You know how sometimes a piece of art comes out in the exact right moment in you life and it feels like the cosmos dropped some weird gift on your head? That’s what hearing Cowgirl Blues by katie ellen was like for me. I liked Anika Pyle’s previous band Chumped, but I was over the moon for katie ellen. And If I’m being honest, even years removed from the moment I first heard Cowgirl Blues, it still transports me right back to that same place. It’s a powerful work of punk-inspired indie, and if you’ve not heard it, well would you look at that here’s a song from it you can listen to.
But now, it seems like katie ellen is a thing of the past. In its place, Anika has started a project under her own name, and while she dropped a bunch of songs on Bandcamp over the past few years, she’s put together her debut full-length Wild River and it’s out this Friday. And much like Cowgirl Blues, it’s a record that viscerally hit me and I kept going back to. So I decided to take some time out of Anika’s day (arguably too much) to talk to her about it.
Wild River an album about loss and grief, and as someone who spent his formative years in a funeral home, I’ve got lots of thoughts about the way American culture deals with death. In a way, this record feels like the kind of open dialogue about the subject that I think most art about death often misses. At no point in listening to Wild River do I get the sense that Anika is trying to be prescriptive about the grieving process or the meaning of life or whatever. Instead, she’s just exploring what it feels like to lose someone you love; maybe there’s meaning it, or maybe there’s not just yet, but she’s trying to find something in it. And that feels more honest to me than most records that explore this topic. That said, I do really like these albums as they feel like they do similar things.
This album is a document of an intensely difficult period and you hear that in the album. Musically it’s a blend of lo-fi electronics, downtrodden acoustic guitar, and startlingly immersive spoken word poems, each piece building upon what came before it in a way that makes for a deeply rewarding listening experience. It’s the kind of album that forces you to sit with Anika’s lyrics and really interrogate your own reactions to loss, grief, and trauma. It’s a process that’s often painful, but if you’re willing to meet the situation head on, maybe something good can be found in all of that. At the very least, that’s what I take from Wild River. And if you give it a listen, I think you just might too.
First of all, just in general, how are you doing?
I think I’m doing okay. I’m someone who is used to being very busy. I’m used to having four or five jobs, if you count yoga and music as jobs, so it’s been strange, because there are days when I am just crying and having a really hard time, but also moments where I feel like I’m being productive and doing good, but then I kind of feel bad about that, too.
Yeah, any good moment I have I immediately feel guilty about.
I think it’s impossible not to at this point. But I am just always trying to stay productive, and sometimes I’ve had these really great moments of feeling creative in these really great ways, but then it comes crashing back down again.
It seems like you’ve been in a really productive spell, though. You’ve put out a bunch of music on Bandcamp, you’re doing your Patreon, you’re writing poetry, you wrote a song for the movie Her Smell, you’re doing that band with Sheena and Augusta, and I know you did some stuff for Craig of the Creek, too. How did you starting putting Wild River together during all that, and did doing all those different things inspire you to push this album in a new direction?
I feel like it depends on the project. The approach lends itself to the thing that you’re working on. The biggest thing for me is finding some gratitude for getting to do these crazy things like write a song for a movie or sing on a television show, and I think from the most intimate stuff to the most public stuff, everything is a little bit scary. And the bigger it gets, the scarier it gets. I try to approach the whole process as getting out fo my comfort zone, though I guess it’s both being in and out of your comfort zone. It’s about having the pressure of, “This giant supermodel is going to sing this song, so it better be good,” which is very much a crazy situation, but when I’m writing songs at home, that is my comfort zone. Or I guess my discomfort zone because I’m always working with discomfort. No matter what I’m doing, I’m coming to that process with the idea of healing in mind. Even some of the stuff I did for Jeff [Rosenstock, who scores Craig of the Creek] was mimicking a bunch of little kid gang vocals, which is not the same as sitting down to write an introspective poem. But even that process was kind of freeing and fun. It’s about trying to keep my head on straight as I do all these different types of things, but still coming at everything with a healing, grateful approach while trying to push myself to grow.
I like that idea of working from the discomfort zone, because I think the best stuff comes from really drilling into yourself until you make something that you actually feel weird about putting out into the world.
There are two quotes that have been floating in my head, and I’m never going to get this right, but it’s like, “Write the stories you feel you need to hear.” But the other one is, “Telling our stories has the power to change the world,” which is Brene Brown quote, and the other one is an idiom that so many people have riffed on, but we’re just so afraid to share these parts of ourselves because we live in this place of shame. Our secrets, our scary parts, our hard parts, we’re afraid to share those because we’re afraid they’re not going to be met with compassion.
We live in this internet world where it’s full of trolls and scary people who want to take us down, and sometimes those scary people are the people closest to us. I do think that as I’m writing for myself, I need to get to the scary parts. That’s what music and poetry and these artistic mediums are for. It’s about accessing these hard parts; the grief and the pain. They’re things that are scary to share, and the things that are scariest to share are often the things that people need to hear the most because they feel alone in their darkness. All we want to do is connect with others and not feel like we’re the only one who is dealing with this. We don’t want to fee alone in our shame and our grief. I don’t write things to be like, “You’re not alone,” but I think that’s how things resonate with people.
That’s something I think about a lot, because I wrote about being sick for this newsletter that was ostensibly about music, and I did that in part because I literally couldn’t find any other resources about what it’s like to go through that kind of thing. People just don’t talk about being sick, because it makes them appear weak or they feel embarrassed that their body failed them. But I just felt like it was worth exploring it, because I wasn’t seeing a lot of other people do it. And I just did it here, because I didn’t want someone else to have to give it the green light.
I definitely have never connected so much to the spirit of DIY as I have trying to get my poetry published. That was something that Sadie [Dupuis] and I were kind of riffing back and forth about [on Twitter], because the publishing world makes the music world make look like the Virgin Mary or something. After I spent my first $200 trying to publish my first poem I was like fuck this. I can reach more people and hopefully have something resonate with someone just by sharing it on my Instagram, because I am too poor for this. And I feel like over the course of a couple years, I’ve been proud to take that approach in music, because every time you start a project, you take this community of active listeners with you, but you don’t take the press outlets or the record labels with you. It’s not quite the same.
As a person who has started over a lot, I come from this place of not having control over any of that, and I only have control over the things I make and the work I put into it. I don’t have control over whether Saddle Creek wants to put the record out or whether Graywolf Press wants to publish my book or whether my mom likes the song even, or even how many likes I get it. There’s a yogic term that has struck me that basically means, “You have the right to your labor but not the fruits of your labor.” All I can do is do my best and share things in the ways that I know how, and I can’t control anything else.
It’s brought me back to what the intent of my work is. If the intent is to write a hit song and get Universal Music Group to pick it up and get a million plays, you’ll come at it one way, but you might not get that. All you might get is a really good song that no one ever listens to, so you better hope you like the process of writing the song. That’s helped me remain true to myself, because I don’t know if anyone is going to like a spoken word poetry record. I saw someone post the other day something like, “I can’t wait for your record to come out. I’ve been listening to Chumped all day.” In my mind I’m like, “You’re going to hate this record, because it’s nothing like that.”
Is this part of why you wanted to started releasing things under your own name? In the context of a band people have this perception of how things are supposed to sound, but did this kind of drive home the fact that you’re a person with different interests and they can all show up here?
I’ve struggled so much with that aspect of music and putting that kind of ownership over it by using the same name that’s in my middle school yearbook or whatever. It’s kind of scary, but it allows me to take ownership over whatever it is I want to be. I don’t feel like I need to change the name of the project to fit that, because people are changing, living, beautiful things that are going to grow and present themselves differently based on how they feel and what they’re moved by.
I remember having a conversation with Jeff Rosenstock years and years ago where I was like, “I don’t know. Should I call it katie ellen or should I call it Anika?” He had just ended Bomb The Music Industry and was kind of starting over and was like, “Well, it depends. Starting a project that is your name is both freeing and trapping, because you can’t get away from it but you can do whatever you want.” So its two sides of the same coin. At the time, with what I was doing, I don’t know if I was ready to be myself, I guess. And now, I feel like this record and the things that I’m trying to do are Anika. They’re a little bit erratic, they’re kind of all over the place, sort of fun, and really sad, so I think I’m finally okay with being myself and I’m excited to see the ways in which I can continue to do that.
That’s what strikes me about Wild River, because it’s got a lot of emotional weight to it, but it’s also not structured in the way of an easily digestible album. Because it’s not how an album is “supposed” to be I think it’s somehow more honest.
I definitely think it’s not a traditional record by any means. It’s not a catchy record, it’s not a commercially palatable record, it’s kind of weird and it mimics the messiness of life. It’s not like track one is the hit and track three is pretty good too and it ends with this raucous thing.
I approached the record like I was writing an essay, where I had the themes I was working with and thinking about. When I first learned to write an essay, it was that an essay has a thesis statement, and you need to have three pieces of evidence to back up your thesis statement, and then each paragraph needs to elaborate on that evidence. I think as I was putting stuff together for the record, there was this theme of grief and what it means to die and what happens to the body when we die and where we go when we die and things that were viscerally really affecting me at the time.
And then there’s the theme of looking back on my dad and I’s relationship and feeling like a failure, and what it means to feel like a failure. And it’s also how we recover from those things; how we find love and joy despite the very human act of making constant mistakes and feeling grief and experiencing pain. I felt like the evidence for my thesis statement came from all these different places, some of which were poetry, a lot of which was nature and the cyclical experience of nature, and then these audio clips from my grandma sort of tied it all together. I found those after I already recorded the record and it was kind of this missing piece. “What am I trying to say here? How am I trying to connect this?” And my grandma kind of said it for me. She was talking about these life lessons she learned from her parents that she wanted to impart to her grandchildren, and it was exactly what I was trying to say. She says, “You’re not going to be happy all the time. Life is full of suffering. It’s a tragic comedy. What we do as people is we fail and we fuck up and we feel bad and we lose people and we just keep striving for joy because that’s what we’re wired to do. And you have to accept both of those things.”
One of the most powerful sections on the record is “Haiku For Everything You Love and Miss” into “The Mexican Restaurant Where I Last Saw My Father.” In the first one, you’re kind of saying this phrase over and over at the end, and even though you’re saying the same thing, the context of it morphs in this really subtle way by the end. And then you go into the spoken word piece where you’re recalling all these details, and to me it really speaks to how we remember things. Our brains are fallible, so those memories change and distort over time. And depending on the day, a happy memory can feel like a sad one or vice versa. I think this section really sets up the idea that grief can be painful, but it can be funny and beautiful, too. And that’s something I’ve not really heard on an album before, even though there’s now a wealth of records focused on these ideas.
A few things that came to mind while you were talking, and one of them was that when you lose someone there’s this desperate dash to remember and catalog all this stuff because you don’t want to go away. The memory is unreliable and it becomes cloudier as we go along, so this was kind of my desperate attempt to remember all this stuff. What does my dad look like? What do his hands feel like? What does his voice sound like? I’m a little bit of an emotional hoarder in that sense because I have way too many voicemails from all the people I love. So it was a mad dash to document, because you don’t want to forget.
Something I was thinking about while you were talking was also these moments of birth, and I’m not a mother, I’ve never given birth, but something I’ve read about a lot and heard people talk about a lot is that people don’t talk about the birth process. People are like, “Oh my god, it’s so beautiful to have a child and it’s awesome and they’re this beautiful beam of light,” and everyone is just like, “You’re so strong!” And it’s like, hearing people talk about, “No. You have a baby, your body gets torn open, you shit on yourself, it’s actually really hard and sucks and you can be really sad and ask yourself why you even did it.” In the same way, people don’t talk a lot about the death process.
Something I obsessed over when my dad died was his dead body. His body is dead, and he’s lying in a morgue, and I’m never going to see his live body again. So I had these crazy dreams and that was something that was very real to me, and it’s referenced on the record. Death, birth, money, sex, a lot of things we don’t talk about, people are experiencing these things, and it just felt very right for me to process those things through songs and poetry, and I’m appreciative of it when people are willing to talk about those things with me. I like when people are real about these processes, because we all experience them.
I mention it a lot, but spending a lot of my youth in a funeral home, I’ve always been bothered by this binary view of both birth and death. Giving birth is framed 99% of the time as a purely joyful act and that really downplays the danger and struggle that goes along with it. And in the same way with death, I feel like we’ve been conditioned to only look at the first part and ignore what comes after in the process. By approaching Wild River like an essay instead of an album did that force you to kind of keep digging into what this all meant for you?
I think the writing process, and especially the music process, gave me a chance to review my memories and also make a choice of those memories. When we lose something, we have a choice of how we remember it. Over time, you can accept the challenging points and choose to look at them in a more positive light. Not only has it given me the option to do that, but I really feel like music has given me the chance to be in direct communication with people that I’ve lost. As I was thinking about my dad, the day after he died I sat at the piano and wrote “Orange Flowers.” I don’t know what happens when we die, and that’s something I reference in the song because that was something I was still working with, but I really did feel like my dad was there, or at least could hear me; I could feel that energy.
When you’re a songwriter, sometimes it takes years to get the song out, and sometimes you sit down and it just happens. And I really felt like we were in conversation in that moment. No matter what your spiritual beliefs are, god knows I don’t really know what mine are, I think music has this incredible, powerful, somatic, almost tribal experience. The brain loves music, and we use it to remember, to memorialize, to communicate, and it’s a part of almost every spiritual tradition’s process for a reason. And when I sing these songs, it really does feel like my own version of prayer.
I think you said what I was getting at before in a much more eloquent way. Basically that, when someone dies, you have a chance to put their spirit into things that weren’t there prior, and you can now access those things at will. I have to imagine playing that song is way to transport yourself back to feeling like you’re with that person.
And this is something I tend to ask people who have put this much of themselves into a piece of art like this, but does it feel like having these conversations, and having to explain this emotional process to people, does it feel like having to reopen those wounds over and over?
I took a big break from the record and tried to look from a third party point of view at the material just to get on the other side of writing it and working with it. As I was getting ready to put the record out, I picked it back up and I felt like my grief process sort of followed that same timeline. I couldn’t even look at pictures of my dad for a while; it was too painful. I put them all away, and I just kind of buried it for a little. But as I’m coming back, I feel like it’s given me this really crucial moment to both proverbially and literally take the photos out of the box. I feel like it’s giving me the chance to spend time with my dad.
Everybody accepts their grief differently and processes their grief differently, but something that I found that was actually so helpful was when people just asked about my dad. “What was he like?” or “Tell me a story.” A lot of people don’t know what to say, but I feel like I’ve learned so much about how to be a good friend to someone who is grieving, and I hope that I can be there for the people in my life in the future.
Even though it’s painful to revisit some of this stuff, I like having the opportunity to talk about it, because I want to remember my dad. And I want to allow myself to make space for it. Having the opportunity to honor him, and making the space to play the songs, where I feel like the real processing actually happens, it’s been a really nice thing. Even if it’s kind of tough sometimes.
And I thank you for being game to go on that journey here. With that in mind, Wild River really is an album you need to hear from beginning to end to get that full understanding. How does it feel to put something like that out knowing that the way to succeed in the music industry is to have singles that can go on playlists or records that could just be put on shuffle?
I feel like I knew that this record wouldn’t be… it’s different. I kind of knew that as I was going, but I was just trying to remain true to what I wanted to do. Once I put my grandma’s voice in there, that felt complete to me. But that was a very specific choice because if I’m sending this to people the first thing they hear is this really long song that’s this audio clip of my grandma, and then this poem, and then this thing with a bunch of chords and strings. If you’re listening to just track one, you’re going to miss the point.
I did another interview where the person was like, “I first listened to the record on shuffle because that’s how the Soundcloud link came to me.” And I was like, “fuck.” And that has honestly alerted me to all these kind of nuances, because when people send me a record, I try to listen attentively in a yoga position, because I’m trying to listen for the words too. You can’t really get that if you’re feeding your dog and doing the dishes or whatever. So I think I take for granted that that’s how the record is going to be received, and it’s important for me to convey that to people. You wouldn’t start the book on page 65, you’ve got to start on page 1 and follow it to the end. Otherwise you won’t get out of it what I intended to share, I guess. And that is a little scary, and I don’t have the same expectations as if I were putting out a hit single, and I like that.
With that in mind, if people want to listen to the record and support your work, where’s the best place to do that?
Go check out the record on Friday. It’ll be on Spotify if that’s your thing.