For Annie Hart, melody is something of a mystery. A fragment pops into her head as she takes a walk or as she overhears a phrase on the subway. The Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter, a founding member of the indie synth-pop band Au Revoir Simone, then ruminates on the phrase until she finds meaning and, of course, melody: “Sentences have these natural rhythms.”
Hart releases her first solo album, Impossible Accomplice, on September 15. Like Au Revoir Simone, the music is primarily synth and keys based, and at first listen, the songs themselves sound like an early draft of an Au Revoir Simone record (should we ever get another). But there’s plenty to differentiate Hart’s solo material from that of her band’s catalogue. The production is simpler, more straightforward. The songs are short and accessible to newcomers of synth-pop. Perhaps most striking, however, is the album’s overarching creative texture, a fun and cathartic blend of transparent vulnerability.
Behind the Setlist recently spoke with Hart over the phone about her new album, how she approaches songwriting, her stint in Twin Peaks at the Bang Bang Bar, and more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You live in Brooklyn, right?
Yeah, I’m in Brooklyn now but not at home. Once per week I am a bookkeeper for a fashion photographer, which is pretty fun. I’ve been doing that for 10 years, so that’s where I’m at today. I kinda got the job because my boss is a fan of my band [laughs]. He has always been sympathetic to my touring schedule, when I’m gone four or five months at a time.
I’m always curious about the day jobs of musicians. It’d make a fun book, I think. Was bookkeeping something you gravitated towards before your music career took off?
I used to work at a non-profit before Au Revoir Simone and a little time during, but I had to quit when we started touring so much. It was this amazing advocacy group in New York for cyclists and pedestrians called Transportation Alternative. It was so small and there was so much going on. The bookkeeper quit and there I was. I hadn’t studied it or had any experience, but I was pretty organized. I have found it to be such a stress reliever. Doing the band, all the business stuff and creative decisions can be really overwhelming. But going to someone’s office, kicking off boxes and doing data entry, is surprisingly soothing [laughs].
There’s something to be said about the therapy that data entry can offer creative minds. It’s a relief to be reigned in from time to time.
Speaking of balance, I know you’re a mother with a couple kids. How do you manage being a creative person while also balancing the responsibilities of raising children?
Oh my gosh, everything goes so slowly now. I can’t just go disappear into the basement and make music for five hours. That’s impossible now, but my husband is a tour manager. We both mostly work from home and swap taking care of them. A couple days a week, we have a babysitter. After I had kids, I had to cram so much more work into a couple hours. I became more efficient. I didn’t even realize the luxurious time I wasted when I was in my 20s [laughs], cooking elaborate meals and partying all the time. But now, I’m so filled with the awareness that if I don’t get done what I need to get done, it won’t happen.
Shifting to Impossible Accomplice, I wanted to ask about your approach to songwriting. There is a balance of joyful and somber music on this record. Is it more natural for you to write from a place of joy or a place of pain?
To be honest, when I started this record one of my friends OD’d and died. I was incredibly upset and couldn’t stop crying. Then after that, another good friend was on his honeymoon in Paris and in the Bataclan [the night of the terrorist attack]. They left 15 minutes before the terrorists came, thanks to a random decision to leave early. All these things together happened around the same time. None of these songs are about those situations at all, but I was definitely not at my happiest.
But even in Au Revoir Simone, I could never write a happy song. I tried and they always came out cheesy. [My songwriting] usually starts with a sentence I hear while walking or a phrase that pops into my head. Somehow that sentence becomes a melody—sentences have these natural rhythms. I kind of morph that into a melody, and from the sentence, whatever it is, I evoke other ideas and the song expands. Usually about halfway through the making of the song, I figure out what on earth it’s actually about, and refine it until it makes sense and is true to me.
What’s the story on “Breathing Underwater?”
That was the first song I wrote for the record. We went to go see Savages at Webster Hall. I didn’t know any of their music at the time, but I found it so inspiring. On my way home I was walking to the subway. Again, I was walking. A lot of my ideas come from movement, and a chorus melody popped in my head. I stayed up super late and found this really cool keyboard sound on my Oberheim OB-8, this kind of drawn-out, pulling sound, like you’re being pulled underwater. I got that imagery through that keyboard sound. I actually made the drumbeat with an app on my phone, and most of the song was done by the time I woke up the next morning.
Do you seek out new sounds for each song or do you have a go-to collection of samples and textures that you use?
I definitely seek out new sounds. I feel like every song should have its own personality. Honestly, I’m not a great vocal or melody writer. What I do really enjoy, and can spend hours and hours doing, is programming the keyboard. Especially with this project, running the keyboard through pedals and sounds through different effects, and seeing what that does. On “Run to You,” for instance, my friend left a Farfisa compact in my basement because he didn’t have anywhere to store it. I ran it through a delay pedal and a phaser and it turned into this magic sound.
Sounds like a lot of fun experimentation. What are some of the effects pedals you fell in love with during the making of this record?
MXR makes this one called Phase 45 that’s really cool. The classic Electro Harmonix Memory Man is still so good. I also use the Boss RC-3 looping pedal. That’s not really that exciting, but I use it a lot live. Actually, when my husband and I moved into this apartment, the people upstairs were moving out and were like, “Here’s a bunch of pedals we don’t need.” Some of them were garbage, but I found some really cool sounds in there.
My favorite pedal, I think, is the Electro Harmonix Holy Grail. I used to hook it up to vocals and go crazy at open mics. Probably super pretentious, but I had fun.
It’s not pretentious if you’re having fun! But yeah, I love that pedal. It’s so versatile.
I have to ask about Twin Peaks. Your band, Au Revoir Simone, performed two songs for the reboot of the series. What was it like to film those performances and do you consider yourself part of a fraternity? Only so many bands have played the Bang Bang Bar.
David [Lynch] has been a fan of our band for a really long time, probably 10 years. People who know us have been like, “You should compose something for David!” And we’re like, “Obviously, we would if he asked [laughs].” We got invited to play a lot of events he organized and stayed in touch over the years. We never thought he’d invite us to be on Twin Peaks. We heard it was going to be filmed and all these rumors. People were like, “What if he invites you to do music?” And then he did and it was really cool.
My only regret is that we were invited to hang out and watch all the other bands play and didn’t. I am so mad that I could’ve seen Nine Inch Nails perform. I’m kicking myself. We really knew nothing about the show. They didn’t tell us who else was on it. We saw a couple bands. We saw the Chromatics do it. They were super nice and cool.
As far as being part of a club or connected group, it’s so flattering and validating. We were just writing songs on keyboard [when we started]. It’s really such an honor to be a part of the show. David was so cool when we were filming. [Mimicking David Lynch] “That’s beautiful, girls! Ahhh. Lovely, lovely, girls. Ahh! It’s great, just great.” I think we shot each song two or three times. He was obviously working, but we were surprised by how hands off he was. He didn’t tell us to do anything differently. He just wanted us to be ourselves, I think.
Any weird Twin Peaks fans reaching out to you for show details?
Yeah… I didn’t realize how rabid people are in their fandom of their show and of David. People everywhere I go are freaking out about this show. “What’s he like and what’s happening in the show?” I’m like, “I don’t know!” We’ve definitely noticed more people following us on Twitter and messaging us on Facebook. But there hasn’t been any creeps or anything.
Switching back to Impossible Accomplice, I wanted to end on the song “Hard to be Still.” Can you talk about the creation and story behind it?
That song is about my husband Doug. I was in Portland staying at my friend’s place [album notes mention this friend as comedian, writer and producer Fred Armisen]. He has this really cool studio setup in his guest bedroom. He has a rolling drum pad and I had some free time. I hooked it up to GarageBand and played this drumbeat. I found it to be super fun and danceable. I hooked up a bass and laid it down.
The lyrics came fast, and for once it was actually happy. I took a walk around Portland and worked on the rest of the lyrics. I was so excited. When Heather [D’Angelo] flew in—we were in town to play an Au Revoir Simone show—I played the demo for her and was so excited. Listening back now, it sounds embarrassingly rough, but there was definitely a germ of a good idea there.