Django Haskins, the creative force behind The Old Ceremony, takes a few minutes to IM with Anna Bullard about her debut record Split Heart.
Django: Let’s talk about your album! First of all, congrats on putting it together — it sounds great.
Anna: Thank you! I’m so excited! It’s finally come together.
Django: I didn’t get track names from the CD. What’s the third track called?
Anna: “The Problem.”
Django: To me, that’s the centerpiece. Halfway through, when that rich, thumping orchestral sound comes in, it changes the whole game.
Anna: That is actually the last song written for the album.
Django: Huh. Did you have that arrangement in mind when you started recording that song, or did it build on its own?
Anna: I just knew that I wanted to experiment with textures. That song, like the entire album, is really a collaboration between Zeno, Nathan and myself.
Django: Did you record it at Zeno’s studio in Durham?
Anna: Yes. I started recording there in 2007 with “I’m Sorry” for the Pox Compulation Volume III. Then Zeno invited me back to record for an album.
Django: Got it. It’s a beautiful old house. Doing it there rather than in an airless studio allows some ghosts to creep in.
Anna: Definitely. The space is very comfortable and inspiring with all the old cameras, trinkets and records everywhere. It was a long drive, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do it anywhere else.
Django: There are a lot of really nice textures in the record, but your voice comes through as the guiding force. Have you always sung? It seems like it.
Anna: I wrote my first songs at about 15. Then I started writing a lot of songs about ten years ago when I was 20. I never really considered myself a “singer” or “musician.” It was just a hobby — something I did when I had to get something off my chest. But I guess I have been singing for the last ten years pretty regularly, to answer your question. Unwittingly.
Django: Was there a turning point where you started realizing, “Hey, I can do this professionally!” or has it been more of an easing-in?
Anna: It was definitely a wake-up call when Tripp Cox told me Zeno was going to ask me to participate in the Compulation. Past Compulations had been full of my favorite bands from NC, and I was so honored. I guess it was then I realized that some people actually enjoyed my songs and might want to hear them.
Django: Well, you’re a wonderful addition to the NC music world. The track “Bear’s Eyes” kept reminding me of a Russian folk tale. Where did that one come from?
Anna: Well, that song came in the morning as an exclamation of freedom from a situation I had felt chained to for some months. Writing it on the keyboard was one way to express that freedom as I wasn’t held back with my limited guitar knowledge. When I brought it to the studio, I can’t remember if it was Zeno or Nathan who had the idea to call Scott Phillips with his accordion, but it gave it that Eastern European folky vibe that I love. It became its own animal.
Django: A bear.
Anna: For sure. But that song is the perfect example of why I enjoyed working with Zeno and Nathan. They just had the vision from the beginning. They are not afraid to step out and do exactly the thing you’re not supposed to do while at the same time showing incredible restraint.
Django: That’s a great asset. You also create visual art, right? Your photography is striking as well. In fact, The Old Ceremony is using your photos for our new album art, and I didn’t even know it was yours until later. Do you think visually when writing or arranging?
Anna: I do. It makes me so happy that someone else is getting some use out of those photos. I have taken thousands of photos with that film camera and have yet to print a single one. (Just process straight to disc.) The ones you’re using are some of my favorites. Um, yea, I think visually when writing — like, depicting a picture in my head or a feeling in my heart. Although, many times I urgently jump right into the song without thinking ahead one note, but things tend to balance out in end.
Django: Speaking of jumping directly into a song, a lot of the songs seem to be very direct, emotional stories directed at specific people. I’ve had songs where I’ve written them about/to particular people where it just felt like I was calling them by name, so they stayed in the vault. But others I’ve sung for years and hardly think about the person who inspired/required it. Lyrics like yours obviously come from pretty personal experiences. What’s your feeling about writing about your friends/family/exes? Are you able to separate yourself from the initial inspiration, or do you still feel the association when you sing them later? I’m thinking specifically about “You Were a Good Friend” here….
Anna: Excellent question. Well, I do write songs about specific people and events; I have a hard time hiding my feelings, anyway. Honesty is the most important element in my music and art. These songs — they come when I have no other way of expressing myself — the emotions and feelings — to the person. Writing a song becomes my relief. Sweet release. Then I’m able to move on. I feel so lucky to have this outlet!
Django: That makes sense. It’s just that sometimes you have to see these people regularly. It’s like my friend’s TV show pilot, “Craptown,” which was about a writer whose first novel talked about everyone in his old hometown Craptown and then he had to move back there and face them.
Anna: That would be tough. Hopefully he was honest with everyone before he went off writing his book.
Django: Okay, last question — this is something we always agonize over — how did you choose the closing track? Were you thinking about how it would leave the listener, or is that whole album idea antiquated in the age of iPod Shuffles? If the former, what is the last thought, image, feeling, color, animal, flavor that you’d like your album closer to evoke?
Anna: Nathan Oliver came up with an idea for how to sequence the songs early on, and I thought it was right on. We all agreed that “Seasons” was the perfect way to close. I think Nathan said it best: “I’m moving on, seasons pass, time is moving (knowing that I’m growing.)” It’s all about going through the ringer and coming out the other side stronger.
Django: Perfect. Great idea. It’s been fun talking with you, and I’m looking forward to seeing you play sometime soon.
Anna: Thanks, Django. See you soon!