Anna Nalick: 'I Spent Years Telling People to Just Breathe And I Was Suffocating'

anna nalick
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Anna Nalick 

In 2004, Anna Nalick's "Breathe (2 AM)" was everywhere. But despite the song's success, Nalick ended up stuck in label purgatory; she never stopped working, but her music kept getting shelved. In 2011, the singer-songwriter went indie with Broken Doll & Odds & Ends. For the next four years, she took a break from making music and went back to school, studying creative writing and acting.

By 2014, she returned to touring just as she was getting divorced. The music began flowing out of her once again. The result: her latest album At Now, which pulls from folk, Americana and rock influences. It’s a bit of a change for listeners who first became a fan of Nalick when she released debut album Wreck of the Day, but it’s to be expected: that was 13 years ago.

We caught up with Nalick about major label limbo, her break from music and learning how to breathe again.

I’ve been waiting for you to put out music for a long time. I grew up when “Breathe” was everywhere. I feel like I found comfort in your record.

It’s nice, actually, that I was 17 when I wrote that record and 18 when I got signed, and it wasn’t actually released until I was 20. So a lot of people that like my music are around my same age. It’s nice to have that in common, because we probably had similar experiences up to this point.

I remember listening to “Catalyst” over and over again.

I wrote that song in chemistry class in high school. At the time I didn’t really think about it. I guess I found metaphors in everything. So, it wasn’t a surprise that I heard a new word that meant something that could also mean something in terms of love. Thinking back on having written my first album in class in high school: things like that make me laugh all the time.

There was a big gap between your first and second albums, and then you didn’t put out a third one until 2017. Can you talk to me about the time in between and what you’d been up to?

The first album had a very long album cycle, because we started at triple-A radio, and it slowly turned up to top 40, and then it fell of the charts and then was played on Grey’s Anatomy and charted again. I was touring with that record for about four years, so a lot of the gap in between wasn’t actually a gap. I was working, there just wasn’t new music coming out. After that, I would say maybe 2008 or 2009, the music business was going through a big transition with digital becoming the new way that people were listening to music. I saw a turnaround rate for presidents at my label of about nine months from the time they got hired to moving on. Every new president that came in had a different idea for my follow-up album to Wreck of the Day, and my music kept getting shelved. At a certain point I realized that so much time had gone by as we were trying to define what my style would be, and I was starting to lose my center as an artist.

Did you end up leaving the label?

I left Sony in 2010, and then in 2011 I put out that independent album, and a lot of that [record] was just songs that I did actually like and did actually relate to once I left. But a lot of the music I wrote at that time didn’t feel genuine, because I was trying to live up to something. After that, Broken Doll & Odds & Ends was a soft release. I made it with friends. It was a hundred percent funded by me, and there was no promo, except for maybe Facebook. I released Broken Doll & Odds & Ends, and then I felt like that afforded me some time to grow up and figure out what I had to say if I was going to be a person with a forum, which I was and am. I think that there’s some responsibility in that. I’ve never really been your consummate pop artist.

How did you expect people to react to your second record? It was good, but it didn’t really take off.

I didn’t expect it to take off. I just knew that there were people waiting for new music, and a lot of time had gone by of writing songs and having those songs shelved. They would never see the light of day, and I knew that. So I really just wanted to put something out so that people knew that I was still working:  I was still writing. So I’m never stopping: I’ll never stop making music, but there probably will be more than the typical two-year album cycle for me, because I want to put out work that means something to me. I took the songs that were the most honest and released those, knowing that I didn’t have any backing, and I didn’t have any expectations for it. Initially it was just supposed to be me and a piano or a guitar, but so many wonderful musicians came forward wanting to play on it. This album, At Now, was more specific. I knew what I wanted it to sound like. I knew how I wanted it to make people feel. I knew that it was a concept album, and I knew that I wanted it to inspire a fire in my chest at times and make me want to cry at times and make me finally bring out all the intensity at times. With Broken Doll & Odds & Ends, I just knew I wanted it to be honest but with this one, every detail was on purpose.

What happened after you put out Broken Doll & Odds & Ends?

After Broken Doll & Odds & Ends, I just wanted to grow up and grow as an artist. Being famous or having a lot of money was never my goal, and because the first introduction that I had to people was through a song that inspired connectivity, there’s really no going backwards from that. I felt responsible to do right by that. I had to find a center, and for me that meant never stopping writing. I couldn’t. I write songs in my head all day long. I see metaphors and poetry and symbolism in literally everything. I can’t drive down a freeway without putting songs together and finding how that’s symbolic for something else that’s going on in my life. I went back to college and studied creative writing at UCLA. And then I studied acting, which was a wonderful experience. I met fantastic actors. I was in a play written by Scott Caan. So the first time I ever acted on stage, his dad, James Caan, was there, and James Franco came to my closing. I was just suddenly around artists in a different field of the arts, and that was very inspiring.

What brought you back to music?

In 2014, I started touring again. My bass player, who was also my tour manager, approached me after four years of not putting any music out and not touring, and he was the one that really gave me a hard nudge to go back to sharing my music with people. And I definitely needed that, because I didn’t feel the compulsion to make sure I stayed relevant. So, I got back on the road in 2014, and as it turned out, that year I also got a divorce from the person I had been with for 10 years. So at that time, everything was shifting. I have depression; I had panic attacks during those years after touring. That was part of the time away: I had spent years telling people to just breathe, and I was suffocating. In 2014, my whole life changed. I moved, and I went on this tour that lasted for five weeks, knowing that when I got home I was coming home to a house with no person in it that was filled with boxes covered in dust, because I hadn’t unpacked. At the end of that tour, I didn’t want to go home.

Where’d you go then?

I turned 30 the day after the last day of my tour, so I went to Savannah, Georgia, instead of coming home. I wrote a lot of my record there, got familiar with a different kind of music than I have spent a lot of time with and I got to know folk music a little better. From there I spent the next two years touring. I had all these songs, and I had to find a way to make a record without doing it a hundred percent on my own again, so I got involved with PledgeMusic, which works by having fans essentially pay it forward, pre-ordering the album.

Tell me about the process of making the album.

Once I started making the album, it took about a year and a half to settle on who I wanted to work with and how I wanted it to sound. I worked on this album with the same co-producer that did the last album: Chris Rondinella. I had an image that I felt like I needed to live up to because of “Breathe.” And I let that go. I let everything go. It really did feel like a fresh start.

I’m glad you’re in a better place now. Tell me about your new record and the first single.

This one, some of it was cut live, and some of it is programmed, but altogether I think that the writing is very visceral and is as honest as I could possibly be with all the stories of the last two years, even if they are steeped in symbolism and still protective of the people they’re about. It pulls from folk Americana and also from rock songs that I love. My influences for the album are all over the place. So I don’t know. It’s a hard thing to answer, because what people are used to from me is something that I did over 10 years ago, and just by the nature of growing up, it’s definitely different. On this album I made the choice to lay everything on the line and allowed myself to speak my mind, even if some if that was digging deep into the creative well and out of the range of something that might be palatable for the masses.

What are the themes of At Now?

So the record in part is sad breakup songs, but songs like “At Now” and “Aura” are about trying to transcend all of that and figure out what’s really important. What I discovered is that love is the most important thing, and it doesn’t have to look like anything specific. In the end, that’s what the album ends with: love songs. But as much as they sound like they might be for just one person, I mean them on a much broader scale.

What you were saying about your label issues, that was the exact conversation I had with Michelle Branch, and she couldn’t release music for 10 years.

It was an odd time for us. I think her record came out a few years before mine, her first album. It was just a very strange time for that singer/songwriter genre, because we were kind of “pop light.” We didn’t really fit in anywhere. The production on both of our albums didn’t fit with what became indie a few years later, and yet we weren’t really “pop-pop” either. My struggle was sort of with the label, but I do have to note that I’ve since gone back to the people that I worked with at Sony, and any resentment that I had is now gone, because I’ve worked side by side with them for artists’ rights with the Grammy Foundation. I now understand what they were going through. Everyone was scared. So on the political side, I understand that we were trying to make something work in a time when the music business was changing rapidly.