Article by: Jamie McCormick | Photos courtesy of Star Anna | Posted: 09/14/2012
A career in the music industry is not for the faint of heart. While many facets of the job tend toward entertainment and the perks can be spectacular, endless travel and gigging alongside relentless writing and studio schedules means substantial wear and tear on a musician, emotionally and physically. And while many paths exist to carry the weary musician past the rough patches, the most famously publicized road involves, among other things, hazy green rooms and empty kegs. But Star Anna Bamford, an honest and open small town girl from the tiny country town of Ellensburg, Washington, wanted to find another path. “A lot of times, it seems like you're either one or the other. You can't be a happy functioning adult, and play music and be good at it,” says Bamford. “That's the big fear, that if you're not a big fuck-up, the partying, drug-using wild person that makes poor decisions and perpetually ruins your life, how do you even write something that has depth, or that people connect with?”
But the band is not all bubble gum and sunshine. Their trademark sound definitely has a hard edge to it, with wonderfully scratchy vocals that grab hold and refuse to let go beside wailing guitars and a slamming rhythm section. But the makers of that music prefer a life slightly more like the rest of us. Taking cues from conversations with her mentors, Tom Petty and Mike McCready (of Pearl Jam), Bamford says, “You don't have to be a miserable little shit to write a good song or to be a good musician. You can be both. Mike has probably given me some of the best advice as far as how to maintain being a musician, but be a human being, and a half-functioning person, and still be doing what we do. That was a big realization for me, because I think I struggled with that for a long time.”
Wanting to find a new route through troubled waters does not seem that far fetched, though, since Bamford seems to have more or less wandered her way into a career in music. Picking up drums when she was very young so she could have a forum in which to “just be loud,” Bamford switched to guitar when she became interested in writing, and has written personal and sometimes brutally honest music ever since. But for a long time, her high school bands and songwriting provided simply a creative outlet and a hobby to occupy her time. “I just did it, and it seemed really normal and really right, but I didn't think it was something I could do for a living,” she remembers. But time on the stage would eventually overrule those early judgments. “I think that was the only option for me if I wanted to be content,” she acknowledges. “Each year, that becomes more and more obvious.”
And now that she has finally found her way and her home, Bamford continues digging deep into herself, mining personal experiences and emotions to find a connection, then turning them into a jagged but beautiful truth. She has certainly come a long way from her early days as a guitar-wielding folk aspirant. “I look at the stuff I was writing then, and it makes me laugh,” she recalls, with a touch of both mirth and nostalgia in her voice. “But you have to start somewhere.”
Nowadays, though, Bamford lets the music find her. “It really is beyond me. It's different every time,” she explains. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The harder I think about it, the less it works.” More effort is not always the answer, it would seem. She continues the explanation, saying, “I'm dead set on writing a song about a specific thing, and I'll sit there, and I'll get frustrated. And by the end of the day, I'll have a song, but it's not about that at all. It's something completely different that I wasn't even thinking about.”
Over time, as she has grown in herself and in her craft, Bamford has learned to just let the words flow, coming from wherever, and whenever, they might choose. She has found that, for her at least, stronger emotions do not always lend stronger songs or music. “A lot of times, I feel like I have to be a few steps away from a situation before I can even begin to write about it,” she admits. “It would be great if I could write a song about it, but nothing comes out because I'm so much in the thick of it at the time.” Instead of forcing the words to come, she leans back, sinking into an emotional comfy chair, allowing the mural of her next song to paint itself on the walls of her mind. Only then does she grab a pen, once the beauty has already been sorted and arranged.
The fact that Bamford takes a moment to step back into a quiet place comes as no surprise, though. She still retains much of the small town girl, even though she and the band have transplanted to their nearest thriving music mecca. After all, big cities can be a scary place. “'Don't get pregnant, and don't get AIDS.' That's what my dad said to me before I went to Seattle on a weekend trip when I was a teenager,” recalls Bamford. “I said, 'Yeah, I think I can manage that, dad.'” But, avoiding the dangers and pitfalls of what can be an overwhelming city, Bamford has grown quickly in Seattle. “I've gotten a little bit smarter about things by living in Seattle,” she says. “But I want to still be open to things, open to people, and see the best in people and things. I have become a really angry driver, though.” Perhaps it is a good thing that while on the road, Bamford can often be found where she is most comfortable – “sleeping in the back of a moving vehicle.
Guilty admission of road rage aside, the group makes every effort to hold onto their heritage, both in dealings with people and in their careers within what can be a vicious industry. They, themselves, refuse to be vicious. Though Bamford says, “I feel like, in a lot of ways, we're not the same band that we were when we started,” through many iterations and line-up changes, they have grown and evolved, adapting to a new situations while keeping to their community-based roots. And Bamford has changed herself in many small but significant ways. She says, “I think that I'm more aware of what I want, of what I like and don't like in music. I have a clearer view of what I'm going for.” She has set her sights, and does not plan to veer off course any time soon.
Now that she has a moment to breathe, after countless changes to her band and a major move into an entirely new culture, Bamford is taking her opportunities as they come and soaking up any and everything she can find. Working with McCready and Duff McKagan (Guns 'N' Roses) over the last couple of years, which she describes as “a weird, surreal thing,” has certainly made a tough job into a simpler and more profitable endeavor. “I've never had any expectations of what I'm able to gain from knowing people like that,” Bamford honestly admits. “It just amazes me every time [McCready] does something to help promote us.”
But in the end, the most valuable thing she receives is knowledge. She simply opens her eyes and ears, and closes her mouth. She explains, “It's cool to be able to talk to somebody who's been in one of those bands, been around the world, and get their perspective on things. It's kind of the same, except the scale is so much bigger.” Perhaps one day, she and The Laughing Dogs will find themselves on that same scale. But for now, at least she can dress the part. “I did just get a suit, so I'm just going to wear that every day,” Bamford says, her excitement growing. “Then when they're like, 'We need something to put for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,' I'll be like, 'Oh, you can put my suit. It's an eggplant-colored suit, the first suit I ever bought. I got it at the mall.” Here's hoping we see that suit one day, hanging up in Cleveland between Patty Smith's boots and Kim Gordon's silver hot pants. With the way Star Anna and The Laughing Dogs are surging now, that day may not be far off.
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