Climbing the Mountain

Anna Vogelzang muses on the challenges and triumphs of life as a professional musician, where the journey is the destination.

I’m writing this on the tail end of a successful Kickstarter campaign—15 hours before my campaign closes, to be exact. Despite my crippling anxiety and intermittent imposter syndrome, my friends, family and fans showed up with open arms to ensure that I will be able to finish my new full-length album, Hiker. It is a tremendous feeling.

I have an amazing community, and I am lucky to make music for a living. I think that phrase is something that every professional musician feels the need to say, because it is true and sometimes it feels like we’re getting away with something amazing—like pretty soon we’re going to get caught.

Being a full-time musician indeed can feel as though you’re keeping a weird secret. The job description includes many hats these days: I write songs, make albums, tour the country, play shows, sing and play on other peoples’ albums and shows, organize community events, run educational workshops, maintain my website, produce an annual charity show called “Wintersong,” teach each summer at Girls Rock Camp, and on and on and on. But my favorite thing to do is make records.

I’ve been making records since 2003. I moved to Madison in 2008 after a stint in Chicago, and from Pittsburgh before that, where I had earned a degree in vocal performance at Carnegie Mellon. All along the way, I’ve been writing songs, and when I arrived at college I was able to start laying them down in a real studio and making them into albums. The process of breathing life into a song to see it flourish into its fullest form is one of the most rewarding experiences in this entire musical cluster I call a career.

As Joni Mitchell says, “songs are like tattoos;” and for me, literally. Around every album release I find myself getting a new tattoo denoting a large lesson or philosophical realization, wanting to mark that point in time. My albums try to make sense of the world at a certain juncture, encapsulating those few years of living and loving while I was writing them. Just like tattoos, they are talismans that represent a swath of time in one’s life, or a circle on the calendar. And with each one—Hiker will be my seventh studio album—it has felt like crossing over a new threshold.

Each threshold passed is part of a larger climb. It’s like there’s a large mountain with numerous plateaus up the side. With each album, you land at a plateau and take stock, looking down on what you traversed to get there, stopping and looking around to celebrate yourself for making the trek, and then, eventually, you get up and go onward and upward again. You hope that the overall trajectory is a positive one, and that you don’t remain on the same landing doing the same thing over again. Thus far for me, each threshold has been one step higher than the last, more difficult of a climb than the one before it, and because of that, more rewarding when I pass onto that solid landing.

Right now, I feel like with this record, this is the one. It’s why I asked my community to help—it is the best thing I have ever made. Hiker feels like even more of an accomplishment than its predecessors because there was even more life and work and difficult climb going into it. In making the album I had more material than ever to choose from—more than 70 new songs—thanks to a yearlong, song-a-week writing project. I spent more than a year planning for the recording session and collecting ideas and sounds. I knew the people I wanted to involve and kept it a small family of musicians. We tracked it as a live band. And most importantly, I asked my friend Todd to produce it.

Until this point, I had co-produced or solely produced all of my own albums. I met Todd Sickafoose through a mutual friend in 2010 when he agreed to play upright bass on my album Canary in a Coal Mine. Until then I’d known him mostly as Ani DiFranco’s bass player. Like most queer girls, discovering Ani during my teenage years made me feel as though the world had suddenly cracked open into possibility; I also felt like there was a songwriting beacon I could follow as I tried to forge my own path—like many musicians feel upon discovering Ani’s vast catalogue. By the time I worked with Todd on Canary, much of the songwriting education I’d garnered from exploring Ani’s albums had become a subtle piece in the fabric of my craft, but nevertheless, connecting with people who’d had such a hand in molding my process felt like a coming home, like a full circle.

After more than a year of trying to find a date, in April of 2015 I toured to Todd’s home in Oregon, my friend Shane Leonard flew out from Milwaukee, and the three of us made an album together in about 10 days. Todd’s thumbprint is unmistakable. I am consistently grateful that he lent his ears and immense musicianship to this project. I feel like my world has cracked open all over again.

And now the album is recorded and ready to go out into the universe sometime in 2016; and I’m sitting here thinking of every tattoo, and every record that felt like it was passing over a threshold with its release. And each one was. Each album took a substantial step that got me to this place. And for the moment, I am so happy to be in this place. Eventually, I will have to take another step. But for now, I’m going to look around on this landing and be grateful, and proclaim that it is good. I’m sure in a little while I’ll be ready to climb up the mountain again.

Find out more about Anna and her new record at: theanna.com.