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Up-and-coming Folk Artist Anna St. Louis Releases Her Stellar Debut, 'If Only There Was a River'

Photo: Chantal Anderson / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

With her stellar debut, Anna St. Louis establishes herself as a crucial component of the contemporary folk music scene.

If Only There Was a River
Anna St. Louis


12 October 2018

"Untangled, finally / Put it all out on the table." These opening lyrics are the ethos to Anna St. Louis' new album If Only There Was a River. The debut full-length LP, released by Woodist, finds the artist disencumbering emotions while revealing her psyche and penetrating musical acumen. Enlisting the production expertise of Kevin Morby and King Tuff's Kyle Thomas, the album was recorded in the verdant Los Angeles neighborhood of Mt. Washington. As such, St. Louis endows her album with the folk appreciation for nature while promoting her vocal and musical understanding of the genre.

Intentionally adopting limited instrumentation, St. Louis' voice is the album's centerpiece. Her sound is husky yet sweet often rendering Neko Case's or Hope Sandoval's, frontwoman for Mazzy Star, vocal tranquility. There is also evidence of country and pop music's influence as St. Louis' singing echoes Loretta Lynn and Joni Mitchell. "Hello" and "Understand", in particular, feature vocal upticks creating a twangy soundscape without St. Louis faking a southern accent. That is likely a result of her upbringing in Kansas. The state is part of the region known to linguists as Midland American and characterizes a neutral accent. However, there is a distinct nasality to her pronunciations, heard in "Mean Love" and "Paradise". It's too easy and fault-ridden to dismiss St. Louis as a reiteration of these artists. As If Only There Was a River evolves, it becomes apparent she sees these artists as foundational. From there she wields her unique sound to propel the album.

"The Bells" further exhibits St. Louis' vocalization talent. In this track, her non-lexical vocals are more impactful in creating a chilling atmosphere than the lyrics themselves. Interestingly, the track delineates the frustration and resentment resulting from a relationship's communication breakdown. As St. Louis laments, "Understand you, I don't understand / Understand it, I don't understand." The true miscommunication is expressed by the non-lexical vocables which convey and problematize incoherence. St. Louis' ability to vocalize sets her apart from other folk singers.

If Only There Was a River heavily employs droning as a vocal technique. The consistent sound secures the album's meditative qualities and sustains the harmony as heard in the title track. Moreover, the soothing and peaceful energy chartered by St. Louis' droning is evident on "Water". The short violin bursts cause an aural schism thereby evoking a ripple over her vocals. Likewise, her voice is chant-like on "Freedom" but then disrupted by infrequent melismas. Her combination of punctuated and elongated singing forges a willful rhythm while establishing a mollifying cadence. However, the consistent droning and placid instrumentation loses its effect on the album's second half. The unvarying sound drags and becomes predictable ultimately revealing the album's only weakness.

St. Louis relies on nature and the environment to further reinforce the album's meditative intention. The somnolent yet contemplative title track illustrates the peaceful flow of a waterway. Her vocal note elongation and twisting "ooohs" are only broken up by a male background voice droning "if only, if only". Together, they carefully reconstruct a river's babbling cascade. Similarly on "Wind", her vocals are drawn out, and her guitar purrs to imitate the wind's howl. She also establishes a clear image of her natural landscape when she sings "In the evergreens / I saw you roam... Beneath that western sky / On that strange night." Without question, St. Louis' representation of nature is reflective of her roots in the folk tradition and the scenic view outside her recording space.

Musically, St. Louis' style emulates American-guitar primitivism specifically the fingerpicking of John Fahey. Much as Fahey, St. Louis musicality incorporates blues, jazz, folk, and classical guitar stylings while melding key aspects of these genres to form a singular and unique sound. She adopts Fahey's penchant for interconnecting contrasting musical landscapes seemingly simultaneously. "Daisy" is mainly instrumental and demonstrates St. Louis' capacity to reiterate Fahey's instrumental drone while creating a rhythm. In Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist, author Steve Lowenthal suggests Fahey's music encapsulates "the pathos of the suburbs" (23). Here is another connection between Fahey and St. Louis. Her Kansas origins emerge as the area's influence emits through her music and lyrics. Yet, If Only There Was a River's depiction of longing and desolation is by no means sequestered to suburban living. Rather, St. Louis' plaintive longing is universal in its appeal.

If Only There Was a River is a showcase of St. Louis' cool and sparkling vocals while returning the artist to folk's pedagogues. A stellar debut, Anna St. Louis establishes herself as a crucial component of the contemporary folk music scene.


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