The importance of meticulous characterisation.
David Ford and Annie Dressner have been working together as a duo for only a very short time, just a matter of weeks at this point, but the musical telepathy they demonstrate on their debut offering ‘48 Hours’ would suggest a more established alliance, such is the ease and comfort with which their voices rise and fall together through this impressive set of character-driven songs. Both are acclaimed solo performers, each with an enviable back catalogue, and regular collaborations on each other’s songs whilst touring together early in 2022 set the scene for this partnership.
The fruits of a compressed writing and recording process are six beguiling songs that are raw and warm and glow with an open-hearted charm and startling probity. Annie and David stress the importance of authenticity when describing how the protagonists of their songs are fleshed out in detail, creating fully formed individuals to be both inhabited and revealed. They passionately describe the urge to implore the audience to feel the emotion contained in their songs by taking their live show to small, seated venues where the atmosphere of the room can match that of their music. Americana UK’s Paul Gibson met with Annie and David over Zoom for morning coffee and a chat about the album, their summer tour, and children with highly developed musical taste.
Before we get into discussing the “48 Hours” project, can you talk about your backgrounds?
Annie: I’m from Manhattan, New York City. I’ve been here in the UK for eleven years, I recorded my first record ‘Strangers Who Knew Each Other Names’ in New York and released it just before I moved here. I’d been doing music for about three years before moving but not to the extent that I have since moving to the UK.
David: I started playing guitar when I was 16 and by the end of that summer I’d realised that music was all I wanted to do. I became obsessed with songs and how they can be transformative and transportive for the listener. As I became more confident I split up the band I’d formed and started making records on my own, 2005’s debut ‘I Sincerely Apologise for All the Trouble I’ve Caused’. Working with Annie was the first time I’d felt like collaborating with other human beings again. I always thought that “David does not work well with others” would be on my report card for music school!
Who were your influences when you were starting out?
Annie: Simon and Garfunkel, Carly Simon. I really like Belle & Sebastian and the Foo Fighters. My dad was a pianist and I grew up singing the musical theatre songs he’d play. My voice isn’t really suited to that kind of music but I’m sure that it’s influenced the way that I sing, if not stylistically.
David: I was learning Bob Dylan songs, Don McLean, that kind of thing
When you toured together earlier in 2022, you would sometimes collaborate on stage and this led to the ’48 Hours’ project happening?
Annie: Yes, David sang on one of my songs and I sang on some of David’s, we sang well together, but there was no plan to start with.
David: We had a month off in the middle of the tour and we were saying “do we have enough time to write and record a CD to sell on the next leg of the tour? Almost certainly not, let’s do it anyway.”. Two days later we had all the songs written, we booked the studio and and recorded them and a week after that it was mixed, so it was an incredibly quick turnaround. It was a fun project to do, an ice breaker in a getting to know you way since we were going to be on tour together, and for me after two years in isolation the idea of just sharing anything with other people and the will to be around other people seemed to be the right thing to do.
One aspect of ‘48 Hours’ that’s particularly striking is how raw and honest the lyrics are. Baring your soul when collaborating with others can be difficult in terms of what you give of yourself.
David: One of things Annie and I bonded over was a love of beautiful, emotional songwriting, particular in the lyrical sense. When we were on tour we were trying to find songs to play and saying, “see if this one makes you cry?”, trying to think of the most heart wrenching songs.
Annie: Writing together can be scary, sharing ideas, but I feel like we are able to be nice about it and kindly say to each other “maybe not that line”.
David: Yes, it can be an excruciating thing to do, when the words are coming out of your mouth and you’re saying, “How about this?”. When you’re writing on your own you might write something you think is pretty good, then you live with it for a while and over time you come to accept or not the right path for the song.
Did you take any existing songs into the studio or did you approach the project with a clean sheet of paper?
David: We each had some ideas, but not stuff we’d been sitting on for ages, it was stuff that had come about recently, probably with an eye on this project.
Annie: The idea was that we would do duets, and as the most obvious kind of duet is a love song we decided to do that. We thought of different scenarios to cover, and went with it. We would send ideas to each other and have conversations about each song; such as what is this song about and who are these characters, which was an interesting way to think about songwriting because you don’t ask yourself those questions when you’re writing by yourself.
David: I always interrogate myself to defend every note and every line and if I can’t defend it, it doesn’t stay in. I have to go to war in defence of every word otherwise I can’t put my name to it.
Annie: There have been times where a song was written for one voice but we’ve figured out a way to tell the story but with two voices.
Who are the characters in the songs, where do they come from?
David: I always like to imagine them. Annie and I both have theatrical backgrounds, I think in our teenage years we both imagined we’d be actors on the stage rather than singers on it. I was always very interested in playwriting so for me it’s purely about inventing characters and telling their story. You can have them living exciting, dramatic and fraught lives with complex psychological issues and it’s so much easier to write about their lives than try and deal with your own.
Annie: Whilst the scenarios are all made up I think that there are certain things from the past that I put into the characters which helps with portraying real emotion. I studied theatre in New York and I would have to write the entire back story of a character so that when you’re saying the lines they are true for you based on the things you’ve created.
David: There were times where we said, “Who are these people, what is their story?”. Let’s think about their whole story, even if it none of it shows up in the song you need to understand this character as a fully rounded entity. Don’t write it in the song, just know it, so that the character feels fully formed and three dimensional.
Let’s talk about the recording process, the record sounds very warm and intimate.
David: We recorded everything live in the studio down in Eastbourne where I live, there’s a really good studio, Echo Zoo. They’ve got some very nice old microphones and we wanted to do it like that, we sat a short distance from each other and just sang the songs.
The album is released ahead of the Summer Holiday tour, which takes in several seaside towns.
David: No one ever tours in summer, because it’s festival season, so we thought we’d just go to a bunch of seaside towns. The idea was to make it special and different and we’re deliberately playing in tiny theatres, the kind with red velvet seats and that “end of the pier” romance that’s very British. Hopefully those environments will give us a better chance to grab peoples beating hearts out of their chest and show it to them.
What’s next for the partnership? You both have solo careers but is this the start of an ongoing project?
Annie: We aren’t quite sure what the future holds as the project is only a few months old but our hope is that there will be plenty of new songs and live performances ahead.
To finish up what are you both listening to at the moment?
Annie: I’ve been listening to two specific Kathleen Edwards songs ‘Options Open’ and ‘Hard on Everyone’. I also like Ben Kweller.
David: I’m largely at the mercy of whatever my five year old wants to listen to, and entirely on her own she’s developed a great affection for New Orleans jazz, so we’ve been listing to Allen Toussaint at lot, and she also likes Little Feat. We go old school in my house!