Saturday, March 12, 2011

Celebrity Saturday: Meet Anna Johnson

She's a Wisconsin girl who's broken from the beaten path to pursue her dreams.  Anna Johnson is the talented, beautiful musician behind "Ready to Go" and "Roller Coaster Love".  Emulating Alison Krauss and Norah Jones, with the smile and appeal of Sara Bareilles, she embodies ambition, humility, and the love of family (she plays with her sister, Julia).  Everyone, meet Anna!

Cayla: Welcome Anna!  Tell us a little about your debut CD, Ready to Go.

Anna: I don't know where to begin! I moved to TN in September 2009 with only one plan: record an album. When I got here I didn't know a single person but Billy Smiley (producer), who actually doesn't live in TN, but comes to town when he has work. Between October '09 and April '10 I spent weeks here and there recording songs and preparing for the release. The album itself is a compilation of songs about life and love - as usual. I write from my heart, and every song on the record is a part of me in some way or another; "Damaged and Bruised" came straight out of a long and difficult heartbreak, and "M.U.S.I.C." is a song I wrote about Julia and me when I was here in TN without her. I'm so proud of the album because it turned out exactly as I'd hoped - if not better! I was involved every step of the way and learned more than I could have imagined. It's a part of me, really, and I can't wait for it to really break out and be heard!

Cayla: Has music always been an important part of your life?

Anna: Music has always been important to me even though it wasn't until college that I really decided to pursue it as a career. When I was a little girl I thought my daddy was famous. He and his uncle and brother write and sing together in a group called The Blessings Gospel Trio. They perform at churches and events all over the Midwest, and I used to sing along, help sell CDs and even get on stage every once in awhile. I was surrounded by music and it helped shape and form me into the musician I am now. I took piano lessons for several years, grew up listening to Julia's classical violin training, heard daddy strum away at the guitar and mama play beautiful songs on the upright piano in our living room. I danced around while Grandma played kids' songs and hymns on her piano or on Grandpa's old record player, and I remember noodling around with various instruments whenever I could. I have so many beautiful memories revolving around music, so I'll say it again: music has always been important to me.

Cayla: When did you start playing, and when did covers turn into your own original music?

Anna: Funny you should phrase the question that way :). After learning 4 chords when I was 16, I wrote my very first song, "Forever and Always". It was only after that that I began playing others!

Cayla: You're a fantastic guitar player - did you teach yourself to play?

Anna: You are very kind. I did teach myself to play, but with the help of various friends along the way. I learn best by watching others and jamming with them, so I owe a lot of ideas and creative sparks to people gracious enough to spend time playing with me! My father taught me a great deal, as well. I actually learned to play on his old guitar and he encouraged me along the way. He'd come home and show me tricks and chords, progressions and finger-picking patterns. He actually taught me the chord progression for "Sweet Whispers" - a song from "Roller Coaster Love". He deserves the most recognition for my playing . . .

Julia and Anna Johnson

Cayla: What part of being a musician do you enjoy more - the solitude of working on your music or being on stage?

Anna: Being on stage is nothing but joy! All my worries disappear when I'm speaking with an audience and sharing my songs with them. The writing, rehearsing, preparing and pouring myself out is part of the process, but when my hard work is shared and enjoyed I remember why I love doing what I do.

It's about the people and the way they take and react to the music I'm giving. What a reward it is to know I'm doing something that touches others . . .

Cayla: What is the weirdest experience you've had as a result of pursuing your music?

Anna: Oh my goodness. Could it be the time my guitar case flew out of the back of a friend's station wagon? Or the time I lost my voice on the way to a show because I was singing too loudly with the windows down? Perhaps it was when I showed up at the wrong venue entirely or all the times I dropped my guitar pick in the middle of a song? Maybe the weirdest experience of all was writing the verses to "Falling" during my 30-minute break at Starbucks or playing phone tag with Amy Grant for a few weeks. It could have been when I came home to WI and people I'd never met before recognized me. Or maybe when I had my first request for a signed photograph. You know . . . I've had a lot of very strange experiences, and there's no way to deem one of them "weirdest". Seems like every day is an adventure and every week turns into a tornado of mishaps and successes. My life. Is nuts.

Cayla: I understand you at one time won a prestigious scholarship based on your song, "Flowers on Monday". You ultimately decided to travel and play for audiences instead - was that a difficult decision for you to make or did you know what road you needed to take?

Anna: Big question :).

After two years studying art at two different colleges and being completely displaced and distracted, it was time I made the decision to stick with something. Though I was hesitant, music became that magical something and it changed my life. Since I live in Nashville now, this part of the story is ironic. Ready? See, my parents encouraged me to go to school for music, and I was given two main options: McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, MN or Belmont University in Nashville, TN. I remember shutting down Belmont in a split second because, "There's no way I'm moving that far away! Nashville? Yeah right! I'm not good enough, first of all, and second, it's just too far away! Are you CRAZY?"

My reaction was something like that . . .
And it's pretty funny now.

Anyway, McNally was my safety-net-choice, but it turned out to be the perfect bridge between where I was then and where I am today. I applied for the school, was accepted, and was encouraged by one of the admissions reps to apply for scholarships as well. Since a Bachelor's in Music in Songwriting and Composition (so official, right?) was my major of choice, the songwriting scholarship was my best option. I had no expectations, and in fact didn't really believe it was worth the time and energy to fill out the application, but I did it anyway. What could I lose? I sent a burned copy of the then recently-recorded version of "Flowers On Monday" and a lyric sheet and I checked it off my list. A few weeks later I received notice that I was one of TWO finalists for the scholarship. Whoa. Seriously? I was shocked! I told a few people who told people who told more people and ultimately everyone seemed to know about it. No pressure, right? HA! I spent the summer of 2008 waiting to hear the results of the scholarship as the school had passed the two of us on to the rock band Queen, who had the ultimate say. They were, after all, the ones paying for the selected student to attend school for the next four years.

Ultimately, in June of 2008 I found out I won the scholarship and it was the validation I needed. I finally believed music wasn't just a hobby; it was my calling. It IS my calling.

Now to the second part of your question . . .

I'm wordy. Sorry.


After studying at McNally Smith from 2008-2009, a producer from Nashville contacted me to say he saw potential in my singing and songwriting abilities. Now, I was content where I was and was NOT about to leave. I thought the guy was creepy and though I was flattered, I wasn't entertaining the thought of Nashville. Again, I was hesitant.

(Do I need a shotgun blast in my ear to get me to believe music is it? Good grief, Anna.)

I ignored the producer for quite some time, but my parents had their "parent-ly" feelings again and encouraged me to see what he had in mind. When the school year was through and I was home for the summer, I (rolled my eyes and) called him to find out he was going to be in Nashville the following week for some work. Turns out my family was about to go on a vacation out west, so we re-routed and met with him in toasty hot Tennessee. Nerrrrrr-vous. Indeed. Yep.

We met Billy Smiley one afternoon in July at his little cottage studio on Franklin Road in Franklin, TN, just south of Nashville. He was whacky and fun and the studio was nothing like I'd expected. It was creaky and small and the kitchen was stocked with sweets and junk foods. There were coffee mugs all over the place and the laundry machines were stacked beside the fridge. The bathroom floor seemed slanty and what looked like carpeted mattresses were standing up along the walls to block the road noise. I was intrigued.

My family spent the day with him and I went back the next day to chat one-on-one and get a feel for him. Being the nut I am, I ended up pouring my heart out, sharing songs, crying a little bit, asking questions, and realizing I was supposed to be in Nashville after all.

During that trip I made up my mind and changed it. Made it again. Changed it again. I cried every night as I looked up potential housing arrangements and studied the town. My family went home and it was time to come to a conclusion.

I chose Tennessee.

Now, the scholarship was HUGE. Okay. HUGE. I had this gut-wrenching feeling I was meant to be in TN, so I decided to go, but I held on to the scholarship and the school by switching things around and being a distant-ed kid. The school helped me make a schedule that would fit my new lifestyle, which included a made-up internship at Billy's studio. I kept track of all my sessions and meetings, outings, tours, writers' round and live music experiences. I blogged about it and did what I could to learn and grow via immersion into the industry itself. It was fabulous.

Christmas came around, however, and the courses I would need to finish my B.M. couldn't be done online. It was stay in TN and lose the scholarship OR move back to MN for the next couple of years. Oh boy.

Here's how I saw it in the end (though it was a difficult decision to make):

I get Kohls coupons in the mail. Sometimes they're as much as 30% off! I get really excited and go to Kohls to use that fabulous coupon however I can. Oh man, do I use it. Ohhhh. Man.

But wait.

Did I need anything from Kohls?

Did I really HAVE to use that coupon?


The scholarship was wonderful. Life-changing. Validating. Reassuring. Encouraging. A blessing beyond belief.

But I didn't need it to do what I was called to do.

Living and learning in Nashville, and using my abilities hands-on, was exactly what I needed to do.

It's what I'm still doing.

It's what I'll keep doing.

I may not be in Nashville much longer, but I might be here for 10 years.

Seems any plans I've made on my own in the past few years have been completely blown out of the water by those said "shotgun blasts in my ear".

I'm ready for anything and I'm not going to be so dense.

Good grief, me.

Music is what I'm made for and though I don't know in what ways, to what capacity, or even where, I'm sure music is it.

Music. Is. It.

Life is full of difficult choices, but for now I'm confident I am where I'm supposed to be.

Cayla: Which of your songs is your favorite and why?

Anna: Oh my! What a question! "Always" is my all-time favorite song to sing live because it's passionate; "Someday" is fun to listen to because I recall the summer months and exciting days in the studio, and I always favor my most recent song while it's fresh.

Right now, like RIGHT NOW, my favorite song is "Getting Over You".

It's on the upcoming EP/album. Haven't decided which it's going to be. 7 songs or more? We will see, my friends. We. Will. See.

Cayla: Because there are a lot of readers who visit my blog, I'm going to veer off topic a bit and ask, what kinds of books do you enjoy?

Anna: I really enjoy biographies and autobiographies. History stories. War novels. Old-fashioned, tender-hearted love stories. Books that pull on my heart. "Anne of Green Gables" is my all-time favorite movie, and anything remotely in that realm is faaaaabulous.

Attend Anna's EP Release concert on April 30th; details below!

Cayla: Just for fun... what is the strangest compliment you've ever received?

Anna: Music-related or non? Hmmm.

A man once told me I look like a young female version of Val Kilmer. He said I could be his cousin. His much younger cousin, mind you. I think he was trying to compliment me . . .

I wasn't pleased.

I'm often told I look Russian, too, but can't pinpoint what that means.

Cayla: Is there anything else you'd like to add as we wrap things up?

Anna: I want to invite all of you to Chippewa Falls Senior High School (735 Terrill Street in Chippewa Falls, WI) on Saturday, April 30th for a really exciting show at 7:00 PM. Tickets are $10 and I will be announcing all of the show details online in just a few days.

My Nashville band is coming and it includes my sister on vocals and violin, Travis on the mandolin and a second fiddle, Jason on the bass guitar, Chris on drums and percussion, David on the nylon string guitar, and me on vocals and guitar.

There MIGHT be special guests and there will MOST DEFINITELY be new songs and stories.

If you were a part of last year's CD release concert, expect a MUCH better show this time.

Longer set (2 hours with a short break), more chatting, an EP release and a limited number of FREE copies, a cool vibe, great stage lighting, and more.
Please come be a part of it! It's going to be HUGE.

To find out more about Anna and check out her music, visit her on the following sites:

Anna Johnson Music

Anna's sister Julia, who is an integral part of "Anna Johnson Music" can be found here:

Julia Johnson Music

Of Julia, Anna would like to add:

"I'll reference her most of the time since she lives here in TN with me. You know, I didn't say much about her, but there are STORIES upon STORIES about the two of us. We'll save that for a second interview ;)."

Thank you so much to Anna for visiting Offkey!  I would just like to say that I personally am a humongous fan of Anna's music, and I think you all will love it too.  Keep in mind her big show coming up on April 30th!  Comment away....

<3 Cayla

1 comment:

RJ said...

Wonderful interview. Thank you!!