If Anna Connolly had a different backstory, her debut album, After Thoughts, would make perfect sense at face value: It’s a coolly vulnerable set of guitar-based songs about women and men and the spaces between them. Her voice is unstudied and occasionally husky, the musical arrangements are no-frills, and the lyrics have blunt surprises.
There’s so much context, though, and the album still survives it. Connolly was around D.C.’s ’80s hardcore punk scene with her sister—photographer Cynthia Connolly of Banned In D.C. fame—and she knew fellas with boldfaced surnames like MacKaye, Janney, Stabb (RIP) and so on. She didn’t make music back then. Instead, she studied Russian in college, lived in Russia for a while afterward and then left because it became “too wild, and a little depressing,” she says. She eventually settled into married life in the D.C. area and had two sons.
Then came the divorce, about a decade ago. She started playing guitar afterward, mostly to entertain her boys. “They were really little, and y’know, they didn’t care … and when they didn’t care, I realized I just really liked it as a thing to do,” she says. But the motivation to perform publicly didn’t really coalesce until 2016. She still had friends to lean on, of course, and early collaborators included bassist Joe Lally (Fugazi) and drummer Stefan Bauschmid (Numbers Station, Garland of Hours).
Nostalgia isn’t what fuels the album, though. The overall feel is punk-adjacent, not punkish. The core inspirations are men, from the post-divorce musician boyfriend in “21” who tells her “I wish I fucked you when you were 21,” to the ciphers and flings in “Jewels,” “White Flag,” “Stars,” and “Max On The Black Sea,” to the nightmare bro in “1%.” Two cover songs, Shellac‘s metal-as-metaphor “Copper” and legendary Russian band Akvarium‘s “Starik Kozlodoev”—about an old lech, of course—fit right into the program.
Connolly won’t say who “21” is about, but she doesn’t mind talking about the long-gone relationship.
“The sad part about it is that I kind of stayed with that person anyway, because I tried to think that there were other positive things about him, despite what he said to me. And perhaps that’s something that I’ve observed about myself—that I’ve sort of tolerated things that I … shouldn’t tolerate,” Connolly says, noting that despite the shock of the guy’s comment, her emotions were complicated. “I didn’t want to just write a song about, ‘some dude said some awful thing to me.’ I was trying to show the nuance of it—that I actually still liked him and wanted to be around him despite that.”
One thing is clear, though—After Thoughts is about what came before and beyond her marriage.
“There’s actually no mention at all, anything, about my ex-husband on that whole record,” she says. “It’s definitely not a divorce record.”
When it came to actually making an album, there were two heroes: Multi-instrumentalists/producers Devin Ocampo and Don Godwin. Ocampo—known most recently as singer/guitarist of The Effects and a drummer for Beauty Pill—appears on most of the tracks, and Connolly says he was crucial in expanding her simple originals into full-band arrangements. Godwin oversaw the recording at Tonal Park studio in Takoma Park, played on parts of it and likewise had broad influence, she says.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking for me, and I probably made it nerve-wracking for them, because I hadn’t done this like 80 times,” Connolly says. “I can see how once you’ve done this a number of times, you could probably be more casual about it.”
Lally appears on one track (“Stars”), and his input was also interesting, Connolly says. When she was first working out some of the songs with him, “Joe often felt like he wasn’t adding anything to my music and that I should play alone,” she says. “Joe was almost encouraging me to stay solo or to have very minimal accompaniment. He definitely was like, ‘you write songs that stand on their own, and they don’t need a lot, and you’re kind of drowning the message.'”
Connolly says however, that she wanted After Thoughts to be a full-sounding document of this phase of her musical life. She decided to have 300 copies of the album pressed on vinyl. In asking around for advice, she heard from another legend of the underground, Shellac leader and prolific recording engineer Steve Albini.
“I’ve been warned by people like Steve and other friends of mine—you know, you press vinyl, you might be sitting around with 250 records in your house for the rest of your life. You have to get your head around the fact that this could happen,” Connolly says. “So if you’re doing this, go into it with open eyes. I almost didn’t do it, and then I felt just sort of like, I don’t want this to be my only record, but if it is, I would like to have it be this tangible thing.”
Anna Connolly, backed by Devin Ocampo, Don Godwin and Hannah Burris, plays Friday at the Dew Drop Inn, 2801 8th St. NE. Also performing a separate set will be Joe Lally, backed by Anthony Pirog and Jerry Busher.