Annie Hart’s SoundCloud page says, “Putting all the synthesizers in my basement to good use,” which is a wonderful description of what she’s quite obviously doing—with emphasis on “good use.” Her low-fi, gossamer sound is like starched sheets stretched tight over brittle rock candy drum—resonant, tender, and not too sweet. The tendency towards fuzzy, underwater tones is cut by her clear voice that breaks through and pulls in the daylight.
Known primarily for her work with the all-keyboard dream pop band Au Revoir Simone, which toured with the likes of Peter, Bjorn and John, Annie Hart will be making her first appearance at SXSW as a solo artist. While Au Revoir Simone was compared to Stereolab, it’s easier to define Hart’s solo sound by comparing her to tracks rather than to artists. “On the Way Down” and “Breathing Underwater” sound like they could both be descendants of Cat Power’s “Bathysphere” if the elements were split—the loop for the former and the sentiment for the latter. Adding to that, “On the Way Down” sounds like it might have been remixed from something from the soundtrack of Liquid Sky; and in “Breathing Underwater” Hart has a controlled aggression, like Sleigh Bells is lurking just under the surface. Some of her remixes are almost Boards of Canada territory—yet one big beat away from being danceable assmovers. And the minimalist “Softly” is reminiscent of Liz Phair’s “Canary”—albeit with a much more feminine voice, no matter what Hart says in the following interview.
We caught up via email while snowbound in New York, just before Hart skipped out to sunny Texas. Don’t worry if you can’t get to Austin in time—she’ll be back in town at Union Pool for a day show on April 2.
So far this is a side solo project. I really would rather be making music with Au Revoir Simone and I’m still quite close with Heather [D’Angelo] and Erika [Forster]. Heather even came on my last tour of the West Coast to sing backup and do visuals for me. But she lives in San Francisco now, she is an amazing astronomy writer and editor—check out her work. She is also working on launching a perfume line called Carta. She has an amazing nose, is so elegant, and is obsessive with perfume so I am really proud of her and can’t wait to see what she does. Erika is taking some time off from the band because she just had an adorable baby who I am so excited about! She is such a natural mother, I am happy to see her in her element.
So, as a band, we are just taking opportunities as they arise. We did some composing recently for the fashion brand Mulberry and are still placing our music in film and television a lot, and it’s kind of cruising along.
I have a lifelong obsession with composing on piano and keyboard and there’s nothing that can stop me from doing that on a daily basis. I wasn’t feeling very confident about bringing my ideas public, though. I have a fear that people tell me my work is good because they don’t want me to feel bad. About two years ago, I did a fundraiser called “Rock Lottery” where you make up songs with other musicians and perform them that night. A journalist from Brooklyn Vegan said one of his favorite moments of the night was a song idea that I had (without knowing it was mine) and it gave me so much confidence. I mean, since I love making music and do it anyway, maybe I should push myself so I could have an income from it and get the chance to hear it loud on stage. Since I’ve been playing out the reaction has been utterly fantastic. I have more than once made people just burst into tears in a good way, and get them to connect to a raw, open side of themselves. I can see them experiencing and noticing each other out there in the crowd as the show progresses and it’s magic. It’s so rewarding to help people the way other people’s music has helped me.
Talk about another lifelong obsession! When I was about 6 we got a knock-off version of the Casio SK-1, made by Radio Shack. You could record a sound sample and play a song out of it. My brothers and I were supposed to share it. They eventually tired of playing “Jingle Bells” with the sound of their burps, but I was absolutely fixated on this machine and everything it had to offer. I loved playing with all the sounds and hearing how different sounds affected the listener’s interpretation of the same melody. I would sit in my room and just make up songs for hours. I still do that. I find that the sound on a synthesizer can be the basis of a rhythm, melody and harmony all at once. And once you start listening for how the overtones work to create slightly perceptible melodies within what you are playing, that creates another composition layer to build on.
I have tried so many times to get into the newer “great” synths like the Dave Smith stuff, but it never works for me. And digital versions of the synths I know best fall so flat in creating overtones when you play multiple notes. The vibrations just don’t work the way they do on an analog machine. It all sounds EDM to me. I can’t lose myself in it so I never get inspired. I also have a thing for fonts and reading instruction manuals so the visual aspects of playing a giant physical well-designed object works better for my creative brain.
I am very excited about going to SXSW this year. I was nervous earlier this week when I was practicing because I felt like my songs were boring and I wouldn’t be able to carry to energy of the audience. In New York I usually have a backup singer, drummer, and a visual artist who creates gorgeous ink and dye visuals on stage on an overhead projector. That allows me to know the audience is being entertained and I can really focus on playing and singing. I’m going to Austin all by myself and I was worried about losing that easy magic. But I tried recording my practice and listened back and went from being freaked out to really impressed with myself. It is exactly what I want to hear and what I want to be doing and the only thing I can do is provide my best self to others. Some people aren’t going to like it because there’s not that many hooks and I’m not a traditionally “great” singer; I don’t have a clear tone and my pitch isn’t like a Broadway singer’s at all. But I don’t like listening to stuff like that. I like the Microphones and Mountain Goats and Ramones. Stuff that’s more raw and open.
You’re playing a showcase dedicated to Twin Peaks, as a tie-in to the reboot. Are you a fan of the original show?
I am an extremely empathic person. I get really caught up in violence and cheating and lies when I see them on TV. They just stick with me and I can’t shake it off. And the score of Twin Peaks is so genius it feels like a weapon, like a sharp knife in your skull so that makes it worse. My husband was watching the first season last month and I would sit in for about ten minutes and have to run away to the kitchen. David [Lynch] is so good at those stories that make reality have that eerie, supernatural feeling on the flip side. It’s very hard to stay in the basement alone making music after watching it!
I love Julee Cruise (and even had the chance to meet her and fell so hard in love with her) but her range is not my range at all. I am way better at singing like a man. I do a cover of one of my favorite songs, “California Song” by Mountain Goats off of the record Sweden. It’s the first song I ever heard that took the cheesy little Casio keyboard and made it into something serious and not cutesy. I interpret it without the synth, by making live loops on an electric piano and then I walk in the audience and sing it. I fall under the spell of how ingrained the song is in my subconscious and am usually surprised when it’s over.