an interview with Anna Fritz by Natalie Ramsland
Anna Fritz is a cellist, folksinger, and Quaker in Portland, Oregon. Against the backdrop of classical training and a career as a studio artist and performer, Anna’s solo work has found deep roots and new growth as a ministry under the care of Multnomah Monthly Meeting. Find out more about her work here. The text below is a series of lightly edited excerpts from an interview that Natalie Ramsland conducted with Anna Fritz on January 2nd, 2018. To read the complete interview transcript, go to:
Natalie Ramsland: I’ve heard you speak of music as a powerful tool. I’d love to begin with your thoughts on what music can do.
Anna Fritz: In my experience, there are things that can be communicated through song that cannot be communicated any other way. Music speaks to us on a very visceral, very physical level. Sound waves that you’re feeling in your body can open you in ways that nothing else really can. So if I’m pairing sound that opens someone’s body – physically actually opens their heart – and I’m singing words that have a story, that story is going to be received in a whole different way than if I were merely speaking it.
I’ve seen that happen particularly with the song “The Water is Wide.” It’s a traditional song, but I’ve rewritten the verses to tell the story of a transgender person who’s dealing with their gender identity, grappling with that. There have been people in the evangelical Friends community as well as in unprogrammed Friends who have come to me saying, “That song has changed my understanding of the trans experience.” And for some, the change has been quite profound – a shift from real judgment and even bigotry to embracing people.
NR: Your music has been recognized as a ministry that is now under the care of Multnomah Monthly Meeting. Can you talk about how that came to be and what it means for you?
AF: To be honest, I did it kind of out of order and backwards. Music is the thing I was already doing in my life and in the world. My Quaker community helped me to see what my music already was, ministry, and helped me to name it as that. I was already playing at some Quaker meetings and having connections through the Quaker world with my music, but not really calling it a ministry. Then it became clear that it would be helpful to me to have some support. Some people started calling it a ministry, and my music started being recognized by individuals as something with this deeper meaning for the community.
NR: What kind of support does the meeting provide your ministry?
AF: A lot of support around discernment. And then some support around logistical things. The folks on my Anchor Committee have come with me to performances as elders, to provide spiritual accompaniment. They’ve helped work my merch table at shows. One of them has taken on responsibility for getting announcements into the meeting’s bulletin when I have things happening. They are also a mechanism for me to be accountable to the meeting. They keep the question open, “Does this seem like it’s still a ministry, or is shifting into something else?” They provide me with a lot of checking in, making sure that I’m taking care of myself, because this can be lonely, isolating work.
In this moment, I see my solo work as where Spirit is pushing me. I see most of the other work that I do musically as being in service to my solo work. This is the skill set I have professionally, as well as the gift I have to offer.
When I get on stage to perform as a soloist, to bring these songs, I attempt to be as fully present, authentic, and plugged into Spirit as possible. That’s a very naked, vulnerable place to be. But part of why I do it is to give everyone in the room permission to do it with me. That’s part of the gift that living into our ministry gives to our communities.
I need to be following the leading that is telling me, “Here are these songs. They need to be out in the world. Go do it, even though you’re scared.” I want Spirit to guide me in how I do everything in my life. That’s been a gift I’ve received from recognizing this ministry: I’ve had to put listening to Spirit at the center of my life.
NR: I want to know more about your creative process. What is the work that goes into creating and sharing your music?
AF: Over the years, I’ve felt a kind of convergence between my spiritual practice and my creative process, where writing songs begins in prayer. It begins in sitting down in front of some type of altar. I light candles and burn things that smell good. I plug into the place that I’m in and send down roots. It’s usually pretty important for me to be near trees, because they feel like my companions and my teachers. And then, it’s a process of listening. It doesn’t feel like crafting or creating something. It feels like receiving something.
My theory is that the songs that come to me could have come to anyone, but they come through me in their own particular way. It’s like the way in theaters, they put gels or gobos over the lights. A gobo has a pattern that the light is shining through and projects. I think the Light shines through the specific pattern of each of us in a particular way.
I also feel a tension between this super woo-woo spiritual thing that is happening and my classical training in music. The part of me that’s the highly-trained, anal-retentive, classical musician is a part that strives for perfection, believes it is attainable! That belief is in direct conflict with my spiritual practice and everything I understand to be true about being human, which is that we’re imperfect, and we’re a mess all the time.
But I do recognize the value of the training that I’ve had. It helps me to shape and give voice to the things that are coming through me. I try to stay able to cross back and forth between different parts of my consciousness when I’m out in the woods listening for new work. I have to fight off the part who makes the decisions about whether we need French horn on this particular track, because she really wants to get involved and critique. And you can’t do that while you’re listening for new work bubbling up from the ground.
Going to the woods to write music is not a vacation. It is actually some of the deepest, hardest work that I do. But it is also incredibly fulfilling. I feel lucky beyond my wildest dreams to get to do these things. That also holds for performance, which I love, even though I have terrible performance anxiety. I’m actually an introvert. I’ve heard people say, though, that to follow a leading often means Spirit takes us into some of the places that are most specifically challenging for us.
NR: Your musical ministry is located in a tradition that isn’t necessarily known for its musical expression. How do you talk about the relationship between Quakers and music?
AF: Well, it’s been very interesting, coming to the West, where I’ve met more evangelical Friends, and I’ve found more fellowship and crossover between liberal Friends and evangelical Friends. I’ve been exposed to the fact that evangelical Friends actually have music!
Part of me really wishes that I had come up in a church where there was a choir and where I got to sing. I probably would be a way better singer today. Growing up in Milwaukee Meeting, we had regular monthly potluck singing events, and I have fond memories of them, but they were more of a fun thing, very separate from worship.
So as I attempt to share this ministry with Friends, people often just don’t know where to put it. They suggest that I go “do a thing at an open mic” or “ play for this variety show,” and it’s taken me a little while to recognize that I’m not being pretentious to say, “No.” Not that those settings are less meaningful or less spiritual than what I am seeking, but they aren’t appropriate containers for what I’m offering. It’s been tricky figuring out where my music fits into the spiritual life of unprogrammed Friends. But I am trying to be faithful to what I’ve been given. I am trying to protect and tend to these songs as sacred.
NR: Do you ever feel like the demands of staying true to your ministry and the demands of the music industry are in conflict?
AF: Yeah, one of the primary conflicts for me with this work is that the music business thrives on and promotes this culture of celebrity. To get these songs to travel further, I have to market myself as a consumable product. That just feels like a necessary evil that I have to swallow.
NR: In both creative work and in following Spirit, folks sometimes experience dry spells. What do you do when things run dry for you?
AF: Well, God certainly isn’t showing up every day, telling me exactly what to do when I get up in the morning! I try to follow a “live up to the light you’ve been given” kind of thing. And you know, that’s the definition of faith. I’ve been blessed to have many peak experiences, many clear experiences of the presence of the Divine in my life.
And creative dry spells? I don’t know – I’m just so busy all the time! If I’m not actively writing songs, I have all this other stuff to do that’s related to the songs I’ve already written. And I try to stay focused on quality over quantity, in terms of what I produce.
NR: A lot of your music seems to be deeply rooted in a sense of place as well as in deeply-held social concerns. Can you could talk about what themes and issues feel most emergent for you these days?
AF: This past year . . . At first, it felt really refreshing to have so many people around me come awake. Then after that initial wave of grief and terror with the election, I told myself, “Okay, I can be an example, because I’ve been fighting this fight for years.” But the bad news just kept coming and coming. I have frankly been in some despair.
So I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to encourage people to go hear live music! Music can be entertaining, but it can also be a transcendent form of corporate worship. Singing is an important tool for strengthening our bonds with each other and for being able to grieve and celebrate as a people, and to question where we’re going together.
Right now it feels like the most important question I’m putting in front of people is not about specific issues. It’s about each of us having a sacred contribution to make, that we each have work that we are being called to do in this time, and that it is essential that we listen. It’s actually less important that we get out and make every phone call and go to every protest and do all the things. More essential is cultivating our ability to deeply listen to what we’re called to do. ~~~
Natalie Ramsland is a bike designer/builder by trade and a maker of things and lover of a good chat by nature. She attends Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).