Voicing a Story with Anna Winthrop

The tease of releasing songs one at a time rather than dropping a whole body of work in one album is easily forgiven when you realize that a sublime three minutes will do…for now. “All of Me” is the first single to be let out into the wide world for songwriter/vocalist/pianist Anna Winthrop as part of her new CD “Coming Home.” The lyrics unfold in a human drama of love and longing while the keys roll through the story like waves in their endless lunar rhythm that approach and pull back. Winthrop hits notes so pure that vibrato is superfluous. A fine and understated sense of syncopation gently places its transparency over the piano. But before you settle in, the song is done. Replays are highly recommended until her next song. Even then, it’s a mood you’ll want to continue.

Why and why were you first attracted to music?

I was lucky to grow up with music all around, and according to my mom I started singing as a baby. My parents had my sister and I while they were still in school, so we didn’t have much in the beginning, but we did have a beautiful grand piano that had been a gift to my father from a teacher. He is a wonderful pianist but ultimately did not pursue it professionally, so it became the thing he did at home. I used to sing while he would play. My favorite was jazz standards.  

Do you remember your first public performance?

It is hard to say. I had a very strict piano teacher and she would enter me into piano competitions at a very young age. I always remember being terrified and my hands shaking. A more pleasant memory would be my first performance in the Nutcracker ballet. I loved ballet and started at around age 4. Although it was many years until I was dancing professionally in the company, the Nutcracker has children’s roles and I remember being quite small for the first production. The funny thing is that so much of what I remember about ballet was the music. It is such a huge part of the art form, and I think was also a strong musical influence.

Which singers/pianists were early influences for you?

Growing up I was enamored with Ella Fitzgerald. I also loved Kiri Te Kanawa—she is an opera singer but sings with such warmth and emotion. As a voice teacher, I now know she uses an incredible amount of airflow which helps to create the lush and lyrical sound that I loved. For pianists, I remember being in awe of Oscar Peterson. I just didn’t understand how anyone could play like that, especially when improvising.

What was the most impactful part of your training?

This is hard to say because I have had many great teachers. While I rely heavily on the technique I acquired in undergrad and graduate school, I would not have pursued music professionally if it had not been for my first voice teacher. He was a composer and a mentor, and ultimately a good friend. When I was finishing high school, I did not plan to pursue the performing arts. I saw it as something I loved, but not a practical career path. He told me that I had to apply to a music conservatory. He didn’t suggest; he was adamant. I compromised and applied to schools where you could pursue a professional music performance degree and also a liberal arts degree, which is how I ended up at Oberlin, and I think that changed the course of my life.

How do you take care of your voice?

Rest and hydration are really the two pillars for vocal health. And of course avoiding over-use and applying proper technique to both singing and speaking at all times.

How did you stay busy (musically) during lockdown?

I thought I would start performing again after the birth of my second child, but by the time my daughter was a couple of months old we were in full lockdown and it became apparent that things would not be returning to normal for some time. However this gave me the opportunity to do something I previously didn’t think I would have time to do, learn how to produce my own music so that I could share it with the world. I got pro-tools and took online classes. I fleshed out arrangements, figured out how to get a high-quality recording set up in my music studio and how to hire session musicians online when I couldn’t do it all. I ended up recording the majority of my first album (including “All of Me” in which I did everything for except for the final mix and master) while in lockdown.

What inspires you to compose?

This is an interesting question because I don’t think of inspiration as the starting point. Maybe this is because I have always made a living in the performing arts, and I know that you can’t wait around for inspiration. You have to do the work every day, and almost without fail, once you start, and certainly once you engage in the creative process, it is such an energizing experience that the inspiration flows from it.

When it comes to composing I have found that I am never at a loss for ideas or emotions, I just need a starting point. I often improvise first. It depends on whether I am writing with an agenda or not, in which case I have a framework to work within or have to create one as I go. But as long as there is a framework and freedom to experiment, I feel more like a conduit. There are endless musical options and life experiences to draw from. The tricky part is in creating something that can become fully developed. And I think that lies more in the craft.

What would be your dream ensemble?

I have had a life-long dream of singing in a big band. I never pursued this but I still think that would be amazing. I also love singing with a full orchestra, and hope to do so again one day. My music pulls from so many different genres and instrumentation can vary from song to song so I don’t have a specific ensemble that I think is ideal.

What is your favorite instrumentation in a band?

I love the cello. I include it in much of my writing. Also violin, double bass, flute and of course piano. When it comes to my jazz material I love a classic rhythm section with piano, walking bass and drums.

How would you describe your musical style?

While my music doesn’t fall neatly into the boundaries of one genre, I would describe it as soothing, lyrical, piano-based and purely acoustic. I merge my background as a classical musician with my love of jazz and great songwriters throughout time.

Talk about rolling out your new original material one song at a time.

Because I am new to the independent musician path, releasing one song at a time gives me a greater opportunity to grow a community around my music and message, but it is also a lot of work! The order is based on the order that I enjoy listening to the songs, the way I would arrange a live set or even an album. It may not be necessary with singles, but that is how I decided it. There’s not really a science to it, just a rhythm, so that there is always a bit of contrast but also some flow to it.

Why did you name it “Coming Home” and how do the songs reflect this idea?

The title track on this album is about forging your own path, and my overall message both as an artist and a teacher (and with these songs) revolves around this idea as well as being true to yourself and finding empowerment even in the face of challenges.

What is the music scene like where you live now?

I have not been in the DC area long, and I partnered with some musicians to plan concerts and gigs but had to postpone due to a difficult pregnancy and COVID. I do think that DC has a vibrant music scene, and I still plan to tap into it. Right now I have my hands full trying to launch my music and grow a fanbase online, but hopefully in 2022. 

Why are you involved in Carnegie Hall’s “Lullaby Project”?

I was recommended for this project when they were looking for songwriters in the DC area. It made so much sense to me both as a mom and a songwriter. I feel that parents get very little support and while this doesn’t make up for that, it is a wonderful way to help new parents, especially those with limited resources, to connect with their babies.

The best thing about being a musician today is….?

The freedom! You can write and perform whatever you want and take complete control of how you want to share your music and your message with the world. While the path of an independent musician is a difficult one, I do think it is an exciting time to be a musician because you do not need to fit into any mold. It is also a time that we are seeing more interesting collaborations, especially those that are cross-genre.

For more information visit https://annawinthrop.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

© 2021 Debbie Burke

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