Interview: Anna McClellan

By Mia Hughes

Finding comfort where she once called home, Anna McClellan discusses the grounding power of community, and how it led to her most vulnerable record yet

‘Art is a lens through which you see the world,’ Anna McClellan says, over the phone from her home in Omaha, Nebraska. ‘It’s not a practice, or something you make. It’s constantly integrating.’

McClellan is getting ready to release her third album, I Saw First Light – a collection of songs that are all at once gorgeous, fun and open. As a songwriter, she’s difficult to compare to any other; it’s as if the ideas that comprise her left-field, bedroom-pop songs grow in her as precious native species, and she presents to us the cuttings. They then grow into living things of their own.

McClellan’s beginnings as a songwriter came during an exchange programme stint in Denmark, in her junior year of high school. She had taken piano lessons since she was a child, and played alto saxophone in the school band. But merely playing others’ compositions failed to reach, as she puts it with a laugh, ‘Whatever that deep, unsatisfiable hole is.’ In Denmark, she needed an outlet. ‘I was in this place and I didn’t feel comfortable anywhere. I would leave Danish classes where I couldn’t even understand them, and go to the music room and just play piano by myself. And I started writing songs there. It was kind of the only thing that I had. It was the first time I had language around how to express myself,’ she continues. ‘That was really radical.’

Upon graduating high school, McClellan began fronting indie rock band, Howard, with which she first made a name in the Omaha scene. After the demise of that band, she released her debut solo album, Fire Flames, in 2015, while garnering some early support from Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis – fellow Omaha natives. She later signed to Father/Daughter Records to release her second record, Yes and No, in 2018.

By the time she began writing I Saw First Light, McClellan had moved away from Omaha – where she had called home all her life – to New York. It was a decision that stemmed from inner turmoil, she explains. ‘It is a pretty common and classic thing of wanting to escape. I didn’t feel good about myself [in Omaha]. And I felt that reflected in everyone that I was around, and had known for so long. It felt like I couldn’t get out of that. I needed an external change to make an internal one.’ She adds, ‘I think that’s [also] why I went to Denmark; that’s always been a pattern of mine -running away.’ Indeed, it’s something she reflects on with the I Saw First Light track Trying Too Hard; she sings, ‘What am I running away from? / Or am I running right to it?’ Of the answer to that question, she says, ‘I’m still not sure. That urge to run – it always feels like running away, but maybe it’s…’ She trails off. ‘There’s a lot of searching, and digging; how I wanna go deeper.’

As it turned out, being in New York didn’t bring her the answers she had wanted – at least not directly. Moving around between Brooklyn and upstate, she felt ‘lost’, she says. ‘I was just kind of floating around, and I was really depressed. Some of the songs came from that time. A lot of what I’ve written in the past has been from a place of stuckness and sadness, and a lot of these songs were born out of that.’ It shows in lyrics like ‘Believed all these years that everything would work out / But at the same time my head is full of doubts’ (from Con S Sewer) and ‘None of this is working / No matter how I try / Piece of me missing / Nowhere left to hide’ (from Gone); that depression – that sense of being lonely and lost.

Midway through writing, she made the decision to move back to Omaha, and wrote the remainder of the record in the house from which she’s speaking now. ‘Being back here, it feels like a different place,’ she said. ‘I’m feeling some kind of groundedness for the first time ever.’ It’s gifted her a new-found confidence, she says, and an ability to shed self-consciousness and speak her mind. That, perhaps, is a testament to how much it can mean to really call somewhere home.

To record I Saw First Light, McClellan gathered four friends and fellow Omaha artists: Ryan McKeever, Sean Pratt, Megan Siebe and Hootie Erickson. The five then crafted the record collaboratively, exchanging ideas and each taking part in production. With little in the way of resources or production experience, experimentation and improvisation became key. ‘The instrumentation and all of the arrangements were created in the space of time and with what we had to work with,’ McClellan says. ‘We had limitations, and we made what we could from them.’ Often, they would work through the night, until dawn, from which the title of the record was born.

Musically, the album often recalls the classic pop of the ‘60s; when I suggest as much to McClellan, she cites George Harrison’s work in agreement. ‘I think there is a feeling around that time of like, magic, or something in the air. And I really like that idea a lot of trying to create circumstances for magic to happen.’  Meanwhile, McClellan’s smart lyricism across the record sees her probe her own doubts and flaws in an honest, plainly-stated way that feels like an everyday stream of consciousness rather than a grand confessional. This lends a particular charm to the songs – a comfort, even – like they’re familiar companions that don’t ask too much of you.

‘I think I wanna be vulnerable,’ McClellan says. ‘And I think that I am. But I think that I can even trick myself, sometimes, into thinking that I’m being vulnerable, but really it’s like a performative thing.’ She continues, ‘I don’t think it’s a matter of being too open or keeping something. It’s more like, what does [the song] want? I wanna be effective.’

The new and improved state of mind that being back in Omaha brought allowed her to shift her focus away from purely internal musings; the idea of connecting with other people and to the world comes up again and again, on songs like Feel You and Pace of the Universe to name a couple, and ultimately became a key theme of I Saw First Light. ‘What I’ve come to understand about the album is it’s more about trying to challenge myself to look at the world, rather than look at myself so much,’ she explains. ‘I feel like this album is a bridge of my trajectory – of shifting my focus to look at the world. And I think part of being grounded makes space to do that work because you are taking care inside; you’re already taking care of that piece.’ She adds, ‘There’s obviously so much destruction and pain going around right now, and further amplifying every day. And that feels very clear and real to me, like, in my body. That’s kind of where I want to come from when I write about it, ‘cause it feels so innate.’

There’s an element of human connection to all of this – to what she does – the mere act of writing and performing these songs. McClellan agrees that it’s what she’s always wanted. ‘It’s so important to me, in every way,’ she says. ‘I longed for it for so long. I feel like I didn’t know what that meant, or felt like, until way into my life.’

Now at home during the pandemic, that connection may feel a little less within reach. Touch and physical closeness, languages that are often referenced on I Saw First Light (‘I wanna feel you / Let our hands touch and fingers intertwine’, from Feel You; Stay another night so I can hold you / Veronica, I need your touch’ from Veronica), are out of bounds; gatherings of people in community, in particular that of a music performance, are of course gone too. And though we’re virtually stuck inside our homes, if calling a place home is more than just residing within four walls – if it’s closeness and community too – then our connections to home are bound to be shaken more than ever.

Particularly for McClellan, shows and the music scene are at the heart of what Omaha means to her. In the absence of that, she tells me, she and two friends have begun meeting once a week, in the hopes of building ‘a more intentional music community’ in the city. ‘We’ve been meeting and discussing what that means for us, and what we would want it to look like,’ McClellan says. ‘That’s a way that I connect with this place.’ It’s a heartening example of how the ideas of home, music and connection are all tied together so intricately; these are the foundations from which I Saw First Light is built, carried into McClellan’s vision for her community. As she said, art is not just something you make. It’s a lens.

More than many other artists, Anna McClellan’s music seems so intrinsically tied to who she is; her experiences as a human being seem so tangible, just from hearing her songs. One can wonder how she will progress from here musically, but the answer, when McClellan explains it, is simple. ‘I’m changing as a person. I’m growing and learning. And that will always be reflected in the songs.’

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