(Editor’s note: since this article was published, Star Anna has released an additional album, The Sky Is Falling. She’ll play an OPB Stagepass show Saturday July 12th. Info’s over here. -ab)
Washington singer-songwriter Star Anna is something of a specialist in breakup songs. Born in Ellensburg, now living in Seattle, she’s been singing about heartbreak since she was 16. But her fourth record, released this week, takes her personal journey to a different level. Go To Hell was written during a time when her life was being turned upside down, with federal agents on the trail of her partner and their relationship in shreds.
Anna previously released three records with her backing band, the Laughing Dogs, exploring Americana sounds grafted with blues and punk influences. Her singing voice has never been short on muscle. But on the new record, songs like “For Anyone” find her singing in a throaty growl about a transformation brought on by betrayal, sounding completely raw and darker than ever:
“Punching and pounding like a heavyweight fight / I’m not feeling like myself tonight
That devil moon comes out and hits me right / I’ll be anyone”
Anna has always found some therapeutic value in writing about breakups. And her last one turned out to be a mother lode.
Over the past few years, she was involved with Kasey Anderson, a Portland native and critically acclaimed musician who’s now awaiting sentencing on federal wire fraud charges. Prosecutors claim Anderson lured investors with promises of a record and concerts involving big name artists — none of whom had actually signed on for Anderson’s projects. Attorneys for Anderson declined to comment on the case.
“Just to be brief and vague about it,” Anna says, “I was very involved with him, my personal life, my music. I kind of wrapped it all up in him because he seemed like he had it together.”
The allegations of swindles came out after Anna had recorded three demos, with Anderson’s help, for what eventually became Go To Hell. She says she decided to go ahead and include the tracks on the record with Anderson’s backing vocals intact. “It just made sense for the song[s]. And it added a deeper level to it, I think.”
Anna says she wasn’t concerned about people coming to the record as voyeurs. “I think that’s what music is. That’s what any record is, if you’re putting out a record that is honest, which is important and it makes a good record.”
The album mixes covers as varied as Nina Simone and Tom Waits with scorching originals. The latest Laughing Dogs lineup includes Ty Bailie, who has deep experience with jazz and rock styles. He played piano and also coproduced the record.
For Anna, the making of Go To Hell was “all-consuming. Sometimes it was a source of high anxiety, sometimes it was a very gratifying feeling.” Some of the material predated Anderson’s legal troubles. Other songs were written just a few weeks before she went into the studio.
Anna says grinding out the songs was instrumental to getting through the past year. She says it was a relief to get the final mix put to bed.
As she gets ready to play a five-night residency at Al’s Den in Portland, Anna says she’s looking forward to performing these songs and trying out some newer stuff. She’s done a similar stint once before and found it “a nice, relaxed vibe.”
Star Anna admits she’s had moments of wondering whether this degree of upheaval was necessary to write a compelling song. And the undercurrents that propelled Go To Hell haven’t resolved the debate for her.
“I think I’ve asked myself that question many times,” she said, speaking on the phone last week. “I don’t think it’s necessary — I hope anyway that you can live a healthy, happy successful life and still be able to write good songs.”