The first single on singer/songwriter Anna St. Louis’s debut LP If Only There Was a River was the song “Understand,” and it’s about what you’d expect: wanting to understand, wanting to be understood and the aha moment when you finally do/are, as well as the frustration in not understanding. “Untangled, finally,” St. Louis sings. “Put it all out on the table/ Understand me, do you understand?”
If Only There Was a River, released Oct. 12 on Woodsist/Mare Records, carries on in that same tone throughout its 11 tracks, one of comfort, low-lighted by the kind of delicate, spare acoustics that inspire deep and thoughtful respites. St. Louis, who’s making her full-length debut with the record, often retreats to a similarly soothing zone for her songwriting, which she’s only been doing for about five years now. Although, after spending time with If Only There Was a River’s carefully contrived ebbs and flows and smartly observed lyrics, you’d never know she was a spring chicken.
“Sometimes I’ll just be like on a walk or a drive, and some kind of melody comes in my head,” she says. “Usually I’m kind of obsessed with it. It’s really fun to sing, so I’m just like singing it, singing it, singing it, and then it’s like ‘Okay, there could be a guitar to it.’”
St. Louis hails from a city in the Midwest, but not the one sharing her surname’s handle. Originally from Kansas City, Kan., where she first experimented with music playing in DIY punk bands, she’s now based in L.A., far from anywhere in her native Midwest. She migrated west more for the sun and a change of pace than anything else, but it’s there where she picked up a guitar and wrote her first release, a tape of sparsely-produced tracks called First Songs (now available digitally, too), that’s equally distanced from punk’s rowdy angst. Gentle and thoughtful, First Songs is a warm preview of If Only There Was a River’s dusty folk and calculated rusticity.
“When living [in L.A.] I randomly had a guitar and not that many friends, and playing bass alone doesn’t go very far, so I started playing guitar there,” she says. “And that’s when songwriting really picked up. I was inspired by how many people were really pursuing music more seriously in L.A.”
She wasn’t playing alone for long. Though If Only There Was a River is St. Louis’ brainchild, a host of pals helped her bring it to life, including Kevin Morby, whose label Mare Records co-released the record, and King Tuff’s Kyle Thomas, who wore a producer’s hat. Justin Thomas of Night Shop, who also released a debut record this year, drums on the album. Last month, St. Louis wrapped up a tour with Thomas and Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee, where the three musicians played both separately and as a full band for Crutchfield’s sets.
“There’s something really special about playing with people you know and you’re already comfortable with versus maybe just hiring someone,” St. Louis said. “And I like to play with people who kind of get where I’m coming from and understand what I’m trying to create, and my friends are kind of the best people for that.”
Though she’s open to expanding her shows in the future, St. Louis plays solo sets with only her own guitar as back-up, and she wouldn’t have it any other way at this point in her career. At the Georgia Theatre in Athens on the first night of touring with Night Shop and Waxahatchee, St. Louis opened the show with a set so quiet you could easily hear the crackings-open of beer cans and attendees shuffling up from the back, but her set, though not at all noisy, was equal parts resonant and haunting.
“I like that at a base it can just be me and the guitar,” she says. “I think that’s really important and for a long time I’ll still tour that way. But I also like that there’s a looseness to it. Sometimes I think I could just like have a violin player for a set or maybe just someone else on slide guitar. Just kind of playing around with how the live set goes is just really cool to me.”
After hearing St. Louis’ polished voice, which seems to blend the crispy, country croons of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton with the warm, husky folk of Joni Mitchell, you might assume she’s had formal vocal training. However, she’s never had a lesson, unless you count mirroring her country and pop idols. She cites Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and several Mazzy Star albums as being on heavy rotation during her recording process.
“I was like, ‘There’s something in between the two of these [artists] where I exist,’ you know?” she says. “I’ve always been just really drawn to [country] so while I listen to a bunch of different things, I’ve never been the person who’s like ‘I just listen to country or folk.’”
If Only There Was a River would certainly please any folk fan, and it bubbles over with natural, woodsy energy. St. Louis couldn’t have picked a better time for its release: It seems to usher in all the crispness and change we’re so desperate for in October after a long, steamy September. Nature creeps beyond the album’s treeline in pockets of sunlight and smoke. From the looseness of the album opener “Water” to St. Louis’ ample fingerpicking on the mostly instrumental “Daisy” to its winding title track and kicker, If Only There Was a River is laden with quiet, warm music for a loud, cold world.
“I’m really influenced by the natural world, but I wasn’t so intentionally pulling from it,” St. Louis says. “But it’s where I go to get quiet and I think. Once I’m quiet, that’s where my songs and music come.”