Los Angeles singer-songwriter Anna Vogelzang is gearing up for the release of her first album, Beacon, since making her home in the LA area, and as a new mother. She played her third installment of the month-long Salon Residency at the Bootleg Theatre, which was born from weekly co-writing sessions that Vogelzang co-founded with guitarist Adam Levy (Norah Jones).
Beacon is due out on October 4th and was co-produced by Tyler Chester (Andrew Bird, Joan Baez), and is Vogelzang’s seventh studio release. “These songs have California in their blood. All of them written in this new city, on a new journey, climate, home, community. They were written written to process these huge transitions – transitions of place, and into motherhood,” Vogelzang states.
Vogelzang spoke with us extensively about her full history with guitar, writing and creating music with her friend and guitarist Adam Levy, her dedication and time with The Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Los Angeles, and of course, her fun music and entertainment favorites, and guitar gear.
When do you recall your first introduction to guitar and what drew you to begin playing it?
I asked for a guitar for Christmas in like, 7th grade maybe? I remember wanting to play “Lullaby” by Alana Davis and that was the same year that Jewel started on her string of hits, which I loved singing to on my boombox. I played piano already but I remember thinking that if I wanted to play the music that I liked, I’d probably need a guitar. I’m sure it’s an age old tale, but as soon as I started trying to learn, I gave up. I had acrylic nails (there was a lot of vibe going on) and I didn’t want to have to take them off, and I started getting callouses on my finger pads and I was like…ok, too much work. I came back to it the summer before high school and started writing, figuring out how to cover songs with the few chords I knew, and finally had something to accompany my singing – that was really the key for me. My dad had a Martin D series but I stuck to my Takamine beginner model until it literally broke in half. Then I stole the Martin and brought it to college and still use that guitar to write on.
What was the writing and recording process for your upcoming 7th studio release with Beacon?
When I first moved to LA in 2016, I sat down with Adam Levy for coffee to chat about the LA music scene. Adam has played all of your favorite guitar solos – “Come Away With Me” (Norah Jones), “Give Me One Reason” (Tracy Chapman)… he’s an incredible musician, songwriter, educator, and friend. Among many of the things we talked about, we both pined for the days when we’d had the discipline to write a song a week. We loved the practice, the exercise of the muscle, and the accountability of the structure. We began scheming and quickly realized we could turn our vision into a reality…What we ended up creating was the foundation of what was to become our weekly “Song Salon.” We made a guest list, and invited the group to meet at my house.
After two smashingly successful Salons that fall, we started up again in earnest (weekly) at the start of 2017. That group was amazing for my writing process, & became the foundation of my creative life in Los Angeles – each song off my new record, Beacon, went through this group of people in its first form, and many of the songs wouldn’t have been written at all if I hadn’t had the salon deadline. On top of the salon structure, I owe a lot to the fact that I was in a pretty big transitional period of my life – the first time in 8 years not touring consistently, living in a brand new city on a brand new coast, and pregnant with my first kid. The songs just kept coming, all of them dancing through this place of the unknown.
When it was time to record, I teamed up with my friend Tyler Chester to co-produce. We went into the studio with Jay Bellerose and knocked out half of the album live in the room in one day. The other half we built over that summer in Tyler’s studio space and at Jay’s home studio space. Every track has a live foundation, which captures an enormous amount of magic. The playing on it by Jay, Tyler, Adam Levy, and Mai Bloomfield is so amazing. Everyone helped to create a really special, sparkling sound. I felt like I stretched farther on this album sonically than I ever have and I’m so grateful to Tyler for his amazing vision and ear.
You’re heading out on tour shortly after your album launches. What do you most look forward to about touring, and what do you like the least about it?
I love the rhythm of being on the road. I toured alone (and with friends) in my car so often for so long, it feels really good to be in that stride. Every day has a purpose – wake up, hang, drive, play a show. Do it again. Fans have become friends you’re excited to see, you have your favorite coffee shops or antique stores or libraries in different cities that you want to visit, and the road itself can be really meditative. Of course, it has its downsides. My least favorite thing is just the schlepping – instruments in, gear in, merch in, play the show, all of it out, all of it back in to wherever you’re staying plus suitcase, air mattress, food, etc. As much as I love the routine of tour, the minutia of it is, of course, tedious. And I haven’t been on tour since I had my kiddo – so obviously being away from home will have a different sort of pang now. Luckily all the runs are concentrated bursts and I’ve scheduled time at home in between them, so I’m excited to just be back out playing shows again.
I love that your video for “Icarus” was written, directed and shot by youth campers through The Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Los Angeles, and you have worked with them for several years. Can you share with us how you got involved and what about their outreach means so much to you?
Yes! This was my 10th consecutive year working at rock camp – the first tine I volunteered was at Girls Rock Camp Madison in Wisconsin, in 2009, the camp’s inaugural year. I was lucky to grow with the organization, teaching voice, songwriting, break out sessions, and coach bands, which is my favorite part of the process. In 2017, I taught back in Madison for a session and joined RCGLA for the first time, where I’ve also taught voice, songwriting, guitar, and coached bands. Rock camp is the intersection of all the things I feel the most capable of offering: empowering kids to work together, exploring empathy, writing songs in a group setting, performing, and finding a vocal or guitar technique to help empower the writing process (they don’t have to become a virtuoso in a week, they have to feel powerful on stage at the end of the week, THAT’S the goal). Seeing these kids perform their original pieces to a huge screaming audience is just the best feeling. Having each camper step up to the microphone and say “hey hey, check check, OH YEAH,” – it’s literally watching campers find their voices. It’s so powerful. RCGLA is a social justice camp; campers attend workshops on intersectional feminism, the history of WOC in the music industry, emotional intelligence…a huge array of topics. It’s amazing to watch these kids absorb and explore these huge concepts that I think are usually kept above their heads. They always do it with grace and enthusiasm and curiosity. Rock camp feels like a safe, magical place for these kids, and for us adults who are volunteering – I feel like I’m my best version of myself during camp. I wish I could do it year round.
What was it like making the video for “Icarus”?
The campers did such an amazing job. We had one of the oldest crews, I think the 3 campers were all between 15 and 17. The asked me about the writing process and about the meaning behind the lyrics, and the first thing they said was, “ok so we’re gonna paint you with light…” to which I was just like, “UM, YES PLEASE?” It was so great watching them come up with shots they wanted to pair with each lyric, and also to watch them find their confidence by the end of the shoot day. At the beginning they were a little bit timid and their coaches backed them up, guiding them gently to use their voices in the space and really say what they wanted. By the end they were yelling action and cut and giving out direction like total pros.
What was your first album on cassette, CD and/or vinyl?
I definitely had my own Amy Grant cassettes before anything else, I think I’d gotten them for Christmas. I remember listening to her version of “Big Yellow Taxi” over and over again – funnily foreshadowing, since I got my first Joni Mitchell CD in high school and was forever changed. We also had Lyle Lovett cassettes and two Carlene Carter CDs that we wore out in the car – but those were family records. I remember buying the “One Sweet Day” and “Always Be My Baby” cassette singles with my own money at the local music store in 4th grade, and feeling like that was the beginning of my own collection. After that, CDs and cassettes were what I spent almost all of my money on.
Who was your first concert, and who has been your favorite so far?
My Dad took me & my sister to see Lyle Lovett when I was 5 years old, in Boston at a big amphitheater on the harbor. I remember that there was a drag queen announcing the show, which I thought was amazing, and I remember Lovett playing “Here I Am”, that has all of this spoken verse stuff happening, and that everyone in the audience spoke-sang along with him in unison. I remember the feeling of overwhelm in that moment, feeling my eyes widen. THIS WAS COOL. Like church, but cool.
It’s really hard to pin down a favorite concert. In 2012, I was working with my friend and producer Todd Sickafoose and he came through town with Ani DiFranco and I got to watch the show from the wings of the stage. I’d seen her play live a ton, but being that close and watching from the wings was a profound moment. I cried a lot.
Which five albums and/or artists would you not want to live without?
Oh man that’s almost impossible! Without overthinking –
Joni Mitchell – Blue
Aretha Franklin – I mean, all of it.
Mirah – You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This (or Advisory Committee or C’mon Miracle…)
Fiona Apple – When the Pawn…
Ani DiFranco – So Much Shouting So Much Laughter
Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – Know Better Learn Faster
Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America
Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning
Plus The Beach Boys, Lyle Lovett (still!), the Mountain Goats, The New Pornographers, Whitney Houston, The Beatles, Regina Spektor, Rolling Stones, Neil Young… I know, that’s a lot more than 5. Eep!
Do you have a guilty music and/or entertainment pleasure?
This is the least cool answer you’ll probably ever get but I love watching mom bloggers’ Instagram stories. I’m kind of addicted to them. That and Call The Midwife on BBC… Musically? Would have to be musical theater… lots of it.
What kind of guitar do you play?
I have a sunburst Gibson ES125 with a cutaway, from 1965. I love it so much.
Is there a dream guitar you’d love to play?
I’ve never dug into solid body electric guitars on my own time, but that’s the next place I’m going after this record. There are a bunch of gorgeous ones I’d like to try but I’d love to get my hands on an old Jazz Master if I had my druthers. I also have played some really gorgeous Collings acoustics that I’d love to have one of for myself some day.
What strings, mics and pedals do you use?
I never put flat wounds on my arch top, but other than that I’m not particular about strings, actually. I use a Sennheiser e865 for live vocals, and a Shure Beta 57 for my affected pedal line. I have two lines on my pedal board, one for guitar and one for secondary vocals. The vocal line goes through a Penny Pedals radio filter, boss harmonizer, boss chorus, and EQD reverb. On my guitar line, I have a custom distortion that my friend modeled off a tube screamer, Black Cat Tremelo, and the EarthQuaker devices Avalanche Run, which is my favorite pedal of all time. If I’m going without gear I just bring that pedal; it can do it all. I’ve been itching to try the Flint Strymon, too.