Anna Ash on Grieving, Listening, and Being ‘In Service’ as a Songwriter
Photo by Brandon Barnhart
Early December, the date didn’t exist, I stood in front of two men at the Napa Auto Parts store in Kerhonkson, New York, with windshield wipers in my hands. To say I was crying feels understated. My father had just died, it was raining, my face and my fingers were white. I had a suitcase in my car and a plane ticket for the following day from JFK to Oman. This still makes no sense and I could barely explain to these men what I needed, so I just held the wiper blades in my hands and gasped. One of them rushed outside with me, the sky just starting to cave. He noticed the blades weren’t even bought from the store. I apologized, “I’ll buy your blades,” I gasped again. He ignored me and we stood a foot apart, me gasping and him silent and shook by this woman crying in an auto parts store in Kerhonkson, New York.
The night before, I had my friend pick me up from the wine shop where I worked. The owner opened a bottle and the three of us drank, toasted to customers, and welcomed them to my father’s unofficial wake. They too were shook. When we pulled out of the parking lot a car came around the corner too fast. They missed us, barely, swerved toward the wine shop and missed the owner, barely. “Not today,” my friend said, “Not today.”
I had driven to upstate New York from California a month previously because for the past year, tests and doctors declared that my friend probably had MS. According to one final test, she does not. Apparently lesions on your brain cannot always be explained. This diagnosis should feel like a relief.
The day after Christmas, jet-lagged, still covered in sand, weepy, and critically underemployed, I got a call from my mother telling me my grandmother was dying. Something had changed and this was now the end. Instead of driving from New York back home to Los Angeles, I took a hard right outside of Cleveland and plummeted my way through Michigan and its varying shades of blue to spend four days burning frankincense while a very beautiful old Catholic woman died in the bedroom.
My fourth record came out a few weeks ago. I keep telling my boyfriend that I’m retired and I keep telling myself that I’ve quit. I don’t believe either of those statements, but I also can’t bring myself to sing. I have a lot of conversations right now where people congratulate me on the record and ask about my time upstate, and I respond, “Thank you so much for listening, New York was cold, my friend is doing OK, my Dad died, then my Grandmother died, and I went to Oman.” No one understands and neither do I.
The title track of my new album is called “Sleeper,” and I wrote the song after reconnecting with an old friend. A small part of me resented him for disappearing, for being hard to reach, and then he told me where he’d been — he told me about a friend of a friend, about a wave, and an unimaginable tragedy. It took the air out of me; it still does. I was gone, whatever I was.
And this feels like so much of our living now, stumbling through our days half-masted, only to be shocked into sympathy, pulled away from our story and toward any way we can be there for someone else. I find it so hard to locate my grief within the never-ending scroll of lost lives, lost jobs, lost relationships, lost dreams — especially that last one, I think, is what’s got me strung out and staring at the sky lose its color every night. Like most performers, living without regular audiences for this long has drastically changed the shape and timbre of my dreams as an artist, but here I am, still releasing records into this scrolling black hole, trying so hard to create songs that reach people.
I have a songwriter friend who describes herself as in service, and I love that way of thinking about this craft, because we’re just taking notes constantly, taking in this world, ourselves, these stories, these details, these people in rainstorms with windshield wipers in their hands, seeing if we can make a connection, not to stop the rain, but just to move through it.