How Anna Stine found inspiration in the sound of a bike chain

Anna Stine

Anna Stine Nick Meza

It was summer 2015 and Anna Stine found herself wrestling with the demons that so many artists before her have faced: fear, doubt, anxiety, guilt, and just a touch of social isolation.

The singer-songwriter had moved to the Twin Cities for an internship as a music therapist. But making real connections here can be a challenging for transplants, and Stine had learned the meaning of the old saying that Minnesotans are willing to give you directions to anywhere but their home.

“On the surface level conversations, everybody's interested in what you're doing, but everybody has had friends here since they were 8 years old,” Stine says. “It takes time to actually become part of that circle rather than this outsider just peeking in and wanting to be accepted, to be invited to those dinner parties.”

Things weren't going how she’d expected. Stine was unemployed and living with a friend—her internship had ended, but the “real job” she’d hoped for had yet to materialize. Back home, her family was in a tough financial spot, and part of her wished she could be there to help out, at least to cook  dinner for them every now and then. “I just felt this guilt. I felt like it was a selfish thing to do to be here,” she says.

And yet, amidst all this turmoil, Stine heard a voice in the back of her mind that she describes as “a low rumbling.” She’d been in a few bands in college. Now, she wrote songs in her bedroom and was performing at a few open mics around town. She wanted more, but she wasn’t sure what “more” looked like.

“I had this voice in my ear like, ‘You need to do this,’” she says. “I wanted to share these songs with other people but I was terrified to declare, 'I am an artist.’ I was very much hiding behind this facade of 'I'm just doing it for fun.' I had not yet put the intention fourth of wanting to create music professionally.”

And as she scrolled through Instagram, Stine saw her friends back home, their lives seemingly in order and on track. She kept a journal, and in it, she wrote words that may sound familiar to anyone who spent their 20s trying to find their way: “What the fuck am I doing right now? Where am I going? Why am I here?”

That summer, she'd often go for bike rides by herself at night. She rode a red hybrid Trek, the first thing that she bought after moving to Minnesota. The sound of the chain winding its way through the wheel sprocket would fill her ears, just as those pesky and persistent doubts—had she made the right decision by moving here, and was she becoming the person she wanted to be?—filled her mind. 

One night during one of those rides, she stopped by a beach on Bde Maka Ska and took her shoes off. She walked in the sand past the lifeguard stands and sat by the water's edge.

"It was cold and I was sitting there and I just started to cry and cry, and think about who would I be if I had stayed home, and what I was missing out on," she recalls. “I was questioning, is this even worth it?”

The sounds of that bike chain now begins Stine’s debut album, Company of Now, released in October. On that opening track, “Bicycle,” Stein plays a piano line with a sweet, lilting melody. She lets the reverb echo and eases in with powerful but carefully understated vocals, ending the verse with, "Do you like to go for rides at night?/ On your bicycle?/ Do you find yourself oscillate between what’s wrong or right?/You know, there’s no wrong or right you know..."

A short, meditative song with a circular structure, “Bicycle” has the kind of melody that haunts you. It’s drawn over 26,000 plays on Spotify, and a YouTube version hosted by Apeiron, a German music blog, has over 97,000 views—better numbers than many more established local acts. (Another Stine track, “Growing Pains,” has over 54,000 Spotify plays.) Thematically, “Bicycle” is an ideal intro to an album about dislocation, about looking both backward and forward while trying to find an authentic sense of self.

Last Wednesday, Stine played one of the last shows of her two-year residency at Troubadour. It's an odd bar. On one hand, it's an intimate, warm space (with staff who know their wine) that offers a much-needed stage for fledgling singer-songwriters who’ve outgrown open-mic night but aren't quite ready for bigger venues. As Ross, the Troubador bartender, told me, "Anna was green when she started playing here. She kinda grew up here."

The tracks that stand out on Company of Now are those that sound like they’d fit a space like this, with pared-down production and strong melodies that allow Stine to express the full, rich quality of her voice.

But Troubadour is also inescapably an Uptown wine bar, and the neighborhood clientele—not to mention the Tinder dates—can get loud. "I'll miss the community here, but not the inattentive crowd," Stine says.

Stine is ready for bigger stages. Since the summer she wrote “Bicycle,” she got a job in music therapy, and found her community of friends and fellow musicians in Minneapolis. At the Troubadour show, an adoring, bearded boyfriend in an orange beanie sat stage right. She’s settled, and seems genuinely happy. And the reception Company of Now has received, including a performance on the Current’s Radio Heartland show, has fueled her ambition.

Recently, Stine put in notice at the hospital where she works so she can pursue music full time. Her last day is February 1. On February 2, her tour begins. She’ll take “Greta The Van,” a white 2014 Dodge Ram Promaster 2500 (outfitted with a bed, kitchen, and fridge) back on the road for what she calls a “California adventure.” Then, it’s back to Minnesota for more local shows and a collaboration she says will lead to a new release next year.

Stine performed “Bicycle” during that last Wednesday at Troubadour. The introspective tone remained, but there was also a certain lightness to her voice now. Anna Stine sounded both fully in the moment the song represents and ready to move on to what’s next.

Anna Stine
With: Sarah Kruger
Where: Icehouse
When: 6 p.m. Sun. Jan. 27
Tickets: $6/$8; more info here