by Whit Hill
Never one to go with the first metaphor that comes my way, I was dismayed, as I heard Anna Ash sing at a party on New Year's Eve, to find myself thinking, "Damn, this girl sings like a bird!"
But she really does.
The snows had not yet begun to fall that night when Anna Ash, as wispy and delicate as her name implies, took off her shoes in the living room of a sleek modernist house on the west side of town, tuned up her banjo, nodded to a young man with an upright bass, and began to trill. From my vantage point at the food table, I could see the room grow still and focused (no one was drunk yet) as Ash's strange and wonderful voice rang out across the Norwegian wood.
Perhaps it was the "salon" feel of the evening, but I kept imagining Ash 150 years ago, as after-dinner company would have urged her to favor them with a song. With a gray-silk-clad matron at the piano, she would have modestly delivered a popular song of the day: "A Shy Young Maid" or "Along These Poplar Lanes" or "Ever Do I Cleave to Thee" okay, I'm totally making these up, but you know what I mean: songs that require a delicate, innocent soprano. I imagined her around 1920 in Hollywood, auditioning for a vaudeville show, singing reeeeeallly high, impressing some fat producer in suspenders, and getting the part. She's totally there in the 1940s too, in a black-and-white film, wearing a silky white gown at a smoky dinner club. . . .
'Round about 1950, the imagining got harder; this isn't rock 'n' roll. And even though her music is closer to folk than anything else, I wonder if Ash's understated, sometimes saucy femininity would have been drowned out by the protest songs of the 1960s.
But Ash, just twenty and from Elk Rapids, is here now. And we get to
watch and listen as she makes these first forays into performing, sometimes with an able band of cohorts. She's no amateur and seems quite confident in this cool, avian niche of hers. She sang and sang that night two good sets of interesting material, a mix of standards and her own interesting, clever songs. Everyone laughed when she broke into a "mouth trumpet" solo.
I bought two copies of her homespun four-song demo CD. The packaging is just brown paper sewed with green thread and adorned with a picture of cranes sunning themselves on a dock. It was recorded in a house on Catherine Street last May, and you can hear the creaking of the floors and the roomness of the room. I like it a lot and wish it were longer.
And Anna Ash, says the tiny slip of paper that serves as the liner notes, is responsible for the "banjo, vocals, mouth trumpet, and bird thoughts."
Anna Ash is at the Crazy Wisdom Tea Room on Saturday, February 2.
[Review published February 2008]