Anna St. Louis grew up in Kansas city, studied art in Philadelphia, and moved to Los Angeles to pursue music. The singer-songwriter incorporates each leg of the journey into her understatedly lush debut, First Songs, filtering a solid foundation of folk and country through the lens of Philly weirdness and LA cool.
For an album that essentially spans an entire country, though, First Songs is surprisingly pared down. Armed with a guitar (sometimes electric and sometimes acoustic), an expressively warm voice, and the sparing support of bass, percussion, and a few other instruments, St. Louis does a lot with a little. Emerging from recordings done in the bedroom where she also taught herself guitar, the songs on this album reflect the intimacy of their origin. But they also radiate with a sense of openness, not only revealing the four walls of St. Louis’ room but also the California sunshine that glows off of them and, perhaps, the exciting possibilities that it can inspire.
Not that First Songs is bright-eyed in the inexperienced sense; in fact, many of the songs borrow the feeling of world-weariness common in folk and country. In “Wind-Up,” the opener, a simple song that builds around bluesy repetitions, she sings, “I wanted to find the secret of this place / But I’m sitting here and it’s getting late.” In “Mercy,” a subdued track with psychedelic guitar lines that swirl over a low guitar drone, she poses a relationship as the sharing of troubles, singing, “I have burden / I’d like to lay / At your pillow / Could I stay?” In “Fire,” the gorgeous closer with a Nick Drake-like fingerpicking pattern, St. Louis croons a series of wishes that signal both a time of trouble and a glimmer of hope: “Honey, let your fire be okay.” Even the song called “Sun,” with its bright acoustic guitar and pretty vocal harmonies, contains its share of sadness.
Though many of the songs on the album hint at these kinds of stories, they tend to deal more in feelings than narratives. St. Louis’ lyrics, often snapshots of images or emotions, are equal measures evocative and mysterious (perhaps it’s a holdover from her days singing in punk bands). The result is an album that, despite being straightforward in its compositions, also feels slightly eerie and off-kilter, like there’s something hiding under the surface. A hard sensation to achieve with songs so sparse, that feeling—along with the sheer beauty of the music—deserves some dedicated listening time and a reminder to look out for where St. Louis ends up next.