Anna Dagmar

Nine Musicians, Four Songs, One New EP

This is third time Chorus and Verse has interviewed Anna Dagmar at a new phase in her career and at the release of a new album. Three years ago, she was exploring the fusion of jazz with the modern jam band. In 2004, she was embarking on a new direction as a solo performer supporting her last CD, "Solo Songs".

Now, Dagmar is going back to performing and recording with a full band on her latest EP release, "Anna Dagmar EP". The new album was produces by Ben Wittman (Jonatha Brooke, Patti Larkin, Lucy Kaplansky) and features nine players, including Dagmar on piano and vocals, Wittman on drums and percussion, as well as Marc Shulman (Suzanne Vaga) and Theo Bleckmann.

"All together, the band brought my songs to a level I couldn't possibly attain alone," Dagmar told Chorus and Verse. The results are a lush and welcome instrumentation, including Dagmar's string arrangements, and a warm production that catches the listener's ear immediately. The challenge of releasing an EP is that it has to give a good representation of the artist's music and make the listener feel that they have had a satisfying experience, while immediately wanting more.  This four-track effort accomplishes that with ease and should be a great foundation as Dagmar builds this latest phase of her varied career.

Chorus and Verse interviewed Dagmar as she prepared for the West Coast release of her EP at the The Temple Bar in Santa Monica, CA and the upcoming East Coast release at Mo Pitkins in New York City. At JFK Airport on her way to Los Angeles, she spoke about working in Los Angeles, producing the new EP and transitioning from her solo performing schedule of the past two years back to a more collaborative environment.

Start off by introducing the four tracks on "Anna Dagmar EP". When were the songs written and how did you select these four songs to release at this time? Is there some common theme or style that you feel runs through the entire CD?

"Daydream" was written in late March of 2004, in almost one sitting. The other three took about a month during January 2005. All four of the EP songs have a strong emphasis on lyrics, while piano improvisation takes a back seat. The text of "Can We Be Old Friends?" in particular can stand alone as a poem. The music was created as a backdrop for the story. This is a new technique for me, because my previous work has been heavily piano-driven.

Although I did not plan on an overall theme, all four songs involve intimate relationships inspired by very specific characters. "Smile For Free" tells the story an older couple that owns a Brooklyn diner. "Daydream" and "Shadow of a Doubt" are both about a person's relationship to himself/herself in terms of beliefs and ideals. And "Can We Be Old Friends?" is a reflection between two enemy soldiers, left standing at the end of a battle.

Your last album was titled "Solo Songs," and you were concentrating more on solo performance for a while. With this CD, you've moved back to a full band sound, with eight other players credited on the album. How does working in a collaborative setting feel for you after doing more solo work for a couple of years and do you feel that you'll be able to do more with your music in this format, as opposed to alone at a piano?

Working with a full band again is very exciting and refreshing. I love hearing the songs evolve, as each performer adds a unique personality to the music. I had previously performed with most of the players on the album, quite frequently in the case of clarinetist Mike McGinnis and cellist Martha Colby. But I was very lucky to meet the guitarist, Marc Shulman, through my producer, Ben Wittman. Marc completely floored me with his soulful textures and wacky sound effects.

In a solo setting, by contrast, it is a challenge for me to orchestrate everything on the piano. Solo playing does have the benefit of being very intimate, and the flexibility for changing elements of the music spontaneously without confusing a band!

I plan to alternate between solo and full band playing, depending on the venue or recording project.

The new album has a string section, and you did the string arrangements yourself, which I believe is something new for you. Was that a new challenge to add those layers to your music, and did your enjoy your role as a composer and arranger? Do you find yourself looking to get into new areas like that and do you see yourself continuing to expand your role beyond solo performance on a more regular basis?

I gained some experience with string/woodwind arranging on the title track of my debut album, "One More Time in the Air." But I found the "Daydream" setting to be much more challenging. I wanted it to sound lush without being corny. In fact, I was so dissatisfied with my first draft, I scrapped the whole thing and started over! The arrangement took over a week of late nights, and my poor house guest practically went insane listening to me play it incessantly through my computer! The parts were printed just before I drove to the session. Once in the recording booth, I was thrilled that Ben, my producer, only adjusted one note in my entire arrangement!

What would you say are the biggest differences between the sound on "Anna Dagmar EP," compared to "Solo Songs"? Do you feel your music has evolved in the past couple of years and did you have any specific goals as far as doing something different than you did on "Solo Songs"?

The biggest difference I feel on the EP is the fullness of the vocal. I am continually trying to improve my singing quality and deliver lyrics effectively. In addition to the vocal, the production value of the EP is well beyond what I was able to achieve on the previous albums, thanks to Ben Wittman.

"Anna Dagmar EP" was produced by Ben Wittman, who also provides drum and percussion. Talk about working with Ben, why you wanted him to produce the album and what you feel that he brought to the album and to your performance.

I started listening to Ben's work when I was about 15 - he produced the first albums by Jonatha Brooke and The Story. Since then he has gone on to work with many wonderful jazz artists and songwriters including Don Byron and Patti Larkin. To me, his production always sounded very clear and precise. His drumming is both raw and polished - there's such a contrast, for example, between the dirty groove on "Shadow of a Doubt" and the gentle simplicity of "Daydream". Ben added many surprises to the mix, including a programmed drum loop on "Smile For Free". In addition to his high level of musicianship, he is an extremely positive, dedicated, and thoughtful person.

Theo Bleckmann, your long-time vocal instructor, contributed harmony vocals and a vocal loop to the CD. How would you say that Theo's training and influence can most be heard in your own singing on the album, and what aspects of your performance do you and he tend to spend the most time working on these days?

Theo has helped me to express my voice much more naturally and to let go of bizarre old singing habits. Most of my practice involves blending the lower and higher range. But a great deal also takes place when confronting the psychological battle of confidence.

When we did our last interview back in April 2004, you spoke about plans to perform in the United Kingdom, and do some traveling around Europe. Did those plans come together, and how was the experience, both from a musical perspective and as a tourist? Do you see yourself as having other opportunities to perform outside of the United States?

I performed in London and Manchester UK during 2004. The London trip was a great opportunity to see family friends and play at the Borderline, comparable to NYC's Bitter End. Manchester was a little out of the way, but worth a train ride for the local accent alone! England is a lovely country, and I hope to go back many times. I also participated in a showcase in Berlin, and took the train to several major cities in Germany. I could sense such deep appreciation for the arts in Europe. There are several other potential international destinations coming up for me. I am a member of an Indian Classical Crossover group called Rajaf Quartet, which will at some point perform in Pakistan. Also, I have musical contacts in both France and Sweden, and hope to make arrangements for performances there.

Talk a little bit about your local music scene in Brooklyn. Where are the best spots for live music these days and are there venues that have been especially supportive of your music? Are there other performers that you like to perform with and how would you rate the state of the Brooklyn local music scene in general?

The Brooklyn music scene is definitely hopping. In the fall, I will be part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) nextNEXT series. A lot of the smaller music clubs unfortunately don't have pianos, so I tend not to play at them. For other artists, however, I definitely recommend some of the Williamsburg hotspots, including Galapagos and Pete's Candy Store.

You have a couple of shows in California scheduled for March. It is exciting to travel to the West Coast to perform, and have you found opportunities to perform there coming your way? Are there any differences that you've noticed as a performer being on one coast as opposed to the other?

I absolutely love the climate and landscape on the West Coast. No plans to move there - musicians always ask me that! But I've been able to work with some great LA artists, including the bassist on my EP, Kaveh Rastegar, as well as a terrific drummer named Scott Seiver. The music scene in LA is influenced by the movie industry. I have a couple of friends making a very good living as film score composers. I've also noticed a strong feeling of professionalism in the industry and a high level of playing. But overall I prefer the diverse and eclectic creative scene I find in New York.

What do you hope will be the results of your release of the "Anna Dagmar EP" and what are some of the short-term goals for your music? What do you feel is the next step in the evolution of your career, and what would you like to have accomplished if we were to do a follow-up interview a year or so from now?

In the short-term, I am thrilled to announce the EP release concert, which includes all nine musicians, with exception of LA bassist Kaveh Rastegar. Bob Bowen, an excellent NYC bassist will be filling in.

We're performing the midnight show at Mo Pitkins, a brand new venue on the lower east side. For those who think midnight's for zombies, I'm doing an 8pm show on Monday, May 1 at the Bitter End - duo with Marc Shulman.

Long-term business goals include better distribution, touring, a longer record, and more full band concerts. More importantly, I want to stay musically inventive and keep developing my craft as a composer, lyricist, pianist, and vocalist. I am certain the new EP will be the first of many projects with Ben Wittman.

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Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.