Photos by Lissyelle Laricchia
In the geodome at The Outlier Inn in upstate New York, softly lit with oranges and reds, Anna Wise’s band — Joy Morales, Juuwah and Jon Bap — starts the live-streamed performance without her. Our first view of Wise is dominated by her large, bell-sleeved silken top as she walks toward the dome, in measured time to the band’s introduction.
Mostly composed of tracks from Wise’s full-length solo debut, As If It Were Forever, the following performance swells and recedes on the power of her voice and the trust these musicians have in one another. Improvisational and free-flowing, Gently Powerful, Live translates the soul-tinged ambiance of Wise’s catalog into an authentic live album. When I spoke to her on the phone for VMP, she assured me: “Those are the takes. There’s no chopping or Auto-Tune or Melodyne on those, that’s really what happened.”
The interview continued with frequent — and welcome — interruptions from her toddler. These interjections illustrate where Wise is currently at in life and work, said best by the closing track of Gently Powerful: “Balance In All.”
“I’m actually shocked at how much that I’ve done,” she remarked about that balance. Beyond working on her own music, she’s recently collaborated on records from Durand Bernarr, Mndsgn and L’Rain. During her pregnancy, Wise said she put a lot of pressure on herself to be productive, despite being physically sick throughout most of it. Wise learned from this experience, saying “there’s no need for me to keep up any type of productivity in terms of my art. Whenever the time is right, it’ll happen.”
“When I do choose to work on music, it’s very directed, and it can be like a 30-minute burst, but I’ve been planning in my head what I’m going to do. It actually can come out way better and different than when I had all day to just be there, sitting around,” Wise explained. She added, “The music journey is my human journey. So, it’s all where I’m at in my consciousness and in my development as a human, and so if I’m not ready, why would I push that?”
Her confidence and self-knowledge is part of what makes Wise such a magnetic performer. Nothing is pushed or forced, and there is a calm assertiveness to every move she makes on stage. The name of the album, Gently Powerful, came to Wise after the show, but has been years in the making: “Over the course of many, many years touring and performing as a solo artist, and before, with my band Sonnymoon, it kind of stacked up where people would say something along the lines of, ‘Your voice is gently powerful,’ or ‘powerfully gentle.’ And I really like that concept of being gentle with your power but also being aware of both aspects — both things being true at the same time.”
Although it was recorded without attendees, Wise sought to create something experiential, and said she “felt the presence of everyone who will ever listen to it there while we were doing it.”
When there is a physical audience, Wise explained, “It depends on what energy they're giving me and if they bounce back to me — kind of like table tennis — I will improvise more or less.” For Gently Powerful, she said, “I was feeling more like honoring the songs but with a little bit of inflection. But I’m excited to make more live albums and maybe even include some of [these] songs on additional albums and do them differently.”
First on the setlist is “Juice,” originally the closing track on As If It Were Forever. Instead of putting it last in the lineup, she wanted to showcase the possibly overlooked song. “I wanted to begin from a more wild type of place, which is really where my heart has always been in music — like with my band Sonnymoon and my album with Jon Bap called geovariance, that’s very much where I truly enjoy creating.”
Almost every track has been expanded to a longer runtime than the studio version, often due to lengthy intros and outros. “I've always loved transitions between songs, and blending things in that way,” Wise said. “I’ve been playing around with loop pedals for a long time and I love fading things in and out slowly and just giving length to things and being patient with when things are going to show up and fade in.”
This is especially evident on tracks like “Abracadabra,” which begins with Wise alone, building harmonies with her vocals. The arrangement was pre-composed for a show that Wise, Morales and Bap did for a 2020 performance with Gxrlschool.
The obvious trust Wise’s band has for each other facilitates more organic, fluid moments in the performance. Wise explained, “I just love and respect all three of them so much, as humans and also as artists. Because my music is on the simpler side in terms of chord progression and sections, it’s easier for musicians of their caliber to learn those songs and be able to add what they have to it.”
In this setting, “Worm’s Playground” reaches new dimensions due to live three-part harmonies, instead of the layers of Wise’s voice alone in the studio version. “Nerve” is a high point in terms of visible energy and joy in the performance, as it’s one of the more danceable tracks on the record (it is especially infectious in the video of the performance).
At the close of the live album, Wise turns to “Balance In All,” the only track featured in Gently Powerful that does not appear on As If It Were Forever. “I just love that song and want to honor it, and I love giving it the chance to exist. And I feel like, in a way, it belongs with those other songs.” Written and recorded in 2011, and originally released on 2017’s The Feminine: Act II, the song finds new life as Gently Powerful’s natural conclusion.
Lyrically, the songs are focused on growth and self-love through change. Despite writing all of As If It Were Forever before her pregnancy, the album is aligned with the self-assessments Wise is making now as a parent. She said that “having a baby has exposed to me all the places that I still have yet to heal in myself and my shadow work that I still need to do.”
Her music sounds otherworldly, but Wise herself is grounded — literally. “Grounding and having a connection to the earth is a newer concept to me — which is funny, because everyone arrives at different things at different times — and it’s been such an amazing tool to get out of my head and really into my body and feel that grounding force down into the center of the earth and feel as if I'm creating with the guidance of Mother Earth. Before I had a baby, I used to smoke weed to get creative and now, it personally doesn't work for me to consume cannabis,” she explained. “I wanted to find a new way to connect to my guides and to source, and it's been really fun to do that through grounding.”
Wise tweeted about “the first album [she’s] created while actively grounding to Earth,” but didn’t reveal much about it yet, other than that she is “really focused on continuing to develop this new sound for this new record.” She did share that her child listened to a song in the works and clapped afterward — a sweet endorsement of the album to come.
Theda Berry is the Assistant Editor of VMP based in Brooklyn. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.