Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Milwaukee Hits a High Note with Annie B. & the Vagabond Company

written for ArtMilwaukee by Jodie Niles

Performing for ArtMilwaukee’s “Arabian Night” after party on Thursday, June 2nd is Milwaukee native singer/songwriter Annie B. with her band, The Vagabond Company. The band features Annie B. on Lead Vocals, Dave Johnson on Drums, “Hollywood Fred” on Bass and Cam DeWinter on Lead Guitar. Though Annie’s been around for a while, the band didn’t officially have their first gig together until February of this year, and it didn’t take long for them to find their groove… in Milwaukee and beyond.  Not only will they be playing at Summerfest this year (Sunday, July 10th on the big Briggs & Stratton stage!), but they will also be opening for the BlackCAPS  in Madison next week  Friday (June 10th) and heading out to Chicago and Lake Geneva this summer, with a CD Launch Party not long after at Shank Hall!

[Full schedule available at:].

Getting  Annie B. to sit still for more than a minute is certainly a challenge, as I’ve come to learn, working as her personal booking assistant these last few months.  That’s only because the big energy in her little body never seems to stop.  Whether she’s connecting on the phone, checking email and updating her Facebook page, organizing a community event, planning her performance schedule, practicing with her band or getting ready for an interview, Annie is always giving the most she can, and with a smile on her face and a song in her heart.

Sitting at the kitchen table of her home on a typical morning, she and I, along with two other helpers, enjoy what Annie’s boyfriend has endearingly come to call “The View.” The four of us gather around, laptops open and ear pieces on (well, me anyway), ready to get down to business….and sometimes, yes, that does include monkey business. Between the calls and research we also work up a lot of laughs between us.

Annie’s been a great influence on me because, as an artist, I know how it feels to want to just “do your thing” and not deal with the “business stuff.” But Annie’s self-respect and confidence compel her to make things happen, and her “go get it and have fun doing it” spirit is contagious.  Her natural friendliness and ability to connect with others draws people and opportunities to her, and she’s willing to put the time and effort into it because she believes in herself and takes what she does seriously. And yet....

Easily distracted, on this particular day, the day I’ve FORCED her to answer my interview questions, she scurries about doing anything she can to avoid having to sit and focus on me and my questions. After all, there are dishes to wash, a refrigerator to clean a cat that needs some TLC.  Not to mention the phone calls, emails and press kits that need to be done….but I digress.

“Hey, Annie, let’s do this,” I say.

“Yeah, I’m comin’. I just have to put on another pot of coffee. Remind me to call so and so back. And can you add this venue to the database? Oh, and don’t let me forget to stop by that other place and drop off a CD. Did we ever hear back from so and so?”

“It’s all under control,” I say. “Let’s do this.”

“Okay, just hold on a sec. Let me just run to the bathroom really fast!”

I give her the eye, because she knows that I know that she is reluctant to sit down for a few minutes, for fear she’ll forget something drastically important to do. After a few more minutes of coffee making, message checking and idea throwing, she thinks of something else that she wants me to do, and I have to stop her and remind her that she needs to go to the bathroom.

“Oh yeah! Okay, just one more minute,” she says, and we all laugh

Still walking about, she eventually shuffles back over to the table, sits down and forces herself not to look at her computer screen or put her hands near her keyboard as I begin the interview. She is excited to share, and takes her time answering each question. As always, she’s thinking of her audience and giving them the most she can…even if it does mean saving the refrigerator cleaning for later. And so we begin:

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a singer?

A: “Well,” she says with a smile…”I wanted to be a movie star when I was 4. I used to sing Beatles songs in harmony with my little sister …but I really decided when I was in graduate school in Reno and learned how to play guitar. I was really depressed during the first year of my PhD program in Clinical Psych.  I had come home for the summer and learned how to play guitar.  I actually started studying voice at The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music back in undergrad at Marquette…but didn’t seriously pursue it… it was more of an exploratory thing…I just was drawn to it. I feel super lucky to stay that I got to study with a blues/jazz singer out of the Chicago area who is now signed to Blue Note Records...Jackie Allen.”

“So, you didn’t know in high school?”

“Oh, in high school?  I was mostly stealing booze out of my dad’s liquor cabinet…not really ready to be serious about life or my career… I was out chasing boys,” she adds with a giggle.

“I went back to school that fall (in Reno), still uncertain, and began playing open mic’s…that’s when I knew I needed to be playing music. It was the first time I had ever performed in front of an audience and I was getting a good response from my music…from songs that I had written…songs I started writing that summer when I learned the guitar…and I had this epiphany…I felt like I finally had purpose and direction in my life.”

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

 A: The Beatles

Q: Tell me about your travels and the places you went on the road. What was your best experience on the road?

A: ”I was doing solo acoustic in 1993….then I put my first band together in 1994 in Reno…moved to Seattle…did well for short time…and then the drummer and I broke up, so therefore the band broke up…the band moved back to Reno and I went to LA with no friends and family there. I had always wanted to move to NY or LA. I stayed at a youth hostel for a about a week…I had some savings and rented a one-room apartment off of Hollywood Blvd. for $450/month for a couple years. So I was right in the middle of Hollywood waiting table at the Wolfgang puck café on Universal Citywalk. Then I landed a job working for radio promo company in 2001, and that’s where I learned how to get radio airplay and how the radio business works. I put another new band together called Breather, and then later I created Shut up Marie (SUM), and booked our very first gig at The Coconut Teaser on Sunset Boulevard!”

Ever since deciding on music and quitting grad school in 93/94, Annie started researching the music business.

“I bought books, went to songwriting workshops, seminars, like the South by southwest conference and just began immersing myself. I felt confident about getting gigs when I got to LA because I’d made headway in Seattle quickly when I was there.”

“Then I got fired from my job and I kept plugging away with SUM. I got an opportunity to work with a catering company for The Vans Warped Tour. It was a GREAT chance to get to know all the right people …except I got fired on day 4,” she says with a nostalgic smile.

“We were actually in Milwaukee when they told me to go home. I didn’t want to go crawling back to LA after losing that gig, so instead, since I was able to go on UE, I decided to learn how to make a living playing music. I started living out of my car. I quit my other part-time jobs, put my stuff in storage and hit the road.”

I first ended up in Colorado Springs and it was horrible. I had no idea what I was getting into. The first gig there were no guests. Just a couple tables at a bar/restaurant. I moved on to Des Moines, Topeka, Milwaukee, Madison, Louisville and various cities throughout Illinois, Missouri and Oklahoma. I learned about the MKE/OK/TX route and did that quite a bit. I did very well in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. So, I moved to Austin July 2007. Then I came back home for Christmas and never left. My parents weren’t well, and so I helped care for them. By January, I knew I’d be staying for good.

Q: Why do you choose to stay in Milwaukee?

 A: “It’s a great place for a musician. Wisconsin and Illinois have lots of work to be had. Plus, my family is here, and the Midwest is a great place for music.”

Q: Where do you get inspiration for your music?

 A: “It’s random. My last song, “Coffee Beans,” was inspired by my 16-yr old niece, Aly Jayne, who’s also a singer/songwriter. The lyrics inspired by my boyfriend,” she tells me (while he peaks his head around in the corner at us and says, “what?!”)

“It Comes from relationships, “she continues. ‘Just my little observations about life’ based on experiences. Sometimes songs just come.  I sit down with the guitar and things start swirling in my brain and then I gotta start recording it with my voice recorder.

My personal favorite, “Cat Girl” is a song that popped into her head. Annie claims she didn’t even try….it just wrote itself. Its catchy lyrics, “I’m a cat girl. Don’t put me on a leash” speak for themselves.

Q: Where do you envision Annie B.?  & The Vagabond Company in five years?

A: “Hmm…in 5 years? Definitely well-known throughout Europe, the US, Japan and Australia” (for those of you who don’t know, she’s got a European tour planned for 2012).

”And in 10 years?” she says, without hesitation…”the same, but with more records and a couple Grammy’s (see “Blogging for a Grammy “on her website).

Q: What do you think is the best thing about Milwaukee’s music scene?

A: “Well that’s an interesting question, Jodie.”  (Abruptly leaves to go to the bathroom, now that she remembers she was supposed to go 30 minutes ago). Of course, I had to remind her.  Again. I am, after all, her PA- that’s “personal assistant,” or “pain in the ass” as we girls like to joke. It’s all part of our daily routine on “The View.”

“I think my favorite part of Milwaukee is the fact that we have a LOT of support for our independent music and local artists. I hope that it can be under appreciated by our artists here because they don’t know how tough it is in other cities, for instance LA. “

“Sure, support for local bands in LA,” says Annie, “but really not enough to allow artists to thrive, like there is for them to do here in Milwaukee. Milwaukee’s scene is amazing.

Speaking from firsthand experience in other cities, Annie thinks it is “tremendous that we have three radio stations that regularly play local music – that’s more than any other town I know of with a middle-sized town like we are. Plus, we have lot of venues that support independent and original music.

“I like it the way it is right now,” Annie shares with me, “because Milwaukee is one of the best kept secrets in the US when it comes to the music scene, and I’d just like to keep it that way. ‘Cuz once they all find out, they’ll flock here and there’ll be too many bands willing to play for free and the way our music works will change, and I don’t want that to happen. People think because a town is exploding that it is good for the economy, but not necessarily for the little indies.”

Q: What impact would you like your music to have on its community?

A: “Well, Jodie, I would have to first say… I think it’s inevitable that…umm..Ummm…that Annie B. (looks up and puts fingers against lips) & the Vagabond Company... will have a strong impact on the community. Not necessarily musically, but more as leaders on the music scene, trying to make things happen. This bleeds over into Milwaukee Art Beat and other causes…”

“I hope I’m setting an example here in Milwaukee about how important it is to work together, and with other community groups, because there’s such a huge overlap between music and the arts in Milwaukee. So, by putting on events that encompass both (like Annie does with Milwaukee Art Beat), you’re obviously reaching a bigger audience.”

“Collaboration is really important because two heads are always better than one. When you share resources, there’s a lot more that you can get done.”  But,” she tells me,”That’s not the end of it.”

“It’s also the fact that I’m not afraid to knock on doors and send out emails to people that I don’t know and who don’t know me and try to forge relationships that way, so that… (now begins the hair twisting, and I know the wheels are turning, and as she jumps up and scurries back into the kitchen she completes the thought)…”I can get myself out there and see how I can work with another organization or person, whether it’s a bar or Art Milwaukee.”  

Ultimately, Annie hopes that her influence as a leader is what people “get.”

Q: What message do you have for aspiring musicians?

A: “Never give up on your dreams. Never give up. Absolutely number one.”

“But there IS what I would call a formula,” she tells me, “that I would say I’ve been using to get where I want to be with my career - and that is that number one, you got to hone your skills. If you’re unhappy with your guitar playing, go get lessons. Before you do anything as a musical artist, be good at your skill. The next thing you need to do is learn about the music business. Spend a little time every day learning something, whether listening to a blog about the music business or reading an article (there are plenty out there) or a book. “

“There are SO many resources out there to learn about the industry and what to do to make it happen.  Next piece of advice is GET OUT THERE and perform as much as you can. There are some who do music from home, and that’s fine…and I’m not sure how to advise those types, but any others, those who want to be on stage, need to get out there and perform and start making friends with other bands, booking agents and apply what you’ve learned. Take it seriously. Create a plan that works for your genre, your schedule. AND give it time….every single artist that looks like an overnight success…it’s very unlikely.”

Q: What has been the hardest part of your career?

 A: “Frustration of wanting to be further along than where I am at. Having to start over a couple of times (moving to Seattle, then LA, then across Midwest and now in MKE)….takes you a few steps back from where you wanna be. Again, it takes time. Just because all your friends came out and saw you perform and thought you were awesome, that’s not gonna cut it.”

Q: What brings you the most joy?

A: “Seeing people really enjoying our music. Seeing people really gettin’ into it. Staring at the band, like they are rock stars or something. Selling CD’s, having people come up after a show, knowing they are appreciating it. Bringing joy to others through something that I love. “

Q: What’s your favorite thing to when you have the time?

A: “Get outta town. Day trips. Festivals. Exploring other parts of WI. I’ve traveled a lot in past, but there’s  too much going on in Milwaukee right now to take a longer trip at this time.”

Though she does have plans to travel with the band, first regionally, then nationally, then Europe. With gigs coming up in Chicago, Madison, Lake Geneva and more, her hope is that things start expanding soon.  

Her favorite place to visit? “The Grand Canyon. Period. God is there.”

Q: What’s your favorite original song, and why?

A: "Hey, Mama" which is a song recorded by my first band in Reno: Jaded. The thing I like about this song is that it's probably my very first "good song". It ended up on my first CD ever, and it might be the best song on that CD, although there are a few other worthy songs on there. It came to me in a dream... I thought to myself in the dream, "Hey, this is a pretty cool song... I'm gonna wake up and write this song!"

 I still like the song, but it’s the story behind it that means a lot to me. Being able to write a good song while sleeping/dreaming is significant to me... it's kind of like God saying, "Here's a freebie... now go out and write more, because that's what you're supposed to be doing with your life!"

Q:  Who is one of your favorite artists, and why?

A: “Lennon/McCartney. Just the best songwriters ever. Ever ever ever.  The Beatles are definitely my favorite band of all time… Just the evolution of the Beatles is so profound. They started as a cover band playing early ‘60s-influenced rock and moved onto some trippy and psychedelic stuff, which was a whole different place, and then evolved into a lot more sophisticated ROCK after that. They are just such a huge influence on the entire musical world. And their songs are just so awesome!

Unfortunately, I didn’t even know who they were ‘til Lennon got shot…and it was all over the news.  At that time (Dec 1980), my favorite was a song by John Lennon from Double Fantasy…I thought John Lennon was the shit, and I had no idea he was a Beatle. When he was shot, all of a sudden I read about the “ex-Beatle” and began listening to all their radio shows, and upon hearing all the special stuff when he was shot, so fell in love. 

One of the first songs I heard that was recorded live was “All My Loving.”  There were so many screaming girls in the audience…you just felt like you were there…just felt energy when you listened to the song…and I wished I was around when they were. The energy of that recording got me hooked. I fell in love with every single song they ever made after that.

Q: What do you want people to know/think of when they hear the music of Annie B.?

A: That I’m a powerful woman with something important to say. I have a great band that totally kicks ass and I want to empower women by being a good, loud, rockin’ chick! I want women and girls to come out and see the band and be energized.”

Q: How do you keep your upbeat positive attitude?

A: “ ‘Cuz I hang out with Jodie Niles as much as possible,” she says in her booming, soul-felt voice. I smile in gratitude, letting her know the feeling is mutual.

“If you can’t just enjoy every single moment of the day, you’re just missin’ out. Even moments and days that are a struggle, are beautiful. Because they need to happen, so that you can grow and become a better person, or wake up and smell the coffee about something (literally, too) or learn about yourself or someone else in your life, or mourn b/c someone close to you dies…just every single moment is part of who you are the next day Something to celebrate. (Annie sadly lost her dad to Alzheimer’s last year).”

“When there are moments not so great, those are also things to be thankful for. Without the low moments, we wouldn’t appreciate the high ones. And when someone just really pisses you off and they are just a jerk, those people are actually wonderful people to have in your life because they just make your life a little more interesting and rich. I just refer to them as ‘one of the great characters in my life,’ she says with an entertained smile. “Because they make my life a little more interesting for that moment…so rather than call them a name or resent them, I choose to be thankful for all these little enriching moments. And how boring would it be if everything was a bed of roses all the time and everyone was really nice?”

I have to tell you that being around Annie is a continued joyous experience, refreshing and entertaining. She juggles all of her career responsibilities with an ongoing sense of optimism and confidence, always with a smile. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her lose her temper, no matter how stressed out she may feel at times. Instead, her sweet-as-honey charm radiates from her as she “does her best in every moment.” Some days I see the giddy little girl that is Annie B., hurrying around the house to make sure everything is clean and we all have our coffee, only to turn around and reveal a large Scorpion tattoo on her shoulder blade and a provocative look of mystery when I ask her about it.  Mix little well-learned street smarts with amazing artistic talents and a passion for life, and you’ve got a harmonious blend of grooviness. And that’s the stuff that embodies a true rock star.

Q: Any words of wisdom you’d like to leave your readers with today?

A: “From the song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy”) from The Beatles Double Fantasy album released 1980 (less than a month before he was shot), John Lennon wrote: ‘life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’”

“So that means to me, to cherish every single moment and don’t be so worried about your plans for tomorrow or even an hour from now or even a year from now…’live in the moment mentality.’ “

She makes sure to let me know that, although this phrase has been around for a long time, “it’s my right to claim it as a favorite because I knew it from back when…before it caught on!”

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