Danielle Anderson does not like hugs. Despite this, she might as well be Tigger at Disney World every time she plays a show. The sound guy, the promoter, the other bands, the fans — everyone's got to get a squeeze.
It's an understandable mistake. After all, she's young and casually attractive and alone up there. And she plays an intimate show, singing diary entries and meeting each set of eyes. But just because she's staring at you doesn't mean she wants you to comfort her. In fact, she's probably trying to decide if you're worth mocking.
After singing "On the Planet Earth" at a recent gig at Michelangelo's, she told the crowd the song was about her boyfriend, Ivan. "He's more interesting than any of you," she deadpanned. "Except that guy, " she said, looking at the sap in the corner on his laptop. He took the bait and somehow let her drag him into a conversation about his toy collection. He was probably thirty. She asked if he keeps his toys in the boxes for safekeeping.
Laugh or squirm — it's up to you.
You'd never know how ballsy Anderson's live act is if you only ever listened to the songs. She writes about divorce and dogs and gender confusion and her grandparents. But mostly she writes about love — specifically, the sting of relationships. This is the stuff of loneliness, of everyday humanity at its most insane, and it's often fodder for terrible music. So why is Anderson's music so good?
Let's break this down: As noted, she's a singer-songwriter who mostly writes about her sad-ass relationships; she plays the ukulele, a sickly cute instrument that's suddenly trendy for some reason; her stage name is Danielle Ate the Sandwich; and she got her start posting home videos on YouTube. Yet despite all these things, she is cripplingly enchanting, earning 13,612 YouTube subscribers and new fans with each flesh-and-blood performance. This is partly because of her wonderful voice, partly because of her awesomely uncomfortable sense of humor, and mostly because she is affecting exactly none of it.
Anderson is a disarming performer. You might be able to fight off the dry sarcasm of her banter, and you might be able to avoid the penetrating honesty of her songs, but the constant switch from one to the other has to at least get your attention. Her shows run hot, then cold, then hot again, and only rarely do they pause at lukewarm.
After a couple of songs at a July performance, the Walnut Room was mostly a pat of butter she was microwaving. You could see it in the smiles, the forward leans of the audience members. They all perked up the second she started singing, because before you start to absorb her exceedingly vulnerable lyrics, you hear her voice. It's not the sort of thing you have to think about. Her voice dances through melodies, picking syllables out of rolling lines of breathy notes. She's got the chops to do her old jazz heroines proud.
During a pause between songs, Anderson smirked. "I know there are kids here," she said, "but this is where it gets rated R." She took off the guitar and strapped on her ukulele, exaggerating sultry facial expressions. It was the least sexual thing you can imagine.
Her lyrics tell the story of a generation uncertainly coming of age in an age of uncertainty. When she's making it work, which is certainly not always, it's because she is able to capture the beauty in simplicity and the wisdom of the long view. Take this one, from "Ode to Optophobia": "The magic word is every word/So just say it." Or this, from "On the Planet Earth": "There are over 6 billion people on the planet Earth/I am one, you are another." Everyone has surely been wracked by love, but only good artists can face those moments head on and avoid succumbing to self-pity. "Love is a desperate emotion sometimes," she observes. "Hopefully it doesn't stay that way for long."
The most common reaction people seem to have when they see Anderson perform is to develop a crush on her. Those hugs sometimes last a few seconds too long. Some guy thinks he'll stand out by sort-of-jokingly proposing, except he's the third one this week. Just imagine the comments on her YouTube videos. Maybe it's the vulnerability of her music, or maybe it's the effortless confidence of her performance, or maybe, as she suggests, it's just because she's a woman. "I like the idea of people being attracted to me because I'm good at what I do," she offers. "But maybe that's asking too much."
Before she was so bewitching, Anderson studied textile and apparel management at CSU, not because she liked the industry, but because she liked the actual materials. She says she would have majored in arts and crafts if it were offered. She makes clothes and costumes and, for a little while, little girls' dresses. For her, it's about the thrill of manipulating cloth.
This preference for form over function helps explain her honesty as a musician. It was never about creating an aesthetic, in school or in music. She isn't going for a certain look or contriving her persona. "I always approve of what I do," she points out.
Indeed. Contacts dry out Anderson's eyes, so she wears glasses. She wound up with a ukulele and thought it was a fun change of pace, so she plays it. She picked an arbitrary moniker because she recognized that no one would glance twice at Danielle Anderson on a bill. She adds surreal humor to her performances because she thinks that singer-songwriters can be boring. That these things all matched some sort of zeitgeist is coincidence. People say she reminds them of Juno, which is disheartening because she is nothing like Juno.
Three years ago Anderson was in a mainstream-sounding folk act called Backdraft: The Musical that never really picked up steam, and one year ago she was making home music videos for an audience of mostly people she knew. Then, in December, she wound up on YouTube's home page, and by February she was making enough money on iTunes sales to quit her day job and start touring the country.
She realizes that it takes more than talent to get where she is today and is understandably wary about her continued success. She wasn't in a glasses mood at a recent show and thought about wearing contacts. Probably it wouldn't matter at all, but when things are going this well, you don't screw with them. She wore her glasses.
Obviously, it's working. As she's being interviewed in a coffee shop, Anderson is recognized. The barista isn't sure at first, but eventually, after she sees the recorder and overhears something about songwriting, she decides to go in the back and play some Danielle Ate the Sandwich over the PA.
"I'm so embarrassed and flattered at the same time," Anderson says after a few seconds of shocked recognition.
The barista's roommate, it turns out, is a fan. A little later, she brings out the roommate's sunglasses and asks Anderson to sign them. They're bright-orange Wayfarer knockoffs made with dull plastic by Volcom. On the back of the frame in Sharpie, Anderson writes: "Bailey — You wasted your money on these glasses. — Danielle Ate the Sandwich."