Anna Balfany lives with her mother in the unincorporated township of Webster, Minnesota. At their country-road home, you can find two dogs, two cats, four horses, and the sound of Anna's booming voice and heavy strumming guitar.
Balfany, whose stage name is Anna Marie Mitchell, uses her independent study time at Northfield High School, where she's currently a senior, to write lyrics and music on the piano that she later translates to guitar.
Likely unfamiliar to local music fans, Mitchell rarely spends weekends driving 40 minutes north to solidify a music presence in the Twin Cities. She wants more. She wants Nashville.
Though Nashville is traditionally considered the heart of all things country, Mitchell's music falls under a more soulful, upbeat Americana blend. She takes songwriting very seriously, spending an hour and a half each day penning songs. "[It's] my favorite aspect of music," she says. Her nuanced, expressive vocals call to mind Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette.
Mitchell's debut EP, 2014's Little Bird, featured more innocent, straightforward country-pop than her current demos. The plaintive, acoustic Little Bird track "Broken Glass" scored her acclaim from two Nashville institutions — Country Music Television and the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI).
Since turning 16, Mitchell has flown south with her mom every other month, about 12 times total. Call it the Taylor Swift model. Her yearning for the Tennessee capital stoked her interest in Belmont University, where she'll begin studying guitar performance — and possibly music business — this fall.
"When I was 16, my mom was like, 'You're clearly obsessed with this. You're not going to be a doctor or anything. You're going to be a musician. Let's go to Nashville.' So we went down there," Mitchell, 18, says ahead of her gig May 19 at Aster Café in Minneapolis.
Upon their first trip to Nashville, Mitchell and her mom had no strategy for getting her music noticed. They didn't know a soul.
Being naturally outgoing and chatty, Mitchell strapped her guitar on her back and trekked up and down Nashville's famed Music Row, walking into random bars and venues saying, "Hi, I'm Anna, can I play?"
"I'm sure I was super annoying, but I made so many relationships off of that," she says.
Mitchell made a key decision during her first trip when she visited NSAI, an organization where thousands of songwriters work with developing and established musicians. When a new musician joins, they're granted two free mentor meetings.
Mitchell chose country lifer RC Bannon, who wrote and recorded original music in the '70s and '80s. These days, the native Texan writes for and guides upstarts. Now every time Mitchell visits Nashville, she meets with him to get feedback on her latest batch of songs.
"I love working with her," Bannon, 71, says. "She really takes things to heart. I like a writer that deep thinks. The average, 'I love you, the sky is blue....' That type of writer can go someplace else as far as I'm concerned. I really like [Mitchell] because she makes me think when I'm listening to her."
Mitchell is more than pleased with Bannon as her go-to NSAI figure, citing him as a "huge influence" on her songwriting.
Scott Krueger of Nashville band Elliot Root is another influential figure in Mitchell's career. She met the band after recording demos with the president of McGhee Entertainment, an artist management company founded by music-biz vet Doc McGhee (Bon Jovi, KISS, Hootie & the Blowfish). It's an unlikely connection she made while pounding the pavement of Nashville. Her charisma paid off.
Given her age and lack of experience (an in-the-works debut LP has no set release date), it'd be easy to fear for Mitchell. The music industry has a way of chewing up and spitting out new artists. She's armed with a healthy amount of cynicism, though.
"One time, [Krueger] told me two words: 'Fuck it,'" she says. "Every time I write a song and I'm like, 'The rhyme scheme isn't going well with this one. This doesn't have a good hook.' I'm just like, 'Well, fuck it.' It helps you to be true to yourself. Like, 'Fuck the industry and all of that.' It's such a shark of a business."
Mitchell's ability to stay true to herself has been tested several times. She was kicked out of eighth-grade choir for doing too many "warbly, experimental things" with her voice. Two years ago, she was invited to audition for American Idol in St. Louis.
Mitchell identifies first and foremost as a songwriter. She'd never been into the idea of talent shows. But with the encouragement of her mom, she decided to go for it.
"It was just terrible. Absolutely terrible," Mitchell says. "Everyone tells you they judge you on looks, personality, and then talent — those three in that order. They didn't have me sing for the first 10 minutes."
Mitchell feels she's at her mightiest when her guitar accompanies her voice, but the folks behind Idol asked her to put down her instrument and sing with a "huge Adele voice."
"That's just not the voice I have," she says. "I hated it. It wasn't me."
With artists like Lorde, Ellie Goulding, and Lana Del Rey dominating the pop charts, it's unsurprising that friends and peers have suggested that Mitchell spice up her arrangements with synths and beats. But she's steadfast about maintaining and nurturing her "organic sound."
"It's hard not to be persuaded, because you want to play chords that everyone's using right now," she says. "But I have to stay true to the fact that I'm doing music not because I want a hit song right here right now, but because it's a release for me. People may never listen to my music, but that's OK."
Anna Marie Mitchell
With: André Rodriguez, Lydia Liza, and Josiah Lemanski.
When: 9 p.m. Thu., May 19.
Where: Aster Café.
Tickets: $7; more info here.