One sure sign of spring is all the construction crews sprouting up on the streets. Crews have been working to lay new sidewalks and streets near Chicago bar The Hideout. Inside, classically trained violist Anni Rossi has undergone some reconstruction herself. Her debut Rockwell received a nice response, but then Rossi went through a break-up and moved to a new city. Now she’s out with the new album Heavy Meadow. For WBEZ, music reporter Althea Legaspi caught up with Rossi at a recent performance at The Hideout.
“Honestly I think I felt a little oppressed by Chicago in a way,” says 26-year old violist Anni Rossi. Rossi’s classical music study took her from Minnesota to California. She moved to Chicago four years ago to be with her boyfriend. But her relationship unraveled while she was writing Heavy Meadow. “It’s natural for me to be stoic and not express how I’m feeling one way or the other, and so I think I went all out with Heavy Meadow, I found a way to express the deepest darkest frustrations that maybe I’ve never been able to let out in any other way,” she explains. “Some of it was spawned by feeling the oppression of a romantic relationship, but some of it was also I think that I was coping with different things from childhood and teenage years.”
Rossi moved to Brooklyn last year and the solo artist added a band. Classically trained since the age of 3, she developed a style that combines traditional forms with a pop sensibility. For this last album, she began to play her viola like a guitar. “I think I had really felt I had kinda exhausted that by the end of my touring cycle for Rockwell and that I wanted just something tactically new and different to carry the melodies of my songs,” she says. “And so I think it just naturally fell into this guitar role where I could play chords and play it more like a rhythmic instrument.”
This adds an element of surprise live and gives her viola a plinky/brighter tone than a guitar might exhibit. Rossi’s novel style is not without its critics, though. “It’s obviously meant to be bowed, and play a single line/melody on it. And so I kinda - to get the right chords and the right sound I kinda need to strum it pretty violently, and it just pulls right out of tune very easily because it’s not meant to be so aggressively kind of attacked. And I’ve been criticized by other string players that I don’t respect my instrument and I don’t– I understand that part of it. There’s something that, I mean I have like tape on my instrument and I have zip ties… I should be a little more concerned about preserving the instrument,” she acknowledges. “But I think what changed that was I traded in a really expensive instrument for four less expensive instruments. I think having these couple instruments that are kinda beaters, or whatever that you can just do/try new things out with and kinda challenging the function of the instrument and not feel like I was throwing a bunch of money out the window was important.”
Mirroring her unusual treatment of her viola, Rossi vocal runs are also distinct. “I always really loved sight singing, and sight singing involves understanding intervals, and you have to identity intervals where you jump a lot. So I think more than anything my ear training and sight singing influenced my vocal style, which is kinda funny that I just realized that out loud now,” she says. “But yeah I think also what influenced it was I was the viola was right in my face when I would be writing melodies, I’d be riffing on my viola and trying to sing over it. So I think my voice always wanted to do what my viola was doing and I jump around a lot on the viola so I think that’s how my voice ended up getting that jumpy quality.”
With a nod to classical forms while simultaneously challenging their constraints, Anni Rossi’s new Heavy Meadow constructions are opening her up. “My element of playing and exploration isn’t immediately palpable, or it can take a minute to understand just that I’m kinda messing around and playing around with the instrument a little bit. But I don’t – at the end of the day I also don’t want my work to be all about the viola, it just happens to be how I carry my songs,” she explains. “And I think this record just helped me understand that writing songs, and melodies and lyrics are very important to me and help me deal with a lot of things that make me feel bad or make me feel good.”
Anni Rossi’s sophomore effort, Heavy Meadow, was released this month.
“Safety of Objects”