Interview: Anja McCloskey

After featuring her in August’s Thank Folk For New Bands, TFFT recently got the chance to ask Anja McCloskey, the songstress behind the wonderful An Estimation, a few questions and find out a bit more about the accordion wielding woman.

Firstly, your debut album is out at the moment, how does it feel to have your own work out there?

I am really proud of the album and of having something with my own name on it. I have spent many years playing in bands and with other musicians and it took me a while to build up the confidence to do my own thing. And it is honestly an album that I am completely happy with. We developed and toured the material extensively before putting it on tape and made sure we took our time when we recorded it. I whittled it down from 23 songs to 12 throughout the process and I am definitely content with it – which is unusual for me.

How would you describe your sound, to those who aren’t so familiar with it?

Alternative folk is a term that tends to come my way on a frequent basis. I guess in a way it is accurate, as we play instruments, which are usually associated with folk music. We have accordion, piano, violin, double bass and acoustic and electric guitar in the band. But I definitely wouldn’t call my music traditional in any sense. It really is a mad concoction of everything that I have so far encountered in life. From playing French and Russian accordion music as a child and a worrying over-exposure to 80s pop music on German radio, to discovering a wealth of music when the internet finally did arrive and gigging with a breadth of acts in Europe and the US and collaborating with independent co-operatives, such as Sotones Records, Children of Mercy and Series II Records.

Who, or what, are your biggest influences?

I am old enough to remember a time without the internet and it was actually very hard to find new and interesting music as a teenager, so I focused on a good few. Some of my biggest influences in early years were mostly musicians who made the accordion cool for me – Yann Tiersen and Astor Piazzolla just to name a few. I was also very much inspired by female-led music, which I reviewed for Wears The Trousers Magazine during university. It helped me to discover a breadth of wonderful artists, such as Nina Nastasia, Abigail Washburn, Sharon Van Etten, PJ Harvey, Pepi Ginsberg, Shenandoah Davis and many many others. And I am also always inspired by the acts that I meet on the road, hear on random compilations and discover through indie films.

Who would you most like to perform with?

I collaborate with bands all of the time, mainly with my label mates on Sotones Records, and I really enjoy working with others. If it was an option, I would very much like to do something with Richard Buckner, who is an American singer-songwriter. He came on tour to the UK last year and we supported him in Winchester. He has a fantastic voice and persona and I found myself being extremely drawn to his performance.

With your fairly mixed background, being half-American and half-German, how do you think this has influenced your style of music?

I don’t think my music is particularly German or American to that effect. But I think the fact that I have lived in a lot of different countries, including the UK, Germany and the US, has made me much more open-minded and explorative. I do soak in all of the things that are around me. When I lived in Mid-Western America I did listen to a lot of country music, and especially Appalachian folk music. It is so energetic and fun! The European accordion music I was exposed to was much more dramatic and dark and perhaps that side of it has had a much heavier influence on me.

At what point did you start to take music seriously and think of it as something you could do professionally?

Not until I was a student at university. Even though I played the accordion from an early age and spent years in accordion orchestras and choirs, I never considered a career in music. To me it was something that was fun and I didn’t want it to be clouded with the stress of earning a living with it. When I came to London to study journalism, my campus also included the music courses. It didn’t take very long for me to become entwined with that and I started playing in bands and on recordings. Before I knew it I was gigging constantly, travelling all over the country and doing studio sessions left right and centre. I never considered the accordion to be a cool instrument until I came over here. It took me another few years from then to develop as a songwriter and to gain the confidence to perform on my own as well. It is only really in the last three years that I have truly believed in it and have started to take it seriously. I have always worked hard, I just never had the revelation before that this is something that I could just do.

How did you find the American tour? What made you take your music there before touring here?

The American tour was absolutely amazing and it was very hard to come back home… We made a conscious choice to tour the Mid-West, rather than the East or West Coast. I was born in Missouri and lived there for a number of years as well, so I have always felt drawn to this particular area. We chose to go on tour in February 2011, the month after a giant snowstorm hit the area. Absolutely everything was covered in snow and they even had to get the military to clear the roads. Luckily for us our tour vehicle was a giant pick-up truck. We had no trouble getting around. We played shows in the big cities, such as Chicago, Minneapolis and St Louis. But we also trekked down into the countryside and played shows in Art Houses and Cafes. The people were so genuine and friendly and I have never ever been treated that well as a musician as we have there. I don’t think we consciously chose to go to America before touring the UK. We had played quite a few shows in England before going across the pond, but the idea of touring over there just seemed a lot more exciting to us. It really was an adventure.

How do American and English audiences compare? Do you have a preference?

American audiences are very enthusiastic and genuine. And they are loud. If they like a song, you will definitely know. We spent the entire tour just amazed by how much of an audience reaction we got and how much merchandise we sold as well. We actually sold out of CDs before the end of the tour… When we returned to England we played an unplugged show in one of Southampton’s castle vaults and it was so different. The applause was very polite and almost reserved in comparison. It did take us a while to readjust. I don’t think English audiences mean for their reaction to be any less genuine or enthusiastic. Culturally it is just very different. You are never going to get someone screaming “hell yeah” from the top of their lungs, whilst dancing in the front row over here…

Do you have a favourite place to play in the UK?

My music is kind of unusual, so I like to perform it in unusual spaces, too. In May, my label mates Etao Shin and I did a joint tour of bookshops in the UK, which was so lovely. One of my favourite bookshops to play in is the Amnesty Book Shop in Brighton. Another great place to play is the Googies Art Cafe in Folkestone. We are always welcomed so warmly and it is a fantastic little gem of a venue. And recently we launched our album at King John’s Palace in Southampton, which is an outdoor ruin in the garden of Southampton’s Tudor House. It was just stunning and luckily for us we benefited from a rain-free summer evening as well.

Are there any new musicians you would recommend?

You should definitely take the time to check out the other acts on my label Sotones Records. They are all truly amazing and you can often find me performing and recording with them. Make sure to check out Etao Shin, Oresteia, Ottersgear, Moneytree, Moulettes, Haunted Stereo, Dave Miatt, Lonely Joe Parker, Johnny5thWheel&thecowards, TS Idiot, Calico Cat, Fred Kinbom and rude_NHS.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I don’t really do 5-year plans, or any kind of long-term plans in that respect. I have made such plans in the past and have always found that usually it takes you somewhere completely different. I want to make sure that I am open-minded enough to not pass on great opportunities, just because they didn’t fit into my plan… For now, I would like to continue with making and playing music. I will go to America for a few months in December to write some new material and hopefully I can then begin recording for a second album. And then I shall see where it takes me.

Josh King