Nena Anderson's career is like a layer cake. The 37-year-old whose bourbon-smooth voice sounds like a blend of Lucinda Williams and Billie Holliday started off singing the blues nearly two decades ago and now fronts three bands whose songs range from cocktail-hour jazz to grittier Americana.
All three of her bands—the more countrified Brawley, rock-influenced The Neverout and her eponymous quartet— were nominated for 2010 San Diego Music Awards and include respected musicians like Adrian Demain, Mike Butler and O. On the stage, Anderson exudes the enviable self-assurance of someone who's exactly where she's supposed to be. It's surprising, then, that her Kickstarter.com profile opens with this: “I've struggled with my musical identity most of my life.”
(Kickstarter is a website that artists and musicians use to raise money for projects. Last month, Anderson launched a fundraising campaign to record her first proper album.)
It's a challenge, she admits, to blend all the elements that have influenced her musically throughout the years—especially when it comes time to put those songs to tape.
“Right now, it's been about trying to make it all flow together,” she says, “especially for the album, so I can have all of those things in there without it being disconnected.”
The Encinitas native says she didn't feel any sort of calling to play music until she was 21 and joined some friends— all of whom were just learning to play—at an open-mic at a Carlsbad coffeehouse.
“I just went to hang out with my friends,” she says. “I wasn't planning on doing anything.” But when she started singing, “something clicked,” she says.
“And everybody was like, ‘You were a blues singer in another life! You were a large black woman in another life! Where did that voice come from?' “When I started singing blues, it just fit,” she recalls. “It was like magic.”
For eight years, Anderson fronted a swing band, playing regular gigs at The Derby in Los Angeles. She got married, had a baby and started performing with acclaimed local Latin-jazz musician Gilbert Castellanos during his jazz-jam nights at the Onyx Room.
“It pretty quickly evolved into me doing a jazz gig and singing a lot of standards because it was a challenge,” she says. “I hadn't really done anything like that. After I did that for awhile, then, I kind of, again, I got bored.”
This is a thread that runs through the narrative of her career. Those three words, “I got bored,” mark the spots where she decided to change things up. And, it's not about changing things just a little. Anderson, who works as a freelance art director, has an innate drive for perfection.
“I work really, really hard,” she says. “And the minute I master something, or I'm bored with it, I find something new to challenge me.”
Three years ago, she decided to learn to play guitar—she was frustrated, she says, that no one could interpret her music exactly the way she heard it in her head. To force herself to practice and feel more comfortable performing for an audience, she'd go to an open-mic night in La Mesa.
“I figured it was safe because it was really far from home: No one will know me; I can just hack away,” she says. “It forced me every week to practice and play because I knew I'd be there in front of people struggling through a song.”
She knows that with her natural jazz-and-blues-singer voice, she could make a decent living doing corporate gigs and regular bar nights. But that's not what she wants. It's a challenge, but for all the wrong reasons.
“There's good money in doing that,” she says. “But, again, to me, I can only do so much of it. It makes me hate music. And not because I don't like the music I play, but because, just, six or seven hours at an event…. It's just that it's a really hard life and a really hard lifestyle.”
She launched her Kickstarter fundraising campaign on Nov. 11 and hit her goal—$3,000—on Dec. 6 with four days to spare. She's recording at White Horse Recorders, the studio owned by members of local band Transfer.
Though she's midway through recording the album—she hopes to release it in early spring—in January, Anderson's going on a 10-day tour with Cash'd Out, the local Johnny Cash cover band, performing June Carter songs. Normally, Cash'd Out's Junes do a few songs with the band and that's it. But Anderson recognized a new challenge.
“I was like, ‘I want to open the show, I want to do the duets and then I'll do a couple songs after that,'” she says. “Then they go, ‘Do you want to play rhythm guitar with the band, too?' And I was like, ‘Yeah, because I would way rather be on stage and playing than sitting around watching you guys.'
“But, all of a sudden, within a month, I've got to learn a lot of songs,” she laughs. “It's a challenge and it's something to add to my own music, having that knowledge.”
Nena Anderson will perform at Lestat's on Friday, Dec. 17. Brawley will perform at Bar Pink on Thursday, Dec. 16. nenaanderson.com