Something Else! Interview: Singer-songwriter Anna Waronker, formerly of That Dog

Of all people to be saddled with the abused tag “musician’s musician,” it fits Anna Waronker. The charming, challenging and lucid singer/songwriter has literally spent her life around musicians, beginning with her parents. Mom is singer and actress Donna Loren, best known for her roles in ’60s beach party movies like “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “Pajama Party.” Dad, of course, is veteran Warner-Reprise executive Lenny Waronker, who midwifed Southern California’s laid-back Laurel Canyon sound along with the legendary acts he produced: Randy Newman, Arlo Guthrie, Rickie Lee Jones. Then there’s Anna Waronker’s husband Steve McDonald, who fronted punk-pop scuzz-rockers Redd Kross — and her sister-in-law and frequent collaborator, former Go-Go’s guitarist Charlotte Caffey.

Not that Waronker’s own resume isn’t already impressive enough: She had a near-collision with fame in the early- to mid-’90s fronting the predominantly female alt-rock band That Dog, along with two other musician’s children, Petra and Rachel Haden, daughters of jazz bassist and early Ornette Coleman sideman Charlie Haden. That Dog toured with Beck, Weezer and Blur, and released three solid alt-pop albums — the last of which was 1997′s Retreat from the Sun, which was for all intents and purposes an Anna Waronker solo album.

During the ’90s, Waronker saw some of her best friends blow up and become stars and watched others crash and burn, but she abided, growing and maturing as a songwriter, musician and arranger. She released her official solo debut, Anna by Anna, in 2002. She then took nine years to follow it up with California Fade, that rarity in music — a “mature” artistic statement that is not the least bit stodgy. By turns hard rocking and lushly gorgeous, the album dealt with relationships and family with warmth and empathy, leavened with the bitter tang of darkness and doubt.

We caught up with Waronker to discuss California Fade, her alt-pop past — oh, and the rock opera she wrote about porn star Linda Lovelace …

PATRICK MORAN: A lot of the songs on California Fade related family and motherhood. How much of it is autobiographical?
ANNA WARONKER: The whole thing is autobiographical. I began writing purely as a personal outlet, and that is where this record really comes from, though it’s more about people I know vs. my story. For instance, “Cannibals and Quicksand” is about my best girlfriend. Steve (her husband) is like, “Why do you have to write the one nice song about her and not me?” “Spinning Out: A Song for Evelyn” is about my godmother who died several years ago. Evelyn was a magical woman, and her memorial service was an extravagant, amazing event that I helped put together. Afterwards, I felt I needed to put my feelings about her and the service into words.
A lot of the album was written post-getting married and pre-having a baby. It was all kind of a preparation for that: struggling with marriage and struggling with my career (and) how I wanted my career to evolve.

PATRICK MORAN: You began the album with Pat Smear of the Germs, Nirvana and Foo Fighters. How did it evolve?
ANNA WARONKER: Yes, mostly it was Pat in the beginning. I was writing and writing for a couple of years, and originally I was going to do it with Pat. But Pat dropped out and I decided I wanted to switch gears after we had done some recording. I used the recordings but I decided to strip them down. That’s when Josh Klinghoffer (Beck, PJ Harvey, Red Hot Chili Peppers) got involved. He’s an incredible musician with incredible taste. I’ve never done this before in my life but I said to Josh, “Just take it and do what you want with it.” So Josh and Steve started deconstructing the songs, and I loved it. Josh felt the direction Pat and I were going with the songs didn’t capture me (and that) it was more who I had been. The writing I had done for That Dog was really rock because I wanted the band to go in that direction. And the writing that I did after that was still along those lines. Then I decided after a while that I didn’t need to do that anymore. I needed to figure out what’s my voice. When I say the record is stripped down, I mean I took my old distortion world out of my work. “Leaving Home” was initially a total rock song, and when I started changing things up I said, “You know what? No guitars.” So I took the guitars out and arranged strings to do what the guitars had been doing. So it’s different arrangements, different instrumentation.

PATRICK MORAN: Speaking of working with friends and relatives: You grew up in an insanely illustrious and talented family. How has that influenced your work?
ANNA WARONKER: My dad really didn’t bring a lot of his work home with him, at least not the office politics. But he did bring music home, and I listened to the records he was making. I think the music my dad worked on, primarily the Randy Newman stuff, was influential. What I learned from my dad was how to be an artist. He was the best go-to person ever, because he just wants me to do what I love, and he knows that approach can actually work. I had this foundation of believing in doing what you love and the rest will come to you. Now, I haven’t had a lot of commercial success. It’s more like under-the-radar success, which I like, because I don’t want to do just one thing. The reason why California Fade took so long is because I was doing so many other things.

PATRICK MORAN: On the subject of influences, you’ve been compared to Carole King, Aimee Mann and even Lou Reed. What goes through your mind when you hear stuff like that?
ANNA WARONKER: My sister and brother-in-law are managing me, and they would get the reviews before I would and they would just die. They would be like: “Harry Nilsson! Lou Reed! Carole King! Are you kidding me?!” I’ve been influenced by all of them, which is kind of neat. Harry Nilsson is a huge influence as well as Randy Newman’s writing. Aimee Mann is such a strong writer. She tells it like it is, and I do, too. I loved Kim Deal a lot, particularly when I was younger. I thought she was a great, interesting writer. And oddly enough, Pavement. I really respond to them. It’s like they’re really talking to you, letting you in.

PATRICK MORAN: Let’s touch on some of the things you’ve been doing since you released Anna by Anna in 2002. For one thing, you started a label, Five Foot Two, with Charlotte Caffey. What made you want to do that?
ANNA WARONKER: I was making Anna by Anna and I felt that if I was not going to get the support I would get from a major label, then why don’t I do it myself? I talked to Charlotte and she wanted to start a publishing company. I said, “Why don’t we start a record company?” So we did, and we found that it was really, really hard, and not our favorite thing to do. But we kept the record label, and I’m glad we did, because the way we were making money was from licensing. Anna by Anna got like 20 licenses, which was an outrageous amount. At the time, that was a very different business model for the music industry, so in a way we were cutting edge.

PATRICK MORAN: In 2008, you and Charlotte did the score for “Lovelace,” a rock opera based on the life of “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace. She’s not exactly Fela. How did that come about?
ANNA WARONKER: Jeffrey Bowman came up with the idea of doing a musical based on Linda’s life. He approached Charlotte to do the music, and Charlotte said she’d only do it if she could write the music with me. Now I’d always wanted to do a musical, so when Charlotte came to me I said sure. We ended up really enjoying writing for the project, so we just kept writing. Cut to a couple years later. We realized that doing the story as a musical just wasn’t working because the story is so dark. Eventually the producers we were working with said we needed to do it as a rock opera. So Charlotte and I took a stab at writing it as a rock opera where we had carte blanche to write lyrics, and it started to come together and become powerful. And it began to really tell the story in an interesting way. And then the show opened, and it was a huge success. Now we need to take it to the next level. I would love to see Lovelace as a film project.

PATRICK MORAN: You mentioned that this was a dark story. How did you handle writing such rough material — the hell she went through in the porn industry — as music?
ANNA WARONKER: When Charlotte and I were writing the music and not the lyrics, we didn’t really know her story. We kind of got it on a camp/pop-culture level. But when it became a rock opera and we started writing the lyrics, the problem was that Linda wasn’t very sympathetic. (So) we did research and it was incredibly hard reading Linda’s books, because the details were just painful. When you look at Linda through pornography eyes or pop-culture eyes, you don’t see her. (In the end), we looked at her as a feminist and as a woman and a mother. That was her main thing: being a mother. We really related to that and we got her. She was just a woman. Porn was this brief period in her life that got so exploited. She was just a person, and she didn’t mean for all these things to happen. She was so discounted and I just don’t see her like that. She was fighting for her truth.

PATRICK MORAN: You’ve also worked on some small movies — scoring Gwyneth Paltrow’s 2005 comedic short “Dealbreaker” and more acting in Rodger Grossman’s low-budget biopic of Germs frontman Darby Crash, “What We Do is Secret.” Was that fun?
ANNA WARONKER: I got my bit part as Joan Jett, which was a pain in the ass, because there was a lot of waiting around.

PATRICK MORAN: Was Joan Jett an influence or inspiration when you were young?
ANNA WARONKER: No, I didn’t quite get the Runaways. They weren’t pop enough. They were too glam for me. I didn’t love them like I love the Go-Go’s.

PATRICK MORAN: Speaking of your younger years: How did you get started and how did That Dog come together?
ANNA WARONKER: When I met (violinist) Petra and (bassist) Rachel Haden in high school, I was writing songs as a joke. I didn’t realize that it was a skill I had. My brother Joey and his friend Tony Maxwell (That Dog’s drummer) were in a band and they were blown away with what I wrote. That’s when I started taking it seriously. When I decided to put a band together, I knew Rachel played drums and that I wanted to play the bass. I had a party. Rachel came and I talked to her about the band. She was into it, but she wanted to play bass, so I said, “Okay then, I’ll play guitar.” Petra walked by and said, “I want to be in the band too.” And we were like, “Sure, come in. What do you want to play?” It was very — not planned out.

PATRICK MORAN: Sounds like the premise of a John Hughes Hollywood teen movie. But the instrumentation for the band included violin, which is not very teen-movie …
ANNA WARONKER: It was definitely unusual for then. I mean, now people have violin. I think Arcade Fire re-opened that door. Now everyone wants a violin player. But for us — other than Camper Van Beethoven, it had not been done. So it was weird. People didn’t get it. But if they did get it, they loved it.

PATRICK MORAN: Other than the drummer, That Dog was a female band. How receptive was the business to a mostly female band?
ANNA WARONKER: We were a novelty. It was still rock ‘n’ roll-is-the-guy’s-turf, certainly on the road, definitely to mass audiences. Business-wise, though, it was a very progressive time. Tony Berg, who initially signed us, is an artist and a musician. So he was walking into the situation differently, and not like your typical A&R dude. We were also on the same label as Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain was a fan. So that didn’t hurt. Hole was also on the label. After they were signed, we were the next band to be signed that was primarily women. It was a different time, and the label was totally open to a women-empowered situation. You see, I had a special luxurious experience in that world. I was signed because I was doing something incredibly different and personal and unique. And I was in an environment that was open to letting a headstrong 19-year-old girl have creative control. That was very rare.

PATRICK MORAN: At the time, did you feel like you might be in over your head? Did you feel like that whole scene had gotten too big too fast?
ANNA WARONKER: Was I in over my head? No, because I didn’t want to be huge. I was fine being around it, but I didn’t need that pressure myself. We all started out together — Beck and Weezer and a number of bands — and everybody just got huge overnight. But That Dog didn’t, and I was fine with that. The label kept saying, “You’re next, you’re next!” And I was like, “Ugh, I don’t want to be next!” That’s when it turned into something that I didn’t enjoy. Originally, I didn’t want to sign to a major label. I wanted to keep things very small. Basically, I would have done it like I do it now. But everyone else in the band wanted to take advantage of these opportunities coming up, so I went with it. They were probably right, because I was able to start a career. I don’t know if I would have been able to otherwise. The song “What Do You Do?” (on California Fade) is about all of that: Some people are successful, some are not. Some people became Beck. But some people killed themselves because they didn’t know what else to do after they were dropped. So I had to ask myself: What is my purpose? Am I here to sell units or reach people? Selling units was never going to be me. I could never dedicate my life to the road. My heart was always at home.

PATRICK MORAN: The heart being at home is a big theme in California Fade. I have to say that the album has a wonderfully evocative and magical title.
ANNA WARONKER: I was playing a song for my brother that I wanted him to work on. And I tend to have very long fadeouts in songs. And he said, “Wow, nice California fade!” I guess because California is slow going and mellow. And I was like, “I never heard that before. That’s hilarious. I’m going to call the record that.” So a very slow and long fade — that’s where the idea started. But then I wrote a song about it which has my meaning, and that is: If I had peaked with, say, That Dog, I’m not going down without a long, long, slow ending. Just because I’m not trying to be a pop star or I’m not out on the road, it does not mean that I’m going anywhere. It’s not about whether I’m in Pitchfork or something. I’m saying I’m not part of the machine. This is who I am. This is what I do. And I’m going to do it in my own time.

    

Patrick Moran

Chicago native Pat Moran is a filmmaker who has produced and written five feature films, and served as producer and editor for Western Classics, a film series hosted by actor James Best. He also writes about music for Creative Loafing Charlotte. The best job title he ever had was "part-time vampire." Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.