Annie Kemble is a Des Moines-based singer, songwriter and musician who just released her seven track debut titled Dive Bar. In our discussion we talked about a sort of dual nature inherent in the release, as it’s simultaneously autobiographical while bearing aspects of a performative persona. Annie also discussed her collaborations with members of the Des Moines hip-hop scene and how she’s already focused on her next project: A full-length album which she says will be a much more personal affair.
villin: The song introducing this episode of the villin podcast is called “Cherries” from Annie Kemble. I don’t know what first led me to “Dive Bar,” but I’m glad found it. The song, and the release by the same name, is fantastic, bringing with it an ability to create a set of visuals in the mind that accompany a blend of jazz and pop among so many other influences. Albeit her debut solo release, “Dive Bar” wasn’t the first time that I’d heard Annie though; that came over the past several months where I was exposed a variety of collaborations released with B.Well.
Annie Kemble: I actually met B.Well through—when I first moved to Des Moines I was working with a group called the MFK Trio, who I then played with for years after that. But when I first started working with them, the keyboard player in that band, Fred [Gaddy], knew B.Well, and B.Well was looking for a group to book at Wooley’s for this jazz brunch. And so B.Well hit us up and that was the first time I met him, and then from there he asked me to feature on one of his songs and that’s how I met Anthony (AMMixes). I did a couple songs with B.Well and I recorded my first single, when I released “Before You” separately, I recorded that with Anthony. I love the Des Moines hip-hop scene. A lot of those artists have kind of taken me in even though I’m not a hip-hop artist, obviously. But B.Well has given me a lot of opportunities and chances to perform and make music with him.
villin: Therein resides one of the interesting elements to Annie’s music: it’s ability to rest slightly outside the reaches of easily definable genre labels. Speaking with Ryan O’Rien this past fall, Annie made comment of a Linda Ronstadt documentary she’d seen and I think there’s an argument to be made for a comparison between the two, stylistically. In her own words though, Annie connects her sound to a variety of different genre types that she feels describe the style she’s aiming for.
Annie Kemble: I have recently been describing it as pop-jazz, or like soul. I feel like soul encapsulates it. I would hope that you can feel soul throughout the whole thing. That’s kind of what I want. But, yeah, it’s hard to pin down. I feel like I can tend to write more bluesy or even folk, like folk-country sometimes, some of the stuff I’ve written. I think I was a little scared of the “pop” genre and what that means, but I think that just kind of… like, I write songs in [a] pop style, of like, the way there’s a verse, a chorus, a verse, a chorus, like in the way that I’m trying to make them catchy. So, I think that kind of makes sense. But I think there’s obviously a big jazz influence.
villin: There’s a quote on Annie’s website which says “Annie uses her training in voice, piano, drums, and arranging along with her exceptional songwriting to tell stories and evoke feelings as universal as they are specific.” “Training” is such an interesting word to think about when considering the arts, but that doesn’t make it any less common or applicable. In Annie’s case, she spent time at Southwestern Community College’s professional music program—where she was, at one point, honored with a “Vocal Jazz Soloist” award—to receive part of that training.
Annie Kemble: I started going to school there—I didn’t know how to read music. I sang my whole life but I never really played piano and any instruments or anything. And then when I started going there, it’s a vocational school so you do everything. I was taking bass lessons, drum lessons, everything, I took studio recording lessons, all kinds of crazy shit. That was definitely where I got my training. They didn’t teach much about songwriting there but I did learn a lot about arrangement and I feel like I try to implement that into my stuff. Yeah, that was definitely where I got my training, was from there.
villin: Listening to Dive Bar brings about an interesting sense for its place in Annie’s timeline. On one hand, it’s a product of this broader musical track she’s been on, while on another it’s a very personal creation focused on a narrow window of time. One of the aspects of that side of things comes with the inclusion of a close friend, Deborah Huysman, who guides Dive Bar by narrating its journey.
Annie Kemble: So, she’s one of my closest friends. We work at the same daycare together. And she’s a 70 year old woman who is the most absolutely hilarious person in the world, and she’s very special to me. And I also love her speaking voice, and I knew that I wanted—when my friend Jazz and I were writing the interludes—I just knew that I wanted an older person’s voice. And I knew I wanted her right away. She kind of gave me a hard time about it and I didn’t think it was going to happen a few times before recording, but finally she said yes and we got it done. Yeah, she’s awesome. I love her.
villin: I feel like this speaks to a sort of conceptual tightrope that Annie’s walking with her music on this release, balancing between two sides of the self; the personal and the performer.
Annie Kemble: When I was recording the songs I think I was a little bit—I really like when albums tell a story and when it seems cohesive and I was a little bit concerned about the cohesiveness of the album because all the songs are so different and because my songwriting style can be so different. And sometimes I’m writing about personal things and sometimes I’m just making up random shit. I was talking to my friend about that and how I want—I always wanted to have an interlude because I like when there’s a little space between some of the songs and it’s not just song-song-song-song happening. And I was talking to her about it and we decided to write something about a storyteller and sort of introducing me. That was the objective, was: this is my first project and I feel like it’s really important to know the artist and get a little glimpse until like what they have going on. So that was kind of like our way to sneak that in was to say that I’m a storyteller and that baseline, all the songs are about just how they’re about stories, if that makes sense.
villin: It’s more of a balancing act than a contrast between the personal and persona, from how I see it, and one that is readily on display throughout Annie’s music videos as much as the tracks themselves. Prior to speaking with Annie this stuck out to me, straddling those two sides, simultaneously presenting very personal and personable music at times while crafting this character of Annie at others. To me that’s what Deborah’s introduction does, it reconciles these multiple aspects of Annie which are present, the self and the character she’s presenting as the singer.
Annie Kemble: I think the “Cherries” music video… and “Cherries” is all very sort of like this character like you’re describing, like I am on the cover, like I present when I’m performing. Sort of like a songstress, and that’s—I don’t know, just the jazz kind of vibe. But I think what I wanted to do with the “Movie” music video was make it a little goofier because I am a very unserious person. And I feel like that doesn’t always come across when I’m singing on stage being serious about it. I don’t know, I think I have two pretty different sides of myself—maybe I have three because a lot of my music is like emotional. A lot of my unreleased stuff is really personal. I think this album was like my least personal album that I’ll probably put out, ’cause the stuff I’m working on next is very much more about my life and it’s a little harder to release. I think it’s fun to not really know what you’re going to get, and so I think that’s kind of where I’m at with it because I feel like I’m so many different things at one time so it’s fun to be able to be all [these] different things, you know?
villin: Her song “Before You” is a great example of this falling back into a second, or maybe third side of herself, as she referred to it, as it pulls from personal experience in reflecting on the difficulties of growing by way of troubled relationships. This isn’t to say that each side is equally as comfortable, however, as the more personal her songs are the harder it is they are to release into the wild.
Annie Kemble: I think it becomes a little easier to release the more intense emotional stuff if it’s like sprinkled with those little songs that I’m making up that are not true, you know? Yeah, it is, ’cause otherwise—oh, God, all my music would be so depressing, oh, all of it. You’d be crying the whole time.
villin: It wasn’t until watching the music video for “Before You” that I connected with the song’s lyrics, which to me speak to a different idea than I think they were intended to. There’s a line in the song where Annie sings, “Wish I could say it was all your fault / Yeah, you made the trap, but I’m the one that got caught.” For me, this lyric has an element of self-sabotage, and nudges my own personal history riddled with countless moments where I failed to protect myself from situations that I knew weren’t good for me. From her perspective though, Annie takes a little different angle on the line and how she relates it to her songwriting journey.
Annie Kemble: I wrote that song after a very tumultuous situationship. It was never a relationship, but it was constantly on and off. I think I like knew that this person that I was seeing was not necessarily good for me, or good at communicating, or honest with me. But I continued to put myself back in that situation because I liked him a lot. I have a hard time writing songs—angry songs about people because I try to not hold on to that type of anger or blame. But I just felt in that moment when I wrote that song I was just so angry and I let myself be mad a little bit. I think is this song comes off more sad than how I wrote it, when I was actually pretty angry. But saying that you miss who you were before you met someone is kind of a lot and so I hung on to that one for a while, too. But I knew that I had to release that song first just because it is intimate and I wanted the first music video to be intimate in the same way. And that music video was inspired by an Alanis Morissette video for “Head Over Feet,” where she’s just sitting there and it’s like really intimate and I love that.
villin: Beyond Alanis, Janelle Monáe’s “Cold War” music video presents itself as something visually similar, where it creates a visual vacuum, isolating the individual and amplifying the expression of self that comes through the song’s lyrics. This is captured in Annie’s video, as well. Elsewhere in our discussion Annie made reference to a musical similarity between a track of hers and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” which itself also has a wildly provocative music video, and elsewhere throughout the release there are a wide variety of other musical influences which Annie calls upon.
Annie Kemble: I get a lot of inspiration from—I love Sade’s instrumentation and her music, I love the bossa nova feel. That’s kind of where “Cherries” came from. My biggest inspirations are Adele and Amy Winehouse, for sure, vocally. I think I write… I pull inspiration in my writing from Lana Del Rey. I’m a big fan of hers, as well. I also love Alanis Morissette and I also love Fiona Apple. A lot of female singer-songwriters. Yeah, I don’t know, I think every song, when we sat down, it was like “okay, this song has a very different vibe from the rest. What do we want to sound like, what are the inspirations?” I think “Movie” was inspired a lot by Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars, like the Silk Sonic kind of sound. That sort of ’70s sleaze kind of music, you know? I don’t know what “Dive Bar” is, I think it’s kind of a… I think that song is the most “me,” the most my style, and “Cherries,” too. I don’t know. I pull inspiration from so many places that it I think that’s why it’s kind of all over the place genre-wise. My older stuff I was definitely—I mean, in that song “Lavender” I reference a Lauryn Hill line. I love Lauryn Hill and a lot of like R&B singers. And when I was playing with the group that I was with, we were playing a lot more R&B style music, a lot of Jill Scott, stuff like that.
villin: “Before You” also has an element of reconciling a younger self with the present, which the video speaks to by including footage of Annie as a child.
Annie Kemble: I think that song—it was written about a relationship, but I think that it could also go, it could have multiple meanings. And I think that song also means, to me, you know, people that I grew up with and people I grew up around that we’re not kind to me… and so showcasing my younger self in that way is like a little tribute to that. Because I love when songs have multiple meanings. I think you can miss who you were before a lot of people. Yeah, it was just a little tribute to my younger self in that way.
villin: Miles away from “Before You” is “Movie,” which also bears a contrasting video showcasing an entirely different side of Annie’s personality. It’s silly and sexy, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it creates a story of a character, as opposed to drawing upon individual experience in painting a very personal picture of her feelings. Given how all these different sides of her are captured visually throughout these videos, I was curious if there was one that stood out as a personal favorite.
Annie Kemble: I do really like the “Movie” music video because it was so fun to make. But I don’t know; “Cherries” kind of has a special spot for me, too, because it was kind of my first time being more like artistic with it. It was really fun to figure out like what the style was and to find other like older clips that fit in with the theme. So, I don’t know. I really enjoy making videos and I think it’s important to have visuals that go along with stuff. So, I don’t know what my favorite would be I think they all have like a special spot, you know?
villin: Annie referred to last year’s Pam & Tommy miniseries when drawing upon influences for the song, adding that the video’s aim was something of a Las Vegas wedding vibe. But again, there was a line being straddled, using her creativity in putting this idea out there while also recognizing potential downsides of utilizing a character that might reflect negatively, or at least in an awkward way, upon the person she is in her day-to-day life.
Annie Kemble: That was so fun. I loved—I don’t know, the song is like very not serious. I thought… I don’t know, it’s easy to go like super raunchy with that song and I didn’t want to go like all that way, ’cause this song itself is inappropriate and I work at a daycare still so it’s kind of like a weird balance for me to I don’t know, not be doing too much, you know?
villin: Aside from the concepts behind the album stand a musically robust release. Annie not only sings on Dive Bar, but adds piano on its title track.
Annie Kemble: So, I played keys on “Dive Bar” and then I originally, like, the first version of “Before You” I played keys on, and then I think I think Erik [Jarvis], the producer, ended up playing keys on “Before You” in the studio, ’cause I was singing at the same time. I think that’s all I played keys on in this album. We didn’t have a super key-heavy album, which is funny because I wrote all of them on piano. But, there’s a couple songs that called for organ, and so Bryan [Vanderpool]—I think, actually, Erik—played on those, too. So, yeah, I only played on “Dive Bar” technically. But that one, I wanted to play keys on at least one song, to kind of showcase how I write. I don’t know, I love stripped back versions of things, and I think it’s a lot more intimate that way. So I wanted to like start out the album in a really intimate way.
villin: The release also features a wide array of guest players, which inspired some curiosity about whether there was much of a collaborative process behind the tracks on Dive Bar.
Annie Kemble: I think I wrote a majority of them, I think—I don’t know, I think they’re kind of all over the place. I wrote the last song, “Black & Blue/Blood & Sea,” I wrote that probably two or three years ago. But I wrote “Dive Bar” one and a half years ago, maybe. I wrote that song when I was playing with a group that I was with. Yeah, we ended up calling ourself, it was MFKAS, was the rest of our initials, so we were the mother fuckers for a while. Yeah, and I wrote that song, kind of, it was on the end of working with them. I think I quit that band shortly after that. I was like so burnt out and there was several issues within like members of the band, but it’s all worked out now, and we’re all good, but it was rough there for a minute.
villin: In terms of the songwriting and arrangement on the album, what developed was a little bit more of a collaborative vibe as the recording progressed, but the release still primarily revolved around a direction and tone set by the singer.
Annie Kemble: With this album I wrote all of it myself. And all the stuff I’ve done in the past, I’ve just written alone. There’s a collaborative element on “Before You,” when we recorded that song for the album because the producer I worked with, Erik, wanted to re-record that song for the album and I didn’t really want to at first. It was just going to be four songs, or whatever, and then it would have definitely been [an] E.P. that way. But I, I don’t know, he kind of convinced me to give it a new life, which I’m really glad that we did. We kind of work together on that one and he gave me some ideas about changing up some of the arrangement of that song. And, I don’t know, we took some stuff out and made it a little shorter. But other than that, yeah, I pretty much just wrote it all myself and brought it to other people.
villin: At times in the album, the presentation and production sounds so big. A large part of that, if we’re talking a track like “Movie,” is the strings, added by String Theory Strings, which came as a part of multiple people working together to construct the sound. In my mind, this track in particular opens as if slowly revealing a singer and band on stage. A turntable in the floor revolves as the strings fade in. There’s feathers. It’s not quite New Jersey, not quite Las Vegas. Something like that. This sort of imagery is, it seems, sort of what was in mind when crafting the production.
Annie Kemble: Erik is the one who, he did the string stuff, he arranged the string stuff, I did not do that, for that the interludes. But we had several like back and forths of trying to figure out what the vibe was. And I wanted it to be a creep-in kind of thing, of like: there is a band—surprise. So, I love that that’s what you saw in your head, that was exactly what it was going for.
villin: Despite only being 24, Annie has several tracks on her Soundcloud page that reflect a period she’s well removed from artistically. These came as a product of her time at Southwestern, revealing a blueprint for what was yet to come with Dive Bar.
Annie Kemble: Oh, my gosh. Well, two of those songs I record[ed], I mean all of those songs I recorded when I was in college. And I recorded them in the recording studio that they had there. And two of them, “Lavender” and “Willow Tree,” were both like finals for a class that I was in. And then the other song, “Hallways,” just like a personal [inaudible]. I really like that song. I’d like to re-record it at some point. But, I think those were kind of, those were definitely my first step into putting my writing out there in, kind of, a small way. I think “Willow Tree”‘s on Spotify now, too. But I’ve always been so insecure about my writing style and just, you know, unsure about it and I always kept it to myself. And I think in college it was hard because there was a lot—I mean that’s their whole thing, is that they’re critiquing you to make you better. And I think I took that at the time as, like it kind of defeated me a little bit. And so I didn’t write, I mean, for a while after I released those songs. And then I was playing with that band where we were doing all cover songs for years. And I would every now and then bring a song to that group and we’d play it. But, I don’t know, I think I just had a moment where I was like, if I really want to make it as an artist I have to be original and I can’t just sing other people’s songs for the rest of my life. I’m not going to get anywhere. And I think it was just hand in hand with my like self-growth, and my like self-discovery of, like, oh, I do have something to say, and maybe people will like it. And even if they don’t, it’s enough just for me.
villin: And that is so interesting to hear, again falling back to this dual co-existence, this time a balance between confidence and insecurity. You can see the confidence in Annie’s presentation in her music videos, and hear it throughout Dive Bar, but to know that underneath there is something else going on adds another layer to the onion. And if using the onion analogy, the layers of persona associated with her music and performance surround a more vulnerable core, or maybe something of a bulb in the center, found deep beneath multiple outside layers.
Annie Kemble: I think the insecure voice used to be a lot louder. I think it’s getting quieter more and more. But I do definitely have like those thoughts of, you know, what is the point of this. you know. why am I doing this type of thoughts, and things like that. But I don’t know, I think after the release of “Dive Bar,” I just got such a good response and so many people were so supportive that I think, just going into my next thing is why I feel so ready to start being more personal in my music. Yeah, I think that the Annie persona is something that helps me be actually confident. Like, I don’t know if I’m pretending when I’m being that way, do you know what I mean? It’s just, like, it’s a way to step into that. I think all the time about like Marilyn Monroe and the greatest, you know, the most beautiful women that come off as extremely confident. There’s an interview that Marilyn did where she was walking with this journalist and then being you know her normal self and then she was, like, do you want to watch me become her? And then just stepped into her Marilyn persona and totally transformed herself. And I think about that all the time, where it’s like, I don’t know, if I can kind of believe it somehow, it’s just—I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just like, it just feels good to [be] like, you’re kind of pretending, but then it makes it real at the same time, do you know what I mean?
villin: I look at this as a skill, to be able to make a transition like that, and move freely between these different sides. In Annie’s case, it’s not a trait associated specifically with music though, but one that’s been honed over a lifetime of performing in front of others.
Annie Kemble: I grew up in dance and I was always—I danced since I was four through, all the way through high school. So, I think that is a big reason that I kind of have that persona. Where, it’s like, okay, I’m on stage and I know how to be on stage and I can, you know, be whatever character I want, which is pretty fun.
villin: That playfulness, and the guessing game of not always knowing whose voice it is we’re hearing, or which side is coming out, adds depth and value to the listening experience. Looking at it with a better understanding of how Annie approaches her music though, it’s interesting to hear about how this split persona developed, and what it provides for her outside of her music.
Annie Kemble: You know, I honestly, I think I’m more insecure about the person that I am every day than the person that I am on stage. I think when I’m on stage and when I’m performing and writing songs that are in this character, I think that feels more of me than I feel when I’m going to my daycare job, you know what I mean?
I’ve worked there for almost three years now, kind of on and off. I quit at one point last year and I was serving full time at a restaurant. The daycare that I work at I love; I love kids and it’s like a big part of, kind of, I think my purpose, is to be like a nurturer. And I just love kids and I love their imagination. And I think that is, like, I am still a kid in my head a little bit, you know? ‘Cause I use my imagination so much when I’m writing, too. But one of my friends from high school works at this daycare and I kind of just like stumbled upon it because of her. And that’s where I met Debbie, who did the interludes, and I don’t know, it’s kind of—it’s nice ’cause, I don’t know. It’s not a lot of…. like, Des Moines people that are in the scene, no one there like really knows me that well. They do know me, they do know I do music, but it’s not—I kind of have a different persona there, you know?
I think that it’s harder to have a conversation with one person than with a whole audience. I’ve always been that way. I think it’s just easier for me to seem like larger than life in front of people—it’s less intimate. And I think that just stems from intimacy issues in general. But yeah, I don’t know, it’s just, I just love being on stage and I think I think it’s so fun and I think it’s so freeing. And especially when I think about how a lot of people have a hard time being on stage and it’s just something that comes naturally to me. It just makes me feel so like secure with myself, somehow. I don’t know… interesting.
villin: Surely, as she continues to perform and release more music, those lines are probably going to get more blurry—and from a creation standpoint, I’m curious to see how her music reflects this change as more and more people within her orbit come to know her more as Annie the performer rather than the person who works at a daycare. Annie told me that her next release will come with a full-length album that she’d like to put out later this year, and how that album will reflect more of the core self and less of the persona. With it, I’m interested in seeing if and how those two sides meet, and what they sound and look like once they do. Until that time comes though, Annie will continue performing in support of Dive Bar, which includes a Gross Domestic Product afterparty set that’s on the books for this April. And to wrap up our conversation, I asked what she hopes listeners might take away from the music from this stage in her journey.
Annie Kemble: I hope that people can hear little parts of who I am, I guess. I hope that they can hear that you could be anything that you want. I think that’s what I’m telling myself throughout these songs, is I’m all these different things and I can be all of them simultaneously. And a lot of the songs, especially “Cherries,” that song just makes me feel so good about myself. And “Movie,” too, you know. It’s like, I love when songs make me feel indestructible and I kind of hope that… I don’t know. But also elements of “Dive Bar,” you know, I think it’s so… a lot of people feel alone often and I think that that song is kind of just about loneliness and about being a larger than life person on stage and then feeling so lonely when you leave. And I hope people can just relate to that and to like the different elements of the songs, and I don’t know. It’s kind of a ride but I just hope that people feel something at all. That’s [really] what I want when I’m singing.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]