It’s a rainy, gray, crummy, Upstate New York kind of day outside—the summer, if you could even call it that, is over. All you need is just a tiny ounce of sunlight, a speck of blue, and you can find it in the soothing sounds of indie folk artist Annie Dressner, whose wonderful new album, Coffee at the Corner Bar, landed earlier this month. What puts Dressner in the upstate orbit is not the fact that she was born in New York City, but rather that she’s spent a sizable chunk of her life in Averill Park, just south of Saratoga Springs, where her dad and stepmom have put down permanent roots. “My home in the states is there,” she says. “The states”? you ask. Eight years ago, Dressner left for greener pastures across the Atlantic and now calls Cambridge, England, home. She lives there with her musician/producer husband and their two young children.
Dressner has been releasing wonderfully understated folk music since 2011—her melodic, quasi-conversational vocal delivery makes you feel as though you’re on the other side of a Zoom cocktail social, listening to an old friend catching you up on life—and over the next seven years, released an EP (2013’s East Twenties) and another full-length (2018’s Broken Into Pieces). Coffee, which was produced by husband Paul Goodwin during late-night sessions at their Cambridge home, so as not to wake up kids, finds the songwriter wistful about her motherland—the majority of the songs were written about New York—especially now that the world’s been plunged into a pandemic. Trust me: Despite the heaviness of the subject-matter, her songs are bright enough to un-gray your day. Take plaintive album opener, “Nyack,” written for her brother, which looks back at a fun weekend getaway from her childhood. “Out in the Cold” was written to raise funds after the disastrous Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York City but was never released, living in demo-land until now.
On “Midnight Bus,” Dressner resurrects another years-ago demo, this one a co-write with friend Matthew Caws, who is the lead singer of indie rock band Nada Surf and also happens to be a native New Yorker who expatriated to Cambridge (he first appeared on the track “Get Out” on her previous album.) Of meeting Caws, Dressner remembers: “My husband and I were at a local pub, and Matthew was there, and I’d maybe been living in Cambridge for six or nine months and was really homesick. I still am.” The two got to talking about a shared love for New York bagels, and that led to the collaboration. (For Caws fans, the track sounds like an outtake from Get There, an album he released in 2013 as Minor Alps, with fellow indie rocker Juliana Hatfield.)
Finally, “Pretend,” where the new album gets its title, was written pre-COVID but has taken on a new hue for Dressner since the pandemic hit. “I spent a lot of time pretending during [lockdown], especially with little children,” says Dressner. She made a Zoom video about it. One of the lyrics in the song—”there’s a beach by the city where I like to pretend”—rings especially true, as Dressner spent the first few months of lockdown pretending that her small back patio area was a beach, complete with a lounge chair and a small kiddie pool for her kids.
You’d assume that, during a time when we’ve all been largely been isolated from the outside world, creatives would be blossoming, producing mounds of their best work. (At the outset, a “Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the Plague” meme hit Twitter.) But for many, including Dressner, that just hasn’t been the case. “I picked up my guitar seldomly during this time,” she says. “I actually wrote a song for the first time in nine months last week. [Beforehand] I didn’t feel like writing anything. The situation was so much bigger than anything I wanted to write, and because I write such personal songs. I didn’t feel like I could write songs about myself.”
Although Dressner obviously had to cancel all of her tour dates this year, she’s recently started streaming live shows on Facebook and is hoping to do a new one every few months or so. At press time, she had already booked four gigs for next year and was cheekily calling them the Will This Happen? Tour. For our sanity, let’s hope it does.