She’s only 28, yet Ana Egge [pronounced Egg-ee] writes songs and sings with the collective experience of Bonnie Raitt, Ann Peebles, and the late Nina Simone in her prime. She is as forceful and compelling a musician as the Louisiana-raised singer-songwriter she’s opening for, Lucinda Williams, at the State Theater in New Brunswick on Friday, August 5.
Egge, based in a Flatbush, Brooklyn flat when she’s not out on the road, has been steadily touring since the release of her fourth recording, "Out Past The Lights," co-released on her own Grace Records in conjunction with the Trenton-based non-profit label, ParkinSong Records. She’s never been so busy touring. She was hand-picked by Williams this year to open a slew of shows for Williams and her band, who are touring to support her early spring Lost Highway Records release, "Live at the Fillmore," recorded in San Francisco. The two-CD set is Williams’ first-ever live recording. It takes advantage of Williams’ surge in popularity in recent years.
Egge’s background is every bit as interesting as Williams’. Williams, the daughter of poet and college professor Miller Williams, was raised in New Orleans and southwest Louisiana and Arkansas, as well as other places around the South. At a show at the House of Blues in New Orleans on May 1, 2002, Williams introduced the audience to her mother, Lucy Morgan – "a rock ‘n’ roll mama if ever there was one," she told a sold-out crowd. "Live at the Fillmore" is dedicated to Morgan, who died last year.
Egge’s "Out Past The Lights" includes an ode to her New York home, "City of Liberty," and songs about unrequited love, which feature prominently in much of Williams’ blues and folk-based songwriting.
"In a way, we’re kind of cut from the same cloth," Egge says of comparisons between her and Williams. In a phone interview from her Brooklyn home she says: "We come from the same kind of working class intellectual parents. I was brought up poor, but both my parents never stopped dreaming. When we moved away from North Dakota to New Mexico, they gave away all the books they had and started a library."
Egge was raised partly in Ambrose, North Dakota, "a town of about 50," and Silver City, New Mexico, where her family moved when she was 10. The second of four sisters, Ana’s father was a farmer and her mother a music and language arts teacher. She was raised in the era of TV, yet all her sisters sang and her mother and father played piano and guitar, respectively. "TV was rationed in our house," she says. "We only got to pick an hour a week, and we got to watch Saturday morning cartoons, but we could not turn the TV on without asking, or we’d get in trouble."
Her parents, too, were musical. "My dad played guitar in several local bands, and he would sometimes play drums or washboard, and it was strictly an avocation for him, to make music for the community to enjoy," says Egge. "My mom plays piano and accordion and we would always ask her to play, and obviously, being a mother of four and working, sometimes, she was exhausted. But there was always a lot of music on in our house." Egge recalls scribbling onto cassette tapes she liked, before she knew how to write, as a five-year old.
In North Dakota, winters were long and dreary, "but I always loved music, and wanted to play lead guitar since I was about six. I asked for and got a guitar for my seventh birthday, from my grandma. Even before I knew how to play, I was running around the house and strumming and posturing like I was Bob Dylan." Egge recalls spending many days after school in North Dakota listening to Canadian radio stations, "because the best stations I could find were the ones coming from Canada."
Egge says her earliest attempts at songwriting came about shortly after she’d started on guitar lessons. "I began writing when I was 15. My mom mostly had taught language arts, and she was very supportive of all us girls writing journals. So I kept a journal for a lot of my pre-teen and early teenage years.
"When I started to play guitar regularly, I started to put the two together, and I wrote a bunch of songs in a flurry when I was 15, not really knowing it was supposed to be hard," she adds. She recalls they weren’t songs she really wanted to show to people or perform, but then admits, "a few of those songs made it onto my first record. My mom was saying I was lazy, but I was writing lyrics to these melodies I had in my head."
In addition to "Out Past the Lights," Egge’s other recordings include "River Under The Road," for Lazy SOB Records, an Austin label; "Mile Marker," for her own Grace Records; and "101 Sundays," a limited Canadian release that is now out of print.
Egge’s distinctive, powerful voice and poignant lyrics are the focus on "Out Past the Lights" and she accompanies herself on guitar, mandolin, slide guitar, and fiddle, with a backing band of musicians from Brooklyn on several tracks. She also plays banjo and piano. "I really don’t play banjo much, certainly not on this record. I play a little bit of everything but for a lot of these songs, I’d rather have my friends play on it."
After graduating from high school in 1995 in Silver City, New Mexico, Egge skipped college and went straight to Austin, Texas, because she had heard about its music scene from mentors who became friends – people like blues-rock bassist and songwriter Sarah Brown and acoustic blues guitarist and songwriter Steve James. Once in Austin, Egge won a songwriting contest, found a booking agent, recorded an album, and began to tour.
"I had met them both," she says of Brown and James, when they visited Silver City, "and they were very encouraging to me, and then I went to the Kerrville Folk Festival (near Fredericksburg, Texas) before I moved to Austin. When I got there, I couldn’t believe they’d let me in to all the clubs, because I was only 18. I thought, ‘This is the place for me,’ because I thought I’d have to wait another three years to start hanging out or playing in the clubs."
As she continued to develop as a songwriter in Austin, she studied the songs of Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Michelle Shocked. While hanging out with James in Austin, she says: "I got into the blues people like Mississippi John Hurt and Big Bill Broonzy. I found I had an affinity for that type of music, and Steve James was quick to tell me I had it."
Like the blonde-haired Lucinda Williams, who is now 52 but doesn’t look a day over 40, Egge says: "I felt a connection to that (blues) music, and I still feel a connection to it," referring to the now-deceased classic blues men and women. For proof that Egge has absorbed the classic blues, listen to "The Puzzle," the track that closes "Out Past The Lights."
"I don’t know how to describe my music," she says, "but Lucinda started talking about me last night in Boston, and she said I’m a soul singer but in a folk-rock kind of way. She said something about me being the Nina Simone of folk-rock. I thought that was pretty cool, because I’ve spent time listening to Nina and Ann Peebles, Etta James, and early Bonnie Raitt."
Egge contributed a track to ParkinSong’s 2003 release to raise funds for Parkinson’s Disease research, "ParkinSong: 28 Songs of Hope." She is joined on the record by many artists with considerable reputations: Dave Alvin, formerly of the Blasters, whose father died from Parkinson’s disease; Kelly Willis; Eliza Gilkyson; Raitt; and even Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
"This man, Rob Litowitz, started ParkinSong kind of as a tribute to his mother, who has been living with Parkinson’s for years," Egge says. While she has no personal connection or experience with relatives with Parkinson’s, "the idea of doing something to help the cause just appealed to me from the get-go, and it just made sense on all kinds of levels to put this record out with his label."
In the meantime, opening theater shows for Williams and her expert backing band can’t be bad for her profile. "I feel like I’ve been around a while and people are starting to accept me; it’s all starting to come full circle. It’s nice to not be the new kid anymore," she says.
"Success comes in a roundabout way these days," she adds, given the state of today’s record business, "so I’m talking with some people who are pitching my songs to movies and TV. Stuff like that is going to be what finally breaks me out nationally. I haven’t stopped the ways I’m doing what I’m doing but the record business has changed."
Lucinda Williams and band, with Ana Egge opening, Friday, August 5, 8 p.m. State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $25 to $45. 732-246-SHOW.