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Artist spotlight

Folksy artist finds focus in multiple forays
An Interview with local artist Anne Lies


by Kristin Johnson

 

Anne LiesI sat down with Anne Lies, a former editor of The Metropolitan newspaper, in front of Nina’s Coffee Shop in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of St. Paul. It didn’t surprise me that Anne wanted to sit outside, regardless of the ninety-degree temperature we had that day. This is because Anne, like her musical group The Mila Vocal Ensemble, is drawn toward things European. And what is more European that sitting at a sidewalk café?

After visiting with Anne, I didn’t know how to narrow down her multi-faceted artistic interests. So I decided, why try? Instead, here’s a bit about Anne and her photography, her singing and her writing.

Anne’s main artistic focus right now is Mila, a group she’s been performing with since 1990. Mila’s a cappella ensemble consisting of seven members boasts reproductions of vocal music of over 30 countries and has earned them national acclaim.

This year, the group has appeared twice on the popular radio show “A Prairie Home Companion,” hosted by Garrison Keillor. They performed on the live radio broadcast once when the show traveled to Duluth, to the Duluth Entertainment Center, and joined Keillor once in Chicago for a performance at Ravinia. The group has been invited back again for another show this fall. Currently, Mila is planning a tour of the British Isles and relishes the chance to challenge itself with learning music in some of the Celtic languages.

In addition to singing with Mila since 1990, Anne has studied jazz and classical singing. But Anne says her musical career stems from experiences way further back than that. In fact, Anne began performing when she was just six years old in front of her family home in South Minneapolis. Her first stage was their sidewalk.

The South Minneapolis neighborhood that Anne grew up in was near Richfield in the Windom neighborhood. Since then, Anne has not strayed too far from home, but now calls her home more toward the heart of South Minneapolis in the Lyndale neighborhood.

In December of 2003, Anne Graduated from Metropolitan State University with a degree in Writing. Since then, Anne has begun work as a freelance writer and also teaches elementary special education.

In addition to singing and writing, this emerging artist is an avid photographer. Her work has been displayed on the “Double Dare Press” website, as well as local galleries such as pARTs Photographic Arts (now the Minnesota Center for Photography) and the Franklin library (both in Minneapolis), the River Gallery and Metro’s Founders Hall (both in Saint Paul). To see Anne’s photography, visit the “Double Dare Press” archive pages (www.doubledarepress.com).

To sample Mila’s vocal music, go to the Mila website (www.milavocalensemble.com). You can also purchase CDs online or at Barnes and Noble and The Electric Fetus, both linked from the Mila site.

Currently, Anne is working with the Outsiders and Others Gallery in South Minneapolis. They concentrate on outsider art, meaning self taught artists or others who are not part of the mainstream and also emerging artists. Visit them online (www.outsidersandothers.org).

Here are a few words from Anne Lies, in her own words:

Kristin Johnson: After listening to the Mila performance on the Prairie Home Companion website, I couldn’t help feeling like the music drew some similarities to opera. In one segment introduction, the story of the music was first explained the way it might be done in an opera. Is the Mila music similar to opera? What are your thoughts?
Anne Lies: It’s an interesting question. As far as singing styles go, we’re about as far from opera as you can get. Some of the cultures we explore use a somewhat operatic style, but usually if a performer comes to us with a background in classical singing it’s hard for her to train herself in a more authentic “folk” sound. I think there is common ground in the stories, though. The songs we sing are really about everything – about the dramas of the everyday, and the common themes and rituals that all cultures share. Birth, death, love and loss, all in foreign languages – how much more operatic can you get?

KJ: I read that Mila consists of speakers of more than a dozen languages and that the group produces songs in as many thirty different languages. How does Mila achieve such accuracy in its work?
AL: We work hard at it. We listen carefully and practice—a lot! Language accuracy is an integral part of the music we make. In fact, most of us consider ourselves to be linguistic geeks – it kind of goes with the territory. Among the singers, we cover Bulgarian, Croatian, English, German, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, and Ukrainian, just to name a few. When we take on a language or dialect that we don’t speak “in house”, we are lucky enough to have a huge network of friends and colleagues who are native speakers and can help us. Effective interpretation of the music depends on accurate words and pronunciation – our audiences can tell!

KJ: Artistically, you seem to delve into several different media: writing, singing and photography, to name a few. Where do you devote most of your energy currently and how do you see this changing/evolving in the future?
AL: Here is where I would usually insert some remark about having an attention deficit. I have always had a strong creative impulse and a boatload of interests and hobbies, which have resulted in a closetful of UFOs (UnFinished Objects). While I was in school, I tried to be very focused and apply myself only to writing – and spent a fair amount of time chiding myself for not being more disciplined. When I started taking photography classes a little voice chimed in, Don’t do it! You don’t need another distraction! But making photos has turned out to be one of my most satisfying and challenging forays into visual art. As a bonus, it’s completely compatible with writing! I’m currently working to fashion a professional and creative life that draws on as many of my interests as possible, rather than hounding myself into focusing on just one thing.

KJ: What are you hoping people will walk away with after attending a Mila concert? In what way are you trying to reach them?
AL: What has always amazed and energized me about performing with Mila is not so much how we reach our audience, but how our audience reaches us. Listening to this music has a real and immediate impact on some listeners, and the stories they share with us afterward are personal and powerful. For instance, a woman wrote to us after hearing us on “A Prairie Home Companion.” She said that she had been adopted from Ukraine at age seven, and even though she hadn’t grown up with Ukrainian music, when she heard it she knew it in her bones – she admitted that she found herself sobbing before she even realized she was crying.

Others tell us that before coming to the United States they never would have listened to folk music from home, but now that they’re so far away it means something totally different to them.

I guess I want people to take away whatever it is they need. Maybe they just need to hear some cool, powerful music. Maybe they need a connection to some deep part of themselves. As long as they get what they need, then so do we.

KJ: If you could change something about your time as a student, what would it be?
AL: You mean besides starting it about ten years sooner?
I would have taken greater advantage of the resources that the university has to offer. I know full well how life goes as a working student: Eat (when you can), sleep (but probably not enough), and work, work, go to class, work, try to spend time with your family, work and work. My experience of school changed considerably once I got involved at the newspaper. I definitely felt more a part of the campus community. While that was very satisfying, I know there were great opportunities, events and resources I missed out on. I wish I had used MSU less like a commuter campus and more like a residential college.

KJ: What advice do you have for students at Metro in taking their art and bringing it to the broader community once they graduate?
AL: Do your research. There are zillions of local and national resources for artists. However, some are more useful than others, and the only way you’ll be able to judge is by taking the time to find them and then examine them with a critical eye. I know it sounds about as revolutionary as yesterday’s oatmeal, but the oft-recommended informational interview is a great tool. It’s also a perfect way to accomplish my next point, which is network, network, network. The Twin Cities is a small community, but it’s not like word about your work will get around all on its own. Lots of brilliant artists have died in obscurity, so even though it sometimes feels risky, you gotta toot your own horn, baby. It’s all about the horn.

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