Anne hills is a singer/songwriter and actress, who grew up in Michigan and now resides in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Having a family that was all involved with music, Anne began singing with the local church choir at a young age. During the summers, she would attend activities at The Interlochen Arts Academy. After excelling in music through lessons and local music clubs, Anne was accepted to attend high school at Interlochen. There she received a solid foundation of knowledge in art and music. This paved the way to her eventually receiving a Masters Degree in Social work.
During the course of her learning years, Anne would increasingly become involved in performing music. Early on, she started folk trios and would also work with Chris Brubeck (Dave's son) and Peter Erskine. After Interlochen, Anne relocated to Chicago, where there was a flourishing music scene. Settling in the north side of Chicago, Anne started the record label Hogeye Music. She also frequented the local popular folk clubs and started honing her skills as a singer/songwriter. After opening up for National act Bob Gibson at The Earl of Old Town, Anne's career began to take off. This led to eventually being in a trio with folk giants Bob Gibson and Tom Paxton.
Anne eventually became a major player in the folk scene on a National level. She has toured the world and has performed in fine venues and major festivals. She has developed into a fine song writer and has appeared on tribute LP's to Pete Seeger. Anne has continued to collaborate with other artists on a regular basis producing many classic albums through the years. Anne is the wife of the editor of Sing Out! magazine Mark Moss. I recently had a chance to talk to Anne about her career.
R.V.B. - Hi Anne. Robert von Bernewitz from New York... how are you? Do you have the same fog over by you in Pennsylvania, that we have on Long Island?
A.H. - I'm good... it's mostly raining here today.
R.V.B. - I understand the big freeze is on our way.
A.H. - I'm sure it is. You can usually tell by what's happening in the Midwest - Michigan or Chicago - to what we're going to get in the next couple of days. (haha)
R.V.B. - I'm not looking forward to it. Anyway, thank you for taking this time to speak with me. Congratulations on your career. You have a wonderful voice and you're a brilliant song writer.
A.H. - Thank you.
R.V.B. - What drew you into this wonderful world of music?
A.H. - When I was at Interlochen Arts Academy, I was introduced to Tom Paxton's music. That was probably an early inspiration. I studied a lot of different things at Interlochen. I studied classical voice... I was a singer with the jazz band and I was in a folk trio. I also did theater. It felt to me that folk music captured everything that I wanted... in one way or another. I could change or reinforce people's opinions with a political song by just expressing a different point of view. I always use Get Up Jimmy Newman by Tom Paxton as an example. When I heard that song, it was just so stunning. You could write a song from the point of view of a soldier, that was an anti-war song, even if it didn't show itself as an anti-war song. It had a little bit of theater in it. There is theater in ballads and storytelling songs. The lyric and the melody are usually balanced in value throughout the song. In jazz, it tends to be more the melody, rhythm and the chord changes of the song... the lyrics are often secondary. There are exceptions to that, like Nina Simone and I've heard some things lately, “Seriously “ Sara Bareilles' song sung by Leslie Odom, Jr. But it seemed to me that the main body of work in jazz standards emphasized the musical structural part rather than the lyrical structural part. Folk music balances more toward the lyrics and a little bit of drama to it. I feel like folk music is utilitarian and you can use the voice as a vehicle for change.
R.V.B. - It sounds like you received a nice balance of the arts at Interlochen. Were you aware of music prior to that? Did you have any music training as a young girl?
A.H. - Early on, I was always writing - and I was singing in church when I was growing up. There was also an organization in our town called "Monday Musical Club". They would sponsor concerts, lessons and give money towards scholarships to young musicians. Singers would come and do a couple vocal pieces – classical or art songs and they would grade you on pitch, breath control, reproduction, etc. My mom was involved and I began lessons when I was 10-11-12 and did well. So, I got to go to Interlochen for the National Music Camp in the summer. There, I was exposed to a lot more... "Gilbert and Sullivan" and the choral work that we did there. That spurred me on to audition for the academy, where I went in high school. But music was always a part of my family. All five children sing. My mother would play piano, was a singer and my dad sang, as well. He was involved with barbershop quartets. Mom would do solo work with the local musical group and in church. I grew up with music, always being a part of it.
R.V.B. - At this time did you go to any local coffee houses outside of school to see what was going on?
A.H. - Interlochen was in the woods in up north Michigan. The only place to go was right on campus. We did start a kind of "coffee house performance area" in, I think, my second year there. Most everyone played instruments at Interlochen, too. I took guitar and people would introduce each other to all different kinds of music.
R.V.B. - There was plenty of talent, and plenty to do!
A.H. - There was plenty to do. Later, in my early 20s we had a coffee house in the church basement of my home town. That's how I ended up moving to Chicago. I sang with a cellist and a 12 string guitarist in the summers at a local restaraunt. One year, I opened for Dave Prine and Tyler Wilson - The National Recovery Act at the Silver Fiddle Coffeehouse. Dave Prine is John Prine's brother and Dave and Tyler played Old Timey music. After the show, they encouraged me to come to Chicago because there was a great music scene happening at that time.
R.V.B. - So you picked up and went to Chicago. Did you have a plan and a place to stay, or were you winging it?
A.H. - Around that time, I met my first husband - or my "wasband"... as I like to call him - Jan Burda. He's a luthier, now in Berrien Springs, Michigan and he played multiple instruments , taught me a whole lot about more traditional folk music. I would take the train from South Bend, Indiana (where he lived) into Chicago. Then I moved there and lived at The Eleanor Residence for Working Women and Students.
You got two meals a day. The bathroom was down the hall. There was a curfew at 11. It was about two blocks from Earl of Old Town and The Second City. I would go out - after I did my hosting or waitressing at restaurants in downtown Chicago - to The Earl of Old Town and hear performers from the east coast and west coast... traveling national folk performers.
R.V.B. - That was one of the most happening places in Chicago.
A.H. - Yes it was. The Earl was at the very bottom of Lincoln Avenue, which was the epicenter. Moving north, there was Somebody Else's Troubles later Holstein's, Orphans, The Bulls and it wasn't too far from Armitage Ave. and The Old Town School of Folk Music. Further north there was The No Exit and in the loop we had The Barbarossa which had a 2 o'clock license, so they alternated two folk acts.
R.V.B. - Did you frequent events at The Old Town School as well?
A.H. - Yes, I actually ended up performing on WBEZ 's Flea Market Radio Show which was broadcast from the original site of The Old Town School of Folk Music.
A.H. - Absolutely. I got married and with Jan opened the store "Hogeye Music"... in Evanston, on the north side. It was sort of Old Town north though it wasn't associated with the school. Jan built and repaired guitars … we gave lessons... held a concert series... in this little store up in Evanston. When Jan and I moved into our first apartment in Rogers Park there we were close to The No Exit Coffeehouse and a couple other places that you'd just drop in to hear your friends play. It was a real community of singers, musicians and writers. That was in the mid-70's. If you were on Lincoln Avenue, you could walk up and down and see who was there for the weekend, or even on week nights. You could look in The Reader... which was/is a great paper. You could hear all kinds of performers, from blues to political music. It hadn't got to the pop-indi scene yet. It began to, later in the mid-80s when Suzanne Vega came into town. I remember she performed at Orphans. But I had heard other New York folkies, like Jack Hardy, when I first moved there so Chicago was always a tour stop.
A.H. - Sure. When I was singing with Jan, we were doing a lot of traditional music. I learned a lot about American traditional music. I was also writing. And I remember seeing Tom Paxton. This was before I met or started singing with Bob Gibson. It was so amazing. I sat next to Midge, his wife, in the audience at Somebody Else's Troubles and watched the show. He was such a huge inspiration for me but that was the first time I saw him “live”. Around the same time, Jan and I opened for Bob Gibson at The Earl. Bob said "I want you to sing with me. You got a great voice." He took me down to the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas and up to The Winnipeg Folk Festival to sing harmony with him. They didn't know me so my name tag, etc. said Annie Hall … that tells you the era. Bob asked me and I sang harmony on a couple of Tom Paxton's records that Bob was producing. Later, their agent, Craig Hankenson, suggested a trio and asked Tom and Bob to choose a female vocalist so I joined them. For around three to four years we toured as "The Best of Friends". We did a lot of traveling and went to England, Canada and around the United States.
R.V.B. - How exciting!
A.H. - It was very exciting!
R.V.B. - Any live performances that stand out in your memory from those years?
A.H. - It went by like a blur. I suppose the most moving moment for me - the one that was most visual for me - was the first time we did The Winnipeg Folk Festival. It's a big festival. We were in front of thousands of people. I'm walking out on stage, and I've got Bob on one side of me and Tom on the other. The wave of energy coming from the audience was palpable... it moved through me. I felt grateful to have two very seasoned performers on either side of me. Otherwise, it was almost like surfing for the first time because you're feeling these waves of energy coming towards you, and you want to be able to send it back out to the audience... and ride it.
R.V.B. - That sounds like a wonderful moment. As far as your songwriting, how do you feel it developed over time? Did you start out gradually with it?
A.H. - I had always been doing writing. I continued to write but I was shy about bringing my songs forward. I didn't think they were good enough. Bob Gibson produced The Panic Was On, which was a "Jan and Anne" record. It came out on Hogeye Records, which was later taken over by Flying Fish. Bob had produced that, and then when The Best of Friends was performing, Tom suggested that we do the song While You Sleep. That was an early song that I had written. I was just shocked that he thought it was good enough. From that point on, Tom and Bob were always very encouraging. They taught me a lot about writing. I Hadn't really thought in terms of a solo career until they started pushing me forward. When Bob took me to Kerrville - and I heard the variety of songwriters - I was inspired by the writing that was going on. I started incorporating other peoples songs. I was doing a night of mostly other peoples' music. I would say "These next two or three songs are by Ilene Weiss... a New York City writer. I met her as a waitress at The Earl of Old Town, and we became a good friends. She's a wonderful writer. Or I'd say, "Here's three Michael Smith songs... Here's three Andrew Calhoun songs." I would sort of make it where people would say "Oh! I get what this writer writes like." Then I'd do something of my own. I slowly built up my own catalog of songs.
R.V.B. - In the late 80's, you had a kind of folk super group of female artists... a very talented trio. How did you get together with them and what was the process of who would sing what parts?
A.H. - Jan and I had been divorced for a while and I met Mark Moss. We got married and I moved out here where he runs Sing Out! magazine. Rather than move him and the magazine to Chicago, we moved me out to the east coast. Shortly after I got here, Priscilla Herdman was recording her hugely successful Star Dreamer record. She called Cindy Mangsen, a singing mate of mine from Chicago who had also moved out east, to sing harmony. Priscilla said that she was looking for an additional singer to record harmonies on the record. Cindy said "Did you know that Anne Hills had moved out here?" and Priscilla had covered one of my songs, I believe it was Shadow Crossing the Land. She didn't know I was here, and called me up. I went up and we did harmonies on her record. We eventually showed up to a couple of her shows to join her on stage - one time at the Old Songs Festival up near Albany, New York. Al Power, a writer, doctor and now long-time friend, who was from the Rochester area asked "Do you guys do trio work?" We said "No we just sing on each others' records." He said "We'll hire you for the festival up in Rochester, if you want." So, that's when we got together and came up with a bunch of songs. We loved singing with each other, did go up to do that festival, The Golden Link Festival and people really loved it. We were encouraged and did the Voices record, our first.
R.V.B. - Where did you record that record?
A.H. - Voices was recorded at Scott Petito's studio in Hurley, New York. He had been working with Priscilla for a while. And he had worked with me on Woman of a Calm Heart ... my second solo record. The trio had been doing smaller weekend shows and festivals for a while, prior to releasing Voices. As far as choosing songs... we all brought songs to the process. Each one of us has a very unique taste in what material we like best. And I did write some things specifically for the trio.
R.V.B. - You put out two or three albums with them, right?
A.H. - Yes. We did Voices of Winter and then Turning of the Year. Both of the title songs are my songs. On Voices, my song Orphans, is a song about the Guatemalan, Nicaraguan and African children of war. I also wrote Silken Dreams, which was probably the most requested song, about the silk mills here in Bethlehem.
R.V.B. - I listened to that one on YouTube. It's a very pretty song. I see that you did some work in Woodstock with Artie Traum.
A.H. - Artie was a co-producer on Woman of a Calm Heart. He and Scott Petito produced it together.
R.V.B. - A lot of great music is made in that area. It's a big music and art community.
A.H. - There's always a lot of musicians doing new things there. Scott does a lot of work with the jazz greats but he's always been eclectic and is a wonderful musician and producer. He moved his studio over to Catskill, but at the time, he and Artie shared the producing duties of Woman of a Calm Heart. They helped Priscilla also. She did a number of tours with Artie before he died.
R.V.B. - I noticed that you're involved with the theater also. Were there any roles that you specifically enjoyed doing?
A.H. - When I moved out east, I did a show at the Arden in Philadelphia. I had asked Jay Ansill to work with me on my recording Angle of the Light and Jay does a lot of theater music work. A couple of weekends ago I went into New York City to see him in a new Lee Breuer show, who he has worked with a lot. Anyway, while we were practicing together for Angle of the Light Jay got hired by the Arden Theater to add music to the first half of the show "Lovers”... which is a Brian Friel play. Jay suggested me and I went down and auditioned, and I got a role. There are four actors in it … two lovers on the hill talking to each other and two journalists reporting to the audience what happens later that day, like newspaper accounts. So, I got a role as one of the journalists and when we'd work with the director, Aaron Posner, he'd stop us and say,"Here's where I want a song." Jay would give me a melody and I'd write lyrics that were related to the script. To me, that was one of the most enjoyable theater pieces that I've done. I got to contribute on a lot of different levels. Not only did I get to act and work up an Irish accent, but I got to sing and play with lyrics. It was very specific to the melody that he gave me... I got to cross through all of these areas that I loved.
R.V.B. - It was nice to be involved with the whole picture.
A.H. - Jay and I continued to work together, recently going to Spain to perform at The Robert Graves Conference. In 2009 I did a performance with the Southwest Michigan Symphony which included “Lover's Knot” , one of the songs from that show. It ended up on the latest CD, Fragile Gifts. It's kind of chamber/folk music. Jay wrote and arranged for string quartets... woodwind quintets.... symphony... it's a combination of those things. Also, Bob Gibson and I did a theater piece called The Courtship of Carl Sandburg. Bob pulled together the songs and the script. The actor Tom Amandes, played Sandberg. Tom lived in Chicago at the time. Bob and I were sort of the troubadours in the story telling. It involved the letters that Sandburg wrote to his wife. It was quite successful in Chicago and I learned a lot also. There are so many projects that it's hard for me to bring this down to a few instances. The last theater piece, “The Morningtime of Now”, was an adaption of the nature diary of a six-year-old girl from Northern Oregon at the turn of the last century, named Opal Whiteley. It was a collaboration with The Mock Turtle Marionette Theater Company, featured songs written by Michael Smith from my recording Beauty Attends:The Heartsongs of Opal Whiteley, some of my own stories and many puppets. Jay Ansill also added music on celtic harp, violin. We were chosen for the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival.
R.V.B. - You're a very busy and talented woman.
A.H. - I'm pretty eclectic, and people complain that I don't sit still. I tend to want to be doing things.
R.V.B. - You tend to diversify.
A.H. - Yeah... be creative. I like to be challenged. I would be remiss in not mentioning that when the Best of Friends toured, Michael Smith was our Bass Player. I've done a lot of work with Michael as well.
R.V.B. - He was in the group Fourtold also.
A.H. - Yes he was in Fourtold, but we also have a duet record together. We have written a number of songs together. We did show together called Scarlet Confessions... at The Victory Garden Theater in Chicago which was more like a cabaret. It was a murder, love, ballads kind of thing brought together by my dear friend Jamie O'Reilly. And I have a recording of all Michael Smith songs, October Child, produced by my friend Peter Erskine with arrangements by Vince Mendoza.
R.V.B. - In the folk world, there is a giant and that's Pete Seeger. I see that you were involved with a tribute album for him.
A.H. - I contributed I Come and Stand at Every Door on the volume one of “Where have All the Flowers Gone: Songs of Pete Seeger” on Appleseed Recordings. That featured a string arrangement by Scott Petito. I was also thrilled to sing Flowers of Peace on Seeds:Songs of Pete Seeger Vol. 3 with Pete playing recorder. During that session we talked about anti-war songs and Pete mentioned The Dove, written by David Arkin, Alan Arkin's dad. I suggested he record it. He had an amazing memory, he did it on the spot and you can hear me in the background, singing harmony. On that same recording, the trio - Priscilla, Cindy and I - recorded River of my People. Appleseed Recordings has done a lot to keep Pete's music out front for the next few generations.
R.V.B. - You do a lot of good work for people in general. You have a degree in Social Work. What are some of the projects that you have done to help people.
A.H. - Well, a whole lot of benefit concerts! A while ago, David Roth and I produced a couple of projects to benefit The Carole Robertson Center for Learning, on the southwest side of Chicago, named for the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing. It's run by social workers and parents. It's sort of a before and after school care, and extended education center for children. Actually, now they have two centers. David and I wrote a song called "That Kind of Grace". It was inspired by the year Josh White, Jr. and I sang at their annual celebration and met Mrs. Alpha Robertson, a life-long educator and Carole's mother. I was so inspired by her presence, who she was, and how she spoke about her daughter, civil rights and forgiveness. It's kind of an “old fashioned” political folk song. David and I recorded it and got other artists to donate material for two benefit projects. On Under American Skies my CD with Tom Paxton, you can hear the center's children's chorus from that very evening singing part of Birmingham Sunday before Tom and I come in.
R.V.B. - Being a musician sometimes requires a lot of time out on the road. Do you still enjoy the traveling?
A.H. - I love singing and meeting people. I was born in India, because my parents were educational missionaries. After coming to America, I've really never felt like I belonged anywhere really. Recently, on the road I realized that where I feel at home most, is with people. When I travel, I meet people, hear their stories, and I get to be with them, and share time with them... across the country. That's when I feel most at home.
R.V.B. - What are you proud of in your place in music at this point?
A.H. - I'm grateful that I get to do what I love... with both my jobs - counseling and helping people - writing songs - or playing a benefit or a regular show. The fact that I get to sing! The singing is free... I get paid for the long distance driving that I do.
R.V.B. - (Hahaha)
A.H. - Although I enjoy that time too. I have lots of CDs that fellow artists have sent me - that often times I don't get a chance to listen to - except when I have a nice long drive, like on route 80 across Pennsylvania... while heading west. When someone writes me an email or comes up to me after a show and says "This song really helped me", I guess that's the thing I'm proud of. Pride is a funny word. My mother would never use that word. I'd just say that I'm grateful that I get to do what I love and hopefully help people.
R.V.B. - We have friends in the Poconos and we take Route 80 quite often... nice road. What are your current projects?
A.H. - Lots of little things, I'm always writing. I just finished presenting songs from Fragile Gifts.. the CD I did with Jay. We got to go over to Spain with that. I have a couple of shows coming up. I'm always working on new songs. Right now, one of the things I have in mind is learning and recording some of the songs from the songwriters in Chicago that inspired me during the 70s and 80s. Songs from that time on Lincoln Avenue. Part of what that community did for everybody, was all of us listening to each other. We all influenced each other and inspired each other to work on our performing and writing. I don't know if that exists anywhere... in any cities anymore. Now that everybody travels so much, and now that we don't have the same sort of live music scene that there was then.
R.V.B. - There was camaraderie - and the lack of the internet - that made people get together more.
A.H. - You got together in the clubs, and you did it more than one night a week. You'd have certain times where everybody was going to go, even if it was an open mike. You knew that Tom Dundee was going to show up and play a song. Stevie Goodman might drop in. I remember John Prine showing up when he was in town. You just never knew who was going to drop in. You wanted to be part of it. And inevitably, at those types of open mics, even a seasoned writer would perform because they wanted to hear the new talent coming up, or they wanted to try out a new song that they'd just written. Yes, there was a sense of camaraderie and community. Community in the truest sense of the word.
R.V.B. - I'm fascinated by what I've read about the Chicago scene. It was very fruitful and creative.
A.H. - It still is with The Old Town School of Folk Music, because it's really focusing on teaching children. They do a lot of great work with children in the schools. There's always new talent coming up through there too.
R.V.B. - The Old Town School is standing the test of time. That school started a long time ago.
A.H. - It's bigger and better than ever. Hey and Hogeye Music is still up north!
R.V.B. - It just goes to show how great music is
A.H. - There's nothing more intimate emotionally, than somebody that's right there, in front of you... with or without mics... with an instrument and a voice.... telling you a story or painting a picture of a world that you haven't seen before. There's nothing like it. There's nothing better than that. Folk music has always been about beautiful melody, poetic lyrics and storytelling. What's better than that... nothing! I'll listen to Mahler's 1st Symphony, listen to all kinds of other music but there's nothing that reaches in or around the defenses, the way this music does.
R.V.B. - I asked you about venues that you have played at - early on in the conversation. Now that you have played many places throughout your career, what are some of the highlights.
A.H. - Carnegie Hall. I played a benefit there. Peter, Paul and Mary were there... Judy Collins was there... Josh White Jr. was there. Tom Paxton met me outside Carnegie Hall. The Best of Friends was playing, and he said "OK Anne Hills, close your eyes." He led me downstairs, and then upstairs, and then he put me center stage... (Haha) and said "OK, open your eyes." I was on center stage in Carnegie Hall. I looked at the program - and I like to joke that my name was the only name that I didn't recognize.
R.V.B. - Haha. I gather you played some of the famous coffee houses like Cafe Lena and The Sounding Board?
A.H. - Cafe Lena... The Sounding Board... Passim... I've done The Ark in Ann Arbor many times. I've performed in a lot of clubs, all over.
R.V.B. - They must of had a nice vibe when you walked through the door of a historic coffee house like that... just thinking about the music that has been played in those walls.
A.H. - Godfrey Daniels is right here, two miles from me. I usually play there once a year. You walk in and there's pictures of some of the biggest and finest names in folk music all over the walls.
R.V.B. - You must get a certain satisfaction that you're part of it.
A.H. - I do think that I was lucky to be part of the scene... when the sort of community was there, face to face. I know there is a great community on the web now. There are a lot more gatherings and "old timey" festivals down south. When you go back to the same festivals like Old Songs or Kerrville, they're kind of a mix of upcoming young people and veterans. That's really what the best programmed folk festivals do. They create this gathering that shows you the history... where the younger people are inspiring the older people, and the older performers are inspiring the younger performers. It's a little bit like Brigadoon. It's there once a year in that area, and it's only for two or three days. When I lived in Chicago, it was all the time... every day of the week.
R.V.B. - It was a constant evolving scene. At least the torch is being passed and there is a new younger generation continuing the rich tradition of folk music.
A.H. - It will always be moving forward. I picture it like the sand dunes. The wind sweeps them, and then all of a sudden Boston is the focus. It sweeps them again, and New York City is the focus. Then it sweeps west and Chicago is the focus. It moves around the richness of the community but it's always there. It has this potency to it. It's the fact that it can be just one voice, a voice without any instrument. It reaches back in history with stories and it reaches forward with hope.
R.V.B. - It's a tradition that will go on and on. I appreciate you taking this time with me. Keep up the great music. You have a lovely and balanced career.
A.H. - Thank you. I'm very lucky!
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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