When Anna Lynne and Robert Gomez met by chance during the recording of the recent John Grant record it was the start of a beautiful relationship – in musical terms at least. Escaping to Marfa to write and record the album the pair were initially passing slips of paper with lyrics on to avoid open discussion, but as time went by they began to open up, learn from one another and write some of the finest music of their careers. Machine is a stunningly intimate record that stands as one of the finest debuts of the year; we caught up with Anna-Lynne to get the lowdown on the Ormonde experience.
Bowlegs: Relative strangers head out to Marfa and make a record – how does something like that happen? Tell us more?
Anna-Lynne: Robert and I met in a couple of professional settings first. I had flown out to Denton to sing on John Grant’s album, and one day when John and I were messing around with synths in the Midlake studio, Robert came by to track a guitar solo for the album. I ran into him a few more times during that trip and we exchanged albums. Later I interviewed him for a website I was working for. I spent some time poring over his lyrics for that, and really appreciated this antiquated romantic sensibility that he has. It was a rough winter for both us, creatively and personally, and I got a text from Robert one day that we should make a record and that he had heard magical things about Marfa. When I said yes, I meant it entirely, but didn’t realize he was really serious until he called me and said he’d found an adobe house and we should go ahead and book it for a month. If I’d been in a relationship or if any of my other projects were really busy at that time I might not have been in a place to consider it. But it was just perfect timing. We just got to disappear.
Bowlegs: Writing and arranging songs with Robert was clearly a successful experience. But how do you learn to open up to someone you’ve never worked with before? Was there a moment when it suddenly started to come together, when you could tell each other what was and wasn’t working?
Anna-Lynne: It’s pretty amazing how quickly we figured it out. I’ve worked with other people for years and not gotten to the place Robert and I reached by the time we left Marfa. I think one element is that he and I both write really confessional music, so just by listening to each other’s solo albums we had somehow gotten to know and trust each other. He had given me an early version of Pine Sticks & Phosphorus and I’d sent him China Mountain and those albums were our main communication with each other. Better than a Facebook profile. When we got to Marfa we didn’t decide what our process was going to be, but we quickly figured out our strengths. And we were recording in Logic, which is Robert’s territory and not mine, so he did all of the mixing. I learned the basics so I could just edit my own vocals.
At the beginning we would sit in different rooms more when we were writing. But we quickly got to a point where we could edit each other or write lines together. It’s still exciting for me when I listen to the songs, I remember who wrote each word. In Hold the Water, for instance, Robert wrote “Hold the water, nothing on the floor” and I responded with “Pin the dark against the wall.” And then we both sing the two lines together.
Bowlegs: The music here feels consistently intimate. Are the themes running through the record just as intimate? Are they written from real experiences, from your inner most thoughts? Did Robert ever question you about certain lines?
Anna-Lynne: I think the intensity of both of our lives at that point in time kind of bled into the record. And we were in this little low roofed room with a really sensitive microphone. Kind of trapped with the album, you know? Some of the songs are more personal than others, and other ones were inspired by stories we heard while we were in Marfa from strangers or newspapers. I guess some of the songs Robert wrote all the words for are about what he was going through then, and the same about the songs I wrote. And then the ones we wrote together were more about Marfa and our experiences there. And yes, we did edit each other quite a bit. He changed a lot of the words in Blank Slate that he thought were too feminine. He also vetoed some of my lines if he thought they were too sad. And similarly I vetoed some of his “weird chords” that I thought were hard to write over or distracted from the music.
Bowlegs: Sudden Bright seems to observe our surroundings – the line “We can watch the end of the world from here” certainly feels final. What is this track about?
Anna-Lynne: We read a lot of local newspapers while we were in Marfa, and were stuck by a story about a particular fire that had burned down acres of farmland many years before and left things ravaged. That’s what that song ended up being about. These people are hiding in the cellar watching the fire… Robert wrote that line, “We can watch the end of the world from here.” It’s a good one. I tried to turn it into a love song, too, though. So these people somehow don’t care that the world is burning…
Bowlegs: What with the album out are you hitting the road, how do these songs work live, do you have a full band in tow?
Anna-Lynne: Depending on the city we’re in and which of our friends are around, that will probably change quite a bit. Robert and I were in the Netherlands this spring, just the two of us, so we have a living room friendly version of the whole album that we can play together. But we’ll definitely utilize the help of some drummer friends whenever we can. Jesse Chandler played flute with us at SXSW last year…. whoever good we can get our hands on.
Bowlegs: I must ask about the stunning I’ll Let You Know, it feels like the perfect closer. Did you know that as soon as it was recorded?
Anna-Lynne: Thank you. Yeah I really love it as the closer. That instrumental part at the end that Robert adapted from a vocal part that I had discarded is probably my favorite part of the record. It sounds like Disney, like all the little forest animals are coming out of hiding or something… When we left Marfa I think that song was much earlier on in the album. I’m not good at ordering things so I kind of left that up to Robert. And when we knew we were going to get to release Machine on vinyl that really changed the way we thought of the order. You get to have two first songs and two last songs and that helped us make up our minds.
Bowlegs: Do you and Robert have personal album highlights? Are they different – which is yours?
Anna-Lynne: Sudden Bright might be my personal favorite. It’s the most democratic song on the album too, there’s so much of both of us on it. And it’s the first song that we finished that was entirely born in Marfa. A couple of the others were melodic ideas we’d brought with us and we worked on those first. But Sudden Bright is so very Marfa. I think most of our favorites overlap. I Can’t Imagine and Cherry Blossom as well.
Bowlegs: Surely after this experience you will consider recording a follow-up – has that been discussed? Will you go you both go your separate ways and meet up at some point in the future?
Anna-Lynne: Oh yes, we are thinking of this as a proper band and not just an experiment. At the moment we’re living in different states so we don’t get to have normal rehearsals and writing sessions. But we’ve decided we want to write the next one similarly. Separate ourselves from the world a bit again, give it our full attention.
Bowlegs: Do you think you’ve both learnt new ways of writing and recording after seeing how each other work?
Anna-Lynne: I know I have. Besides literal things, like Robert teaching me a bunch of diminished chords. I think we were polar opposites when we got to Marfa in terms of our approaches. Robert is such a perfectionist and I’m such a first take type of person. When we left Marfa I would’ve been happy with the album just as it was. But Robert went home and redid a lot of his vocals, remixed all of the songs, brought in McKenzie and Jesse to play drums and keys. I left all my Marfa vocals in. Maybe next time I’ll be a little more polished and he’ll be a little less polished… we’ll see.
Bowlegs: Finally – what albums in 2012 have you been listening to over and over? Anything you are particularly looking forward to hearing?
Anna-Lynne: I usually go back in time each year in terms of what I’ve been listening to. Talk Talk and D’Angelo have been getting the most play in my apartment lately. But I do like the new Beach House, it puts me in a good mood.