“Hop to it, get in / you were born to win,” vocalist and songwriter Anna Mērnieks-Duffield sings at the top of the track, her voice hushed and on edge. Later, she sings directly to the patch of willow trees that inspired the song: “Oh, a wall of willows, wispy green / how I wish I could stop and explore you / but always saying yes / means you’re always on the go.”
“I was riding in the middle seat of the van, passenger side, staring out the window when I saw these willows,” Mērnieks-Duffield tells American Songwriter over email. “They seemed to call to me, as if I’d been moving too fast for too long and they wanted me to explore them, but I couldn’t. This is the beginning, the simmering feeling that something is off. Our sound had to change a bit to capture that tension.”
For “Born to Win”—and much of Ego Death—Mērnieks-Duffield decided to ditch her banjo roots, opting instead for reverb-drenched electric guitar. “When I play my guitar loud, with fuzz, I feel a rush of energy, fresh and raw,” she says. “It tingles, I feel expansive and lifted. I feel the core of my being. [Vocalist] Heather [Mazhar] loves it too.” The band is rounded out by backing vocalist Keith Hamilton on vibraphone, Martin Crawford on electric guitar, Craig Moffatt on bass, and Mērnieks-Duffield’s partner Mike Mērnieks-Duffield on drums.
“Born to Win” is the first official single off Ego Death, but another track—“Sweat Tea”—was released in 2019. “This song is the first song in a narrative cycle about my healing journey,” says Mērnieks-Duffield of “Born to Win.” “I began trapped and panicking. In order to begin to feel open and safe, I had to address the truth of how blindly, fearfully I’d been living—fearful and unaware of my past, of failure, of loss, of disappointment. The darkness had to be seen—I was finally done running from it, and that’s where I had to begin. So that’s where this album begins.”
You can hear that fear in “Born to Win,” but you can also hear that courage and determination. There’s something literally life-affirming—and self-compassionate—in Mērnieks-Duffield’s repeated insistence, in the song’s bridge, that “I was born.” It’s one of those reckonings that begets further reckonings.
“When you’re a kid,” Mērnieks-Duffield continues, “if you’re lucky, you’re likely to get the message that you can be anything you want, but as you grow older it’s easy to become part of a machine—patterns are ingrained, certain behaviors are reinforced, and if it works and keeps on working, there comes a time when it becomes hard to remember if it was actually your choice, or if it is just the result of going with the flow. It’s a rude awakening to realize that you’ve become part of a machine, when something calls out to you in passing, and you don’t remember how to stop. For me, that was a wall of willows on the side of the highway. When I was a kid, we could have stopped to check them out. We would travel with no destination. I’ve forgotten how to do that. I’m afraid to try, to ask for that.”
“Born to Win” is a response to that paralysis, that tendency to hold back.
“What do you want most deeply that you dare not ask for?” says Mērnieks-Duffield. “For me, it showed up as not being able to ask to stop and look at the willows, but it also rides along with me every day, with every decision—every time I decide not to listen to myself. Every time I decide my expression is inconvenient.”
The accompanying video—directed by Jess Price—plays like a road trip tour video minus the actual tour dates. Instead, we see Mērnieks-Duffield’s passenger-seat perspective of #vanlife as she traverses the United States.
“My mom moved back down to Oklahoma, where she was raised, after twelve years of separation from my dad, waiting to be welcomed home, which sadly couldn’t happen,” the Toronto-based musician shares. “Once you’ve built walls between yourself and someone else, it’s very hard to bring them down. I’ve always held her homeland in half of my heart if not more, and more so now that she’s down there, along with my sister and her family. So being able to work with Jess on this video, who’s also from Oklahoma, was a gift—almost a relief. She shares my love for the sky, the expanse, the pensive beauty, the tension of open space. The way it can subdue one into receptivity. It’s in ‘Sweet Tea’ and it runs through almost everything I write.”
“This video is a Covid project,” Mērnieks-Duffield adds. “It’s a visual road poem to accompany the pace of the song. I sent [Jess] some footage of myself and she incorporated it… The band couldn’t be together, or else we would have dreamt up a video with all of us in it, but you can pretend they’re in the van.”
Check out “Born to Win” below.