A few years ago, Michaela Anne was at a roadhouse bar outside Joshua Tree, California, where she met a woman named Madeline, who told her she was a stripper. The two got to talking: about their lives, their careers, their mutual love of essential oils. When Anne left the bar later that night, she thought to herself, I’m going to write a song about that girl.
Flash forward to the winter of 2018, when Anne was spending time in the Arizona desert, writing songs for what would become her third solo record. One day, she picked up a copy of the 1994 book Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West. Struck by one of the assertions in the book — that one of the main causes of death and ailments of prostitutes in the old west was loneliness (“I don’t know how they proved this”) — Anne texted a bandmate. “What was the name of the woman I met near Joshua Tree?” she asked him.
“He texted me back and said ‘Madeline,’ and then I opened my mouth and I sang the first line of ‘Desert Dove,’ and then the song just came out,” Anne says of the title track to her new record, out now. The album, released by indie stalwart Yep Roc Records (Nick Lowe, Aoife O’Donovan, the Felice Brothers), is a shimmering sonic statement of purpose that cements the 33-year-old artist as a nuanced songwriter with a penchant for telling difficult stories.
Anne recorded the record in California, which helped summon the album’s Southwest-noir atmosphere, with its sandy pedal steel feels and West Texas telecaster riffs. “The goal,” she says, “was to create a vibe rather than just a collection of songs.” On the album, co-produced by Sam Outlaw and Kelly Winrich, Anne mixed her love for the Nineties country of Patty Loveless and Shania Twain with the moodier aesthetics of indie-leaning groups Tame Impala and the War on Drugs.
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As a writer, Anne drew inspiration, in part, from the sparse, straightforward storytelling in R&B singer SZA’s 2017 album CTRL. “She says stuff that I feel like I could never say,” Anne says. “I tried to push myself to do that more on this record, where there are songs where people close to me might ask me, ‘What’s going on in your life?’ when they hear them.”
Michaela Anne is a pensive artist, the type of conceptual songwriter who says things like, “‘Desert Dove’ is a song that I feel like I could write a book about, just on the themes of gender, femininity, of sexuality, of power, of submission, of desire, and the things we think we want, all the stuff that I’m typically interested in on a daily basis.”
All of those topics find their way into Anne’s latest work. Songs like “By Our Design,” “Somebody New,” and “Two Fools” assume a tangled emotional morality that point fingers in all directions and refuse to draw any easy conclusions. “Nobody’s all good. Nobody’s just the victim,” says Anne. “Sometimes we’re the ones doing the bad stuff, and sometimes we’re the ones getting scorned, all at the same time. I think it’s really hard to portray all of that in a song, but that’s what I’m intrigued by.”
“Will I ever learn to protect my heart?” Anne asks herself on “One Heart,” one of Desert Dove’s several breathless highlights. The song is an exercise in penetrating self-examination, with Anne reflecting on her own tendencies — her lack of personal boundaries, her penchant for latching onto other people instantly — that come from a lifetime of constantly moving from place to place.
“I’ve definitely always been a chameleon in a big way,” she says.
Anne’s chameleonic disposition can be traced to her childhood, growing up as the daughter of a Navy submarine captain. She moved all over the world with her family, from Southern California to Southern Italy, every few years. At 18, Anne landed in New York to study at a jazz conservatory. While still in school, she began working at Nonesuch Records (“I delivered the commencement speech at jazz school and then went to work the same day”), where she learned the daily machinations of the music industry while working on the marketing campaigns of artists like Emmylou Harris and the Punch Brothers.
All the while, Anne began forging her ever-changing musical identity, diving deep into New York’s bluegrass music scene and recording her long-vanished-from-the-internet debut album To Know Where at a studio in Brooklyn after work. It wasn’t until one of the artists on Nonesuch’s roster took off that Anne realized she needed to part ways with her office job. “The Black Keys blew up, and that’s what spurred me to quit,” she says.”I was about to go on tour for the very first time, even though I was out of vacation time, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to still have to be doing Black Keys ticket buys while I’m on tour. This isn’t going to work.’”
After 10 years in New York, Anne moved to Nashville. Not long after, she released her proper debut, Brights Lights and the Fame, an old-school country-leaning record inspired by the types of honky-tonk bar gigs she was playing at the time. Looking back on the record now, Anne sees it as, among other things, the type of album she thought she had to make at the time.
“I was always leaving [as a kid], and now, being a touring musician, I’m still always leaving,” she says. “It’s a confusing life. You try to adapt really fast, so you can get lost in the question of, ‘Is this what I like to do, or is this what people around me like to do?’ I love my record Bright Lights but there’s more of an element of, ‘Maybe this is what I should make.’ I was playing a lot of bar gigs, honky-tonks, a lot of three-hour sets, and just thinking, ‘What can I throw into my bar setlist that’s original?’”
Desert Dove takes its greatest leaps in the types of emotional challenges Anne puts forward on songs like “Somebody New” and “Tattered, Torn and Blue,” songs that showcase messy interpersonal complexities with grace and concision.
“Emotional stuff and connection and relationships and connections to people, that’s the stuff that gets me off,” says the singer-songwriter. “That’s what I’m really drawn to, and that’s what songs are.”
But despite its clear-cut Patty Loveless influences, Anne ultimately sees Desert Dove as an attempt to move away from the straightforward country label. “I have all these other influences that I haven’t let into my musical world,” she says. “How do I incorporate the fact that my favorite thing is going to dance to reggaeton at nightclubs?”