Lady Sings The Blues: Meet Nena Anderson
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Musicians, artists, writers are lucky because they get to make a living at what they love to do. But quite often they have to do a whole lot of it in order to make ends meet and satisfy that creativity. Such is the case with my next guest who is one of the busiest musicians in San Diego this week. Nena Anderson is playing two shows tonight, one solo, is one with her band, the Mules. She is a 7-time musical awards nominee, in multiple categories, and she recently released an album called Beyond the Lights. Welcome to Midday Edition. ANDERSON: Hi, thank you. CAVANAUGH: Now, do you have a high tolerance for being busy? Do you like doing lots of different things? ANDERSON: Oh, yes, I always have so many irons in the fire between musical projects and artistic projects and just projects. Life projects! House projects. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: That's how you have to put it all together if you're really going to pursue a career like this, right? ANDERSON: I do. And I find having all those different projects helps me keep a balance. I find myself getting obsessive about certain things, and it helps me to keep my head on straight in having all those different things going on in the sense that it gives me a balance between working -- building something with my hands, making music, cooking, different styles of music, all of those things that come together for me. CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you when this all started. When did you know that this was the route you were going to take as a singer/musician? ANDERSON: You know, it chose me. I never really -- I still don't think I know, honestly. I always am questioning it, really. But I've been singing since I was a I would child, since I was probably 12 years old. And it all started in elementary school with playing band, and instruments, and singing in musicals. And it's always been a part of my life. And it's always been something I've needed to do, not really that I chose to do. CAVANAUGH: Right. A lot of artists say that about what they -- there's just no way they could do anything else. ANDERSON: Oh, I've tried. I took a few years off, and it was like part of me was missing, you know? CAVANAUGH: Yeah. You mentioned, and I mentioned in the introduction, are the multiple categories that you've been a nominee in, jazz, Americana, acoustic. You just talked about singing in plays and so forth. Your style is just all over the place. [ LAUGHTER ] ANDERSON: It is! It took me a lock long time. I used to really worry about needing to be in a specific genre and focus that way. Since then I've decided I don't care. What I do is a blend of all those things I love so much. And I think now more than ever with music being online and being so available to people, we as artist really have an opportunity to really explore that more. We still use labels for music, but for me it's wonderful because I can play blues, which I love, I can play rock and roll, I can play -- I have lots of country-flavored tunes. I've been a jazz singer for a long time, and that definitely filters in on all of my songs. And I love that. And I embrace it so much. Part of all of my music, part of my test for some of my songs is can I play it in my jazz band and in my rock band, and in my country band, and does that song hold up in those different styles with a different band and different instrumentation? And most of my record was made that way. And I really think that it -- for me, it validated that the song was good enough to hold up. CAVANAUGH: Well, let's hear one of those songs. ANDERSON: All right. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Here's "I Fall in Love too Fast." (Audio Recording Played) CAVANAUGH: That's off the album, beyond the lights, by my guest, Nena Anderson. I can hear how that would work in a lot of different styles. That passed the test? ANDERSON: Oh, yeah. [ LAUGHTER ] ANDERSON: I think probably seven of the ten songs on the record, or maybe even eight, were all played in three different bands I had going on. Four different bands, actually, that I had going on at the time before I made the album, just trying to find out what feel I thought was working the best, what fit the best. CAVANAUGH: That's another thing that you're known for, is having a lot of bands. ANDERSON: I know! [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: What is your interaction on stage with the bands? What kind of band leader to you try to be? ANDERSON: I try very much -- I never ask anybody to do anything they don't want to do. Everything needs to serve the song. And every player needs to serve the song. And as long as is everyone has that understanding, everything usually goes really smooth. I really love players that can bring to the table their own personality, and their own skills. I believe I come from an art director background as well, and my idea is cast it properly, have every working part, everyone bring think their talent and skills together to make a greater whole. And I think I really have accomplished that with most of my bands, and we have a lot of fun because of it. CAVANAUGH: Are there times you basically have to pull rank and say my way or the highway? ANDERSON: Really not. And players come and go, and we all have to make a living. Or someone gets a better opportunity. And I have really great relationships with my players. And that remains the same as things have changed and evolved. CAVANAUGH: Here's another track from beyond the lights, Dagger s. (Audio Recording Played) CAVANAUGH: And this song was featured in the indie short film heart break in 209 cuts by Terry Carson. What does that do for a song? Does that really promote it when you get it featured in it a film? ANDERSON: I mean -- I'm sure if it was a big-budget Hollywood film, maybe. [ LAUGHTER ] ANDERSON: But Terry is actually originally from San Diego, and she's won multiple awards, film festivals, and she just called me one day and said oh, man this just fits what I'm doing! And it's just so perfect, can I please use it? And it actually has been great. It was submitted to Sundance, lots of things. We did a festival with it at the museum of contemporary art. So it's great a lot bit of awareness, and to me it's great to see it interpreted, you know, in -- with visuals. CAVANAUGH: It's all about getting your product out there, basically, on a business basis, isn't it? ANDERSON: Yeah. CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, how tough is it to make a living in music? ANDERSON: It's very tough. I suppose there's a breaking point where you kind of, you know, some people are -- a lot of musicians are always waiting for their big break. I don't know that that really exists so much anymore. People say oh, why don't you do American idol? And that's not really the route that I want to take. I'd be very happy to make a living just doing what I do writing. And I do all right. I do enough to make a living. It'd be nice to make a little more. And I do work really hard to keep it alive. CAVANAUGH: Right, sure. So you're a single mom as well. And I'm wondering if you feel that pressure, you know, I got to get something more stable than this. ANDERSON: Oh, absolutely. There's moments when he's eating three dinners a night, he's a growing boy, where I'm going oh, my gosh, how am I going to keep up! [ LAUGHTER ] ANDERSON: But part of the reason why I chose to play music full-time was to teach him that he can pursue his dreams, and he can make it work. Everyone can make it work one way or another to do something you love. It's not required to do a job just to make money and be miserable. You know? And I want to teach him that. CAVANAUGH: I want to sneak in another piece of music. Here's One More. (Audio Recording Played) CAVANAUGH: That's one more by NENA Anderson. You have said you love a challenge. What's the next big challenge for you ANDERSON: I'm still pushing this record for a while, but the next challenge is going to be working on my next record, which I've started writing a bit, exploring different avenues with. And I have a new single out called kiss you goodnight. And I have a lot of ideas for a creative animation kind of video for that in maybe utilizing some of my artistic friends and creating some really neat little movie to go with that song. CAVANAUGH: That sounds great. And you have to sort of be a business woman too, huh? ANDERSON: Oh, absolutely. [ LAUGHTER ] ANDERSON: I do it all. I am my own manager, my own booking agent, my own creative director. Yeah. PR manager. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Nena Anderson performs two shows tonight, solo at the Encinitas library at 6:00†PM, and with her band the mules at 9:00†PM opening for John doe at the soda bar in San Diego. And where can they hear your music? ANDERSON: On my website, which is NenaAnderson.com. But it's also on iTunes and Spotify, and all the streaming online places. CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much.
Whether she's playing solo shows or fronting her band, The Mules, Anderson is known around town for her lush, bluesy country-and-jazz-tinged vocals (think Neko Case meets Billie Holiday) and commanding stage presence. Last fall, Anderson released her debut record, "Beyond The Lights," which showcases her infectious blend of the blues, jazz, country and Americana. It's thoroughly modern music with lots of vintage charm.
"It’s a labor of love," says Anderson. "I consider myself successful if I can just make a living without struggling. I don’t need to be famous or do big tours. It would just be nice to make a living and just have music be my job."
KPBS Midday Edition speaks with Nena Anderson about her creative process, her first record and the challenges of being a musician today.
More upcoming shows:
Saturday, June 16: Java Joe’s (solo), Ocean Beach, 8 pm
Wednesday, June 20: Room 5 Lounge (solo), Los Angeles, 9 pm