Our correspondent caught up with the Detroit singer-songwriter during SXSW to talk about her city, her stint in grad school, becoming a bandleader, and of course her new album. Burch will be playing selected dates through early may—check her itinerary here.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
With a sly, confident smile, Anna Burch took the stage at Valhalla on the first night of this year’s SXSW. Quit the Curse (Polyvinyl) is the solo debut for the Detroit singer-songwriter. But as she explains, it’s the latest in a winding music journey that includes a stint in bands like Frontier Ruckus, another SXSW stint ten years ago, and a detour in grad school at the University of Chicago (where she earned an M.A.). Returning to music, Burch created the breezy, sweetly melodic pop-rock that would become Quit the Curse. The year 2018 finds her blossoming in the role of songwriter and frontwoman.
You were in bands for several years. Were you always writing songs during that time?
Actually, I didn’t really write my first song until I was probably 24, and I didn’t really write again until maybe 27. And that’s when I started really writing for the record.
Can you give me an overview of your musical history?
I joined Frontier Ruckus when I was 18 in college, and I played in that band for several years, and we started touring a lot, and then I left the band for a while, for a few years. And yeah, wasn’t doing much with music, went to grad school. And then I kind of came back around to music, and rejoined that band, and then around that time I started writing my own stuff.
You mentioned onstage that you were at SXSW a decade ago. Could you tell me a little bit about that experience?
I went with Frontier Ruckus in 2008. I mean, I don’t remember it a whole lot, honestly. We were so young. I don’t think I was 21 yet. I wasn’t 21 yet. We were just kind of running around. And I don’t remember how many showcases we played, but we went to the Lou Reed tribute show and snuck back into the VIP tent and got kicked out promptly. (laughs) But yeah, it was fun!
What does it feel like to be back at SXSW as a solo act?
It’s very different. It feels way more scheduled and business-oriented, I suppose, but yeah, it’s fun! It’s good fun. About 10 years ago, it’s kind of hard to, like, really place where my head was at back then, but yeah, a lot’s changed since then for me too.
As a bandleader and a frontwoman, do you feel there’s sort of a learning curve after being in a band? You’re now center stage.
Being a leader is something that I maybe took for granted. I don’t think I really thought about that. There’s a lot, like, managing people and expectations and needs and wants, trying to keep everything moving. I don’t have a tour manager or anything like that, so I’m the point person for almost everything. So it can be a lot. But it’s also really rewarding. I feel more engaged than I did in previous tours with other bands where I could kind of like just check out. It was nice to have that break. But at the same time I would feel kind of like aimless a little bit. Sort of like, “What am I doing? What’s the point?” Now I feel like I have a very clear sort of trajectory.
You were in graduate school for a few years. Tell me about that. What drew you back to making music?
I guess the grad school thing had a lot to do with quitting the band and trying to figure out what I was good at outside of music. And I knew that I was a pretty good student and undergrad and I enjoyed my studies. I was looking for a niche, I guess. Something I could feel accomplished in. So I went to grad school at University of Chicago. And then I kind of realized, I don’t know, it’s just as competitive and just as unclear.
What did you study?
I was in the humanities. I studied film, English, film studies. But it seemed just as difficult to think about getting a job as a professor after doing a Ph.D. and all that stuff as it would to just do something like music. It was sort of more of an immediate joy.
Once you actually started writing songs, did you find that you had to sort of push yourself to keep on doing it and start performing again?
No, the songs came in a way that it just kind of clicked, I guess. And once I started, I kind of just wanted to keep doing it. I was getting encouragement from friends that I was collaborating with and started recording just, like, demos and it was all very exciting and new. I felt it was just very self-confidence-building. I was getting a lot out of it, so it was easy. Emotionally, I was at a point where it all sort of just channeled. There were just a lot of things that came together and it just kind of happened somehow.
About the music scene in Detroit, what’s it like these days? It seems as though it’s associated with gritty garage rock now, but I’m sure there’s more to the city than that.
Yeah, definitely. There’s the garage rock vibe, the garage rock scene for sure. But there’s a lot of DJs actually, a lot of electronic dance music, a lot of vinyl DJs and dance nights. But yeah, there’s a few solid indie rock bands that I feel like are really perfecting their craft and are getting some good national attention. Bonny Doon is one that’s coming up. Fred Thomas is kind of a fixture in the southeast Michigan scene as well. It’s a small scene, but I think a lot of artists there have figured out a way to focus on it and live relatively cheaply. And there’s a good amount of visibility in Detroit because it’s a small scene but it’s also got a lot of national attention. Obviously, it’s a very historic music scene, so I think people continue to look to Detroit to see what’s going on.
Photo credit: Ebru Yildiz