Interview: Anomie Belle
Seattle-based musician Anomie Belle is an educated, world-traveling, multi-instrumentalist who has opened for Tricky and collaborated with Mr. Lif, among others. Currently she’s working on new material and has been playing shows with Yppah, who she has previously collaborated with on several songs. I first discovered Belle’s music when she opened for Carina Round, and upon further research her music filled a void in my collection that’s been empty since Bjork‘s Homogenic.
We chatted for an hour just prior to her performance at Decibel Festival. Covering a wide range of topics, we discussed her early start in music, her anti-consumerism views, her time living outside the US, and more.
[Hits record] I fucking love digital recorders.
When they came out I was so excited. You can just drag the mp3s off of it.
Yeah, yeah. I use one all of the time. When I was a little kid my parents — my parents are both nurses- – they had one of those mini-tape recorder dictation things [that doctors use], you know what I’m talking about?
I had one of those from when I was a really young kid that had my last name on it. You know that plastic tape that you could, like, punch numbers and letters in and they would be white — from the ’80s? [The tape recorder] had my last name punched out of one of those things on its back. I used it to take audio notes for like 15 years.
You began composing music as a young child, correct?
Yeah…(laughter) With my hand held tape recorder from my parents’ office.
How old were you when you first got into the studio?
Well, I think I was 11, 12 maybe?
Wow, that’s young.
My dad has been in the same barbershop quartet for [many] years, it’s really cute. I grew around that kind of environment — lots of singing and harmonizing and stuff. One of the guys in his barbershop quartet had a home studio. I had been doing these multi-track recordings with a karaoke machine my parents had given my sister and me when we were younger. It had two tapes; one you were supposed to put in the backing track, and then you would sing the song and it would record the two together [on the other tape].
I’d been doing that, and I’d been layering piano — we had a piano — and my dad had tried to learn a classical guitar. We [also] had some random percussive instruments lying around, and I’d been taking violin. So, I had these different instruments [that] I’d been stacking up on these little tape recordings. The guy from my dad’s quartet heard some and was like, “Oh, do you want to come and make a real record? I’ll record you and engineer it.” And I was like, “Oh yeah!”
I was young. My best friend and I went in — he was a really, really kind generous person. I remember at the end of [the first day] he sat us down he was like, “Okay, so that was fun…in the future it’d be really good if you had the songs written before you come to record.” (laughter)
That is so cute.
It was really sweet. Both me and her were like, “Oh yeah…right. Maybe we just wasted your time by just, like, dorking out and being kids and making stuff up and not being prepared.” Anyway, those were not the most epic recordings I ever created.
That’s a pretty epic beginning though, I would say. You don’t hear many people saying they began composing and recording when they were that young.
Oh, I don’t know, I just thought that pre-made entertainment for kids was boring.
I was big into imagination and stuff like that — just doing my own thing.
Yes, it’s fun. I remember having some friends who just wanted to play in dollhouses and play video games and watch television, and I just couldn’t do it.
Right. Or worse, friends that just liked to go shopping.
Like, “Hanging out at the mall” culture?
Yeah, yeah. I totally tried to fit in with that crowd, but I always felt dead inside. (laughter)
Yeah, totally, exactly! (laughter) Now we’re getting at the heart of Anomie Belle!
You said it!
Yup, pretty much! You can tell why I’m attracted to your music. So, I have to say, I’m jealous because you’ve traveled to so many places. Why did you travel abroad, and how long did you stay in all those places?
When I was a student, I had this kind of random opportunity to become fluent in Spanish in high school. I went to a high school that had a lot of immigrant students who were Spanish-speaking. For a couple of years they did a pilot program where they did a bilingual curriculum — we did everything in English and Spanish. History and literature and stuff.
When I was in college I decided to move to Spain for a year and just enroll in university there. So that was the first period of time I was [abroad]. I didn’t do a ton of music — I mean, I joined an orchestra in this small town, and then I moved to Madrid and I interned with a record label.
And then I finished college. I got this ridiculous fellowship — that is crazy to me that it even exists — called the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Basically, the Spanish professor at Whitman [College] was like, “You should apply for this thing. You just have to stay outside of the US for a year and do something that you’re passionate about. You can’t be enrolled in school or anything like that.”
That’s, like, a dream.
It was unreal, right? They would like just hand you a $22,000 check at the beginning of the year and you didn’t have to save receipts (laughter). It was crazy. There were 50 of us that went that year and did different stuff in different places. We had a weekend in Colorado at the end where everybody met each other and shared about what they’d done. There were people who, like, studied noodle-making in different continents, and people who went and hunted. There was a girl who went and hunted in parts of Africa and parts of north Canada and with native people in different countries — and she took video. It was crazy.
Wow, that’s amazing.
So I got that, and that’s how I ended up in Argentina. I just had to make up what I was going to be doing, so I was like, “Well, I’m going to live in different musical communities and, you know, learn about different aspects of making music and the music industry.”
I lived with a family that ran a recording studio in this small town in Argentina. I recorded an EP of my own stuff at night, and I helped with engineering during the day at the studio. (chuckles) I engineered a local kids’ production of Footloose, which was interesting, especially since they didn’t speak English super well. It was cute how they sang it.
Aww, that’s adorable.
Anyway, I’m telling a very long story, I’m sorry.
Well, you did ask…
It would have been more fun if we’d, like, met up for a beer because then it wouldn’t feel so awkward.
I’m drinking a beer, so…
Oh good, okay, we’re halfway there. Anyways, so that’s how I ended up in Argentina. I was supposed to go to Ireland. I hooked up this thing with this record company. I got there and the dude who ran it was just kind of sketchy. So, I ended up just bumming around Dublin, and I recorded an album with some [Irish] musician who needed a violin player — I saw a post up somewhere. He had booked this studio like for two solid days, so I did that.
I went and checked out Glasgow because I figured, “Well, if I’m not going to hang out [in Dublin] I should find somewhere else.” I really liked Glasgow. So, what I ended up doing was moving to Amsterdam [before Glasgow], and living there for the better part of a year, because that had been part of the plan. I worked for an electronic record label, and then I played in a string quartet with some 65-year-old Dutch ladies in the center of town. (laughter)
Yeah. (laughter) And I busked with these Uruguayan guys! I did this trade with this Dutch girl — who I’m still really good friends with — where I had her teach me Dutch and I taught her Spanish, because she had started dating this Uruguayan guy. It turns out he was a musician; he was busking with a couple friends and I would busk with them.
Then I was glad to go to Glasgow after that — which was at this point post-fellowship, but I kind of just made it work. I got some studio work as a musician, and my boyfriend at the time was living there, so I just stayed with him and I joined a band there. So that was kind of a cool experience. And then I came back to the US.
Right on. What drew you back to Seattle, specifically? I mean, you could live anywhere, but you chose Seattle.
You know, I moved here initially to go to grad school because I had spent a while trying to figure out where I thought the right program would be for me — and it was UW. I moved here for that, and then I got into my Ph.D program and was hanging out with a friend of mine who ended up becoming my manager.
I think at that point, getting that far down the road of trying to have another career, I got cold feet. I was like — you know, there’s this other thing that I’ve always loved that I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m kind of chickening out. I’m not even trying it because I feel like I have to have a responsible “career.”
What was the day job going to be? Ph.D. — that makes me think you were on track to be faculty at a college, or something like that.
I guess so. I guess that’s what I would have had to have done with it. You know, I didn’t really think it through well. In the end, I don’t know how much I love teaching, and I’m not super into doing research. (laughter)
I think I was just really interested in critically thinking about power and society. The only places I had really found that I could interact with people around those ideas were [sociology classes in college]. That was really cool because I got to study the sociology of the music industry. I was asking questions like, “What is it about independent record companies that is actually better than major record companies, and why do they seem ‘cool’ to college students?” I just thought I should go to school, I should study those things.
I feel the exact same way. I could probably go to school forever. I love writing classes; I can’t find writing groups that really touch me as much as what happens in class and I see people who don’t normally write find their voice. It’s just so inspiring.
Yeah, it is. And you meet really interesting people. When I lived in Portland before I moved to Seattle I was working a part-time job at a university. Part of the perk was that I could take classes — graduate classes — for next to nothing. I took a class every quarter because I could. There was one that I took that was about globalization and civil society. The professor [Barbara Dudley] was this lawyer who used to be the President of Greenpeace USA and the National Lawyers Guild. She was just a firecracker: super bright, super empowered — like, mega-empowered — woman. She was funny, and she was just rad. A bunch of us ended up making this book group out of the class because we had such a great time, and I and my parents ended up becoming friends with the professor.
You’ve self-released stuff. Are you interested in signing with a label, or would you rather just go it alone, because it’s totally possible for people to go it alone and be successful these days?
I feel like it just has to be the right fit. I feel like I keep learning the same lesson, but it’s an important one — and that is, if you go through life and you respond in ways that are genuine and authentic to the people that turn up… You have to follow that [instinct] in the relationships that you try to make professionally. Obviously, you don’t always have a choice, but I just try to work with people where I feel like there’s an alignment of values.
Especially for me, making music and saying the things I say, you know?
Yeah, there’s no mention of you without discussion of the commentary on social injustice and consumerism in your lyrics. I think that’s really commendable; I think that’s really brave of you, as an artist.
Well thanks, I don’t know…
I think that a lot of people could be doing that but they just don’t; they have those thoughts, but they don’t put them in their music.
Yeah. I mean, it’s not an act of philanthropy — it’s something that just really occupies my attention, you know?
You seem really honest in the way you interact with people. You’re very active online in a rather genuine way, you know, friend requesting fans and sharing art and music you love. Do you do it because you enjoy building a community and interacting with like-minded people, or because you wish to promote yourself as an artist? Your motivations seem different than others who have a Facebook page. There’s no artist in my feed who acts like you do.
Well, I still don’t know if that’s a good thing or not; maybe I’m ill-informed in my business abilities. In the very beginning my manager was like, “Okay, you need a Twitter account and you need to have a Facebook page.” I was like, “Really?” That wouldn’t be my inclination naturally.
At first it just felt awkward, and it wasn’t until I started to correspond with some fans in a way that was actually kind of meaningful [that I started to enjoy it]. In different cities I met people — fans that I’ve talked with on Facebook — and they’re intelligent, cool, interesting people doing interesting things. Once I realized that this can be an awesome way to connect to interesting people, then it [became] fun.
So, speaking of connecting with people, I have a really personal question for you. As a queer woman I believe that deviating from society’s expectations regarding sexual orientation and gender identity freed me creatively.
It was like a weight came off my shoulders when I came out, you know what I mean? I was able to really, truly express myself finally.
I don’t see a lot of people who identify just as queer, like you and I do — I see more people who are like, “I am a lesbian” or “I am blazingly straight.” I was just wondering if you had a similar, liberating coming-out experience.
Gosh, what interesting question. It’s a weird thing, but I don’t feel like I really ever came out as being queer — which is a strange thing to say. I grew up in a family where that stuff was completely, totally cool. I think deciding to be public about it as an artist was more of a conscious decision…I haven’t gotten super into the “identity around sexuality” thing.
I don’t know, I could be biased, but I think most people are queer. (laughter) If those of us who are queer but not necessarily gay are out about it, then it will be increasingly obvious how normal and common [it is] that most of us are probably somewhere on some spectrum of sexuality. I think we’re just, you know, a little repressed as a culture.
You know, I didn’t really answer your question, which was about creativity…
I think sexuality and creativity are definitely linked. It is hard to put a finger on the parts of ourselves that aren’t confined to reason alone — our sense of intuition, sexuality, imagination, and sense of spirituality… I have found that an attitude of openness in all of these things allows for more possibility across the board.
I think when you discard normative expectations of your sexuality, you must then figure out your own way — and this can leave you to respond to what shows up in life with a sense of intuition, openness, creativity, and authenticity.
I saw a quote in which you said, “When we become too focused on material gain and promotion of self identity — especially through consumerism — we can get sucked into a pretty empty, hollow world.” You were talking in reference to your and Mr. Lif’s collaboration. I was wondering if you feel your life is full of positivity as a result of your humility and your choice to reject consumerism.
I speak about these things in my art and my music, and I have feelings about them, but I don’t get to avoid being a part of the system and being socialized by cultural forces that are at work, right?
While I don’t consider myself to be a particularly materialistic person — perhaps by comparison to a lot of the people in the US — it’s not like I avoid that or don’t participate in it. I think to tout myself as someone who’s somehow able to achieve some moral superiority to other people because I have this message in my music would be false. I want to say these things because they’re honest.
I think often if you’re really being honest then you don’t get to come away clean. It’s not black and white. Things are complex, things are unresolved, and things are uncomfortable. We’re at a place and a point in time in the world where I think that kind of honesty is going to be required of us if we’re going to not completely fuck everything up.
I totally agree — when you’re really honest it is grey. It’s very difficult to be honest and black and white at the same time, you know?
Right. Well, and I think it’s hard because we live in a time of marketing.
This is a slight diversion, but I think it illustrates a point: when I first moved [to Seattle] and I started graduate school, my first assignment was to teach a third-year political science class about fair trade and consumer activism. I was paired to teach it with another graduate student who I became good friends with. She was hardcore vegan and, you know, only bought ethically-traded consumer goods, and drove a hybrid car — all that kind of stuff. I was not as strict in the kind of choices that I made.
So, we kind of had this back-and-forth interesting debate throughout the class because we’re reading all of these articles about the efficacy of fair trade and consumer activism in terms of, “We need to have ethics in the marketplace that unmediated capitalism doesn’t address. Can consumers influence this through their consumer behavior?”
She was always like, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” You know? And I was like, yeah, but if you step back, the fact that these choices are available is the product of a system that is based on a certain kind of thinking about the economy. [It’s] about growth, and about corporations making money. The people who’re having critical thoughts and questioning the ethics of what’s going on are being redirected into other forms of consumption rather than, I don’t know, coming together in some kind of social movement, or something that would end up resulting in some structural change…
I think that you have to be really careful about hyper-personalized choices around ethics because they become commodified consumer choices. Real dialogue and real honesty and putting bullshit aside means putting some of that aside. [Putting aside] the way that we are, culturally, and how we become socialized to be — if that makes any sense.
Yeah. Perhaps you are going to the store and buying bargain-basement priced toilet paper so you can use that extra money to place it in a busker’s case, you know what I’m saying?
Sure, sure. Totally. And at the end of the day, I don’t have answers. (laughter) Shit’s fucked up.
It is, it really is. So, by the way, how did you end up collaborating with Mr. Lif? I love his stuff. I’ve put “Home of the Brave” on countless mix-tapes — it’s one of my all-time favorite songs.
Yeah, he’s awesome.
How did you get to know him?
A mutual friend introduced us, visual artist in town. She thought that we really would like each other. She was like, “Oh, you guys have to meet!” I think it’s because we both have this, like, strong presence of ethics and values in our work as artists. She also knew us both personally and thought we would be friends, and she was right. We met and we really liked each other.
He moved out here for a while to do some collaborating. We spent a lot of time hanging out during that time. While in the end I just released the one track on that last record, he ended up becoming a really good friend of mine. He’s a great guy, I really respect the work he’s doing and he’s a really good performer. Have you seen him perform?
No, I’ve never seen him live.
These days he’s touring with Thievery Corporation…I saw him perform with them when they came through town. He kind of blew everybody else out of the water. On stage he just killed it…it was so awesome. He’s got a great stage presence — kind of different from your typical MC.
Speaking of stage presence, I read a really old interview where you were describing how you’re observing artists on tour, seeing how they adapt to the situation and their stage setup. When I watched you onstage it seemed like you were really comfortable, and really good at looping sounds and switching up instruments. At this point, you’ve done a shit ton of performing, both with yourself and even recently with Yppah, and I’m wondering if you feel you’ve improved.
Yes, thank god. (laughter) Some things, if you do them for a while, then they become easier — which is a nice thing in life. I think getting to play a lot of shows and getting to tour with different artists and learn from them…I’ve definitely figured out a lot. I’ve just kind of figured out what works for me, and the looping stuff actually it makes it more fun for me.
Do you identify as an electronic musician? lf someone asks do you say, “I make electronic music”?
Yeah, increasingly. I’ve got most of the next album sketched out, and I would definitely say that. However, at the same time I’ll have more live drums on the next album than I’ve ever had on an album, so I think the thing that I’m doing is more a hybrid of the two.
Yeah! Exactly, I would say your music is an electronic analog hybrid.
Yeah…as a kid I was doing that karaoke machine stuff, and at the same time I was writing classical violin duets. I put a tape out when I was a teenager that had both on it, which was kind of disjointed looking back. It even felt disjointed even at the time, but I was like, “Well I like doing this, and doing that, and they’re both music.” I think figuring out how to make it all work together is good.
Do you have a name for the upcoming album?
No, I don’t. I basically sketch out the songs completely before I record them. I write my drummer’s parts on cheesy sounding midi drums. That helps me hold his place and helps me write his part — then I do everything else and make sure it all works.
I went into the studio a couple weeks ago with my drummer, Shaun, and recorded all the drums for the record. So now I’m building up from there; I’m tracking everything.
When do you expect that you’ll release it?
I don’t know. I hate to say because I’m not sure. I have my own internal goals about when I’d like to have things done, but also I’m always hesitant because I want the music to be really good.
You’re done when you’re done.
Yeah. It’ll be done when it’s done.