Anika Pyle on turning grief into her powerful debut solo album ‘Wild River’
Anika Pyle has done lots of solo work in between her time with Chumped, Katie Ellen, and Sheena Anika & Augusta, but she's never done a full-length solo album until now. It's called Wild River, and it's one of the most unique and powerful records she's ever written.
Lyrically, the album was inspired by the sudden death of Anika's father in October of 2019, and it features some of the most personal and direct writing of her career. It's split between spoken word tracks and more "proper" songs, and the music finds Anika in different territory than usual. Some of it recalls the folky songs of her early solo demos, while much of it goes in a more electronic direction, thanks in part to Anika recently acquiring a keyboard, and to co-production by Matt Schimelfenig of Gladie/Three Man Cannon. (The album also features saxophone by Jeff Rosenstock and strings by Kayleigh Goldsworthy.) The spoken word tracks and the "song" tracks blend together well, and they're sequenced in a way that gives the album a cinematic effect. When Anika sets the scene at a Mexican restaurant in Denver, or driving down I-90 towards Chicago, you can really visualize it.
We recently caught up with Anika to ask her about the decision to finally make a solo album, what went into the making of these songs, and how writing them helped with her grieving process. Listen to the whole LP and read on for our chat...
You've always done solo stuff in between your time with Chumped, Katie Ellen, and Sheena Anika and Augusta, but this is your first proper solo album. Why the decision to finally make one?
Recording a solo LP has been a goal of mine for the past few years. I had slowly been exploring sounds and writing songs that seemed to belong in a different universe from what I had done before. In November of 2019 I was invited by an acquaintance who plays under the moniker Ellison Jackson for a series of performances he was curating at the Philadelphia Free Library, merging song and poetry. The opportunity was really exciting for me and gave me room to explore the two media I feel most drawn to. My dad passed away a few weeks before and that experience ended up shaping my set at the library. The set was so cathartic and meaningful to me that I wanted to commemorate it and my dad by recording it.
For you, how does making music entirely on your own compare to collaborating with others? What do you like more, and/or less, about it?
I love the way that creating alone pushes me out of my comfort zone. I miss the inexplicable chemistry and magic that exists only when making a song with a band. I have been pretty lonely haha. But I was lucky enough to work with Matt Schimelfenig of Gladie to record the album and was grateful for our collaboration. He is so creative and co-produced all of the electronically arranged tracks, helped me find the right sound for "June" when I said “I want it to be like a choir of homeless mice,” a totally insane thing to say but he figured it out and we played a chord organ that ended up sounding, eerily, like a choir of homeless mice singing in the square!
I was also able to convince my very talented friends Jeff Rosenstock and Kayleigh Goldsworthy to play on the record and that was really fun. It is definitely different than writing and recording with a band and I miss that camaraderie and honestly the plain old jubilation of it but I’m grateful for the ways that making on my own requires me to lean into my own autonomy and self-trust. It definitely set me up for a year in which I have no access to a band and for that, I feel lucky.
You call the album a "collection of song and poetry" and there's a lot of spoken word on it, along with the more "traditional" songs. Did that present any new challenges, putting your words out there with almost no musical accompaniment, or did it come naturally?
Honestly, working in spoken word came very naturally. My poetry writing practice pre-dates my songwriting practice and they inform one another deeply. Many of my songs start as poems. I listen to spoken word albums and I think it’s so striking to hear words sort of barren and existing in the ether. I hope it helps people explore poetry more. Definitely felt like entering new and empowering territory when choosing “Spoken Word” as the secondary genre for the record! My next project, I hope, will be a published book of poetry with an accompanying record of all spoken word.
These are some of the most personal and direct songs that I've heard from you yet. In what ways would you say getting this out there helped you process your grief, and what do you hope listeners gain from hearing these songs?
Creating this record was essential to my grief process. I read a Georges Braque quote recently that I have been repeating, “Art is a wound turned into light.” Making this record was taking something very dark and tragic and finding the light in it. The morning after I learned my dad died, I got up early and sat at the piano and wrote the song "Orange Flowers." It just kind of came out and I felt, honestly, that my dad was there with me helping me write the song. It was not only cathartic but allowed me to synthesize what had happened, how to use music to keep my dad with me, where to keep finding his energy. I have never been more grateful to have a creative arts practice.
You also said that the album is "about learning to let go and move forward from grief steadfastly with love, despite the essentially cruel and random nature of the universe," referring to the pandemic. Could you talk a bit more about how the pandemic affected the making of this album?
Well, the record had been completely recorded before the pandemic even came to its full fruition. The tracking was completed in late February of 2020. We did master it amidst the first lockdown in March - that is Justin Francis mastered it! So the pandemic didn’t affect the creation of it but it certainly affected the interpretation of it. Having time to listen back and put it into context was a really enlightening experience, as I was already grieving and the world around me seemed to be slowly entering that same sort of process. Having time allowed me to do things like all the LP artwork and make a perfect-bound book with artwork and all of the lyrics and poetry from the record. The pandemic forced me to sit with it a little longer and let in sink in which I think is a good thing. The record and this crazy year both kind of affirmed some of the virtues and values I have been shaping for myself over the years, namely “life is a funny haha,” a true tragicomedy full of loss that you cannot control but our job as humans is to access the lesson in it, the love, the joy, to laugh it off because sometimes it is so painful all you can do is look forward with a smile to the moment when the suffering ceases. We have all had to do this more than ever this past year but i'ts something we have to do constantly as humans.
Musically, the album has some electronic/pop stuff which (I think) is a little different for you. As someone who has spent most of their career playing a guitar, what inspired you to work in synths/drum machines and what was the writing/recording experience like compared to what you usually do?
I have always wanted to make more pop-focused music but never quite knew how. I also always wanted to learn the piano but we were too poor growing up to afford lessons or a piano so I abandoned that desire early on. However, a co-worker of mine gave me a keyboard a few years ago and I began to dabble with writing songs with the keys, playing around with tones and pre-programmed rhythms. I really loved the way writing with a different instrument inspired totally different songs and it felt like fulfilling a childhood dream! So I took the ones I had written and Matt helped find more appropriate tones and next-level drums. When we finished "Prayer For Lonely People" I was ecstatic. I was like, “THIS IS THE SONG I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO WRITE!” I made him mix sub-bass into a few tracks because I’m obsessed with it even though you probably won’t be able to experience that unless you’re bumping a sad-ass song through your car stereo haha. My partner and I recently inherited a Fender Rhodes and I’ve been practicing and learning songs on the piano so I think you’ll hear more of this kind of thing in the future.
Anything else you'd like to add about the album that I haven't asked?
I’d like to add that I hope this record can be a friend and catharsis to anyone who is processing loss. And a thank you to everyone who was a part of making it.