Anne McCue – Window on the World
McCue was set adrift again when her mother passed way (her father had died years before). She felt she should find a way to turn music into a stable career, even if it meant sacrificing the artistic voice she was just beginning to discover.
“When your parents die, you think you should grow up,” she says. “So I auditioned for this band, Eden a.k.a. — it was like the Monkees. The whole idea was to get record deal in America, like a Crosby, Stills & Nash thing, three girls doing three-part harmonies. I was contractually allowed to write just one song [per album]. They acted like we all had an equal stake in it, but legally we didn’t. We were just backing musicians. It was really tough emotionally; it was something that I just had to go through to get to the other side.”
After a couple of Lilith Fair tours with Eden a.k.a. and an album that Columbia balked at releasing in the U.S., McCue, who had moved to Los Angeles, had had enough. “I quit because I was going crazy,” she says. “I started going to open mikes here in L.A., trying to remember who I was, what I loved, what my identity was. And I met all these people; everyone was very encouraging. I realized I could play own songs again.”
In 2001, she released her first solo album, Amazing Ordinary Things (recently reissued by Cisco Records on audiophile vinyl). Featuring a half-dozen producers (including Larry Klein) and recording locations, the album is sometimes graceful, but mostly polite, tentative, as if a wash of jazzy acoustic layers could make up for the fact that McCue was still wondering who she was.
On Roll, her first album for Messenger in 2004, her guitar playing, her voice, and above all her songwriting sound like the work of different artist altogether. With slide guitar sting and a deep bluesy rock thump, she let out a rush of personal terror and anger. “I never worked in a factory/But I suffered your shit/And shoveled your debris,” she sang on “Stupid”. On “50 Dollar Whore”, she focused on her Vietnam journey and refracted it back through her own mistakes: “A 50 dollar whore could solicit more respect/Than I gave myself.”
“I was trying to be as honest as possible, not cover up,” she says. “I started making music because I was lonely, bored, going through a lot of emotions. I think music is therapy for everybody. The songs were about things that happened in the past, a long time ago, but the emotions kept coming back, dragging me down and making me depressed. I think I never dealt with those feelings. I just stated the case, so it was like exorcising those demons.”
Roll also marked her first collaboration with producer and bassist Dusty Wakeman, who also produced Koala Motel. Wakeman has worked with Dwight Yoakam, Lucinda Williams, Roy Orbison and Buck Owens; his musical background is pure Texas boogie.
“It would have been 2002,” Wakeman says of meeting McCue. “I was playing with Jim Lauderdale [who guests on Koala Motel] at an L.A. club called the Mint. Anne was opening solo. Once I saw her play ‘Voodoo Chile’ I was hooked. I’m kinda semi-retired from making records, so it has to be people that blow me away or are out there really making a career.”
“Dusty has influenced me stylistically, professionally and philosophically — and spiritually in the sense that I started drinking again,” she says with sly laugh. “I didn’t drink for seven years. I was a meditating, vegetarian Buddhist. That was good for me; I was more focused, I started getting things done. Dusty showed me how to have a good time. I don’t know if I’d ever really had fun before — maybe in an Irish Catholic kind of way. But this was more in a Texan kind of way.”
“We just play,” says Wakeman. “We have a really good chemistry musically. It’s fun work; we don’t lock horns a lot. She has a real sense of who she is. It’s not like finding raw material and trying to create something. It’s just helping her to get where she wants to go.”
Where McCue goes on Koala Motel is deeper into her songs. With subtle support from Heart’s Nancy Wilson (on mandolin and vocals), Lucinda Williams, and John Doe, she finds a way to give her personal passions greater range and universality, with finer control of form, of her increasingly clearer tunes and richer grooves.
On the opener, “Driving Down Alvarado”, she reels off a film noir of L.A.’s darkest corners. On “Sweet Burden Of Youth”, she slings a Dylanesque put-down that turns into a gesture of sympathy. “The world will end any minute now,” she sings on “Any Minute Now”. Her lyrics capture more than her own experience; they’re warnings that never point a finger.
The one radical exception is “Jesus’ Blood”, a pitiless attack on the leaders of the Catholic church who, both recently and historically, have betrayed their people. “They took your innocence and dragged you through the mud,” she sings. “They made you eat the flesh and drink of Jesus’ blood.” It’s a chilling dissent.
“I almost wasn’t going to release it,” she says. “It’s definitely not a condemnation of Catholics. But what happened with the priests molesting those children — the children of parents who were working so hard to get their kids through Catholic school and paying ten percent of their earnings to the church. We had eight kids in my family. My dad volunteered at the church. The priest was driving a European car, which was like driving a Rolls Royce in those days. And he’s smoking cigars and drinking expensive port and wearing silk. It was such a slap in the face to the people, and it’s happened for hundreds of years.”
If Koala Motel reveals a musician who has, after decades of false starts, drifting and doubts, found a voice, sometimes fierce, sometimes forgiving, for her passions, it’s also a portrait of an artist who hasn’t lost her spirit of risk or discovery.
“I’m a more experienced person, less naive,” she says. “I went through that deep introspective stage and came out on the other side.”
ND contributing editor Roy Kasten lives and writes in St. Louis, where he also hosts a weekly radio show called “Feel Like Going Home” on community station KDHX.