Though Anne Watts mostly finds herself on the Eastern Shore these days, there’s no denying that the Cambridge-based artist is a daughter of Baltimore, beginning to end.
For starters, she was born here, to a family of artistic greats, before becoming a part of the city’s art scene herself in the 1980s, ultimately launching her veteran art-rock band Boister, which is now in its second decade. You can often catch her and her Baltimore-based bandmates at local venues such as Creative Alliance, An Die Musik, or Fells Point bar 1919, which is owned by a good friend of hers (more on that later).
And so it’s no wonder that the title of Boister’s new, ninth record would honor the city that helped shape the woman she is today. Watts has tackled heady themes in the past as the band’s primary songwriter, but for the first time, she and her six bandmates—Warren Boes on guitar, Craig Considine on trombone, John Dierker on bass clarinet, Jim Hannah on percussion, Lyle Kissack on drums, Chas Marsh on bass, and Glenn Workman on keys—have made songs that are especially for, about, and, in large part, by women. Watts’ own daughter, Posie, her friend Laura Leigh Todd, and War On Women’s Shawna Potter join on vocals.
Inspired in part by the 2016 election and the #MeToo movement, Goddess of The Baltimore in Your Mind is a timely, poetic, at-times prophetic album, inspiring all listeners to embrace their feminine energy and affect change.
On the heels of its release, we sat down with Watts to talk about her Baltimore roots, celebrating her bandmates, and being inspired by other women.
You recently wrote about how parts of your childhood influenced this record—an old friend, your father playing classical music around the house when you were a kid. Do you feel like this record was a long time in the making?
It’s weird you mention my dad, because I was just thinking about him this morning. My sister was reading about this production of Death of a Salesman in London with Wendel Pierce and Clark Peters from The Wire—all black cast. She was like, they don’t realize that Baltimore did it at Center Stage so many years ago [in 1972].
Our dad was the head of the board at Center Stage at the time. He was a right-wing Republican and we did not see eye to eye politically, but he was so passionate about the theater as an instrument of social change, and he was passionate about Baltimore. He instilled those things in me—Beethoven, Shakespeare, Baltimore, over and over and over, and it just got into me. Like oh, we’re supposed to make art to facilitate change and to celebrate where we come from. He always talked about giving back.
I still always wonder, is it in the water in Baltimore? You think about all the people who are our predecessors. They didn’t care that they didn’t sound like anybody else.
Were you aware of that special quality of the city as a kid, or did it come later with time?
My grandad was a theater producer in New York, fighting Joe McCarthy and producing shows Off-Broadway. He gave Meryl Streep one of her first jobs. A lot of the actors fleeing Los Angeles [because of the Hollywood blacklist] were coming to the East Coast and ending up in theater, and some of these people would come summer at his house in Timonium.
I was just a little kid, but I was picking up on all this stuff. Somehow there was this element of danger and seriousness, but my family was singing and dancing. And my grandfather was fighting. And then my dad was at Center Stage and my mom was at the Baltimore Symphony trying to create programming for kids. Perhaps it wasn’t so much being in Baltimore as it was being in that family. It gave me this idea from a young age that you were supposed to try to create change if you had any skill at all. And everybody does.
You left Baltimore for a few years to attend college in New England but returned afterwards?
I could just tell something was going on here. It was the early days of the Ad Hoc Fiasco movement, made up of a lot of angry artists on the fringe that were rebelling against the mainstream art institutions, which fed into the birth of Artscape. I don’t know how I picked up on it, but I came back and fell right into it, and now you just feel such enormous pride in what’s happened at the BMA, and Center Stage. Not to mention Everyman. Theatre Project. Single Carrot. Baltimore is a theater town! It is so exciting just to consider that one thread of Death of a Salesman. Who had that idea at the time? And who stood behind them and said let’s go with it?
What was the genesis of Goddess of The Baltimore in Your Mind?
It harkens back to my childhood friend Sally Hutchins, who owns 1919 in Fells Point. She wanted me to write something that would make her laugh, because I’m really good at making her cry. Sad songs are my forte. So I wrote her the title song in 2014. Obama was in office. It was before Freddie Gray. I was just trying to do something like, “Ahhh! Look at us!” And oh man, the longer it took for this record to reach its fruition, the more profound it became.
How soon after did the other songs come?
Well, then I was stuck. I was totally stuck. And then the 2016 election happened. I went outside the next morning, and it was so wet and ugly, it seemed like for a long time, but I saw this Lenten rose, blooming in the garden, in the cold. I went back inside and immediately wrote a song. . . . It was the current situation that provoked these songs. And my daughter leaving for college. And my aunt dying. And my friend Laura Leigh Todd being this incredible theatrical force in Cambridge. We’re kindred, and then she came to be on this record, which was powerful.
When did you realize this was a record for and about women?
I didn’t realize it until it was finished. Isn’t that so weird? You’re just like a spider, weaving your web. You can’t think about the pattern.
All of your bandmates are male. What was their reaction?
I didn’t tell them, “Wow, we just made something for the feminine spirit,” but I think they knew all along. They’ve known for years, that they’re dancing with the feminine, and I think they get energy from that. I want to dance with them, and I want to celebrate them. For years, I’ve wanted to people to realize these guys are just not ordinary players. And by lifting them, I’ve been lifted along with them. And from that place comes the idea, like, let’s see who else we can bring along.
How would you define a goddess of Baltimore?
Oh, at first, it’s so easy. That’s Lea Gilmore. That’s Maria Broom. That’s Joyce Scott. That’s Bea Gaddy. And then all the other women that you know in Baltimore, of Baltimore, from Baltimore, there becomes this huge mural of their faces in your mind, this incredible garden of fertility and imagination and fortitude, and you’re like, wow, which one is not a goddess?
Does that inner goddess exist for men, too?
Yes. A great man understands the woman in him. And that’s why that first verse mentions Jupiter, which is male. I didn’t want to want to leave any boy out of this conversation. I learned that when my son and I attended the Take Back the Night march [against sexual violence] at UMBC. Many of the people marching were young men. They were not marching for their girlfriends, they were marching for themselves. That was an enormous wakeup for me. Women understand suffering, we’re built for it, we live it. But that doesn’t mean that atrocities don’t happen to boys. They need to be enfolded, too.
What is your hope for people who listen to this record?
That they will get a good cry, and then they’ll get up and dance.