Stepping away from the distractions of genres, Felony Flats is one of the most exciting releases of 2012 and the beguiling Anya Marina continues to establish herself as one of the decade’s most interesting musicians. Her latest batch of sonic narcotics bring together a number of styles, anchored by her sultry whispers, serrated wit and impossibly addictive melodies.
Marina’s savvy pop has decorated the scenes of numerous films and television shows, with her biggest placement on the New Moon soundtrack, catapulting her into the heart of the Twilight franchise maelstrom. Although that album boasted the likes of Thom Yorke, Bon Iver and Deathcab for Cutie, it was Marina’s sparse, haunting “Satellite Heart” that hijacked the attention of the film’s obsessive fan base.
With Felony Flats, Marina takes more than a few risks, a secret ingredients in creative longevity. A group of breezy, acoustic-oriented pop songs would have scored a direct hit with the tweens, but instead she opted for mixing elements of rock and electronica into her signature sound of pop hooks, breathy vocals and deceptively dark lyrics. The result is a heavier, more mature collection of smart, ultra-sexy rock and roll. Although she samples various styles, the album’s ethereal hooks lend a coherence across the tracks that creates an end-t0-end listening experience rather than a pair of singles surrounded by filler.
The first single “Notice Me,” rolls on top of a punchy rhythm with an impossibly infectious chorus, while the eerie “Believe Me I Believe” would be unnerving if it weren’t so compelling. Marina flexes her rock and roll muscles in “Flinty,”with its descending pre-chorus and an explosive bridge that will tear the roof off during her live show.
We caught up with Marina a few weeks ago, as she was preparing to head out on tour in support of Felony Flats. Within the first ten minutes, the conversation emerged as one of the most freewheeling and head-shakingly funny interviews TNB Music has ever conducted. After introductions, we discussed The Nervous Breakdown, the types of pieces published here and the wide range of musical opinions that find their way onto the site. Somewhere during that preliminary discussion, we began the interview.
TNB Music Editor
So are you ready to go into interview mode?
I thought we already were in interview mode.
No, that was all off the record.
Oh, OK. I’ll start being really boring now.
Let’s talk about the album. Overall the sound is much heavier than your previous stuff. Was this a conscious choice or a more organic result of the themes that you’re mining?
You’re saying it’s heavier?
Oh, thank you. I have no idea. I cannot be objective about this puppy. But it’s good to hear that you thought it was heavier.
Because I equate heavy with good. (laughs). Do you mean heavy sonically, or heavy thematically?
Both, but sonically was the first impression. Before I started connecting to the lyrics, I noticed that the sound textures were heavy.
That makes me happy. OK, back to your question where you ask if it’s a conscious decision. No, totally not. I mean, I guess I must have been going through some heavy stuff over the last two years and it just came out in the music. I dreamt up a couple of those riffs, like the thing in “Heart Stops” (hums the chugging guitar riff) I kept having these dreams of a massive string section doing these kind of ornate, I don’t know it it’s hair metal, but it kept going in that direction. I kept saying to (guitarist) Cody Votolato, “Think Mars Volta! Think Mars Volta!”
That’s just what happens to me when I write in D minor. I don’t know why it ended up being heavy but I’m glad that it did.
But why are you happy that it’s heavy? Is that what you prefer? What’s the upside to the heaviness?
When I’m singing these songs I don’t feel like a warm and fuzzy folk singer, or whatever people associate with women playing music, which is sad that they get sort of tossed into that barrel. But I like that it’s not folkie or singer-songwritery or any of those adjectives because to me, it’s rock and roll, and rock and roll is tough, and rock and roll can be heavy. It can also be light and sweet too, and have moments like that. There are lots of sweet spots on the record, too. “Hot Button” is a straightforward, sweet-sounding song, but it has that cool guitar solo that I think undercuts that. So I tried to have both of those elements, light and dark, hopeful and intense, on each song, and I hope that came through.
How was the songwriting process for Felony Flats different than in your other albums?
I think it went a little faster, for one. I was involved with Bob Schneider‘s songwriting group during the making of this one, which I sort of dabbled with on the last record. So we were writing a song a week or a song every two weeks. I wouldn’t participate on every assignment, but for the most part I was pretty active in the group, so I wrote like thirty-five songs in several months, and all of the songs on the record came from songs that I wrote during that period of the songwriting group.
On the last record I was working with producers and on this one I produced it myself. So I don’t know, I think that I just had to find out for myself as a producer and in doing that, I got incredibly scared and then incredibly empowered and finally I was like, “Well fuck it, this is what I want it to sound like, so let’s try these things.” I’m so shocked that it came out sounding so great and that it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. Thank God I had Greg Williams, though. Greg was the engineer and he was so instrumental in coming up with ideas and bringing in outside people like Eric from Blitzen Trapper–he did a bunch of cool stuff. Do you like Blitzen Trapper at all?
I do. Yeah, I do. I mean, I’m not going to go jogging to them…
I didn’t anticipate that you’d be such a challenging interview. I don’t know if people tell you this, but you’ve brought up a lot of meaty tangents in your answers, and it’s tough. I guess I just want you to know that. This is tough.
Yeah, you should know that you’re a workout for the interviewer.
I wanna tweet that right now…
To do these songs, I’m guessing that you had to do some rudimentary production. Did that help or inspire you to produce your own record?
Sorry, I was just about to Tweet…
Wait…(laughing) I’m laughing because I’m tweeting about you. Lemme tweet this bullshit and then I will answer your question. “Joe Daly is telling me that I’m an incredibly difficult interview…”
Am I going to start getting hate mail from your Twitter followers now?
Yeah… OK… Tweeting it… OK, ask the question again. Sorry.
Um… OK, having to do your demos for the songwriting group–did that help or inspire you to produce your own record?
Totally. It gave me the tools to produce my own stuff on this very lo-fi level and in doing that, you really do get a sense of how fast you want a song, where you want it to go, the movements you want it to have, if any, and you sort of eliminate fear during the process. It’s like any art, I think, in that the more you do it the less intimidating it becomes. But I still get intimidated by it. I still find lots of other things to do instead of work. Like laundry and dishes are all of a sudden very important for me to do when I have a songwriting deadline. So I find all sorts of ways to distract myself, but in being a part of the songwriting group, you’re committing to turn something in every week, otherwise the group will know that you failed. If you don’t turn something in, you’ll have the group’s collective disappointment weighing on you, however imperceptible it is. Because nobody will ever say, “Oh, you didn’t turn anything in,” but there’s an expectation to meet the deadline.
When “Satellite Heart” came out on the New Moon soundtrack, you acquired a new legion of some very devoted fans. What was it like to become part of that culture that began outside of music?
It was really powerful. I had not touched anything even resembling that level of access or visibility before, and going on the New Moon tour with some of the actors from the film, and being a musical part of the appearance in malls across the country–it was like a five-day tour–was so mind-blowing and surreal. I cannot imagine what superstars must feel like. I just can’t, because the screams were deafening. People didn’t even know my name but they were tearing at my clothes and wanting my autograph and just screaming. (laughs). Just to be associated with that franchise was really powerful. So overnight, people knew my name. Not everybody, but people who were die hard fans knew my name. They had to because they’re so invested in that story and that whole franchise, and it was really cool to be a part of that. It was really neat.
And I was proud of the company I was in. It was a great soundtrack. Lykki Li, Thom Yorke, St. Vincent, Bon Iver… it was a really great soundtrack.
L.A. is one of the capitals of the music industry. Do you find that being physically removed from the labels and the offices and the scene of L.A. affected the way you looked at your career?
I don’t think that my surroundings affected my songwriting before, in the sense of listening to what other people–my peers–were doing, if that’s what you mean. Maybe it did affect me, though. I’ve never thought about that. I was going to say that not living in Los Angeles has definitely had its effect on my life. Like, for instance, there’s less of a collective sense of ambition to become a successful musician here in Portland, although you find that in L.A., so that can be contagious in a bad way. It can be detrimental for someone like me, who needs to be stimulated by other ambitious people. I can drift into complacency pretty easily, so I need to travel a lot, which I do, or go to L.A. or New York or out of the country, just to be inspired and see things and be around my peers.
But not living in L.A. has also allowed me to create more because I have more solitude here, I have more peace and quiet and I have more of a life that I’ve created, and that informs my art. That sounds so pompous, but it’s true.
No, it’s an interesting contradiction because when you talked about the songwriting group, I heard you say that the accountability of that dynamic forces you to create something that might be good, and that people might recognize. You’re also saying that being around people in L.A., people who are creating music, sort of kicks you in the butt to do the same. But you go back to Portland and you create. It’s almost like, in Portland you can kind of do your thing, but you need the inspiration outside of Portland to focus.
Yeah, that’s true. It’s like every time I travel outside of Portland it shakes things up and stokes the fire a little bit. For instance I was just in L.A. for three or four days and I went to go see a friend at Upright Citizens Brigade, and then I went to see people at my label and then I was going to go see my friend Britt from Spoon, and then I was going to see my goddaughter. It just felt like a whole bunch of concentrated fun stuff that I used to do in L.A. but I would stretch it over weeks. But when I go back and hang out with, as I call them, my fast-talking friends…Because they really do! People in L.A. TALK A LOT LOUDER THAN EVERYBODY ELSE, and they’re like, “Yeah, I’ve got a meeting for this and I need to talk to Joe about that, and we’re gonna go to this show and that meeting and that concert…”
People are either doing a lot of things or making it sound like they’re doing a lot of things and that can be really contagious in a good way, and really infectious. So I need to be around that, and then I can come home to Portland and I don’t have those conversations here in Portland, and that’s nice. That’s not a part of my daily life. Here I can talk to my neighbor about the proper way to harvest my kale and compost and whether I should pull out my tomato plants or not. I’m not gonna talk to her about social networking and what the most effective way of editing a particular sound file is, or whether or not I’m going to South by Southwest this year, so that’s kind of cool.
Touring is hard stuff. Most people have no idea how stressful it can be, and you tour fairly regularly. How do you maintain physical and emotional health on the road?
That’s very nice to hear. My manager and I had a discussion about that the other day, and I think he still doesn’t understand why I, as he calls it, “freak out,” before every tour. For him it’s like, “What’s so stressful? You get in a car and you go play shows.” So it’s nice to hear somebody else acknowledge that. I don’t think there’s enough understanding or respect for people that do it. Yeah, if you’re young and just starting out and you’re nineteen or twenty years old, it’s really fun, but you burn out pretty quickly.
So the way that I stay healthy is by doing a lot of planning before tours. I like to know where I’m going, it makes me feel at ease. And I try and keep a good routine. I learned a lot of really helpful tips from Jason Mraz, for how to maintain a long career. Part of that is taking care of yourself and being happy. I think that Jason was in his pajamas and ready for bed, like thirty-five minutes after waving goodbye to the nine thousand person crowd, or whatever it was. Like, he was in the bus, in his jam jams, with a bowl of cereal, and I just thought it was bizarre. But night after night after night of doing that, that’s how he’s able to go and sing his guts out, because your whole day is about that performance and being the best you can. So I try to get enough sleep and eat three square meals and stay hydrated. Simple things. A little yoga and lately I’ve been doing a guided meditation that my mom sent me and that’s been really helpful.
One final question before the hallowed Either/Or segment…
Oh shit. I gotta prepare for that.
Yeah, you’ll have one question to prepare for it. Here it is: do you get to catch The Bachelor from the road and if so, do you prefer Brad or Ben F. as a contestant?
Which one was Brad? That cowboy-looking guy from Texas?
He was a commitment-phobe. I love Ben. I think Ben is a really great, sensitive guy who has a lot of access to his emotions.
Do you have an early frontrunner from the first two weeks?
I just caught up last night. You know who I think he’s too mesmerized by and who he’s gonna get bitten in the ass by is the model.
Yeah, he’s got kaleidoscope eyes for Courtney and he’s got another thing coming if he thinks she’s gonna be his wife. I have a bad feeling about her. I think she doesn’t know what she wants. I think she wants to be famous, I don’t think she wants to be a wife in Sonoma. I think she wants to be a successful model and actress and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think beauty can be incredibly beguiling. And the fact that we’ve all had that thing where we fall for someone really beautiful and they don’t even have to say a lot or do a lot, and every interaction feels like, “This is it! This is the person! Oh my God, we’re clicking so much!” He has real, palpable chemistry with one of the other brunettes…Kacie. They had a great date and then at the end the showed the outtake of the police cars and the ambulance going by…
I’m going to need to figure out a way to deal with people mocking me after reading this part of the interview.
I love that you’re into it!
OK, so we end our interviews with an Either/Or segment. Five choices, pick one and if you want to explain why, do tell.
Acoustic or electric?
Vampires or zombies?
Twitter or Facebook?
Oh my God, Twitter all the way. Facebook is ridiculous. I don’t care what anybody is doing with their day. At least with Twitter it seems like people are trying harder. Check yourselves, people. This is not an Ani DiFranco contest where you see how many things you can release. You’re not Ani or Ryan Adams, so edit, edit, edit!
Joni Mitchell or Patti Smith?
Hmmm…That’s hard. I’ll say Patti Smith because I love Just Kids.
Finally, the Kardashians or the Hiltons?
Kardash, all the way. I love that those two sisters love each other. My sister hates me for saying this, but I find them fascinating and I just love their laconic delivery. No matter how exciting or terrifying or petrifying or dramatic anything is, they always sound exactly the same. Everything is (speaking in monotone) the same monotone…”Mom, you are such a bitch…” And I love how Khloe has this bizarre relationship with Kourtney, like they’re a little bit too close. What was up with Khloe waxing Kourtney’s bikini line? But then it’s cute because they’ll get in a fight and then Khloe…I don’t remember their names, will pick up Kourtney and put her over her shoulder and drag her across the floor, and that’s always like the pinnacle of the episode.
Thanks a million for speaking with us.