Anna Roberts-Gevalt is a multidisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, NY. With traditional singer Elizabeth LaPrelle, their Anna & Elizabeth project began as an explorations of stories and song when they were based in Virginia. Their shows featured hand-cranked story-ballad rolls (“crankies”), film and movement, but always about the tradition of American folk music.
Following their last European tour, which included a two-night residency at Café Oto, artist and composer Nicola Kearey (From Here Records/Stick In The Wheel) asked Anna about her practice, authenticity and tradition.
How did the Anna & Elizabeth shows develop?
Our first British tour was a folk music show, with puppets. It wasn’t that strange what we were doing, I was already pushing towards more avant-garde ideas. That was an interesting creative moment – to want to push things onto people, making people uncomfortable is a weird thing to navigate.
What’s your process? Do you start with an idea, then figure out how to execute it?
I’m going to art school tomorrow, so I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Wanting to learn how to trust yourself as much as possible, and that being basically the number one skill of an artist. I’m back in the zone asking “how do I trust this idea?” Then following the steps and keep trusting that initial image.
If your brain works at all in an interdisciplinary way, what you learn about music can be applied to drawing. I learn about my sense of timing from looking at my drawings. Or when you improvise, thinking about this contrast between the very rough and sloppy in my playing, with parts that I want to be really detailed or that I practice really carefully. With my abstract drawings, that’s kind of the same ratio. This idea of alchemy, as an artist, to facilitate a creative flow in yourself. To be in that state it’s helpful to have this balance of different media to work on.
Recently, I did a solo show, thinking a lot about this one ballad. I made this Ableton program interviewing myself about a scene in the ballad, sometimes intelligible, sometimes not. Then I put on this granny mask I made, then walked around, telling the story of the ballad but in gibberish. Thinking about this idea of transmission: what cannot be transmitted or what has been forgotten. Questioning whether things can totally be passed down.
I’m trying to understand myself, pushing to find new ways to explore this music. These old songs have so many layers, exploring them like that feels natural. Those people interested in history, architecture or storytelling might not identify as even liking folk music, and that feels like a really fertile conversation.
Comparing the folk scene with the avant-garde scene – when you’re making work, you’re exploring an idea, but then when it comes to making a show, how do you navigate that?
Right now, I don’t really know. I want to develop a bunch of stuff without thinking about the audience. I’m curious about what happens if I pursue my ideas a little bit further before I shared them. Later I’ll start thinking about what I’m actually making. There’s a thread of people who are motivated by thinking, well, what is it telling me to do? It’s one way of thinking about control, and it circles back to ideas of folk music. Meredith Monk talked to me about this – what is your music telling you it that it needs to finish it? Rather than trying to exert yourself upon the composition or upon the piece. Instead, approaching it as a learner.
This notion of being more like a vessel, thinking about all these traditional singers who also see themselves as vessels in certain ways. There’s a relationship to ego, versus the collective, that feels really similar. That there’s this larger force at work – for some artists it’s a spirit, and for some ballad singers, it’s the history. The image of a vessel feels really useful to return to. Wanting it to serve the old song sometimes, the idea, or the feeling. This sense of service is what attracted me to traditional music. It means that the art you make to do that, might not be folk music at all, but it’s still connected to the same spirit that folk music is done in.
And part of a continuum?
Sure. Being a part of a line feels really important, that’s partly why I moved to New York. As I got interested in experimenting, I started to feel that there’s a tradition of that too – this history of interpreting folk music in a more composer-y or fine art sense. Those are parallel traditions that are both important, like the people who are keeping the mechanics of the songs alive. And then the tradition of people trying to understand how they personally relate to this thing. I think I want to be both.
The work you guys do feels similar. That’s what’s magical about it. I admire people approaching things in new ways, when things feel really deep. Let’s not take this lightly. Let’s really think about this old music, and let’s try to make it really present in whatever way that is. It’s that sense of tradition rather than copying sounds per se. Traditional music doesn’t always make me confront myself, in the way that experimenting has. Cultures forever have invented ways of dealing with human pain, these old songs are little rituals.
In my twenties I was thinking, who am I in relationship to this community? And now it’s with my work and myself. I’m sure most folk musicians think about this on some level, but I don’t know how much people talk about it – I wish that we did more. What I really appreciated about my two Kentucky fiddle teachers was that they didn’t want me to sound like them. They wanted me to sound like me. It’s like, I can’t unlisten to Bjork. It would feel inauthentic not to let her influence be there as well as Texas Gladden. That’s what our teachers did too, and it’s up to us to keep doing that.