With the April release of ‘Dreamer’ Anna Hawkins has delivered four richly-voiced LPs since 2013. ‘Be it pop, show musical theatre, classical opera, folk, Celtic, her voice enfolds and enhances all musical material that crosses her path,’ notes an earlier NZM review. Her first album was named ‘Journey On’, and with each subsequent release her progression on that journey has been evidenced in the changing musical focus, as well as by the growing confidence and inclusion of her own songwriting. Nur Lajunen-Tal talked with the versatile dreamer.
Anna Hawkins is glowing with energy and excitement. Her fourth album, ‘Dreamer,’ releases on the last day of April 2021, following three singles, each with music videos.
Hawkins grew up performing cover songs, starting in country music and moving into classical crossover in her teens, but eight of the songs on ‘Dreamer’ are her own composition. The album combines folk, classical, country, and musical theatre influences with an inspirational lyrical angle, exploring subject matter such as nature, spirituality and personal empowerment.
“I know a lot of people start writing as their first point of call,” says Hawkins. “I do remember writing songs when I was 10 or 11, and then I just didn’t… it was in my 20s that I just started writing, and I was like, ‘I actually like this! I like writing my own songs!’”
Although she has released original material before, it took Hawkins a while to consider herself a songwriter.
“When you’re doing classical stuff or musical theatre, you’re just singing other people’s songs,” she confides. “I had someone during those years, my early teens, say that I would never be a songwriter, that what I was was a singer… I didn’t realise until later in my 20s that I’d kind of taken it on board… I haven’t referred to myself as a songwriter until just recently.”
Hawkins’ songwriting skill is plentifully evident on ‘Dreamer.’ Take the title track, a joyful, harmony-laden song which combines country influences with a slightly theatrical feel. “I am a restless soul, the wandering kind,” she sings. “I’m on the run, always looking ahead/ Dreaming of a brighter sun/ I’m in mid-flight/ Dancing into the night/ Clutching at stars left and right.” That theme of being a dreamer is central to the album.
“Dreamer is the embodiment of who I’ve come to embrace as part of who I am; that I am a dreamer and I will always be a dreamer, and that’s actually good, and that’s something to be celebrated. Sometimes people can say, ‘You’re a dreamer,’ in a negative way, but I love to inhabit that headspace of a dreamer… And I think you need to not have the limitations, or that negativity on you to actually be creative, without someone being like, ‘Oh no, that’s not possible.’ It drives me crazy. I wrote that song basically about myself but also to encourage people to also be a dreamer.”
The album’s lead single, I Am, is a simple, plainly Celtic-inspired (as with most of the album’s 12 tracks) folk song, and one of her favourites.
“It was one of those really nice songs that the whole song came in one hit,” she says of the writing process. “I was just taking a walk on the beach, and it wasn’t a nice day. It was all misty, but then it had this beauty of its own. The song is about reconnecting to nature, and to God… to the spiritual aspect of nature.”
The music video for I Am appropriately features Hawkins singing the almost a capella song on a misty beach, but that was entirely improvised.
“We were booked in to shoot Wide Open Spaces… we had a storyboard and a concept and all the hair and makeup and everything, and then it just completely poured down with rain, so we shot I Am… It’s so cool ’cause you can’t plan this moody, mystical weather, and this is how I actually wrote the song, so this [treatment] is perfect.”
Wide Open Spaces is one of several songs composed while overseas, perversely written when she was living in often sky-less London.
“You’re in the city and it’s just all just really fast-paced,” she says. “And then I went to a songwriting retreat with Roo Panes, out in the English countryside. I just got up in the morning and I was going for a run and I was thinking, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to be out in the wide-open space,’… It was reminding me of where I grew up on a farm in Waikato. I was just thinking of home and how I had really been missing the wide-open spaces of NZ, and how nature and those wide open spaces did my heart so much good. That’s where the song came from.”
“Love is calling” is the gently repeated chorus refrain.
“To me, that love can represent lots of different things,” Hawkins explains. “It can represent love and light and it can represent your hopes and your dreams. To me, it represents God as well, and the people in your world that are a voice of love to you. That song was about lifting up your head and being free.”
Production of ‘Dreamer’ began in Poland, working again with her regular album producer Pawel Zarecki.
“He’s super creative,” she gushes. “He’s classically trained, but he also does jazz and all sorts of kinds. I wanted to make the album more intimate. Some of the songs have ended up quite big anyway, but the starting point was, ‘Let’s be more acoustic, or try and do some songs with fewer instruments.’”
After returning to Aotearoa, having a son and settling in Tauranga, Hawkins picked the project up again with singer-songwriter and producer Luke Thompson.
“He has a little home studio here in Tauranga, and so that was perfect for me… with a young child, to still be able to pop off and do little recording sessions with him.”
Booked to again go into the studio to complete the recording the very week NZ went into lockdown in 2020, Hawkins instead ended up writing three new songs. One of these is Beyond The Borders, a perky, upbeat song about daring to be different and push your own boundaries, again with that Celtic flavouring that well suits the sentiment.
“I was thinking a lot about the theme of being a dreamer,” she says. “It was something that was being resurrected in me. It was just my 30th birthday and I’d been thinking, ‘Okay, I’m a mum now, and all my dreams haven’t come true… this is my life now.’ I just started to feel hope again, like, ‘Hey wait a minute… maybe your dreams look different, but don’t stop dreaming.’ Because that’s where the life is.”
Another track written during lockdown is Where Do Dreams Go To Die, an evocative, sorrowful ballad where Hawkins asks, “Is there still resurrection life for the child I hide, beating in this heart of mine?” The theme of hope repeats and she manages to inject positivity into the song with the infectious bridge: “Oh breathe in hope hope hope/ I’m seeing hope up on the horizon.”
“Where Do Dreams Go To Die was me exploring that a little bit deeper, and thinking of people that I know, or situations or tragic events… and that can be a place where dreams go to die,” Hawkins explains. “But people come up on the other side, and sometimes the most tragic things in their life can actually become their source of strength, and can become the gift that they give back to the world with what they learnt through that.”
‘Dreamer’ is an important project for Hawkins as it represents completely breaking free of expectations and forging her own path.
“Because that’s what they were wanting from me, I just became that girl singing in gowns with orchestras… I did ‘Bold, Brave & Beautiful’ and there was original songs on that,” she says of her 2017 album which saw her experimenting with different styles.
“Whereas I feel like I’m just sitting really nicely in these songs. They’re a mix of all that I’ve done and all that I am. It just feels really nice to be like, ‘Okay, cool. This is me and you might not be able to put it in a box somewhere but this is what I’m deciding to be, this is who I’ve always been and this is what I wanna be going into the future.’”