Welcome to Jacksonville Music Experience’s Songwriting School, where we talk to local songwriters about how they wrote one specific song.
Jacksonville-based songwriter Anna Lester has been recording and performing music since 2017 under the name Bobby Kid, an indie rock band she started with her husband, drummer Brian Lester. In March, Bobby Kid released their second album, Babyface.
This long-awaited release is far from a sophomore slump. The songs on Babyface have even more jagged edges than those on Bobby Kid’s 2018 debut album Peach, a record I listened to on repeat during the early days of the COVID pandemic when I was longing for live local music. Something that continues to strike me about Lester’s songwriting is the honesty of her lyrics paired with her sincere, emotion-rich voice. Her new song “Seeds” can definitely be filed under that description as well.
- Stream Babyface
Lester spoke with me in my home studio, where my dog, Susan, was hellbent on interrupting our conversation. Lester didn’t seem to mind, though—turns out, she’s as good with dogs as she is with sad songs. And “Seeds” is a sad one, but like all Bobby Kid songs, its sorrow really earns its keep. Lester spoke candidly with me about her mental health struggles and the effect that her path toward wellness has had on her creative life. This is a songwriter whose creative process is deeply ingrained in the rhythms of her life, an authenticity that makes itself apparent in the songs she sings for us.
Listen to a portion of our conversation about “Seeds” above or read the full interview below.
Let’s start by talking about your songwriting practice. Are you always working on new material? Or does it come in waves for you?
It absolutely comes in waves. I wish it was constant, and sometimes I think too much about the fact that it isn’t constant. I’m kind of hard on myself in that way, but it definitely comes in waves. And I would say, even more so recently, that it’s been very kind of stagnant, but I’ve just kind of had to be like, it’ll come back. I know it’ll come back. It’s going to be okay. But it’s definitely dependent on what’s happening in my life and things like that. I think it would be cool if I maybe tried to practice more, like write a song about something different. So maybe that’s something I’ll try soon, but it’s definitely in waves for me for sure.
You said that there’s usually something that brings a song on for you. What usually is that?
I think that it’s hard to say. When I look back at the songs I’ve written, they’re not all about a specific thing that happened. But usually for me, it’s just really deep feelings, whether it’s positive or negative. Just to be super transparent, over the past few years I’ve been on an antidepressant, and, you know, it’s been very stable. And I think that is contributing to the lack of songwriting. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, because whenever I started writing songs, I was in the height of emotion—like 16 or 17 years old—and things kept happening, life kept rolling, and just songs kept coming out. But yeah, I definitely want to work on that practice more for sure.
I’ve heard that a lot from different kinds of artists in different mediums—that the moment they go on meds, they find that it’s challenging to come back to creative work.
It’s so funny, because it was so helpful for me in so many ways, and I’m so thankful that I started taking the medication I started taking. But man, it really ruins the creative juices sometimes. But yeah, it’s all good.
Your husband, Brian, plays drums for Bobby Kid. Is the songwriting collaborative for the two of you, or do you tackle most of the writing yourself?
In the beginning, it was just me. Over the past maybe three years more. So he’s been a much bigger part of the songwriting process because he’s a really great songwriter himself, and he didn’t really share that part of himself with me until more recently in our relationship. I say recently, like three-to-four years ago. I want to know what he thinks about the songs I’m writing, and I’ll bring them to him, and he always has great advice. He’s added lines before, and he always has great insight, so he’s definitely part of it.
Tell me how your song “Seeds” was born and how it fits into the rest of your new album.
I was so excited when I wrote this song. I was in a rut musically, and I was listening to a lot of early Snail Mail, where almost every song is in an open D tuning. I’d never played with that type of open tuning before, and it was a whole new world. “Blue” is another song I wrote in that tuning, and then “Seeds,” and I thought they were the coolest songs I’d ever written, just because it was different. And it was so connected to what I was listening to at the time.
“I guess I just thought of a seed, something super small and not important.”
So I just started kind of playing around with different chords in that specific tuning, and I really liked what I was coming up with. And then “Seeds” just kind of came out.
There’s a line in the first verse of “Seeds” that says, “I can’t be fixed by anyone else.” I’m wondering if that ties into your mental health journey you were alluding to a moment ago.
Yeah, absolutely. “Seeds” is from my perspective and from another perspective in a way—it kind of goes back and forth. It’s almost completely about, whether it’s a relationship or a friendship, being super dependent on one another, a kind of a toxic relationship situation where you almost feel like the other person’s mental health and wellbeing is completely dependent on you. It can’t be fixed by anyone else. It’s a lot of pressure, and it’s not a good sentiment in that context.
I’d love to get really in the weeds here on that line for a moment. It’s really interesting to me that you use the passive voice in that line, saying, “I can’t be fixed by anyone else,” as opposed to something more active, like, “no one else can fix me.” Can you recall what may have led you to that kind of lyrical decision-making?
That’s such a good question. I don’t know if I can, honestly. I wrote that song maybe like four years ago now, and I think it just kind of goes back to trying to go between the different perspectives. I was writing about relationships and friendships that were more in the past. So maybe that’s kind of where I was coming from there.
Another line that stands out is, “I don’t know if I can be your God, but I can try to be your seed.” Can you give some context for that very powerful line?
I feel like it’s so dramatic now.
It only sounds dramatic when I read it to you like that!
[laughter] There’s this really fun interview with Mitski, and somebody asked her, “What were you thinking when you wrote that line?” And she was like, “I have no idea. Like, I really couldn’t tell you.” For that line, it’s kind of similar. I think I was trying to channel something like, what is the opposite of God? In that situation that I was in, I felt very much like, whatever I did was going to directly impact the person in a really, really heavy way, in a toxic way. I was just kind of trying to think of the opposite, and I guess I just thought of a seed, something super small and not important. It was a cool song title, too. I was like, I think I want to go with this.
How did the song evolve when you went to record it with the band? Did you make any on-the-fly changes to the lyrics or music while working on it collectively?
I think we started playing it way before we recorded it, which was really fun. There was a period where we just didn’t have the resources really to record anything, and so we were writing songs and putting them together as a band and then playing them live at shows over and over again. I was listening to a lot of Snail Mail, a lot of Horse Jumper of Love—duster, slowcore kind of things. I really wanted a song that was reminiscent of that.
It sounds like you double-track your vocals a lot, even on the melodies—just in this song, but in a few other songs on Babyface. It gives your voice this gigantic and intense feeling. Can you tell me a little bit about that choice?
When we recorded our first album at JU with Taylor Neal of Teal Peel, one thing that we both kind of recognized afterwards was that we could have done more with the vocals. It was all just kind of straightforward, which was perfect for what we were doing at the time. But we knew going into this album that we wanted to do more with the vocals. I think a lot of the music I listen to does that. A lot of Phoebe Bridgers songs do—that’s the person who comes to mind first. I’ve always loved the vocal production on her music, and I think that she does a lot of that kind of doubling. I think it’s kind of cool if I sing something a little bit later in one track than I do in the other track.
Let’s talk about the instruments we’re hearing on this song. In the beginning, the guitar feels very direct. There’s not a ton of effects, but it has a hint of darkness to it, which I love. Then as things pick up, you’re adding in reverb and distortion. Were you hearing those kinds of effects while writing the song?
I am so bad at gear, and I always lean on my bandmates and whoever’s recording and producing. I really put my trust in the people that I work with because, again, I find that usually I can say what I’m trying to convey and it makes sense to them. And it always, to this point so far, has worked out. I definitely wanted the guitar to be dynamic and louder in some parts. I don’t use any pedals. I go clean through my amp. Taylor, who recorded guitar on this song, has like a very cool setup that I wish I could tell you all about. But most of that, the reverb and the cool guitar sounds you’re hearing, are coming from his side of things. And then Brok Mende from Friends of Friends Studio in Chicago—when he lived in Springfield, that’s where we tracked all of the songs, and he also mixed and mastered the album. He would text me while mixing the song and be like, Hey, do you mind if I add a super drive-y guitar part on X, Y, Z? And I’d be like, Absolutely. And it always turned out great. He was a part of that process, too, for sure.
It sounds like it’s really collaborative, and that that’s a really rewarding experience for you.
We are so excited about the new album. Thank you for giving us Babyface. It’s great to hear new music from you. Thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Thanks for having me. This has been awesome.