Interview with Annie Wenz (1998)

Record store clerk, waiter, guitar salesman, bartender. These are the sorts of day jobs that most typical musicians hold while waiting for their proverbial commercial boats to come in. Annie Wenz, however, is not a typical musician.

“I worked for a year and a half after college as an obstetrical nurse at the Harlan County [Kentucky] Appalachian Regional Hospital,” Wenz notes during a recent phone interview. “So I got to deliver the babies when the doctors got stuck on the other side of the coal tracks.”

Despite having brought any number of coal miners’ daughters into this world, Wenz herself is not one: she was born in New York City’s rough-and-tumble Queens borough, spent her teen years in Long Island’s melting pot suburbs and now claims pastoral Western Massachusetts as a base of operations from which she can launch regional, national and international musical forays. One such regional foray will bring the singing multi-instrumentalist to the Eighth Step Friday night for an evening of both new compositions and songs culled from her albums Gypsy Moon (1993) and Time is Magic (1996).

Wenz’ diverse upbringing is mirrored in both her records and her concert performances, where she deftly incorporates elements of the jazz and folk styles that have touched her over the years, be they from American, European or African traditions. “My grandmother could have been an opera singer in Poland, but instead came to the United States and worked in sweatshops,” she recalls. “But she loved to sing and would sing at all the family gatherings. So I listened to her and my parents’ big-band, Lawrence Welk kind of stuff growing up and I also used to go to the Rub-a-Dub Pub in Queens with my grandfather to listen to jazz trios there with him.

“Later on, I belonged to this folk mass group and in the early ’70s we were doing all these great protest songs . . . at church! It was amazing, we’d be wearing black arm-bands in church, doing all these Pete Seeger numbers; I always loved that whole folk protest tradition. And another big influence was when the great African percussionist Baba Olatunji came to my school; I was just blown out of my shoes by what I heard. So there have just been so many types of music that I’ve been exposed to–and I’ve loved and learned from them all.

“Unfortunately, however, when a lot of folks see the instrumentation I use now to draw from all of those traditions, they think that what I’m offering is going to be ‘world-beat’ or ‘new age’ music–and those terms really tend to freak them out,” Wenz concludes with a sigh. “But I just look at what I do as being a folklorist who builds on tradition; it’s just that I just don’t see anything odd or weird about having a chorus in Polish here and then a native American flute there. ”

Wenz’s eclectic folklorist’s vision wasn’t conceived full-grown. After sporadic gigging for friends, neighbors and patients during her nursing tour in Kentucky’s mountain country, Wenz relocated to Western Massachusetts and immersed herself in that region’s rich folk scene before shifting gears again and setting off to study jazz piano for five years at the Hartford Conservatory. “After studying piano, I started playing jazz and pop standards in more club-oriented settings for awhile, which led to me getting a great gig playing for a summer over in Sweden, where they love jazz,” Wenz recollects. “I brought my guitar over there with me and it was there that I finally realized that I really missed playing originals–so that’s when I came home and decided to record my first solo record.”

After releasing the extraordinarily eclectic jazz-folk fusion disc, Gypsy Moon, Wenz attempted to tour with the extensive band she had used in crafting her first record. While difficult logistics and plain bad luck kept that tour from becoming a reality, its failure indirectly contributed to Wenz discovering a place and purpose that have come to serve as catalysts not only for her music, but for the rest of her life as well.

“I was headed over to Berlin with my band when my contact there lost his job,” Wenz explains. “So it was February and I was stuck with this non-refundable plane ticket. I called the travel agent and said ‘I don’t want to go to Berlin anymore, I want to go to somewhere warm and I’ve heard it’s pretty safe to go to Belize or Costa Rica alone.’ Costa Rica was cheaper, so there I went. And I had read about a little village in Costa Rica called Montezuma and a woman who lived there named Karen Mogensen, who had started the national park system in Costa Rica. So the whole place just sounded really interesting to me with the emphasis there on the environment and nature.

“When I got to Costa Rica, I told someone I met on my first day there that I was looking for work and he saw my backpacking guitar and offered me a barter deal where I would play in swap for staying and eating at his place on the East Coast. After that I auditioned at a big-ass touristy hotel in San Jose and they offered me work right then and there for decent pay, by Costa Rican standards. But I got to thinking that I could play in a hotel anytime and I was just feeling very called to Montezuma.

“So I got up at the crack of dawn, took a bus, took a ferry, rode in the back of a pickup truck to Montezuma,” Wenz continues. “It turned out to be really a special, powerful place. Lots of old volcanic rock and strong elements, the wind, the water, everything; it’s actually hard for me to write there because the waves crash and made this white noise all the time, but I can practice and take notes and write things from there. So I just fell in love with that village and its people and have since gone back several times and have gotten very involved with the Karen Mogensen Reserve; I do a lot of fund-raising for it and I may even be going there in December to record a therapeutic tape I’m doing.”

So . . . obstetric nurse, jazz pianist in Sweden, fund-raiser for the Costa Rican national park system. These are the sorts of day jobs that Annie Wenz has held while waiting for her proverbial commercial boat to come in–which almost literally happened a few years back when one of Wenz’s compositions was used in ESPN’s television coverage of the America’s Cup.

“My brother was the skipper of the tender that accompanied Stars and Stripes when it won the America’s Cup back from Australia in Perth,” Wenz explains. “He was over in Hawaii and I was missing him so I wrote this song for him and for some reason I was talking to someone at a radio station around that time and I mentioned my brother and the song I’d written and the guy said ‘Send it to me!’ So I did . . . and he sent it to a friend at ESPN and they made this incredible video out of it.

“And when Stars and Stripes won, ESPN played some Billy Joel song first and then they showed the video they had made of my song, so it was just amazing. But, of course, they only got the song right before the final race so they said ‘Y’know we don’t have time to go through all the paper-work and everything so if you want us to just do this to do it, that’s fine but we’re not going to be able to get anything set up with royalties or anything.’ So I said fine because I was just excited to get it out there. But I never made any money on it or anything, even though it has been shown internationally many times. Oh well. Maybe next time.”

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