Anna McClellan's New Album Evokes the Lonely Overthinking of the Open Road

The Omaha-born songwriter took a trip across the country and realized some things about what it means to be alone, then channeled those lessons into 'Yes and No.'
February 20, 2018, 6:15pm
Photo by Ebru Yildiz

Anna McClellan's second album began on the road. It wasn't on tour, or it wasn't just a tour, but a journey west fueled by the simple urge to get away from her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska and a toxic relationship she was leaving behind. Without making any plans aside from calling ahead to a few friends she had along the way, she went out to California, “bummed around for two months,” then headed south, through the desert and Texas, up to North Carolina and New York City, then to Saugatuck, Michigan, where her cousin was getting married. All told, she was back in Omaha four months later. She kept a keyboard in her backseat the whole time.

Advertisement

It’s the sort of journey that leaves a mark on a young person and McClellan says it was no different for her. She’d already made one record of funny and perceptive piano-driven indie-pop songs, Fire Flames, with her brassy voice at the center of pristine arrangements of guitar, organ, lap steel, and more (with some embellishments from fellow Omahans Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis). But as she started thinking about its follow-up, she realized she was in need of a shakeup. “I didn’t have a plan and that alone felt like an act of defiance,” she says via email. In part because she was 21, soon to turn 22, she describes the trip as a “very educational time,” in which she thought a lot about what it meant to be alone. “

“I feel like I turn into another person when with company,” she says, describing one of her epiphanies. “Awareness is tricky business. All of a sudden when someone else is present, direction of attention becomes a thing and my moves become calculated and performative. More than wanting to be the center of attention, I really didn’t want to do anything that would make me look stupid. I spent a lot of time just yearning for attention when I was alone and aimless in those four months.”

Part of that manifested in an intense urge to perform her music, which she’d started releasing the previous year. She tried to set up shows along the way, but says she didn’t really understand how booking worked, which culminated in her busking in Golden Gate Park. “I made $8 in the hour I was there and felt so accomplished,” she remembers. ”It was a true feat of nerves.”

There are countless songs about the headspace she threw herself in—a long drive with nothing to think about—but she soon set upon writing a few more, mulling the peculiarities of her existence as plains gave way to big cities and barren deserts and foggy mountains. McClellan emerged from the journey with the seeds of her second solo album, Yes and No due February 23 on Father/Daughter, a moving and occasionally hilarious record of piano pop songs. Echoing the long highways and eerie rest stops she found herself in on her trip, it’s a record of in-betweens. She’s full of questioning and intense (over)thinking, the answers somewhere on the horizon, in sight, but out of reach.

Advertisement

Though it wasn’t something she was consciously considering on the road, or during the songwriting and recording process, which continued when McClellan ultimately settled in New York, she says she realized that the meditations on aloneness resulted in a throughline on the record, a consideration of the role “male validation” plays both in her life and the world around her.

“These songs taught me so much about myself and the unhealthy ways I seek attention,” she explains “It’s not really easy for me to talk about because it requires me to admit that I’ve been obsessive of men, ever since I was a small child. I’ve had entire relationships that exist solely in my head. And I would spend so much mental energy on these obsessions, wishing that they were real and what not. It was quite harmful to myself.”

McClellan continues to say it’s a thought-loop that she feels a lot of women get stuck in. “We are conditioned to feel that,” she says. “The whole notion of heteronormative monogamist relationships is centered around codependency. Relationship patterns have always fascinated me. At my most cynical, I believe all relationships are just people finding other people to distract them from themselves.”

“Holding on too tight,” a boisterous piano waltz that sways with the drama and perspective of a closing-credits soundtrack, is the song McClellan identifies as most closely tied to this theme. “But I really wanna know is if how I feel / Is only in my head / Or is it real?” she questions, before outlining her unshakeable feelings and abstract desires for some unnamed other. There’s this winking drama to the whole thing, like a slightly rougher around the edges Randy Newman ballad. Paired with McClellan’s distinctive voice (each syllable has a way of catching in her throat, as if crooned through the reed of a woodwind instrument), it has this way of illustrating the futility of such unrepentant yearning, as if to say, it’s kinda funny I ever thought like this to begin with.

“Once I was able to articulate the feeling, the power dynamic shifted,” McClellan says of what the song taught her. “I have control of my thoughts and emotions now and not the other way around. This record is truly a healing process.”

The whole circumstances that surround the record, and its role in healing, are a reminder that you don’t always have to accept things as they are. Even if you can’t always up and leave, you can take some time in the liminal highways of your mind, exploring familiar situations from fresh perspectives. Can you start over? Well… yes and no.

Anna McClellan tour dates:
February 20 - Brooklyn, NY @ Silent Barn
February 21 - New Haven, CT @ Never Get to Be Cool
February 22 - Bard College @ SMOG
February 23 - Boston, MA @ Convenient Parking
February 24 - Fordham University @ Rodrigue’s Coffee House
February 25 - Philadelphia, PA @ Lava
March 8 - Brooklyn, NY @ Alphaville *
March 10 - Bloomington, IN @ The Black Lodge
March 11 - Murray, KY @ Terrapin Station
March 12 - Fayetteville, AR @ Backspace
March 13 - Austin, TX @ The Sidewinder (SXSW) ^
March 14 - March 17 - SXSW
March 18 - New Orleans, LA @ Banks St. Bar
March 19 - Oxford, MS @ Proud Larry's
March 20 - Atlanta, GA @ TBA
March 21 - Savannah, GA @ El Rocko
March 22 - Raleigh, NC @ Mystic Valley House
March 23 - Washington, DC @ Slash Run
March 24 - Philadelphia, PA @ The Sound Hole

Anna McClellan's Yes and No is out this Friday, February 23 on Father/Daughter Records, but it's streaming up above right now.

Colin Joyce is an editor at Noisey and is on Twitter.