child, little songs that were just for myself. I grew up studying cello and would write melodies by ear with the cello. Early on, I loved watching videos of Jacqueline du Pré performing. Watching how consumed du Pré was by the music was so energizing—that was the first time I saw how music could be trance-inducing. I later saw it in Glenn Gould and Nina Simone’s performances. I wanted to experience that, too, and found that experience most intimately through singing.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Since I’m also a poet, most of my learning through emulation happened on the page. I’m drawn towards strange and unpredictable imagery, like in Brian Henry’s translations of Tomaž Šalamun and Jonathan Larson and Donna Stonecipher’s translations of Friederike Mayröcker. My lyrics, too, tend towards the imagistic. I’m also drawn towards nonlinear narrative and formal experimentation.
When I was writing Waiting Song, I was reading Drifts by Kate Zambreno, a novel that doesn’t really want to be a novel, a novel writing towards inhabiting the present moment, the autobiographical—which, for the author, was one of pregnancy, stasis, summer. I think Waiting Song might be in conversation with Zambreno. Drifts engages with time in the way I experienced it at the beginning of the pandemic. Everything pooled together. Everything was harder to make sense of. Honestly, time still feels like this. My voice as a writer and musician comes from this place of listening—to these authors and their influences, the ideas and people they invoke through their work.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I produce all of my songs with my husband and long-time collaborator, Will Johnson. For albums like AM and Fog Area, I have allowed myself to be non-traditional in my song structure, following my voice where it takes me. I love working with Will because he’s so intuitive—he gets where I’m going and creates these amazing soundscapes around my voice.
We both agreed, before beginning Waiting Song, that our next album should make more space for instrumentation to represent something bigger than just any given song’s atmosphere. It was a lot of fun seeing how Will entered the songs in this capacity, how his instrumentation is in conversation with my singing.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
Our first “studio” was a Wollensak tape machine. We crowded around one microphone. When Will and I rented our first house in Indiana, we turned a spare bedroom into a recording space—this would be the site for Fog Area. In Nashville, Will set up a studio in our basement. He built several amps and preamps that we use. When we recorded Waiting Song, I used a Royer R-10 mic, a Danelectro U1 from around probably 1961 (the name “Bobby” had been painted on its body in cursive and has subsequently been scratched off on the front), and different organs we’ve picked up for free or cheap since moving to Nashville. All other sounds come from Will.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
We approach recording pretty simply—set-up in relation to technology is more important than technology itself. We try to record each track in one take as much as possible. Having our friend Elio DeLuca mix Waiting Song was a vital part of the process. We’ve worked with him a few times over the last four years and he was able to hear what we were trying to accomplish instantly. When we first started recording, we named Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages and Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising as inspirations; without having communicated this to Elio, he named these connections and ran in just the right direction.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I only like the way my guitar playing sounds on our Danelectro. When I wrote these songs, it was me, the Danelectro, and the floor I sat on. I played through Will’s Ampeg Reverborocket and took notes of the lyrics on my phone. I watched Will gardening out the window as I wrote. Each of these elements fed into the record—the intimacy/privacy, the sense of observation, the trusted sounds.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I prefer talking through ideas in collaborative settings. Improvisation is one of the most vulnerable acts in the world, to me, and I prefer doing so by myself. Talking about ideas gives the work-in-progress its own space. The ideas shared between Will, our friends and me allow me to approach the work differently by transforming the way I think about the work. That way, the ideas change me first, and the work in turn. It feels like a way to respect the work as its own entity.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I’m an adjunct professor of English at Belmont University here in Nashville, so my days are pretty much divided in half. Since I don’t teach until the afternoon, I wake up early (Will is already at work by the time I wake up) and go on a walk for at least a few miles. I love walking—it’s where I do my best thinking and where I feel most at peace. A lot of my songs and poems begin while I’m walking.
Then, I try to read some poetry or write. Then, I teach. Besides the separation that teaching enacts, I tend to let all aspects of my life feed into everything I do. When I’m not feeling generative, I read and I listen. When I’m feeling creative, it’s pretty much all I think about and all I can do.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Working on Waiting Song with Will was such a gift. We were walking in the park together and the lyrics and melody for the title song came into my head. I frantically wrote them down on my phone, and then we spent the rest of the day writing and recording at home. We were both furloughed at the time—this was May, the beginning of the pandemic’s complete interruption of our daily lives—so we spent basically two weeks walking and writing and recording.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The state of mind I feel when walking is, for me, the ideal state of mind for being creative. Everything flows. Unless I see a deer or a hawk or something, I don’t get distracted. Then, when I’m home, I try to contain whatever is flowing out—I get to writing or singing or recording an improvisation.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
When I play live with Will, and lately also with Trevor Nikrant, I want to feel as possessed by the music as I did when Will and I first recorded. Playing music with Will is profoundly intimate—there’s an unspoken and crucial trust that we’re listening deeply to each other. The way Trevor punctuates that listening-energy with drums adds a playful sense of mystery to our live shows. No matter how many times we’ve played a song live, the listening we share makes it new.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I’m really only interested in sound and feeling. Writing and producing music is, for Will and me, a feeling-motivated process. I trust my ear, I trust Will’s ear, and we move intuitively towards the feeling at the center of each song.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Sound and smell are the most evocative senses for me. They transport me to other places, real or imagined. I’m motivated by not knowing what happens to sound at ist outermost borders, and that’s partly why it’s sacred.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I definitely think listening can be socially and politically transformative. What do I listen to? Why? Who else is listening, and who isn’t? Etc. These are my guiding questions, in and out of art.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
When we lived in South Bend, the city’s motto was, perplexingly: Building a 21st Century City. But we’re already in the 21st century! This is all to say: who knows?