by Sage Shemroske
Image by Autumn Spadaro
Thanking Failure: A Deep Dive Into Anika Pyle’s Wild River
‘It’s a very graceful thing to sit down with something that you’re very scared of and choose… courage over comfort… I think you have to invite your fears in and invite your loneliness in because avoidance does nothing for the human psyche.’
I email Anika Pyle – front person of Chumped, and katie ellen – who is now debuting a solo record under her own name, a pantoum. A pantoum is a poem where the words in certain lines of the stanza repeat in the next stanza. Previously, Pyle had told me ‘sometimes there’s creativity in constraint’ and we had agreed to send each other each a poem. This is my introduction into her world. Her world of being a double Virgo, Gemini rising (‘I feel like I am constantly at odds with myself!’), of losing her father, of being the kind of person who ‘likes to clean the kitchen at parties.’ We talk briefly about climate change as she tells me about growing up in the plains of Colorado and fishing for rainbow trout, and her dreams about butterflies (which all manifest thematically on Wild River). She even teases a music video about climate change as I tell her about the fight against Line 3 happening in Minneapolis, where I am currently on my couch talking to her from.
Pyle and I are present. Our conversation is almost cathartic as we talk about moving through the world with anxious minds – trying to cope with the fact that we can’t change the past and we can’t anticipate the future. ‘If you’re a ruminator, you’re in the past, like me. Sometimes you’re a daydreamer and you’re in the future, but you’re worried about what’s happening in the future.’ In the last year and a half, she’s lost her father and both her mother and grandmother have gotten sick with COVID. And, often, those of us who have felt and held grief heavy in their hands have reached a sort of reconciliation with nature the rest of us haven’t. This radiates off of Pyle.
Wild River is honest: a raw reflection of what death looks like after the person is gone, but also what life looks like in those last little moments before we even know they’re the last. ‘I think a reckoning with the past is something I wear pretty loudly on my sleeve,’ she says of grappling with hindsight, ‘that’s the toughest part about things you feel guilty about, or ashamed of, or things that you look at as mistakes.’ In grieving, everything can feel significant. The heightened sensitivity and physiological response changes you, ‘on the flip side you’re searching for signs everywhere. We’re a species of meaning so we’re constantly trying to decipher, ‘’what does this mean?’’ When we lose people we want to experience them.’ This is perhaps most apparent on The Mexican Restaurant Where I Last Saw My Father – a crackled audio poem layered with white noise where she notes hating key lime pie (her father’s favorite flavour) until after he died, and being grateful for poor wait service. Pyle communicates well with the dead, understanding that it’s only so healthy to communicate in the first place, ‘we feel the need to suss out the significance of our experience or else everything is meaningless. Which is, in my opinion, no way to live.’
It’s impossible to discuss the album sonically without stressing the poetry of it. Lines like ‘I have an arranged marriage with the meticulous routine’ and ‘the voodoo of scheduling’ seem to personify the album. Throughout Wild River, Pyle writes fear and loneliness and failure as near sentient – ‘repurposing’ her fears and ‘giving thanks’ to her failures like they’re characters in her grieving process. She even talks to the Earth on Emerald City, asking it ‘why can’t I have the things that I’m after?’ to which it responds ‘look up, you dummy’. Pyle’s good humor peaking through. When asked about it she says. ‘I do feel like, especially failure, is such a theme on the record because it’s something my dad and I kind of worked through. So I think, in almost personifying such a big feeling, in some ways extricating from yourself and looking at it with a wise mind, helps to see failure or loneliness, or fear, they’re the most human.’ Failure is looped three times through the record, the first track on the album being Failure I, an unblinking spoken word piece backed by an undulating guitar. Pyle doesn’t necessarily think back on the large moments we tend to flag as major failures, but in the mundane ways in which we as people fuck up. ‘We’re all fuck ups just trying to pretend that we’re not. And I think you can look at those things and be like ‘’hello, Mr. Fuck Up, nice to meet you! We’re good friends, me and you.’’’
Her poetry is read over crackled ambients and sits more with synth than her guitar. But then there are tracks like Prayer For Lonely People, which tumble out, glinting with keys as Pyle ‘hopes you feel loved.’ It underlines her capacity for grace and the sort of immediate empathy of her writing. There is a playful drifting nature to the lighter, poppier side of Wild River. Her musical range is wide: Failure II sounds stark lyrically and production wise, as if it was an audio note on her phone. Wild River is not filled with grand musical gestures, but rather careful intentions. She tells me that on Blame ‘we didn’t know what to do so I put on a little kids glove and instead of strumming the guitar I just hit it back and forth with my hand with the glove on. And it’s not like Lenny Kravitz or whatever, but there’s something to it that’s unique sounding.’
Pyle doesn’t have to be the loudest or the flashiest in the studio because she knows exactly how to make the most of what she is. ‘I think that’s part of the reckoning. The rain could come and the country creek could become a wild river, but it’s the part of me that is also ok about being realistic about where I’m at and being authentic to myself. And it’s ok to be a little more of a country creek than a wild river.’
Wild River is both decidedly unpolished and cleaner than her work in Chumped and katie ellen. She uses the phrase ‘happy accidents’. The combination of short spoken word and song makes it all feel hand stitched together over time. Both Failure I and Windy City are patched with recordings of advice Pyle’s grandmother gave her while on her deathbed. ‘It was right before she passed away, and my aunt sat down with my grandmother and made a bunch of recordings of her speaking to each of her grandchildren and imparting some life lessons to us.’ The details of Wild River are painful and raw, and what holds each ephemeral moment of the album together. The beauty of the record is in the specifics. But the details can be overwhelming. Pyle balances this weight with her returns to nature. Monarch Butterflies is acoustic and warm – wishing to be nowhere else but right here with you. It touches on the small gestures that occasionally are enough to make life glimmer. When I ask her about growing up and what it’s like to look at a discography that spans back into her twenties, she’s kind to her past self and attune, ‘despite the crushing heaviness of the reality of adulthood, you can still connect to things like the butterfly, and the smile, and the coffee cup, and the pie!’
I sit with Wild River projecting my own kind of grief. Because listening to music is never an objective experience. Talking with Pyle comes days after a PTSD diagnosis on my end. So, in Wild River, I have my own understanding of the busy brain that needs to hyperfixate on the loss and the need to find meaning. It makes Wild River all that more precious of an album: always fragile in its understanding of the little moments, but thick skinned in its tidals of reckoning. The pantoum I wrote for Pyle is called Pantoum For The Present, which opens with something she told me during the interview (referring to a moldy apple she once found in her bag as a metaphor for confronting the feelings we fear most). Pyle knows that not confronting your guilt and your shame will only hold you back, and there’s no need to let hindsight hurt – ‘it helps to see your failures as human instead of inherently inescapable.’ Wild River leaves us with a lot to consider. It’s only authentic to view ourselves as failures, as people who have made mistakes and will make mistakes again because we’re human after all.
Wild River teaches us that life (and grief) are malleable; it is not just what has already happened to us, but a present to be shaped – ‘all we have is now.’
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