Lovely. That is the perfect word to describe the voice and demeanor of Anna Sacks. The California native found her quiet, sultry voice while working in the Midwest. Here she talks about how building a community of artists was integral to fostering her confidence as a singer-songwriter. Though sweet and light, Anna Sacks’ music has a powerful resonance and so do her answers to our questions about her evolution as a musician.
Paper Darts: Do you believe in talent or a gift, or must an artist simply grow?
Anna Sacks: We’ve all known people who seem to effortlessly possess (often from an impossibly young age) an overwhelming and undeniable ability in a certain field, artistic or otherwise. It’s hard not to envy that kind of inborn talent, in part because it can seem to go hand-in-hand with a clear, almost compelling sense of purpose, while the majority of us have to muddle through a great deal of trial and error trying to figure out what makes us tick. That being said, I personally find the process of trying and erring, in music and the rest of my endeavors, to be incredibly valuable…sometimes the things that seem on the surface to be these senseless detours turn out to be the most formative (and informative) experiences.
PD: It seems that artists often have several moments when it becomes clear to them that their art can move an audience. When did you FIRST realize that you had that unique something?
AS: I think the first time I sang publicly was that pivotal moment for me. That was at Steel Bridge Songfest in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin; up until that point I considered myself to be strictly a lyricist. I was very fortunate in that the first audience I performed for was incredibly supportive and generous with their feedback.
PD: Did you discover this on your own, or did someone or something inspire you to develop a passion into the gift you have today?
AS: I think I can safely say that the ONLY reason I started writing and singing was that I had the good fortune of crossing paths with people who saw potential in me that I myself was unaware of. Probably the most influential person in that regard was Pat Macdonald, a brilliant songwriter who I met in San Francisco. Pat and I became fast friends. One night, I offhandedly mentioned to him that I had an idea for a song, but no idea how to write it. He called me the next morning to ask if I would like help writing that song. We wrote “If You Only Knew” via speakerphone and text message in a matter of hours. Several months later, Pat was also the one who got me singing publicly by refusing to take my name off the list of performers for Steel Bridge Songfest (the festival Macdonald co-founded in 2005 with his sister, Christie Weber). I must have called him every day for two weeks before the festival, begging him to take my name off the list of performers…but he insisted that I trust him, and I’m glad I did.
PD: We are interested in the path you took to become the artist you are today. Can you jot down a short history of yourself as a musician?
AS: I started writing lyrics in 2006 at the age of 22; up until that point, my musical experience was limited to several years of classical piano training as a child. At 22, I was living in San Francisco—studying to be a midwife—when, through a series of bizarre events, I ended up playing keyboards in a band called Katdelic Revival with members of P-Funk. I was way out of my league musically—these people were all very accomplished musicians—and I was only with the band for a few months, but it was through that experience that I reconnected with my good friend and master guitarist Eric McFadden, who introduced me to Pat Macdonald, who got me started writing lyrics. It was a few months later, at Steel Bridge Songfest, that I started singing.
PD: How did you find yourself in the small town of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, so far from home?
AS: I first came to Wisconsin in June 2006, when Pat invited me to be one of 25 songwriters to hole up in the Holiday Motel for the week preceding the second annual Steel Bridge Songfest; they had erected a recording studio in one of the motel rooms, and we ended up writing and recording over 60 original songs in four days. The workshop—which Pat dubbed the “Construction Zone”—was so magical for me that I approached Pat with the idea of gathering investors, buying a motel somewhere, putting in a recording studio and hosting songwriting events year-round. Pat loved the idea, and pointed out that the Holiday Motel was for sale…six weeks later, I packed up my life in San Francisco and moved to Sturgeon Bay. It took the better part of a year, but in May 2007 the newly formed Holiday Motel Management, LLC—a group of musicians and music enthusiasts that included Pat, his sister Christie, Jackson Browne, myself and a number of other people—purchased the Holiday.
PD: Can you describe your role with the Steel Bridge Songfest and how it influenced you as a musician?
AS: SBSF is an entirely volunteer-run festival, which relies on the year-round efforts of a dedicated core group of individuals. As the manager of the Holiday Motel, my role in the festival planning was pretty limited to the overlap between SBSF and the Holiday, which is home each year to the songwriters that participate in the week-long songwriting events that take place in conjunction with the festival. As for the influence of SBSF on me as a musician, it has been the greatest gift…through SBSF, I have met so many talented songwriters and performers, and gotten to write with many of them, which is pretty rare for someone as new to music as I am. Those opportunities came to me almost entirely as a result of SBSF, and I will always be grateful for that.
PD: Has the move to California from the Midwest affected your music at all?
AS: To be honest, I haven’t written anything since I moved. I have started playing the baritone ukulele thanks to my friend Lynda Kay Parker, an amazing songwriter I was lucky enough to meet at SBSF a couple of years ago, and who lives in Venice, about a mile from my new home. Lynda loaned me a ukulele and taught me enough chords to get me started writing music—it’s a whole new ballgame, as up until now I’ve been totally dependent on other musicians to help me turn my lyrics into songs. I love the collaborative process and have been influenced in some way by everyone I’ve ever written with, and I can only hope that some of their collective brilliance has rubbed off on me in some way as I start writing my own songs.
PD: What music are you listening to now and do you foresee it informing your music in any way?
AS: I have been listening to a lot of bossa nova recently…a lot of Astrud Gilberto, Stan Getz, Antônio Carlos Jobim, and João Gilberto, to name a few. Astrud Gilberto has been a huge inspiration for me, because she beautifully demonstrates the fact that you don’t have to have a rafter-raising voice to have dramatic impact as a singer. Coming to that realization has been hugely liberating for me, having frequently derailed myself in the past by comparing my voice to much bigger, stronger voices…and that is a total waste of energy. I’m not a belter, just like I’m not a six-foot blonde. It’s an immense relief to accept yourself for exactly who you are—and are not—and to embrace the challenge of using the tools you have to their fullest potential.
PD: Is the world kind to a female musician such as yourself? What was it like being a female musician in the small town of Sturgeon Bay?
AS: I can only speak from my limited personal experience, which has been blessed. Spending three years in Sturgeon Bay, where I first started performing, was an ideal beginning for me in a lot of ways; being such a small town, it provided me with the unique opportunity of growing as a writer/performer in the presence of a very supportive community of songwriters and music lovers, many of whom were present at my very first performance and were willing and able to give me constructive feedback as I evolved musically. I am so thankful for that time and that community of people.
PD: You were instrumental in building a community for singer-songwriters in Sturgeon Bay. What moved you to do this, and were you surprised at the success of your efforts?
AS: Door County has, from my understanding, always been home to an inordinate number of talented artists of all kinds. When Steel Bridge Songfest was founded in 2005 as an awareness-building and fundraising effort to save Sturgeon Bay’s historic steel drawbridge from the wrecking ball, it had the additional impact of putting Sturgeon Bay on the map as a music destination. A little over a year into my time in Sturgeon Bay, Pat approached me and Adam Mackintosh (my fiancé and an amazing songwriter, who I met at SBSF in 2006) about hosting a songwriter showcase at a local café. We gave it a try, and it quickly grew beyond our expectations…it was a forum for an eclectic and ridiculously talented mix of local and visiting songwriters, and provided them with a supportive listening audience.
PD: Do you have any recommendations for our readers…What film has inspired your work most?
AS: That’s a tough call, but probably the documentary “I’m Your Man,” about Leonard Cohen’s life and work.
PD: What piece of visual art has inspired your music?
AS: The day I left Sturgeon Bay, my dear friend Stephanie Trenchard gave me a piece of her glass art…Stephanie tells these incredible stories through glass. The piece she gave me is this beautiful glass block encasing a sculpture of a chair, which to me invokes the feeling of a completely safe creative space. Words do not do it justice, but there it is.
PD: What other musicians, only recently on your radar, have made you excited?
I have met so many incredible musicians over the past few years…I hesitate to list only a few for fear of leaving anyone out, so instead I’m going to encourage people to check out www.steelbridgesongfest.org, which has links to the music of many of the brilliant songwriters I’ve been privileged to meet through the festival.