In the wrong hands, cover songs are often overly deferential to the almost-always superior source material. Nona Marie Invie's all-covers female vocal group, Anonymous Choir, sidesteps such issues entirely. They don't so much cover songs as wholly reinvent them. The instrumentation is stripped down — usually a minimalist piano arrangement — and built back up with Invie's wounded tenor leading the charge, and layered vocal harmonies behind her.
Composed largely of Invie's personal friends — many of whom were new to public performance when the group formed in 2010 — the 10-woman group is active in between higher profile albums and international tours for Invie's primary project, the baroque-folk sextet Dark Dark Dark. While Anonymous Choir's first album gathered covers from a variety of '70s-era sources, subsequent releases narrowed the focus. Their latest is an album-length cover of Neil Young's 1970 classic After the Gold Rush. Highlights include a recasting of the gentle folk-pop of "Tell Me Why" and the aching lyrical center of formerly stormy classic-rock anthems like "Southern Man." Invie took time out during the recent early-January deep freeze to chat with City Pages about the project.
City Pages: You already led a plenty busy musical life with Dark Dark Dark before creating Anonymous Choir. What was the impetus for the group's formation?
Nona Maire Invie: I've always loved interpreting other people's songs and learning songs by ear. It was really liberating to just let go of the pressure of feeling like I had to have every song be channeling my own emotions and making some deep connection with the audience. It's less stressful channeling other people's [laughs]. It's not about the pressure anymore, though. Now it's more just about having fun with other women and the enjoyment of finding beautiful songs to interpret.
CP: From other interviews you've done it sounds like the all-female aspect of the group is both personally and creatively important to you. Why?
NMI: It just feels really nice to be in a room filled only with women. There's an immediate openness and comfort that comes with that, particularly with this group of women. The whole experience is just fun and easy and unlike anything else I've been a part of.
CP: Of the dozens of albums Neil Young's made over the last 45 years, what made you want to cover After the Gold Rush specifically?
NMI: We had learned a few of his songs from different records and had been performing them live, but there's something about After the Gold Rush in particular. It's just a really powerful record with raw lyrics and beautiful harmonies, and I felt like stripping it down and having it sung by all women would somehow feel more transformative than covering a random collection of his songs.
CP: The character of every album is informed by the space in which it was made. How important a role did recording at Duluth's Sacred Heart Studios play in shaping the end product?
NMI: The natural reverb in that space is so beautiful. Even though it's not used as a church anymore it's still a sacred space, just because of all the special music that's been made there. I've recorded up there a few different times and it always just puts me in a special sort of zone I haven't been able to experience elsewhere. I could just imagine the fullness of the sound of the choir in that space and knew we had to go there.
CP: You've gigged with the Choir everywhere from acoustic-friendly music spaces like the Cedar to nightclubs like Hell's Kitchen, with house-show tours in between. Do you have a preferred type of venue at this point?
NMI: Every show is different. It's so nice when people are ready to listen and you don't have to compete with the sound of the bar. But there's also something magical about going on stage to a rowdy crowd and everybody quieting down. Or even if they don't; some of our most fun shows were house shows where everyone started singing along. As long as people are having fun and into the music it's all great. Over the years I've grown to understand that people have different ways of expressing their interest. There are so many of us it's always kind of a party from our perspective wherever we are.
CP: So far the Anonymous Choir has only tackled songs that were multiple decades old. Are there plans to cover more contemporary material in the future?
NMI: Sometimes I do get the impulse to work up some modern R&B or pop songs for the group. But there is a lot of that going on with college choirs right now. I hop on YouTube and there's just so much over-the-top radio-hit a capella and I just don't want to be in that realm at all. Some members of the group want us to do a Joni Mitchell covers album next; I kind of want to do Kate Bush. I think I'm just stuck in the '70s and have to stay there [laughs].