At the end of the second track and single from Anna Wise’s latest record, Subtle Body Dawn, there’s a recurring note, a deliberately repeated piano key, reminiscent of soothing meditation music. It is impossible to listen to “The Now” without feeling rooted in the moment by the firmly repeated “welcome to the now” in the lyrics and reiterated note in the outro. Similarly, when I speak with Wise via Zoom — joining from California, where she’s been spending time in the sun and the ocean with her family — the conversation is grounded and present. This is the first interview Wise has given about her new project. She begins with a singsong “hi,” inviting in her warmth and excitement that remains for the entire call.
Wise has built a career around soft strength and being unafraid to lean into juxtaposition, as evidenced by her equally assertive and submissive first solo single, 2016’s “Precious Possession,” and, more recently, naming her 2021 live album Gently Powerful. Subtle Body Dawn is the latest in this sequence of near contradictions, combining the abstract with the physical, merging the spiritual with the natural world.
While her young daughter, also present on the call, repeats the album title in the background, Wise defines each part of Subtle Body Dawn: “Subtle” references the subtleties in life and nature, which for her include things like incremental personal growth, sunshine on her face and cleaning or cooking alongside her husband and child. “Body” is more literal (“We get to be in these glorious bodies that come with so much joy and pleasure”) but also speaks to Wise trying to be “embodied, to get out of my head and be as much in my body as I can.” “Dawn,” Wise explains, “is hanging on for the dawn … for when that first peek of light comes through. And it could be metaphorical and it could also be very literal, like, the night has been long and you’re waiting for that dawn.”
When Wise and I last spoke, it was 2021, her daughter was still a toddler and she had just teased Subtle Body Dawn’s release by tweeting about “the first album [she’s] created while actively grounding to Earth.” Explaining what that meant for the recording process, Wise initially stresses “connecting with the earth, and getting bare feet on the ground every single day,” but the concept is also an abstract one, tied up in her experience of motherhood.
“My daughter had grown over the year that we were recording the music,” Wise says, “She was, like, crawling all over me while I was recording, which was a huge, beautiful experience to move through and problem solve.” Sustaining her longtime commitment to single-take vocals, she adds, “If I don’t get it [in one take], I delete that take and I just try again. And so, doing that with my precious daughter crawling all over me, allowed me to build up a very high tolerance for interruption while maintaining extreme focus.”
That focus appears across all seven tracks, which tend toward shorter runtimes and concise lyricism, often focusing on nature and growth. Although not simply music for mindfulness, when asked about the meditative qualities of “The Now,” Wise says that is spot on with her intentions for the album. “There’s seven gongs, because seven is my number, green is my color — I love spiritual music, I love spiritual chanting, all of it. So, that’s where it came from. I almost never listen to modern music except for my husband’s music [as Maurice II],” Wise says, laughing, “And Nick Hakim, and L’Rain. That’s like all I listen to, and I listen to classical music and chanting and spiritual music, with lots of repetition with the intention of achieving a meditative state.”
Motherhood led Wise to listen to even more classical and orchestral music with her family — like soundtracks to Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service from Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi and music from the HBO series Classical Baby — and incorporate string arrangements for several tracks on Subtle Body Dawn. (Nursery rhymes played a part as well, as Wise drew inspiration from the counterpoint of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” for the final track, “Mother Of Mothers.”)
Most of the strings featured on the record are from violinist Shona Carr, Wise’s close friend and collaborator. Carr worked alongside Wise and her husband Maurice II (fka Jon Bap, who produced, mixed and mastered Subtle Body Dawn) in person, while others featured on the record contributed virtually. The title track, “Subtle Body,” in particular, is driven by strings, and Carr also contributed to the lyrics for the chorus, helping Wise to fill in the blanks of the line “You know it will take you returning to subtle body dawn.”
Wise could’ve been a motivational speaker in another life. Although quick to clarify that she isn’t trying to be “preachy” and doesn’t have it all figured out, Subtle Body Dawn makes the case for openness and believing the change you’ve been waiting on will come, trusting you’ll make it to a new dawn. “Anyone who feels like they are in a winter season of their life, trust me, spring comes,” Wise says. “I felt very wintry for a minute, I had no inspiration and was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ My whole life has been creating and never stopping, and so, to have a forced winter season, for me, I’m so grateful that I leaned into it and allowed myself to just be completely empty, with no ideas for a while … We are not put here on earth to just produce, produce, produce — we are meant to experience joy.”
“The seed of my heart is begging, ‘Open up!’” is repeated in the lyrics of more than one song on Subtle Body Dawn, which, when I ask her to pick just one, Wise says is the takeaway she wants listeners to get from the album. “This was a record for me to remind myself of where I want to be,” she says, “I’m really not coming from a place of telling anyone what to do or what to study. But, to me, the heart is so powerful … Tune into the heart. Tune into your bodies.”
Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the former Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.