Desire for intimacy and independence is a conflict that resonates with many in the post-COVID era. Over the past few years, we’ve come to learn that isolation is about so much more than geographical distance. This conceptual wellspring is also being explored lyrically by creatives. Anna Smyrk is one, whose latest EP, Cortisol and Blue Light taps into the subject in different ways throughout the four songs on the album.
I spoke to Anna over Zoom the day before her album launch at Workers Club in Fitzroy. We chatted about the relationships she has with herself, friends and lovers, her environment, and how these connections have inspired the EP.
Kate Davey: Your opening track ‘I Don't Want to Meet Your Mother’ deals with a short-term relationship in a small town, yet you've lived abroad in a number of different countries and recorded in the U.S. I was wondering in what ways do you think that setting informs your work?
Anna Smyrk: It is very important for me, I think. I guess that's one of the great things about travelling – it really makes you think, and makes you grow, and I think that's always fertile ground for song writing, when you have reflective space […] But I guess with this record especially I wrote a lot of the songs over the last couple of years, when I’ve been travelling a lot less. I think that's why there's a few songs where I'm looking back at past relationships on the record because I think, like everybody, that the time during lockdown was when I did a lot of thinking and a lot of reflecting, and I had some time to think about stuff that happened in the past that I hadn't given much airtime to until then.
Cortisol and Blue Light were recorded in Nashville, Tennessee with Jake Finch and Collin Pastore, who also produced Phoebe Bridgers’s band Boygenius. I was curious about the kind of sound Anna was looking for when she approached Finch and Pastore.
AS: I think I was heavily influenced by indie-pop rock songwriters that are writing in The States right now, like Sharon Van Etten and Phoebe Bridgers. But I wanted to take what they do with their super honest, authentic songwriting and just give it a little bit of my own twist I guess, maybe add a little bit of lightness and humour to the song writing, so I think there's a bit of influence from Blondie in there as well […] We also referenced quite a bit of The Cranberries during that recording session, which was really fun. But in terms of how we built the sound and the production from there, it was really sort of a step-by-step process. So we had this ‘bigger picture’ in mind from listening to these references, and talking through what we were trying to do.
Paying homage to these musical influences at her gig, Anna wore red lips and a white suit, like a Mod of Debbie Harry’s ilk. She and her band commanded the participation of the audience, encouraging them to sing along to a cover of The Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’. While Anna tuned her guitar for her previously unreleased ‘Live Slow Die Old’, her keyboardist joked with the crowd, teaching them the song’s backing vocals. The unique flair that Anna seeks is not only evident in her indie-pop take on traditional folk. It is also in the deftness of harmonisation with her band, and in her fondness for her audience.
KD: The songs on the EP are personal to you but deal with a lot of issues relating to the broader human condition. The video for ‘The Runner’, for example, exemplifies this idea of feeling trapped and trying to break free in quite an overt way. ‘Arrived’, though, has a slightly different tone because it seems to be more about the desire for human connection than it is the desire for escape. How do you find the songs on the EP complement each other?
AS: I think they’re different parts of the same journey. So for example, there's ‘The Runner’ and ‘I Don't Wanna Meet Your Mother’, which are pretty clearly two songs about that feeling of flight, of wanting to run away and put up walls, and trying to deal with that but not really being very good at managing it. Whereas, ‘Arrived’ is a little bit about, as you said, that feeling of wanting something. Whether that's in a relationship, or in another part of your life, it's really about the wanting itself […] I think we can all get stuck in a little bit of a trap of thinking that everything is going to be great and perfect in our lives if we just fulfil that need that we feel that we've identified. But then it's often really not what's causing the problem […] And I wanted to finish up on a more positive note on the EP so the last track [‘Live Slow, Die Young’] is a song about stopping and letting all that questioning go, letting all those insecurities go, and just looking around and appreciating the small things you have. And the great relationships that you might have right in front of you, that you might not be appreciating.
Anna introduced ‘Arrived’ on stage by explaining that the songs on her EP are about “chronic dissatisfaction”, but she refused to leave her fans in this state. After insatiable cries for an encore, the band returned for a cover of Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’, sung by Anna in alternating French verses. The “journey” Anna describes is an emotional one, and she carries her audience through the entire way. Though the songs on Cortisol and Blue Light reference disconnection, Anna’s intimacy with her fans left the room feeling optimistic about our connection to others.
Anna is heading over to Europe for an extensive German tour, before going back to the U.S. for a number of shows. She tells us to “stay tuned” after that for plans of an Australia tour that are in the works.