Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Annika von Grey, songwriter and co-founder of the Atlanta-based indie alt-folk band Von Grey, about the benefits and detriments of performing with family and how they fight others' preconceptions.
CP: You and your sisters were all classically trained, right? On what?
AVG: It actually started with string instruments, and we all started when we were five years old. Kathryn started on cello, I started on the violin, Fiona started on violin and Petra started on the viola. We all started on piano at the same time, so we all started with instrumentation before vocals.
CP: When did vocals enter the picture?
AVG: That was about three and a half years ago that we first started adding vocals into what we were doing. It was the first time we were branching out from classical into some more contemporary genres. We first moved into bluegrass music, actually, and that was the first time we sang because, instrumentation wise, it was the most natural transition to make. That's when we started singing. We've done it ourselves since then. We started taking vocals lessons about a year ago.
CP: When you started singing, was it a natural transition or was the going pretty rough at first?
AVG: I don't think we probably sounded as good as we thought we did when we started, but it wasn't too hard because we'd been training our ears for so long with our instrumentation. With classical music, we did a lot of ear training by listening, and that's how we learned rather than by reading music. It helped to train our ears to hear pitches and to sing. It was easier than it would have been had we started out with singing without that [training].
CP: Are you all from Atlanta originally?
AVG: We've been living there since Petra was born in 2000. It's definitely where we all call home. Kathryn and I were born in London and Fiona was born in California, so we weren't all born there, but it's definitely where we grew up and consider to be our home.
CP: How old are you guys now?
AVG: Petra is 12, Fiona is 14, I'm 16 and Kathryn is 17.
CP: Walk me through how Von Grey got started.
AVG: It was a natural transition form classical into the new genres. We started playing at weddings and stuff with chamber music, and it really opened our eyes to the possibilities we had as four sisters with similar musical tastes. We had been learning together for so long, so when we started three and half years ago to doing bluegrass and alternative country into what we're doing now, I think it was a pretty organic process.
We all were brought up together, so we have pretty similar creative vision. The fact that we're all sisters creates an open creative dynamic between the four of us. We're really free to stretch ourselves creatively without the inhibitions of working with people we don't know very well.
I think it was all four of us putting our creativity into one pot and seeing what came out of it. We've been doing that for three and a half to four years, and we continue to move forward with pretty much the same vision for what we want to do, creatively, which helps as we move forward.
CP: Getting started at such a young age, were there a lot of hoops you had to jump through to be taken seriously?
AVG: Absolutely. It's kind of a novelty act to some people when you have four young sisters who started out at such a young age. It's something we've been battling, but we've been working really hard to become musicians who can stand their own ground.
That's helped establish the fact that we're a serious act and are passionate about what we're doing, not just kids who are like a circus act of kids whose parents are forcing them to do it. We really love what we're doing, and we put a lot of time and passion and energy into it. I think that's starting to show in our live shows and recording.
As young women in an industry and a genre we're trying to get into that full of young young guys in their early 20s and older, it's hard to break into and be taken seriously. That's something we've had to face head on. We've worked hard to establish ourselves as musicians who can play well, and that has helped to diminish that hurdle.
CP: Do you think there are different expectations of your group because you're sisters?
AVG: You know, I think there are a little bit, but it's not been anything negative, so far. Mostly, it's the sister harmony thing, which is good to hear. It's mostly been positive. It's more of a help, mostly just in the way we work as a team. There's not been much negative, so far.
CP: What role, if any, does being related play in your ability to harmonize or collaborate?
AVG: Vocally, I think the fact that we were raised together gives us similar speech patterns. That we say words similarly helps with the singing, and I think it does help with blending and tone stuff. It does help us match together. Creatively, it makes us feel a lot more comfortable. Even if we get in fights, we get over them in 10 minutes. Sometimes, it's intense because we have sibling rivalry, but it never gets in the way.
CP: You're sisters, but do you share similar tastes in music? If not, how do your differing tastes come together in Von Grey's sound?
AVG: Yeah, we all listen to really different music. If you went into our different rooms, you'd hear completely different genres. It helps a lot because we have a lot of different influences influencing us.
Even if I don't like what Fiona is listening to, I can still see where she is coming from and why she likes it. We have a lot in common for what we want our sound to be. We have different influences, but what we want our songs to sound like and the sounds we want to produce, it hasn't gotten in the way of that.
CP: When you started out, how did you reconcile having such different tastes with creating a sound you could all be happy with?
AVG: At first, we were a little lost with our genre. We started with bluegrass, but we threw in a Metallica cover and played things by Tom Petty and other artists. We were all over the place, and we had to find a sound that was cohesive.
As we've gone on from there, we haven't had a discussion about who we are and what we want to sound like. We haven't had to do that because what we've been doing naturally and organically is pushing us in the direction we want to go.
CP: Tell me about your new EP. What were your hopes and goals going into working on it?
AVG: This was our first time writing a bunch of songs that were in more of an alternative folk genre instead of an alternative country genre. It was our first time expressing ourselves that way though a recording. It was a lot of fun.
Our main goal was to have something to sell at shows and also a way to get our names out there and create buzz about who we are as artists and to have an accurate representation of where we're going. We wanted a marker for where we are, creatively.
We've gotten some radio play on it, which is awesome that people are responding to it really well. We've been really happy with where it's taking us. Hopefully, we can write a new batch of songs and record a new project in 2013, but we're pretty happy with the EP now. I think it's a good indicator of what our sound is and the vibe we're trying to capture with our music and our live shows. Our main goal was to set in stone what we're doing and have a marker to look back at to see where we were when we wrote those songs.
CP: How did you end up working with Nick DiDia? What was he like to work with?
AVG: We actually met a friend of his at a gig we were playing. It was just kind of a series of people who knew each other and reaching him through that. He came to our basement and heard us play some new ideas, and we just really vibed creatively.
He had some ideas that really inspired us. It was a cool experience to go to the studio and throw around some ideas. We had really different opinions on how the sound should be, and at first, it felt like we were going in different directions, but we started talking about it, and he had some really cool stuff to add to it that we hadn't thought of before.
We also had a preconceived idea of what we wanted that stayed pretty much constant, and he was really, really cool about understanding what our vision was. It was a natural introduction to meet him, and it was lucky thing that we got to work with him.
CP: Is it out yet? If not, when will it be?
AVG: It is not out yet. I think we're releasing it to radio on Monday, and the official release date is in late September or early October. We do sell it at all of our shows. We have a couple of songs on our website right now that people can listen to, and when it comes out, it will be on Amazon and iTunes and our website.
CP: In your bio, Fiona is quoted as saying that "there are times when musical expression is more important than perfect execution." Do you share that feeling?
AVG: Totally. I think that as an art form, music is defined by the emotion behind the music. If you're not singing a song and your pitch is perfect but you're not singing with any emotion or feeling, then I don't get much gratification from listening to an artist like that, and the listener doesn't have the same experience.
How we want to perform is how view music, in general: The more emotional it is and the more raw and honest it is, the more the listener can connect with it. Hopefully, the performer can also connect with it on a more personal, emotional level. That's something we've always wanted to accomplish with our live shows and our recording.
If your voice cracks a little bit on a note because you're really feeling the emotion behind what you're singing or if there's a little breath before you start, I don't think that necessarily takes away from it. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be a musician who can play in tune and in time and can play the notes correctly, but that's not the most important thing to focus on when you're trying to connect with the song.
CP: You and Fiona are Von Grey's primary songwriters. Do you approach songwriting differently or take inspiration from different sources?
AVG: Yeah, I think Fiona and I write both write pretty much completely from personal experience. Even if we're writing something based off observing another person's situation, we always find a way to leave in something about our personal life as well. That's something that really ties us together, just in the emotion we put into it, especially since we're sisters. Most of the time, I know what she's going through in her life, and she knows what I'm feeling. That really helps us to bring those emotions out in the music.
As far as composition, Fiona writes almost completely on the guitar because that's her main instrument. I think she comes up with a chord progressions before she comes up with the melody or lyrical ideas, whereas I usually come up with the melody at the same time that I'm coming up with a chord progression or a riff, and I usually write on the piano. We do write differently like that, but I can't think of the last time that one of us completed a song without bringing it to the other one and collaborating on it. Even if we started differently, we both like to get a solid structure down together after we promote the initial idea. The lyrics are the last thing we write down over the completed melody. We usually work together, so we find a format we like to work in and an order we like to work in, which has worked pretty well for us, so far.
CP: What do you want people to take away from your music?
AVG: I think the main thing we want people to take away from it is not just that we're musicians who really care about what we're doing but that with our music, we're trying to break down barriers people have put up to try to define by genre or sound or demographic. We're just trying to create music that makes someone feel something - the song that will make someone want to get up and laugh and dance and the song that makes someone feel a little bit upset because it hits close to home.
The main thing we want to get across is that we have authentic emotion and we want to express that through our music and make people feel it in turn. That's the main thing, to create music that is an emotional form of art.