The most striking thing about Durham songwriter Anna Rose Beck is her voice. Light and crisp, it moves with resilience and lands with the calming effervescence of a seaside breeze, bearing weight without strain. Her voice seems so pure and effortless that it's hard to understand how it wasn't always there, or at least how she didn't always trust it. A few years ago, Beck didn't even think she could sing.
"I honestly wasn't musical," she explains, her blue-green eyes sparkling in the late May sun while she reclines on a patio in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. "I wasn't an obvious musical child."
As kids, she and the other young members of her extended family put on informal performances for the adults. One cousin had an amazing voice and always took the lead. Beck would try, but she never had it. Her family consoled her, telling her that singing just wasn't her thing and that was OK. Rather, they enrolled her in ballet, the first in a series of organized distractions. During high school in Austin, Texas, she swam, wrote for the student newspaper and played cello. None of it stuck. She drifted through school, making grades good enough to get her into Duke University. Still, outside of classwork, she never found her rudder.
At Duke, she settled into a biomedical engineering major, looking for a challenge that would work toward her aspiration to go to medical school. The course load was dense with math and science, leaving no room to take something that provided creative fulfillment. On a lark the summer before her senior year, she and a roommate decided to learn the guitar. The roommate soon let the pastime go. But after three years of college, Beck had finally found her way back to singing—as it turns out, her passion.
"It was just this thing that I immediately became addicted to," she remembers. "I had never had anything like that before. I had been in all these activities as a kid, and I did them. But I never really loved them. This was the first thing that I sort of fell into and was like, 'Oh my God, I want to spend all my time doing this.' It was something about the challenge of creating a beautiful song, because it was hard for me at first. I think that's what made it addicting."
Three years later, her obsession has produced its first formal expression: The Weathermaker is a concise seven-song set that puts Beck's talents out front. Her dreamy picking and resonant vocals are buoyed by conservative yet rewarding full-band arrangements. Cool washes of pedal steel, hushed prickles of piano and skittering drums fill the space, lending her songs both grace and immediacy. The band lifts her hypnotic melodies and imagery-rich lyricism in a way that suggests the work of a seasoned songwriter with a favorable record deal. But this is a self-release from a first-timer who gathered a recording budget by building a page on the popular fundraising website Kickstarter.
The record attests to how far Beck has come since 2008. Inspired by a YouTube clip of Bob Dylan playing "Mr. Tambourine Man" at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, she began learning his songs during the fall of her senior year. She picked along to Dylan's words, recording herself on her iPhone in an effort to work on her voice.
"I was a horrible singer when I started," she says, shaking her head bashfully. "I got into recording myself, and then I would listen back to it and be horrified about how it sounded versus what I thought it sounded like."
After about six months, she gained confidence in her voice and instrumental ability. She signed up for her first open mic at Durham's Broad Street Cafe, preparing two Dylan songs and an additional cover. She'd learned to be satisfied with herself while playing alone at home; on a stage in front of a crowd, she encountered paralyzing stage fright.
"I don't think I got through the actual song," she recalls. "I got all shaky, and my voice got all shaky. It was really—it was traumatic. But for some reason I'm a masochist and decided to keep going back over and over again. It took me forever to get over it."
Beck began penning her own songs at the same time. Again, she lets go of a heavy sigh, explaining that it took her those months to attain a solid enough grasp on song mechanics to begin writing her own material.
The account of her musical trajectory is filled with these moments of exasperation, always relating back to the amount of time it took for her to get past some hurdle in learning her craft. It's a trait that could easily be mistaken for impatience and self-importance; for Beck, it's the opposite. As with her vocal frustrations, she's continually more self-critical than self-satisfied. She zeroes in on an area of improvement and won't rest until she's turned an apparent weakness into a strength. This mix of patience and awareness—knowing how to work, and for how long—is what makes Beck's debut so strong. Three years ago, she had no confidence in her voice; now it's the calling card of a talented and confident young performer.
The Weathermaker isn't bashful about the process that made it possible. The second track, simply titled "The Minor Chord Song," is the first song Beck completed. More than just a fitting gesture, it's a well-rendered tale of heartbreak that speaks to her songwriting talent. Set to the simplest of strums, the song is propelled by a plodding country bass line and gussied with simple cello flourishes. It hangs on the image of Beck folding a T-shirt inherited from a lost love, memories and images flitting through her mind as she lays her metaphor to rest in a dresser drawer.
"Now I write this song/ Wondering where I go wrong," she sings. "Oh, let these minor chords sing me to sleep/ Please."
Filled with the possibility of what a few chords and some words can fix, "Minor Chord" is as much about a young songwriter taking stock of her own odes as it is about a girl getting over a boy. Emotions, and the way they are controlled by outside forces, is a theme that runs through this record. She probes the way images and mementos make her feel, hoping to induce similar feelings in her audience. For Beck, the best songs do unexpected things to people—singer included.
"Each song has a certain feeling that you can't necessarily just put into words, which in my mind is why you write a song about it," she says. "There are some songs where you listen to them and you're like, 'I feel weird and sad and nostalgic, but I don't know why.' And it's just because the song is that good."