An interview with Little Annie & Paul WallfischTrace (2018) features the exquisite 'Dear John' written with musical partner, composer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Wallfisch (of Botanica) but it's hard to believe that it has been more than 10 years since Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch made their last album together. The wonderful Genderful (2010) captured an aching sentimentality for a New York now lost to gentrification and the characters and outsiders that once inhabited the clubs and streets.
Much has changed since then. Annie escaped her once beloved New York for the sunnier climes of Miami. Paul has taken up positions of musical director with various European theatres including Republik der Wölfe, based on Anne Sexton's adaptation of Grimm's Fairy Tales, soundtracked by The Ministry of Wolves (featuring Paul and Alexander Hacke, Mick Harvey and Danielle DePicciotto).
What hasn't changed is the magic that happens when these two come together. 10 years may have passed since they released an album but if you were lucky you may have caught them performing with Swans during their 2017 tour in support of their The Glowing Man album.
On A Bar Too Far (Jnana 2020), Little Annie exposes her broken heart; vulnerability and strength. Paul Wallfisch comforts with beautiful, melodic arrangements created in conjunction with musicians drawn from friends and family. Everything you need to know is right there in the first track: 'Isle Of Weeping Ladies'. In deep husky hues, Little Annie sings of shared cigarettes with an unrequited love over a stunning arrangement of sensitive piano notes, brushed drums and lap steel guitar. It is a ballad for drinkers and lovers, where she fails to gets her man "a suburban Casanova", leaving her to drown her sorrows in the solace of being "the greatest gal you never had". Past lovers; dear departed friends and some who were neither all feature in the songs of these two. The downbeat 'Price Of The Blues' wryly catalogues a litany of grubby music business treatments with a chorus lamenting a lover who got away. Kid Congo Powers on occasional vocal, flanked by some spirited brass treatments, takes this one to another level.
Little Annie rejoices in the highs and lows of a life infused with experience. Loping bass and harmonic guitar chime underpin the brooding, jazzy 'Sometimes You Fall'. In a tumbling and rhythmic phrasing Little Annie considers those moments when life throws everything at you, concluding in that inimitable voice: "Sometimes you fall, Don't mean nothing at all". It may sound somewhat optimistic but Little Annie has lost countless friends; endured setbacks aplenty, overcome addiction and hardship and survives with her soul intact and a heart full of love. It is fitting that she can present these songs and all the others on the previous album, as she's earned it.
With a complex arrangement of piano and drums, accentuated by organ and some beautiful ringing guitar and jazzy chords, Little Annie leads us through 'The Soul Of August' a final road trip before the world collapses through mistreatment and abuse where we can find some form of redemption and are "made whole again". Recorded prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the rebirth Little Annie imagines is not the populist new normal. Hers is "gentle and lovingly; free of the noise and the rhetoric, despots and fools in myopic utopias". For Little Annie, speaking with John Cavanagh on Radio Six International, if there is to be a new normal then let it be extraordinary.
The first full album from Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch When Good Things Happen To Bad Pianos (2007), saw them transforming songs from Brel; Sinatra; Tina Turner and U2. The three covers on A Bar Too Far are equally illuminating. 'The Shadow of Your Smile' is just wonderful: the arrangement gorgeous. Little Annie whispers, voice trembling amidst the piano score and flourishes of tender plucked guitar backed by those aching string and a mesmerising mid-section. Drawing every ounce of longing and loss from a lifetime of living and loving - its quiet intimacy illustrates what's so good about the works of Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch.
Even better though is their interpretation of an obscure solo track from the former singer in Strangelove, Patrick Duff. "Listen to the dead man singing, everyday the whole world breaks my heart" Little Annie sings on 'Dead Man Singing' over harmonium and string arrangements piano notes gently tumbling. Haunting and desolate and it just breaks my heart...and that's before the reprise with choir and tolling bells. I don't even know if I want to hear Patrick Duff's original as this is just perfect. Better known for its version by Robert Wyatt, for the final cover Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch turn to Elvis Costello's 'Shipbuilding'. Stripped back and rendered in sombre chords punctuated by passages of synth noise, the resigned sensitivity and subtlety in Little Annie's voice dwells on the personal within the political of this poignant essential track. Even if you're familiar with the earlier versions this one demands to be heard.
The opening section of 'Swamp Sexy' with its low end bass throb recalls some of Little Annie's earlier work with On-U Sound. Her multi layered, world weary vocals ask questions and improvise before over sustained organ swells up shrouding the chorus of "Enchantment or Bust" in massed voices while guitars chime in stunning ringing notes. "A tropical depression is gonna blow these blues away" and it does in a spirited way with lyrics referencing God and strip malls. 'Swamp Sexy' is another kind of blues indeed, like nothing that's previously featured on their previous albums.
Both 'Thursday' and 'Lie' have an intimacy created by piano and voice, and are the closest representation of what they've termed "tortured soul". You can almost picture the duo back at Joe's Pub, or any other dingy, smoke filled venue: Little Annie as chanteuse owning the stage, and Paul hunched over his piano. 'Lie' is another of those broken hearted tales of disillusioned lovers beaten down by life's travails. And yet as voices entwine over organ and jazzy drums it swells. Little Annie pleads "Please lie to me and lie with me, The truth is not always what it's cracked up to be, When did we start living so damn cautiously?, Sometimes I get so tired of being better than I am, Are you maybe tired too?".
A Bar Too Far is filled with a passion and compassion and before a "proper" release is scheduled, Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch are offering the album as a pay what you want digital release with all proceeds going to Glory Temple Ministries, a Miami based church supporting their community through an outreach programme providing food and necessities. It's a gift to give.
We caught up with Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch to find out more about the album, to discuss their working relationship and to discover how the two of them came to collaborate to create such beautiful and heartfelt music.
i) Congratulations A Bar Too Far is another great album, one thing I've always wondered though is how the two of you met and came to work together? What were your first impressions of each other?
Annie: Thank you. Paul and I met via Congo Norvell, Kid Congo and Sally Norvell's band. I felt instant kinship with Paul. He's just easy and cool and funny and smart as hell and I loved his playing. You can hear his soul in it. I instinctively knew he was the collaborator I had been looking for. I prayed it out loud on stage maybe 6 months previous to meeting him - though we had both known about each other. Due to scheduling it took a while to happen but I knew it would and I knew it would work.
Paul: Yes. Kid's da Mayor. Wherever he is. I'd been playing in Congo Norvell for a couple of years and Kid and Sally had been talking up Annie to me for months when she finally appeared backstage at the Mercury Lounge in New York after a Congo Norvell show. Probably 1996 or 7. I remember her eyes took up the whole dressing room. It's actually kinda nuts that it took 3 or 4 years for us to play our first show together.
ii) I might be wrong here but I think the two of you performed together at Joe's Pub, what are your reminisces of that initial period? It sounded like a great place with many special shows, was it? Annie: Yes our first show was Joe's Pub. We were opening for Anohni aka Antony & The Johnsons, who I was recording my LP Songs From The Coal Mine Canary with at the time, which Paul had also played on. It's always been gorgeous for us. My pal Mac aka the late Dr. John had come, and was sitting in the front row right in front of the mic stand, so It was pretty special on all fronts!
Paul: I thought - "wow - what a night!" Antony was amazing; I'd never seen him play before. And Mac, in white suit and hat, was close enough to my right hand, I could've reached out and touched him.
iii) Paul, you're based in New York and Annie, you're living in Miami, so how do the two of you compose and record A Bar Too Far?
Annie: We had started talking about it while on tour with the Swans. I had a quick visit in NYC where I was doing a live show with Hiro Kone of my first LP Soul Possession, right after Hurricane Irma and Paul played a bit of melody line of what was to become 'Soul Of August'. We sent stuff back and forth, i.e. melodies, lyrics, bits of vocal lines. Due to our schedules this was not a new way of working. We did a series of shows over the past year or so at Pangea in NYC which gave the songs a chance to breathe and reconfigure themselves. Paul and I, for me anyway, have a push and pull, cadence/language "knowing" that kinda takes on a life of its own, which makes distance not an issue. On stage many a time I will go off and wing it and land in the same place and catch each other's eyes: "like wow did you see that?" We get one another's nuances. I can send pages of words with no explanation needed. These visits up North were good in a way that they were long but focused days and also health inducing as Paul is an excellent cook and feeds me continually and with gusto, lol.
Paul: Annie is an explorer of human connection; a conjurer of stories and a prolific wordsmith. I've enjoyed making songs around her words for years! It's often a surprisingly fast and fun process. Though sometimes it isn't. 'Soul of August' was rewritten 3 times with different music. Sometimes she'll have words intended for one song and there'll be so much text that I end up editing it into 3 different songs. For 'Swamp Sexy', Annie actually had a melodic hook but virtually no words, so I went down to Miami on the way to a session in L.A. - ha! - and basically just ran 2 different grooves for her, recording about 3 hours of takes which got chopped up and edited into verses choruses and backing vocals over the next few months. It becomes like painting or sculpting or filmmaking.
iv) New York was such a strong influence on your previous album and I think Annie you referred to New York as your muse, now that you're living in Miami I wonder what inspired the album?
Annie: Miami - it's so Miami - the Bermuda Triangle, not always a sane muse but never a predictable one.
v) Your first album together When Good Things Happen To Bad Pianos was an album of interpretations of songs, and this time you cover 'The Shadow Of Your Smile' and 'Shipbuilding'. What do you look for in these songs and hope to bring out in your versions?
'Shipbuilding' sadly seemed unbearably relevant again with the bipartisan war budget of 217 billion and the chronic bipartisan myopic refusal to hear the cries of the long suffering ever growing rust belt - that military recruitment passed as job creation. I felt that not covering this song was not an option. The lyrics break my heart, as does 'The Shadow of Your Smile'. I knew the Johnny Mathis version. An ex had burned me a CD of his saddest hits post breakup - which in retrospect was a bitter gift! Anyways years later on the beach here in Miami writing LP lyrics and while having breaks I would put on my little headphone thing and I had only that and some Stevie Wonder. That song particularly stuck to the point I would be singing it aloud whilst swimming and it just felt as if I could do a rendition with my own heart string which is one criteria for covering a song. Whether to deconstruct it or stay true to the original you need too absolutely grasp and own the emotion and intent of one's own experience. It must be genuine. I've recorded Aznavour's 'Yesterday, (Hier Encore)' 3 times in my career. The first two were ambitiously premature!
Paul: I've always loved 'Shipbuilding' - which stuck out in Costello's catalogue as an uncharacteristically political offering - and immediately thought we could make it our own. Since both Costello and Wyatt's versions are, for all their amazing qualities, both exceedingly "pretty," I thought we should try not to be...
I was against 'The Shadow of Your Smile'. From a crap movie and been covered 100 times! But with all respect to Johnny M, I think Annie's version - our version - blows Johnny and everybody else outta the water! And reveals the song as never before.
I really have to say, also, that Oren and Jason's playing on this track is a particular highlight for me. Both those two guys approach making sound with so much care, attention and balls. Very rare.
vi) I've heard countless versions of 'The Shadow Of Your Smile' from Tony Bennett to Frank Sinatra and Marc Almond, yours is just beautiful but what's your favourite rendition of this track?
All great but Johnny Mathis...
vii) I wasn't familiar with 'Dead Man Singing', a song by Patrick Duff but I loved the desolation and the arrangement of harmonium, strings and choir, but what was the attraction of that track and how did you come across it?
Annie: Patrick Duff is a longtime dear friend of mine, so genius. I met him back while he was in Strangelove backstage at some festival in the UK. I lost touch for a spell and reconnected via online. Anyways I checked out what he was doing as a solo artist, heard that song and was just blown the fuck away. We got to spend a few days hanging out together in Bristol while on Swans tour a few years ago which was wonderful. His writing, his voice, his depth of spirit. I was just instantly enchanted with that song. His original version is so perfect. The only option was too make something different with it, which Paul did beautifully. It's an honor to do that song. Patrick is an ever evolving artist and one of best around and I love him dearly.
Paul: I was immediately touched by Patrick's song. But it took a bit of thought and effort to transform it into something that wasn't just an imitation of his performance. This and a couple other songs on the album started out with Annie and me playing together, voice and piano - or sometimes even just me alone - and then as the arrangement developed and the vocal became set, the original piano track would be partially or completely deleted.
viii) In terms of interpretations and covers, is anything out of bounds? What song would you consider is just so perfect that it could never be improved upon?
Annie: It's not about improvements upon for me but about feeling and that I can bring my own lens or experience.
Paul: Yes, exactly.
ix) At one point the album was titled Enchantment or Bust, what prompted the change to A Bar Too Far?
Annie: I was in Napoli sitting outdoors with Bee having a conversation about inspiration and lack of it, muses, dry spells, and it flew out of my mouth and we both stopped and thought, "damn!"
Paul: Took me a while to come around to this title, actually - ha! Quick little survey of friends convinced me. And also when I saw what became our cover photo, I thought - "well, that's perfect for the new title!"
Both Enchantment or Bust and A Bar Too Far have a vagabond-on-an-odyssey vibe about them...
x) You premiered the album with some shows in Germany a while back. That must have been your first show together in quite a while, how did it go? You must miss performing live, do you? But you did both perform with and open for Swans though, what was the reaction from the Swans audience?
Annie: Those German dates were wonderful, having Ned Collette again and Larry Mullins, as was the previous year with Ned and Budgie. The Swans audience were universally wonderful!
Paul: Ha! Yeah, I've since updated my website. I know it looked as if we just played Germany THIS MONTH! Actually, those 2 shows were last August, right after I finished mixing the album. As it turned out, they were our last shows for a while; it's been a year now.
Yeah, the shows opening for Swans were uniformly great. Michael Gira is wise to generally have artists as sonically different from Swans as possible opening his shows. And from my perspective, playing with Annie and then in Swans, despite the endless time on stage was a very fulfilling experience, I actually found participating in both shows a night spiritually satisfying in way that wouldn't have been otherwise possible.
xi) 'Price of the Blues' documents the hardship of being on the road, but having seen Little Annie live you own that stage enlivening and enlightening the stage. Tell me, you don't hate it, do you?
Annie: I absolutely love playing live - it's my most carefree, joyful unburdened by self and free. The song is a swipe at the business that one crawls through to get to stage. It's part of the job: Ya can't sing the blues while drinking milk. It still beats being an adult!
xii) I was sorry to read that between recording and release your guitarist Ronny Drayton passed away, is there any comment you would like to make about Ronny and his contribution to A Bar Too Far?
Annie: Ronny the man was our dear friend. But Ronny the musician was a legend and was one of the guitarists that graced us with playing on the LP - we've no band as such. Ronny, man I miss him. Besides his vast musical legacy, he was the definition of a fine graceful warrior and father. The war he fought to get justice for his son Donovan; it was heroic. Ronny was so easy to love and loved by so many. Rise in Paradise dear brother to us all.
Paul: Ronny was a lovely, warm person with an easy laugh and a million stories. And of course he contributed to some hugely influential music. I consider myself very lucky to have had the privilege of recording him for our album. It was a truly great hang! But please don't refer to him as our guitarist! Ronny definitely didn't belong to anybody and in any case there was no "band" for this project, besides Annie and me. I won't get into who plays what, but the bulk of the guitar sounds were contributed by Oren, Kid and my son Roman Casper. I should add that Roman's finger pickin' guitar magic on 'Swamp Sexy' is another musical highlight for me.
xiii) On a more positive note, you've got Kid Congo Powers back on a couple of tracks, that must be good. How did your paths cross with Kid Congo Powers?
Annie: All roads lead to Kid! They do! I met him in Dusseldorf on a Congo Norvell tour in early/ mid 90s. I went to his room to say hello and he opened the door and he was an instant brother. In Germany people thought us brother and sister and we really have been since. I played in his bands, Knoxville Girls, The Pink Monkey Birds, and he in mine. Kid is LOVE.
Paul: That's right. Kid is Love. That's all you need to know! I started playing in Congo Norvell in 1994, when we were all living in L.A. Kid later played in my band Botanica for a while and I was an original Pink Monkey Bird. We've stayed in touch through all our peripatetic lives because...well, because Kid is Love!
xiv) Loss, yearning, tragedy and life's hardships feature heavily in your songs, these themes are considered cornerstones of torch songs, do you consider yourselves working in the tradition of torch songs? How would you describe the work of Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch?
Paul: You're right, of course, but I think Annie's words generally have more humor and bite to them than most torch songs; or any kind of songs, really.
I think a few of our songs, for example 'Suitcase Full of Secrets', (Genderful), could comfortably fit in the Torch Song bin at da ol' rekahd store - ha! - but most of them don't really have the kind of structure or sound of a traditional "torch song." We do cover some, for sure! 'Yesterday, (Hier Encore)'; 'If You Go Away' etc. I've told people for years that Annie and I do Tortured Soul. I guess that's as good a moniker as any. I think gospel, disco, r'n'b, blues and noise/no-wave figure in there as well. But really, we do Annie and Paulie music.
xv) I find two of your songs especially moving, the first is 'Dear John' from Trace and 'Because You're Gone' which appeared on Genderful. I was going to ask about the stories behind these tracks but thought that may be too personal so instead I'd like to ask how hard it is to draw upon your feelings and emotions to write so openly, and Paul those heartbreaking lyrics must put pressure on you to compose arrangements to match those lyrics?
Annie: I will let Paul answer re: pressure but from myself regarding that, Paul has been there for me through these passages, so I know my fragilities are in the right hands. Paul always understands when I say "not tonight" and drop a song out of the set at the last minute. It's strange as sometimes it was the covers I couldn't bare to perform live, i.e. 'If You Go Away', and 'I'd Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer'. I just knew I wouldn't be able to climb out for the next song or sometimes it's the opposite and I can't climb into the song. It's always about the audience. It's not about artist catharsis, it's a stage not a therapist's couch so hopefully my lyrics expose universal emotions, and our intertwined humanity.
Paul: Nah, the only pressure is to get up in the morning! Or rather, just to do anything. Once I get started, I just try and get it so I'm not embarrassed by how it sounds. Just trying to do a good job. Sometimes it works better than other times. After you've been doing something for a long time, you gotta have a bit of faith that it's not horrible. Or just quit. In any case, the only time there's any pressure when working on music, is when you're working on something, or with someone that you don't really believe in. That's not the case here...
xvi) God often gets referenced in the lyrics of the songs, and even in title of 'The God Song' from Genderful but how do you reconcile the existence of God with the amount of tragedy and hardship in your songs - and in life, generally? What role does God play in your life?
Annie: Ah where the fun starts! Paulie and I debate this much! But that's only one of the reasons I love him! Debate is not just a great sport but more important than ever as critical thought is an endangered species.
So my answer, God - a word for which is beyond words is just...I felt his presence without prompting ever since birth. My father was an agnostic and like Paul a man of principles and goodness. Instead of nursery rhymes he taught us passages from Omar Khyam and Hemmingway. My mother taught us so we had a theologian's comprehension of religious texts and dragged us to every church, temple, mosque, synagogue, shrine etc. Both of them got the subtext of the stories and parables but also had historical context too. I have a healthy fear of religions and their political and cultural weaponry. So there's no indoctrination, just something I've always known and know. Sometimes it's a very visceral relationship, I feel the spirit, and have gone through periods of feeling absolute abandonment - "the tunnel" - only too hold on till I get through it and realize that GOD is closer than ever the whole time. It's a frequency that when I remember to tune into makes total sense - but know its there regardless - it is too huge and real and solid too impart. It's real and ultimately whatever you choose to call it - or not matters little - it's by this grace, I am. I see it in everything and everyone. It's just my power source and I would not interfere with anyone else's.
Paul: Your question is what every believer gets asked and I'd say it's equally ridiculous and insane to try and reconcile the existence of "god" to anything "good" that happens to us on our little planet. I think the arrogance inherent in the notion of "god" will lead to a much earlier demise of our species than would otherwise occur and is the single most dangerous obstacle to enlightened evolution of humanity. Way more of an existential threat than climate change, or nuclear war, or disease, because everything flows from this small minded, limiting, anti-spiritual perspective. I believe life has absolutely zero purpose or meaning and I understand how believing this can seem like trapeze without a net, but I'm not a nihilist. I think every moment we're alive is of infinite importance and precious; every minute we have, alone and with each other, is an opportunity to be amazed. This tends to be the opposite of all religious "thought," which is obsessed with the "sanctity of life" and the "after life."
That said, I love Annie and she doesn't have a nasty bone in her body, so whether she choses to believe in the spaghetti monster or Jesus is her business!
Religion, taken as art history, architecture and literature, for example, has been the source and/or inspiration for countless wonders of human creation.
xvii) Do you think we are defined by our pain, as you sing on 'Isle of Weeping Ladies'?
Annie: Well we sure get interesting stories and few good songs from it.
Paul: I think we're defined by many things, certainly including our pain. But I think these definitions are ever so flexible. Just as all definitions, beginning with language, are constantly evolving as we make our way through existence. Alone and collectively.
xviii) It's really generous of both of you to release this on bandcamp with all proceeds from the album going to Glory Temple Ministries, a Miami based Church. Do you want to elaborate on your involvement and the work they do?
Annie: I had heard about the works they were doing in Miami for a while and dropped by with my friend Wendy who introduced me too Pastor Ronae Cambridge right when Miami was about too go under lockdown due to Covid (we're still in phase 1, curfew etc) I felt immediately the specialness of their set up, which is totally inclusive and open and walking the walk. I did a day here and there at their grocery distribution, which was pretty impressive pre-pandemic, and now the need is enormous. There were miles and miles of cars, lined up in the sun which is merciless on a good day, yet the joy and welcoming way in which this monumental task was conducted was just amazing. The blessing of service. They are feeding 10,000 people a month with the respect, warmth and dignity deserved. The ministry walks the walk and I am honored to support that in any small way we can.
xix) Annie, did you ever envisage when you took that stage accidentally in the seventies that one day you would end up as an acclaimed blues singer?
Annie: Not on stage that night, but ever since a child - it was not a goal as such, I just knew inherently that life would give me no other choice. It was a calling before I even knew what I was being called to.
xx) What's next for the album and what's planned for the future?
Annie: We just released a video for the song 'Swamp Sexy', maybe the first social distance video, lol. I took tons of photos and videos down here in my Miami neighborhood and sent them to Clinton Querci in NYC who did an amazing job editing and creating it. As for the future, well I will leave it to Paul to answer that. Like everyone all over the world our plans, well, the world had a different plan...Paulie?
Paul: Well, if it weren't for Covid, we'd be in Europe right now working on a musical. Hopefully we'll be doing that this time next year. As for another album, I've always said I could just release Annie's unedited emails, so maybe I'll just be lazy next time and give it a shot!
A Bar Too Far on bandcamp