Anni Rossi “I don’t want there to be any unused space in the recording.”

Singer/violaist Anni Rossi was at home in Chicago, fielding rent-seeking knocks from her landlord but still trying to relax, while I was pedaling into a bike shop in Detroit, on a cell phone, on an errant to replace the kinked chain on my Roadmaster. Not that either of the quiet moments of our lives (hers a touring singer/songwriter, classically trained musician with her second LP Rockwell out on 4AD and mine an scrounging freelance writer longing for sunshine in this chilly Michigan spring) are that interesting, nor make a good lead sentence.

But the setting -- our place in life, where we find ourselves -- is an integral theme to Rossi's music, both in personality and prose. Her music is an angular pop, burning with moaning violin saws and rousing rhythms (be they driving percussion from a kit or the stomping of her boots upon suitcases). Her voice intertwines with the chalky squeaks and sways of her viola in such a fiery way it's like the two elements are recklessly spinning and sashaying in some wonderful aural jive dance. At 23, she's already recorded an LP and an EP (Scandia and Afton respectively), played SXSW, and is touring with Noah and the Whale and Camera Obscura. Rockwell is her 2nd LP, recorded with the renowned Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Illinois and named for the street of her then-residency. Whether singing about road trips, area codes, Las Vegas, Venice, Utah, or alien lands, Rossi's work may romanticize geographical capriciousness and bump and bop around with “pluck-y” quirks, but it is above all embracing and confident. Just don't call her freak-folk -- classical-pop is fine, thank you.

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What's the news? How was your weekend?

I played the Hideout (in Chicago) on Friday night and I have a week before I'm on tour again. I leave on Saturday for the Noah And The Whale tour. So, just relaxing and trying to hang out for a little bit.

Any memorable moments from playing SXSW? Where does your mind go first?

I'm not gonna lie, first is the great food. The food there is awesome. But, aside from the food, playing… it was just really fun and the crowd were all very varied but really supportive. I had a great time, and every single show I played I felt it was totally worth it.

Any favorite experience, your own sets or someone else's?

Well, there's an artist whose out on Rough Trade right now called Micachu and the Shapes. Her and I played this show together, which was pretty notable for my set too; it was on this patio at this placed called Ms. B's. Her and I played back to back one day, and her live show is awesome. We actually played with her in New York, too.

What's your live setup like lately?

I've been primarily playing with the drummer who plays on my record; his name is Devin Maxwell. Once in a while, in Chicago mostly, I just play solo because he lives in New York. So when I play solo, I use a suitcase for percussion and stomp on it when I'm playing.

How have your influences changed or matured, specifically in classical, on strings…?

Um, well, I've always loved pop music more than classical music, from when I was little. But I think that's natural. I mean, that transitional point when I really started writing music and transitioning out of classical music was when I was playing chamber music, like quartet music. I really liked Bartók and more contemporary composers. Then I discovered Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk -- that was maybe like 5 years ago. My musical taste now has really ranged from somebody like Modest Mouse -- I really like their recordings -- and, like, Black Sabbath I've been really into lately. I generally go through phases where I'll listen to one thing over and over.

How did you develop your vocal style? It's quirky at times, squeaking or making motorboat noises or it flits upwards all wispy…

Right, right. The thing about my vocals, starting out, the transition that I've gone through, from when I first started playing viola and singing simultaneously until now, that was really early growing pains. My voice wanted to do really abrupt dynamic things, just like the viola was doing. So it wanted to go in that direction, and now I feel like my voice has kind of shifted into its own role and has its own place in the song, and the music and the viola has a separate role.

How do you feel about critics who place the “classical-pop” label, upon your music?

I really sit well with that reference. There are other things that I think…people quickly classify me as ‘freak folk.' I don't really identify even with the fact that I make folk music; it is acoustic, and I think that's what goes over that way. Saying it's classical pop is what I'm most happy with.

Yeah, we hear a female singer with a quirky voice and auto-pilot writers just jump to Joanna Newsom or Björk.

Yeah…yeah…

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"I'm usually conveying more of an abstract feeling rather than one event."

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Can you expound upon the meaning of setting, the names of places, in your music? Rockwell, the West Coast, Las Vegas, trains, area codes…

The thing about Rockwell, I was living on Rockwell street in Chicago at the time. Like you said, a lot of those geographical personal references came up all throughout [writing Rockwell]. It was like, at that point, it was a combination of all those songs being done, and plain and simply it was meaningful, geographical, simple, but metaphors for myself. Not even metaphors but indications of certain times of where I was writing and trying to convey something a little deeper and personal about what was happening in my life at that time, by that place.

You mentioned metaphor – and even your song about a boxer is named, instead, for setting, “Las Vegas.” How much of your writing is metaphor for your own experience, and how much is more creative fancy-free?

A lot of it is, for the most part. I'm usually conveying more of an abstract feeling rather than one event. I do think there is some kind of narrative that's explaining something a little bit more about what I'm going through, so I tend to write very… like emotional instinct, which I know sounds a little vague, but I think the way I'm feeling does very much influence how I write. Which seems pretty obvious, but at the same time I just experience such a range of feelings…I think, for some reason, especially on [Rockwell], geography and even like, “Glaciers” are slightly geographical, a little bit… these big vast themes that helped me convey feeling.

Beyond metaphor, more on true feeling – can you talk about the experience of recording Rockwell vs. past works?

Scandia and Afton were both slightly different experiments, recording-wise, and that was before I did a lot of heavy touring and really developed the songs to the point where it felt like they were done. Rockwell is the documented finish of that whole process. So, Afton's kinda in the middle, Scandia's at the very beginning, and Rockwell's at the end.

Songs on Afton EP (“West Coast,” “Venice”) were shortened for Rockwell, and the original “Arctic Swing” morphed into “Machine.” How or why did these songs change?

The more I performed them, the more concise these songs became and the more nailed down, maybe, a bit more like technically, to add a bit more technical ease to them as you're playing them. It was about the feeling that someone would get, seeing me play these songs live in a room is what I wanted for Rockwell, which really wasn't the case for either Afton or Scandia. The way I'll play my viola will bring about certain adjectives… the more I started playing “Arctic Swing,” the more the viola started sounding more like a machine.

Tell me about working with Steve Albini…

It was very satisfying, because, like I said, it was what I really wanted was to capture the live element of the songs. It had been quite difficult for engineers in the past; the signal of my viola and my voice are so close together that you can't really control them. So everybody was trying to separate it and the songs just completely lost their va-va-voom, ya know what I mean? [Albini] made it possible to control the song live.

How does one even approach that -- I was talking to a Detroit solo-artist and he had been trying to nail down… how to capture the energy, the fun, the thrill of his live shows onto tape. How does one put the human element into the recording?

For me, it was like I was throwing myself into it early on with experimenting with recording, and after doing it I became much more attuned to the shape that I wanted to hear on the record. I wanted to streamline everything and make it stripped down. But now I've been demoing for my next record and it's like this balancing between Rockwell and Afton – that's where I'm at now. I don't want it to be a constant wall-of-sound or a constant-sparseness; I don't want there to be any unused space in the recording.

What are you looking forward to or working on next?

I am finishing up this next record, which has been really exciting. I have this whole batch of songs that have been bubbling for the last couple of years. And, yeah, just experimenting and lots of touring. [After Noah And The Whale,] I have a tour coming up with Camera Obscura in June.

Glorious.

Yeah.

[Photo: Rollin Hunt]

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