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Inspired by hymns, farmland and Enya cassettes, Des Moines musician Annalibera is a retrofuturist mastermind


Annalibera — Emma Colman

Nebraska native Anna Gebhardt is the mastermind behind Annalibera — a decade-long recording project that is synonymous with herself, and which also performs as a band. She came across the name via Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera, the title of a piano piece by Italian 12-note serial composer Luigi Dallapiccola, which translates as “The Musical Notebooks of Free Anna.”

“Indeed,” Gebhardt told me, “all of my ideas — whether words, music or film — start in a notebook.”

This polymath is bursting with ideas that find expression in her music, literary writing, and filmmaking — such as loveil. Shot in and around the now-abandoned farmhouse where Gebhardt grew up, loveil is an impressionistic companion piece to Annalibera’s 2015 album of the same title.

“All of my music would be visualized into films if I had the budget,” she said. “I write films for them because it comes to me. I see and hear my ideas. And I write them all down. They are one.”

Gebhardt read a lot and loved playing with words from an early age while growing up in relative isolation on a farm in the North Loup River Valley, near the center of Nebraska, where her family has lived since the latter half of the 19th century. As a girl, she’d commune with nature by walking the countryside while feeling in tune with the tall trees, yucca plants and whooshing wind — sometimes settling under a stand of trees to read, or wandering the rolling hills that allowed her to see for miles and miles.

The Methodist church that Gebhardt’s family attended introduced her to traditional American songs such as “Shenandoah” and “Simple Gifts,” along with the hymns that were popular with American Christians who immigrated from Europe. She sang every week in church, where the elderly members of the congregation brought treats after the service or made delicious chicken noodle soup from scratch.

“I really don’t know if it was there, or if it was my piano education, or my mom or my school,” Gebhardt said, “but I seem to know a lot of traditional American music that people generally don’t.”

Some of those influences can be heard in songs such as “Mountain,” from Annalibera’s 2015 album Nevermind I Love You, but that just scratches the surface of a musical range as expansive as the sky — encompassing everything from sound collage and pure pop to blissed-out melancholic shoegaze for the soul. Gebhardt picked up electronic influences from all the ’90s Madonna, Eiffel 65 and Savage Garden songs she heard on the radio in that farmhouse, echoes of which can be heard on Annalibera’s most recent album, Moon Bath, released in 2020.

She also learned a thing or two from Enya’s melodic ambient soundscapes that she listened to on cassette tape while lying on the floor of her childhood bedroom. Born in 1990, Gebhardt used to make mixtapes during the last days of that dying format — though it actually never really did quite expire, which is one reason why Annalibera’s albums are regularly released on cassette.

“My friends and I still made mixtapes for each other until the downloading started,” she said. “My cassette collection grows mostly now with ambient and experimental releases, and Enya is still in the rotation. I release on tapes because I prefer them to CDs as the cheap option. Cassettes are a better object than CDs, all around.”

Gebhardt had one foot in the analog world and the other planted in digital culture, which feels like a good metaphor for this retrofuturist artist. As an adolescent, she began downloading music from file-sharing services using the farmhouse’s dial-up modem, and she also perused MySpace, an early music-oriented social media site. She relied on downloading to expand her musical universe until she was old enough to drive an hour away to the nearest record store, and her world continued to enlarge after attending Drake University in Des Moines in 2008.

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Gebhardt has been involved in music for as long as she can remember, starting with singing those church hymns and the piano lessons she started in second grade. She also plays saxophone, trombone and guitar, but Gebhardt’s primary instrument is her voice — and, oh, what a gorgeous voice!

Too grounded and embodied to qualify as “ethereal,” it can still break free from its moorings and float like psychedelic pollen through the air. This effect is heightened when Gebhardt’s words are subsumed by the tactile grain of her voice, especially while soaked in heavy doses of reverb. Like the enigmatic wordless sounds produced by Cocteau Twins vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, her lyrical texts sometimes dissolve into sonic textures that complement the beats, noise and melodies that provide the musical bed for Annalibera songs.

Some of these varied vocal inspirations seeped in from Gebhardt’s involvement in renaissance and classical chamber choirs since attending Drake, which allows her to veer from a wispy, well-worn indie pop path into darker, more mysterious territories. Annalibera began when her college choir conductor assigned a project that gave an option to write a song, something she hadn’t really done since her second-grade days of composing songs about flowers.

“I was learning in the classical tradition,” Gebhardt explained, “and it took me so long to figure out how to write outside of that.”

Her first collaborator was Ryan Stier, a guitarist who played in Annalibera since the project began in 2010, and she has been working with multi-instrumentalist Caleb Swank Ferrara on her most recent recordings. Those songs will follow Moon Bath, which was recorded with Iowa filmmaker and producer Philip Rabalais, who helped her develop more electronic beats than what had appeared on Annalibera’s previous three albums, all of which are quite different from one another.

Moon Bath was swallowed by the pandemic,” Gebhardt observed, in that the band only got to play one record release show before everything shut down in March 2020. “Playing shows makes a release feel more real, I guess,” she said. “It is too bad Moon Bath didn’t get its release, but it’s just like, ‘Bummer, next!’”

With Annalibera’s newest recordings, “I am going to bring the songs less plotted out, just in their initial melody forms, and build them with Caleb,” she said. “My intent is to introduce the rhythm elements earlier. I think it will be a revolution for my process.”

Gebhardt said she has remained in Des Moines after graduating college for reasons that are largely psychological, physical and financial, though she really appreciates the support she has received in that relatively small city.

“I would like to be part of a bigger and more competitive scene,” she said. “But so far, resources and opportunities to go somewhere like that have not come through for me. I felt more like manifesting my ideas — I’m full of ’em — than doing the risks of the ‘small-town girl goes to the big city’ routine.”

“But I grew up in relative isolation on a farm. So I can work within that spacious environment, too. I like a lot of solitude. Being five miles away from any friends, I entertained myself with the books, music and nature. And I loved that life — still do. Can’t wait to live in the country again.”

Kembrew McLeod is a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 294.


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