By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Dec 09, 2005 at 5:12 AM

{image1}Milwaukee's music scene has gotten used to a lot of coming and going. Everyone from Brian Ritchie to John Kruth has left town -- either for good or just for a while -- at some point. But Brew City has a draw that keeps its ex-pat musicians linked to home.

Singer, songwriter and accomplished cellist Anna Fritz -- born and raised in Milwaukee and currently living in Portland, Ore. -- left a number of years ago but keeps coming back to make her music. For example, her first solo CD, "Wake," was recorded with Mike Hoffmann and a host of Milwaukee musicians.

Fritz, who has since returned to Portland, moved back to Milwaukee to dedicate herself to making the record, which is loaded with stark, evocative arrangements of intelligent, moving songs.

We recently caught up with Fritz to ask her about the record and her links to Milwaukee.

OMC: Despite having moved away a long time ago, you've still decided to make what is arguably a "Milwaukee" disc. That is, recorded in Milwaukee with a Milwaukee producer and Milwaukee musicians. Why?

Anna Fritz: Yeah, it certainly is a Milwaukee disc! I actually moved back to Riverwest for seven months to work on the album. I think it had been about four or five years since I'd lived in Milwaukee. The decision to leave Portland and make my first solo album in my hometown had a lot to do with the support I have there (in Milwaukee). I had been living in Portland for four years and was part of a community of musicians and artists, but I hadn't found a producer to whom I was ready to entrust the project. I also knew I was going to need a lot of help with design and photos and all the really important stuff that goes into making an album that I don't know how to do! All of this, of course, was a great excuse to spend some time in Milwaukee -- being with family and old friends, helping out at the bike collective and in the community garden, and getting up to speed on what's happening in my hometown.

OMC: The record is really a collection of direct, uncluttered songs. Did you and (producer) Mike Hoffmann make a conscious effort to keep it stripped down or was it hard to stick to that philosophy?

AF: I really didn't have a specific sound in mind when I went into the studio. I imagine that one thing that makes the sound uncluttered is the purity and cleanness of the cello, as well as the absence of a full drum kit. Also, since I've been working solo instead of with a band for the last couple years, the songs were originally written for just cello and voice, or guitar and voice. So being in the studio, I had the opportunity to flesh them out considerably from where they started. Mike was a huge help in making tasteful choices about where to add a little shaker or a couple bass drum hits. I really wanted to make sure that, throughout the process the vocals came through clearly without having to fight with excessive instrumentation. The lyrics of these songs are so important to the meaning of the album.

OMC: It's unusual to hear a "pop" record that is at times almost entirely based on the cello and voice. What has been the reaction to the record?

AF: People seem to be pretty moved by it. Although the cello is definitely experiencing some popularity in new pop and rock music, there aren't many musicians using it as the foundation of their songs or as the primary solo instrument. I think this gives the album a very distinctive new sound that people are excited to hear. I've also been getting a lot of positive feedback about the lyrical content. Many of the songs are speaking about how we are all contributing our time and money to an unjust, corporate controlled social structure and to the destruction of the planet. My music encourages people to find ways to fight this, to create new ways of living based on self-sufficiency, simplicity, and cooperation. I've had a lot of enthusiastic reactions to this. I really hope this album continues to get people fired up and inspire them to act.

OMC: You've got Peter Mulvey and other local musicians on the disc. How did you decide who to invite? What did each one bring?

AF: It was very exciting to have Peter come lend his voice to this project. I've been a fan of his music for years and was thrilled to have the chance to work with him. I love the depth that his voice brings to the tracks he's on. I had another wish come true on this project when Ali Ippolito flew out from Portland to play the piano. She and I have worked together on a number of other recordings and have performed together extensively. She's an incredibly talented pianist and a truly sensitive musician. No one else would do!

Most of the other guest musicians I brought in were for the song "We Remember." I wrote it as a protest song when I was working with a group of women in Portland to make music a more integral part of the anti-war and anti-globalization protests we were part of. When I brought this song into the studio, I wanted it to have the energy of a group of passionate people calling for freedom and justice. I wanted it to feel organic and spontaneous. So I worked with people from many different backgrounds -- some who have recorded many albums and others who had never been in a studio before. The percussion for that track was recorded in Mike's basement -- a bunch of us banging on the washing machine, the furnace, banging shovels and hoes together. It was a blast! And the experience brought with it a sense of community and of family.

OMC: Some might think the cover photograph -- which does take some geographical liberties -- is entirely a product of Photoshop, but we hear from your dad, photographer Tom Fritz, that it was a major set, with actual policemen and police cars, city permits and the whole nine yards.

AF: Yeah, the shoot for the cover was a major production. When my dad and (designer) Kurt Kleman came up with the concept, I loved it. But a photo taken from the roof of a building of me playing my cello in the middle of the street, surrounded by menacing cops in riot gear and the flashing lights of police cars ... I didn't see how we could pull it off. Amazingly enough, the folks at the law enforcement department at MATC were willing to help out. They brought us a bunch of student cops, riot equipment and three cop cars!

We got a permit from the city to block the intersection in front of Tom Fritz Studios and a whole crew of great friends who came out to help wrangle the cops and monkey with the lights. After that came a lot of ingenious Photoshop-ing by my dad to finish the album cover, but I really did sit in the middle of circle of cops with shields up and batons raised. It was one of the more surreal days of my life.

OMC: What are your plans for the record? Are you promoting it?

AF: Well, the album came out in April and I've spent the summer getting settled back out in Oregon and recovering financially from the biggest project of my life! I plan to focus on playing mostly in the Pacific Northwest for the next couple seasons before I work on planning a bigger tour. Though a show in Milwaukee might be in order when I visit at Christmas time ... We'll see!

Anna Fritz's Web site is annafritz.com.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.