This February, indie folk artist Anna Vogelzang will release her latest album, Canary In A Coal Mine. But you don’t have to wait until then — we’ve got a sneak preview for you; the album track “Die Trying,” which she says was partly inspired by a line from singer-songwriter AA Bondy. We quizzed Vogelzang about the songs origins, and what it means to be an artist.
“As soon as I realized that I wanted it to be a lyrical back-and-forth about how frustrated I’d been feeling on the road, the song finished itself,” says the Madison, Wisconsin-based artist. “I think the whole thing took about 20 minutes.”
What’s going on in the song lyrically?
“Die Trying” is a song about being hopeful when you feel disheartened. It uses the logistical frustrations of tour that a musician encounters as a starting point – all of the little things one needs to do in order to do “your best” on the road (show up on time, seem like you’re happy, etc). Within the lyrics there is a conversation taking place between the singer and her loved one back home, the singer voicing frustrations about wanting to be there because things on the road don’t feel fulfilling, and the partner responding that if the singer keeps doing what she’s doing, at least she’s giving it her best shot.
I wonder constantly if my best is enough, if I’m really trying as “hard as I can”. There’s a lot of internal pressure that musicians (and really all people, creative or otherwise) put on themselves to give it their best, to go big or go home. The song came at a point in time when I’d gotten home from some frustrating shows on the road and I felt like giving in. The thought of giving in is always just a fantasy – I doubt I’ll ever actually stop. But there’s something romantic about the notion of throwing it all in and starting over with a clean slate, especially when little aggravations culminate. But as I said, that’s not ever my realistic goal. Life would be a lot less fun if I wasn’t giving everything I had to this project, and though I often enjoy the luxurious quitting-and-becoming-an-apiarist-fantasy as much as the next guy, I’d rather give this songwriting thing all that I can give it, and say I died trying.
How did you go about writing it?
I had been listening to AA Bondy’s “Black Rain, Black Rain”, the first line of which sings, “Black rain, black rain / don’t fall on me / can’t you see I’m doing my best?” and suddenly I heard the “but what if this is not my best?” response in my head, with the melody and harmonies there to boot. When snippets like that come into my head I try to get to an instrument as quickly as I can – in this case, I drove home, singing it over and over so as not to lose the melody, and as soon as I sat down with the banjo the song fell into place. I had a totally different song that I’d been working on for the few days before, and it harmonically fit right in with the refrain, in the end becoming the chord progression/picking pattern to the verses. As soon as I realized that I wanted it to be a lyrical back-and-forth about how frustrated I’d been feeling on the road, the song finished itself. I think the whole thing took about 20 minutes.
What was the recording like?
This was the most challenging song on the album to record, actually, and the one I’m probably the most proud of. We knew we wanted to utilize the full band but didn’t want the song to become rock-heavy if we went in one direction, or too country if we went in the other. We wanted to stay true to the acoustic beginnings of the song — the most common arrangement at the time was upright bass, fiddle, and banjo — but also wanted something that really moved, and musically portrayed what the song is about – an unstoppable hope and ferocious drive.
That said, it wasn’t just as easy as four-to-the-floor. We worked on a bunch of different drum parts, none of which felt like they belonged to the song, but as soon as Brian Viglione came up with the shuffle that didn’t cross over into bluegrass, we knew we had found our feel. Todd Sickafoose really helped flesh it out on the upright bass by structuring the framework that he and Brian built so well together – his quarter note descent coming out of the bridge into the last verse is one of my favorite parts of the whole arrangement; it feels like we’re musically coming home, if “home” is actually a steadily moving train. With each verse we’d add a little more, and we were hoping that when the listener reached the bridge, they would have a “how did I get here?” moment; we wanted the build to creep in verse by verse, so that suddenly, though they might not be sure of how or when it got so big, they would feel like all the different textures culminated in a swell at the bridge.
Joe Arnold’s fiddle melody is one of the layers giving that moment the urgency it needed, I think. We had Emily Hope Price double that melody on cello to further exaggerate it, and towards the end of the recording process Anthony da Costa came in and added guitars. I was wary of adding an electric to the song since I wasn’t sure if we needed it, but it definitely gives the tune some teeth that it was lacking. Da Costa’s fingerpicking work on the acoustic really fleshed out things that the banjo couldn’t do alone, especially on the verses, and suddenly we had what my producer James Frazee called “a symphony in a tiny little box”. One might not even realize how much is going on, but by the end of the day we’d found a rich, full sound that we were really stoked about — one that we specifically tried to craft without letting the song get overrun or busy. I’m still so happy with it — I think we really found that balance we wanted.