Originally from Monument, Colorado, Anika Pyle got her start in music after moving to New York and immersing herself in Brooklyn’s vibrant DIY scene. She quickly found acclaim as the lead singer of the pop-punk outfit Chumped, who disbanded after releasing one full-length album, Teenage Retirement, in 2014. Now based in Philadelphia, PA, the singer-songwriter, poet, and multidisciplinary artist has since helmed a wide range of projects, including katie ellen, a collaboration with Chumped drummer Dan Frelly that culminated in two EPs and one LP, 2017’s riveting Cowgirl Blues.
More recently, Pyle has started releasing music under her own name, and put out her debut solo album, Wild River, last month. Though it marks a clear sonic shift from her past work, the 32-minute record is still anchored in the kind of bracing vulnerability that has made her songwriting so resonant in the past. Reflecting on the sudden death of her father in October 2019, Anika fuses heart-wrenching poetry – some sung, some spoken – with musical textures that are quietly evocative, soft keys and spare acoustic guitar that let the words breathe and occasionally morph into a stirring melody. Like the titular character in ‘City Butterfly’ that knows “how to find a flower where y’all/ Could never think a flower to be,” Pyle locates moments of beauty in strange and unpredictable places, marveling at the richness of life and turning what could have been a bare musical landscape into an immersive and deeply moving listening experience.
We caught up with Anika Pyle for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her personal growth journey, the process of making Wild River, and more.
Something you’ve discussed in recent interviews has to do with the expectations people might have going into your new work from having listened to your previous projects. How do you feel about people discovering your past work now for the first time? And what’s your response when someone who’s not familiar with Chumped or katie ellen reaches out about your new material?
I always say, it doesn’t matter how someone comes to the music. If it moves them and they get something out of it, wonderful. I’m proud of the work I and the folks in Chumped and katie ellen did. My only hope is that a listener would grant me the grace of being a person who evolves, not judging my current work to past standards or vice versa.
Whenever anyone connects to my solo work without having come to it via Chumped or katie ellen I am always a bit shocked and humbled! I still carry the assumption that anyone listening now was a Chumped fan first. It’s nice to be able to give myself a little credit, granting myself the same grace I’d hope others would have for me!
A lot of artists’ sense of self-worth often becomes tied up with a band and their success over time. When you think back on the past decade or so and reflect on your own growth as an artist and an individual separate from any connections you’ve made, what are the things you’re most proud of?
Yes. I have certainly allowed my identity to be inexplicably tied to a particular project. That’s dangerous territory, the narrowing of one’s self. Moving past that, I am most proud of self-releasing Wild River, of pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, doing my own press, doing my own pressing, my own artwork, making some of my own music videos. Of course, you’re never really completely alone so I’m grateful to the friends who have helped me along the way. Aside from that, I’m proud of the relationships, friendships, the beautiful moments I have shared with people, especially on tour. This is a much more personal thing and probably a strange answer but about a year ago I started taking anti-anxiety medication. That was a long road with a really caring doctor who encouraged me to mitigate my unnecessary suffering. I am really proud of that decision. Medication isn’t for everyone but I think of all of the pain I could have saved myself and just feel really proud that I finally got over the myriad feelings that prevented me from owning the need for help.
How conscious are you about reflecting that personal journey through your creative process?
I think I’m highly conscious of reflecting the personal journey of growth and metamorphosis through the creative process. I love to follow along with an artist, be a witness to their evolution. It takes a lot of bravery to get better (or worse haha) in front of others. I remember when katie ellen started I was so self-conscious about my guitar playing, trying new things, I was not very good at a lot of stuff but I appreciate when other people embrace their vulnerability and show folks that it’s about process, not perfection. I think everything I make is sort of a conversation, a question, an investigation of a thought or moment. I hope that resonates with folks and allows them to honor their constant personal evolution.
Your new album, Wild River, begins as a meditation on failure before that theme becomes intertwined with experiencing the loss of a parent. How did accepting failure become an integral part of the story you wanted to tell?
The concept of failure played heavily in thinking about my father’s death. He had a life long struggle with alcoholism, addiction and clinical depression. To many in society and even people close to him, he could have been considered a failure, even in his death. We compare ourselves to our parents, trying to avoid the “worst” parts of them only to discover that we have our own demons, our own personal misgivings. I don’t think my dad felt like a failure or if he did he never let on. When he died, he was a dishwasher at a steakhouse and he used to refer to himself as “the highest paid dishwasher in history.” He lived with a sense of positivity and dignity, especially after having chosen sobriety in the last four years of his life. To me, I was investigating how the shame of “failure” shapes the lives of our families and how we inherit the shame of failure-induced trauma when we are the children of people struggling with addiction or depression but also we have our own failure to grapple with. It made me more compassionate towards my father and also towards myself to work with that.
Towards the end of the album, there’s the line, “Everybody is a failer/ Nobody is a failure.” I love what you’re saying here – why do you think we as a society have a tendency to infer the opposite?
We live in a society in which shame is believed to be a worthwhile and effective tactic to changing unwanted behavior. The research points to the opposite. Shame, which says “we are bad people because we have done bad things,” actually does not lead to long-term, meaningful behavior change. There is a difference, psychologically, between saying, “I have failed. I made a decision that had a negative outcome, an unintended consequence. I can learn from this moment and do better next time because deep down I am good and worthy,” and, “I am a failure. I am a bad person. I can never get anything right. I am not worthy.”
The latter debilitates you. If you believe you are a bad person, a “failure,” a “junkie,” a “cheater,” an “abuser” than what avenue do you have to restore justice to others or reform your character? If society believes this about you, where do you go for help? Failure is a damning word. Failer is a hopeful word. Unlike failure, failer does not define us deep down by our worst mistake. Failer says, I make mistakes and I learn from them and I am worthy of forgiveness and that is what it’s like to be human.
I wanted to talk a bit about the structure of the album, particularly the way you combine musical passages and spoken word. While it’s not an entirely new concept, there seem to be more musicians nowadays utilizing that approach and getting recognized for it, often as a means of working through grief – I’m thinking of albums like Cassandra Jenkins’ An Overview on Phenomenal Nature or Mount Eerie’s last few records. Do you think there’s more space in the indie scene and beyond for bringing together poetry and music? And was communicating the intimate realities of that experience part of the reason you chose that approach?
There are a lot of things I wanted to say on Wild River that I couldn’t quite express in song, corners of experience that poetry allowed me to reach more easily. I do think there is a barren vulnerability to spoken word unaccompanied by music. I actually re-recorded all the poetry tracks with a telephone that has a microphone input. The intimacy of it didn’t translate from the studio mic so I re-did it all at home and I think it was much more emotive. It made it feel like I was speaking to someone, my dad, myself, the listener. That intimacy, given the content of the record, was necessary I think.
I hope there is more room for poetry in music! I think so many people are afraid of poetry as a medium. There is this grotesque intellectual masturbation surrounding poetry. Like you have to be “smart” and “deep” to relate and I hate that sort of othering. If you relate to lyrical music, you relate to poetry. Think about Bob Dylan. He’s more of a poet than a musician when it comes down to it. Well, I don’t know someone might crucify me for saying that haha. But what is a song but a poem set to music? I think if we can embrace that idea, than hopefully folks can embrace more poetry and I think music is a perfect place to dip your toe in the water.
I think there is a movement happening right now thought that is connecting young people especially to poetry. I think of Rupi Kaur. I was in a bookstore in San Francisco once and asked if they had her first book. The dude behind the counter said, “Um we don’t have that. It’s not really ‘our thing’” with this sort of poo-poo disdain. I’m like…well you’re quite behind the times then haha. This woman is revolutionizing poetry and so is Amanda Gorman, Nayirah Waheed. I mean, how incredible to see this young Black poet performing at the SUPER BOWL. Poetry is in for a new and beautiful ride, thanks – I think – especially to a long and beautiful history of women poets of color completely running the game.
The voice recording of your grandmother that opens and ends the album really brings new meaning to the project. I know you came across that almost by accident as you were completing the album – could talk me through what was going through your mind when you first found it?
When Matt Schimelfenig (my producer) was mixing the record, I had to make space on my computer for the quite large files to listen back. I’m a bit of a digital hoarder haha so it was a big project. While I was cleaning out my iTunes I discovered a VERY large unmarked file. When I opened it, the first voice I heard was my grandmother’s. She had died three years before that so hearing her was quite the emotional experience as you can imagine. My aunt (my father’s sister) had made some recordings right before my grandma passed away of her talking about her life, the lessons she had learned from her parents and grandparents, throughout her 97 years. She recited a direct message to each of her grandchildren and that is what the first message is on the record. During the mixing process I was struggling to feel like I had tied it all together, all these seemingly disparate experiences. Hearing my grandma’s note to me and also the recording that ends the record, the recitation of her life’s lessons… it was as if it was divinely delivered. I don’t believe in God in the traditional sense but I do believe in the incredible interconnectedness of the universe and making meaning out of the seemingly random, painful yet hilarious experiences of life. This felt as close to “God” as I had come. I like to think that I missed this recording when they were originally sent for a reason and my grandma and my dad perhaps illuminated them at the most meaningful moment. I think I just sobbed and sat there with my mouth open for a minute. It was an incredible and unforgettable experience.
Another one of my favourite lines is from ‘Emerald City’: “You know the realness of it/ But can’t ever grasp the infinite depth.” Would you say that kind of summarizes what you try to evoke with your art in general?
I think one of the most beautiful things about works of art is taking these very real, visceral, even mundane experiences and allowing, through creativity, the participant or listener to access the deeper, infinite meaning in them. Sometimes, when you are in a moment you are feeling it somatically, you can’t quite grasp the meaning of it. That meaning-making is a life-long process. You can think about something like a love relationship or the grief process, your experiences with these things evolve and mean different things at different times.
This line was inspired by nature, which is the beholder of such a lineage of infinite meaning. The metaphor here is about a body of water, in this case, a lake in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. We were on a tour and chose a big lake to go swimming in on the way to a show by seeing it on Google maps. We rounded the corner of this windy road and all of a sudden the most beautiful lake I had ever seen came into view. It was so real, seeing this vast blue surrounded by mountains but I knew there was more to it. There was something meaningful about that moment, more than what was on the surface but I couldn’t quite touch it at the time, emotionally. Think about all of the relationships other people, animals, geological processes, have formed with this one body of water. And we call it a body, think of how infinitely mysterious the body is…
Anyway, that experience was a larger metaphor in the song for how there is infinite meaning in each small moment and we are often so distracted by the life we don’t stop to pay homage to that fact. This lake had a deeper meaning of me than I could have even imagined. One of my favorite books as a little kid was Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. It’s a bit of a coming of age story about a little girl with Native American heritage who is on a quest to visit her mother on a road trip with her two goofy grandparents. A central theme of the story is to not judge others until you’ve walked two moons in their moccasins, that people’s stories are more complex than what is on the surface, their pain often silent and infinite. You learn (spoiler alert) at the end of the story that the little girl’s mother is actually dead. She died in a bus accident “rounding the curve straight into the canyon” on that same road in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. I get chills thinking about it because I didn’t realize this until after Wild River was released and I reread the book just a few weeks ago. How significant and meaningful that book was. I reread it every year for years after I discovered it when I was 8 years old. Then all these years later, to make these connections. That’s what I think must have been percolating in that line for me.
I feel that line also relates to the opening of the final poem, where you ask, “Have I become dull to the wonder of the world?” What I love about it is not just how you go on to list a number of small things you still find joy in, but also how that’s juxtaposed with the refrain from the song’s previous section (“No one knows me like you do”). In the end, how much of that sense of hope and meaning do you feel comes through human intimacy?
The most meaningful and important thing in life is to be loved and known. A safe relationship is the most hopeful and transformative experience in our lifetimes. There was a Harvard study done, a longitudinal study of men throughout their life. In the end, the perception of your own life as good and also your physical health was deeply correlated to having a spouse, a tight-knit family, and/or a supportive close community.
To love is to know. You can’t love someone and honor them without knowing some of the intimate details of them, these silly little things that then become big, meaningful things. Even the idea of love at first sight. What is that feeling but the sensation that you know someone so well when you really have never even met? I think feeling like there are people who know you intimately, allowing people in, reciprocating that, is the most hopeful and meaningful experience. That line speaks to the simple idea that I knew these little things about my dad and while there was so much I don’t know, never will, it’s those little things that keep my alive in my heart. There are people who know me like that, many people, and that makes my life meaningful.
The title of that final poem, ‘Life is Funny Haha’, is also what you’ve named your Patreon. What is the significance behind that, and what can people expect from following you on the platform?
Life is A Funny Haha has become sort of a life mantra for me. My friend Steven sent me a meme yesterday, it just said,
That pretty much sums it up haha. Life is so perfectly tragic but simultaneously so beautiful and meaningful and joyous. We have to live with, embrace and find a way to survive amidst both. It kind of goes back to what I was saying before about finding my grandma’s recordings. To me, that is a moment where I would say “Life is a Funny Haha!” it hurt to hear my grandma’s voice but it was so special to find that at just the right moment. The mantra is also informed by a quote I repeat often to myself by Alain de Boton: “The emotionally intelligent person knows how to hope and be grateful despite the essentially tragic nature of existence.”
Through my Patreon, I’m trying to cultivate a space in which vulnerability is celebrated and pain is acknowledged but where I can share creative, joyful, funny, community-building tools to move through, embrace and thrive despite the pain. Every month I send out a Muse+Letter that is part personal experience part positive psychology. I share something I’m working through, something vulnerable, and then relate it to a coping skill I’ve gained. It comes with a “Read+Write+Listen+Do” section with a reading recommendation, a writing prompt, a song or podcast or meditation to listen to, and a creative exercise.
I also do a monthly livestream, art + crafts nights, and each tier up from $5 gets a special thing like a zine with writing, poetry and art, an original print, or even a curated library of books I love with reflection guides.
I’m trying to share some of the tools that have helped me and also the art I’m making, all in hopes it makes folks feel more empowered and less alone.
Anika Pyle’s Wild River is out now.