Timing Is Everything

As songwriter Ann Reed and her audiences have matured, so has her work. Perhaps that's the reason for her loyal, widespread following

Brown eyes.
Silver earrings.
Twelve-string guitar.
Voice like butterscotch.

If you ask, Ann Reed could craft these words into a song. Maybe a beautiful ballad offering gentle inspiration. Or a jazzy little tune that spins a favorite phrase till you fall away dizzy and laughing.

She's done it before. She sat in a booth at the State Fair early one morning taking suggestions for snippets of lyrics from radio listeners -- then wrote a song complete with references to Pronto Pups, butter heads, and crop art -- and performed it on the air. All in three hours.

"There was one person who said that the pig snouts feel like warm erasers," Reed recalls. "If I could have worked that in, I would have loved to."

So, she might appreciate the challenge. But most days Ann Reed would probably rather keep writing songs based on her own experiences.

Actually, her own experiences are the basis for only a portion of her songs. Reed, 43, also draws ideas from what she observes around her. Her friends say no subject or detail from a conversation -- occuring in her living room or an on-line chat room -- is safe.

"I'm a terrible eavesdropper," she admits, with a touch of pride.

Few experiences seem too trivial or traumatic for Reed to explore in her work. She has a way of capturing the frustration of finding a parking place, the tentative excitement of a new romance, and the sorrow of saying good-bye to a longtime partner, and then weaving those emotions into a song with equal parts melody, sensitivity, and skill.

It is that ability, along with her polished-as-mahogany voice that prompts fans living across the country to board a flight for Minneapolis when she announces another album-release concert. And it is that ability that causes Mary Ehleringer, a normally low-key human-services worker in St. Louis Park, to call herself an avid Ann Reed groupie.

"From the first time I heard her, I've been totally captivated by her music," says Ehleringer. "Her music speaks to me. She writes about strong emotions that are elicited by very common situations, in a very artistic way. She makes me say, "Yes! I know exactly what she's saying.'"

Ehleringer says that feeling has only grown stronger in the 50 or so performances she's seen, and in the years she's been following Reed from bar gigs to cozy auditoriums to the Guthrie Theater.

"She stays focused on a part of life that interests me."

Ehleringer is not alone in her appreciation of Reed. Readers of the Minnesota Women's Press recently selected her a "feminist find" in Twin Cities entertainment.

"I think the thing about Ann Reed is that she is homegrown and authentic," says Cynthia Scott, editor of the St. Paul-based Women's Press. "By authentic I mean I don't think Ann has ever, ever tried to be anyone other than who she is in her music.

"And of course, part of who she is is a lesbian," Scott continues, "and that's always been a part of her music. She lets us see who she is, and in so doing, we are able to see a part of ourselves."

Throughout the past two decades, Reed has grown steadily as a performer, gaining confidence and honing her skills in writing, performing, and producing. She rarely shies away from an opportunity to extend her range, handling folk, blues, jazz, and soft rock. But it is her versatility in subject matter that has won her fans.

"She can be inspirational, she can be romantic, she can be very, very funny, and she can bring you to tears," says Scott.

But no musician can live on the support of fans alone. Being out on the road, as Reed once was far more than 200 days a year, costs money. There are motel bills. Meals to buy. Upkeep of the trusty Honda Civic.

It was Lin Bick, Reed's business partner and manager, who helped get Reed's career on firm financial footing.

"Back when Lin and I started working together in 1989, I was right at a point where I thought maybe this should be a hobby," says Reed. "But Lin brought a lot of energy and she believed in what I do. Things started moving."

By 1992, the Civic had given way to a Chevy van dubbed "Muffy," and Reed and Bick jumped in it and drove to Nashville in pursuit of a deal with a major label. They spoke with several executives and got a glimpse of more than one contract. But something was amiss.

"It just didn't sit well with us to have someone telling us where we can record, where we can tour, and how I should look," says Reed, who describes herself as a "fairly independent type."

After an exhausting but fruitless search for an acceptable deal, they came home to Minneapolis to regroup and rethink.

"We decided being smaller is better," recalls Bick.

Shortly afterward, they formed their own corporation, wryly named A Major Label, and focused on developing and marketing a line of T-shirts, posters, and other items Reed calls "widgets," which many fans fondly recognize as the "Ann Reed Boutique." Bick and Reed hawk those widgets at concerts and market them through mail-order catalogs. This approach might seem overly promotional for the low-key Reed, but it allows her to control her own musical destiny.

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