by Mike Pengra
December 19, 2022
Touring in support of her latest album, Oh To Be That Free, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Michaela Anne stopped at the Radio Heartland studio to perform a mini-concert of songs from the album — and a track off her new holiday EP.
For each song, Michaela Anne provided an introduction to bring listeners into the song’s origins and meaning. Watch or listen to the studio session using the players above, and read transcripts below.
Michaela Anne’s song introductions
Oh To Be That Free Again
“This song is technically the [album’s] title song. It's called ‘Oh To Be That Free Again,’ and I wrote this song inspired by a little girl who lives up in the state of Maine. I am married to a Mainer, and his family are farmers. And they have this little girl named Tiger Rose who, when she was about three years old, she was just this wild and free little farm girl, and one summer I was up there watching her strip off her clothes and run through the pasture just free as can be, and her grandmother turned to me and shook her head and said, ‘Oh, to be that free again.’ And it was like a lightning bolt. This song just kind of appeared.”
I’m Only Human
“I wrote it with my friends Maddie Diaz and Kate York, two really incredible songwriters out of Nashville. But I started it on my own, just kind of thinking about that word that a lot of therapists like called "boundaries," and my lack of them or seeking of them, and sometimes just how good it can feel to be destructive and to accept those parts of ourselves. And so I took it back to Maddie and Kate and we finished it and we called it ‘I'm Only Human.’”
“I live in Nashville, Tennessee, but I grew up moving all over the country and the world. My dad was a submarine captain in the U.S. Navy. My parents are from Michigan, so they're Midwesterners, but he went to the Naval Academy and spent his life underwater in a submarine, and dragged us all around the world because of it. And that's a really — we moved every other year — and that's a really interesting way to grow up. And it's hard to have a sense of rootedness and home and any sense of belonging. And my entire life, music has been a way for me to kind of process what that means to figuring out who I am as a person, and this song, I have a lot of songs written about this life. And this one is one of them. It's called ‘Chasing Days.’”
Last Christmas (from Michaela Anne’s holiday EP Happy Xmas)
“I did something this year I thought I never would do, which was put out a Christmas record. I recorded just four of some of my favorite Christmas songs, classics in my mind, and one of them was from George Michael's group Wham!, one of my very favorite Christmas songs to listen to to get me in the spirit. This is ‘Last Christmas.’”
Following the studio session, Michaela Anne spoke further about the new album with digital producer Luke Taylor (filling in for Mike Pengra). Listen to that interview and read a transcript below.
Luke Taylor: Welcome to Radio Heartland — now you've had quite a day so far, you drove quite a while to get here. And it should be noted that the roads around here today are pretty snowy and icy to boot. That said, you've been touring and performing for a really long time, and it always impresses me how an artist can make that transition in a relatively short amount of time from navigating highways and city streets and all that stuff, going through setup, and then centering themselves and turning out a great performance like you just did here in our studio. So my question for you is, what kind of strategies do you employ to kind of help make that transition going from all the logistics and setup to a performance?
Michaela Anne: Yeah, I do think that, as I've done this, the longer I've done this, like, the more that kind of like muscle memory kicks in, but I definitely have kind of my quick tricks of, you know, you're driving in a car, you stay in — you're staying in a hotel, you're tired, you don't feel the most presentable and how to kind of quickly brighten yourself and mentally get in the headspace of also doing the work of performing, which is vulnerable, emotional work, depending on what kinds of music you're performing. So, yeah, I always, I think my younger self was always kind of trying to just appease and quickly get into it. And I've really learned how important it is to take a few moments to yourself, even if it you know, runs the time just a little bit, to be able to center yourself and the intentional consciousness that it takes to get yourself in that space, even if it's 30 seconds in the bathroom mirror, is really helpful to me that I've learned over time is not something to be kind of overlooked.
Luke Taylor: Now your new album is called Oh To Be That Free. And it came out of a time of tremendous transition in your own life. Not only the pandemic, of course, but also a growing family of your own, and then a health emergency for your mother to which you responded with great love and care. I have to ask if it's OK, if I may ask, how's your mother doing these days?
Michaela Anne: Yeah, thank you for asking. My mom, I guess it was February of 2021, that my mom, a very seemingly healthy 63-year-old woman suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke. And so we're going up on almost two years now. And she lost her right side. And she's been working really hard to regain all of her abilities, which she has not yet done, but is still gaining strength and thankfully can talk, and has what we all think is an even better sense of humor since the stroke, and can walk with a cane and, you know, she has surprised me in how positive of spirits she has maintained throughout this really challenging process. Yeah.
Luke Taylor: Well, I'm glad to hear she's doing better. One of the things you did during her hospitalization was to play these songs for her in her hospital room. And that feels like, you know, such a deep connection. And now that she's regaining her ability to speak, has your mother shared anything with you about what these songs mean to her?
Michaela Anne: A little bit. Yeah, my mom, when she had the stroke, she was in a coma for several weeks and then was so heavily medicated from the coma that it took a long time for her to come out of it. So all in all, she was in the hospital for three months, and I was five months pregnant when it happened. And in hindsight, it's interesting, I just got laser focused; I drove up to Michigan the day the stroke happened and basically didn't come home until I had to give birth, and thankfully, I have a really supportive husband. But my complete entire focus and attention and devotion became about my mom. And, you know, I spent — it was through the pandemic. So you also, have so much of it was alone, you couldn't have more than one person in the hospital visiting. So I would sit for hours just staring at her and her body, which is so bizarre to think about. But so I was in the midst of recording this record, Oh To Be That Free, and I brought, I started bringing my guitar in and playing the songs for her. And as well, singing a couple of, you know, favorite cover songs. And it's, you know, she gets emotional when she hears these songs, and so much of this experience has kind of included this — because she lost the ability to speak — this kind of unspoken interaction and exchange of emotion. And I kind of feel like that's what's happened with this record as well with her; she was always very involved in my career and would even come on tour. And obviously, that's something that she can't do now. But she's, I know, from when I've, you know, witnessed her listening to them, like what an impact these specific songs have had on her, her being, in a way that's different than her being able to tell me like, "Oh, this one's my favorite," or, you know, like she would in the past. So yeah, it's been a kind of, like, physical response, to be able to share that, through that time.
Luke Taylor: Your songs like "I'm Only Human," "Good People," and "Does It Ever Break Your Heart," they seem to really take a deep look at the flaws and foibles we all share as humans. And the song "I'm Only Human," for example, really seems to provide like a lot of consolation and peace of mind for me personally. After your shows, are you able to hear from listeners and audience members how these songs resonate with them? What sorts of things are they telling you?
Michaela Anne: Yeah, you know, this record is interesting to me because some of my earlier stuff is much more kind of honky-tonk country leaning. And I think it's been a little bit of an adjustment for some people familiar with my work of, it feels almost like a shifting of gears. And I think because it reflects what I've been going through in life and I'm growing up! You know, I'm, I'm becoming more of an adult that is faced with all these experiences, heavy experiences of life and death and birth and, you know, loss, a lot of loss, especially the last few years. So as I've gone through this time and I'm writing these songs, it's because in my personal life, I've been reflecting so much on what we're all going through, as well through this really challenging time. And our, if you're tuned in at all, it's hard to disagree that we're not going through a challenging time in our country, in the world. And it just feels like important deeper work for me to kind of try and articulate it and explore it through my music, rather than just trying to have a good time and zone it out. And, you know, there's, I also love to do that, but, but right now in my musical life, that's not the work that I'm doing. And the audiences, when I perform these songs and also share the stories, have been so emotionally responsive. If you're open to it, I think it's hard not to. And when I hear stories from people, whether it's been in person or people reaching out online, it's been really emotionally heavy stuff, responses about their own experiences with loss and with, you know, self work and facing our flaws and our shadows, and really trying to shed a light on the shame that we all can breed for things that are really just a part of being human. So that has been the most rewarding aspect of this, of hearing from other people of how important, you know, hearing somebody else say or share a story about something that is so aligned with what they've experienced, and challenges, and how moved has made them or made them feel less alone. That to me is the whole point of art, and what I seek when I look to music and books and literature, to make me feel less alone in this human experience.
Luke Taylor: OK, here's a much more lighthearted question. You got to play Bonnaroo for the first time this year. That's definitely an artistic milestone and certainly another feather in your cap. What can you tell us about that experience?
Michaela Anne: Well, Bonnaroo is, it's a huge festival. So that was, it was, you know, I've played some incredible festivals. I played Exponential Fest in the past year, I think, and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which is one of my favorites, and Bonnaroo is just a massive festival, and we — so it's just seeing the kind of inner workings of that is fascinating. And there was a big storm that rolled through, basically right when we got there to load in. I'm also, so I've, in the age of social media and kind of always posting our highlights and showing like how exciting life is, I'm kind of the opposite ilk where I'm just always trying to pull the curtain back and tell people the truth, which isn't as exciting. But, you know, Bonnaroo is crazy because of that, because there was a storm and we didn't get to eat. So I was like shaking with the starvation, you know, and then you get on stage and you play this festival, and it's exciting to be there and see the people who who showed up. But yeah, I think it was like a mixed experience, which I feel like is the honest truth for so many artists, and I, for better or worse, have no mystery and I share that! (laughs)
Luke Taylor: That's great!
Michaela Anne: But it was definitely fun to stand on that stage and with my friends who all play in my band, and then also to go see the Chicks after, and Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. I mean, those two alone, to get to perform on a stage and then get off and walk over and see some of your biggest heroes, that's something that I never want to take for granted, that my, you know, my 12-year-old self when I lived in a small town in Washington State was obsessed with — then known as the Dixie Chicks — would have just been in disbelief if you told me that was in my future. So it was very exciting.
Luke Taylor: That's Michaela Anne here in the radio Heartland studio. Michaela Anne, on behalf of Mike Pengra, and of our engineers Evan Clark and Cameron Wiley, thank you so much for being here.
Michaela Anne: Yeah, thank you.
00:00:00 Oh To Be That Free Again
00:03:18 I’m Only Human
00:06:22 Chasing Days
00:10:10 Last Christmas (audio only)
Songs 1 to 3 are from Michaela Anne’s 2022 album, Oh To Be That Free; song 4 is from Michaela Anne’s 2022 EP, Happy Xmas. Both are available on Yep Roc.
Guest - Michaela Anne
Producer - Mike Pengra
Video Director - Evan Clark
Audio - Cameron Wiley
Graphics - Natalia Toledo
Digital Producer - Luke Taylor
Michaela Anne - official site