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A homecoming for jazz-pop singer Annie Wells

Clifton Springs, N.Y. —
Annie Wells grew up in Clifton Springs. She took piano lessons from Cheryl Chester and voice lessons from Marilyn DeRuyter, both in nearby Phelps, and graduated from Midlakes in 1979. Her mother, the late Pat Wells, was a nurse at Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic.

So when she noticed online that there’s a fairly new monthly series of concerts, dubbed “Tunes by the Tracks,” she knew that was for her.

“I contacted them and said, ‘hey, I’d love to play there!’” said the jazz/pop singer, songwriter and vocalist, now living in Rochester. And so she shall, headlining the next installment of the concert series, on Wednesday, Aug. 19, in the Clifton Springs Library. Hosts Allen Hopkins, Cathy McGrath (once a neighbor of Wells in Clifton Springs), Jim Clare and the “Mystery Pickers,” as usual, will also play a set.

Wells has four albums to her credit, including the 2009 release, “Tell Me.” Her writing — lyrically and musically — tends toward the melancholy but tinged with hope. As in, for example, the new disc’s “Little Sparrow,” a song inspired by French singer Edith Piaf and embellished with accordion by Ed Marris:

“Let me hear your memories of a life with no regret
Tell me all your street kid stories I never will forget
The first time I heard you sing I heard everything that ever hurt you
And everything you ever dreamed of
When love was everything and everything was love
I love you Little Sparrow when you sing your song
When you sing you break my heart with your sorrow ...”

Or the song “Driving,” which acknowledges a heavy heart — one that sees raindrops falling on a smiling girl’s face as tears — but returns to a theme of perseverance: “... just keep driving, the sun going down behind me, just keep driving into the night ...”

“There’s a lot of loss in some of the songs,” Wells said. “It’s safe to say that I write from personal experience; I think most people do. ... I think to make a good song, it’s important to tell a story and make emotional connections with the listeners. I guess that would make me sort of a traditional songwriter.”

The twin themes of loss and hope have been evident from the start, reflected in the title of her debut album from 1995, “Sad & Beautiful,” in which she works through the grief from the death of her mother. She’s drawn to those themes in the work of others, as well: “Tell Me” includes one song, “I’ll Guide Your Sweetest Dreams,” written by guitarist Phil Marshall about a dying person reassuring loved ones of his continued presence with them.

Strong, pivotal and important women often factor as influences for Wells: Her mother. Piaf. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe, whose fascination with the Southwest is reflected in Wells’ “The Faraway.” Wells’ great-aunt Mary, who never married and ran a farm despite suffering from polio. (Mary, when unable to drive anymore, gave Wells a Rambler station wagon; her reflective ride home is recounted in the song “Mary”: “Mary relied on strength and pride and family ties/And I don’t know if I will see her again/And as I drove 500 miles across Ohio/I left her along ...”)

The devotion to one’s craft and passions — and perseverance in seeing them through — is another major Wells theme.

“What really struck me (about Piaf) was her devotion to singing — no matter what was going on, the most important thing was singing. Georgia O’Keeffe went to the Southwest for six months (each year),” Wells said. “It’s about keeping true to our vision.”

Wells works with developmentally disabled people as her “day job.” Music, however, has been a passion since she was a young child. She remembers hearing her mother play “Fur Elise” on the family piano one day — and picking it out by ear the next day. She continued playing mostly by ear until starting formal lessons at around age 12. And at 16, she began writing songs, influenced by singer-songwriter Laura Nyro and the music heard around the house: Stan Kenton, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Simon & Garfunkel.

Wells will bring her portable keyboard to the Clifton Springs show, where she’ll perform solo — though she loves to take on an actual grand piano when the opportunity arises, as in recent, and upcoming, gigs at the Little Theatre cafe in Rochester. (She’ll be playing Sept. 4 and 18 at the East Avenue venue.)

“It impacts my performance in a really good way,” she said.

If you go:
WHAT Tunes by the Tracks, featuring Annie Wells
WHEN Wednesday, Aug. 19, 7-9 p.m.
WHERE Clifton Springs Library, 4 Railroad Ave., Clifton Springs
DETAILS (585) 362-3519
UPCOMING Annie Wells will perform at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Sept. 4 and 18, at the Little Theatre, 240 East Ave., Rochester

— L. David Wheeler, staff writer, Daily Messenger, Aug 13, 2009


'Tell Me' CD is compilation of heartfelt stories. Annie Wells dwells on three songs near the end of her new CD, Tell Me, including one written by her guitar-guru friend, Phil Marshall. "I told Phil," she says, "I'm the queen of grief and loss."
Maybe so, but she does it so beautifully. Wells celebrates the release of Tell Me at the first of four straight Monday-night appearances at The Little Theatre Café. It is — to borrow a title from one of her previous three albums — sad and beautiful.
Wells' songs like "Beautiful Voice" and "Rosary," and one written by Marshall, "I'll Guide Your Sweetest Dreams," all explore the idea that you can continue to speak with loved ones you've lost through prayer and remembrance.
It's not all grief and loss, of course. In "Perfect," the pianist scoffs at "the idea that someone says, 'It's hard to live with you, because you're too perfect,'" she says, dropping the slightest of hints that that's how one of her own relationships came to an end. "Perfection, I think, doesn't exist."
And cynicism creeps in with "Ice Age" — Wes Smith's cool tenor sax is a real treat throughout the record — when Wells sings, "I think it's an Ice Age, there are so many cool cats." It's easy to buy the look, she says. But, "It's important when you're playing music and when you're writing music that it's coming from your heart. Some musicians and some people don't always approach their music with sincerity and with heart."
Tell Me ends on a light note. "Be" is a seven-line poem from the children's magazine Highlights, brought to Wells by one of the developmentally disabled patients that she works with. "I thought, 'Wow, that is beautiful, I could definitely put music to that,'" Wells says. Written by an 8-year-old girl, Wells went through the magazine to track down now 12-year-old Megan Hall in Maine to get permission to use her words.
But perhaps Wells' finest moment is "Little Sparrow," a tribute to the waifish French chanteuse, Edith Piaf. Wells played it for Marshall, saying she needed an accordion player for the right mood. Marshall immediately thought of Ed Marris, who played an 1958 Sonola accordion with Lumiere, the local trio that specializes in that Django Reinhardt style of accordion with Lumiere, the local trio that specializes in that Django Reinhardt style of Parisian café jazz.
"When we rehearsed that song in my house, on the night before we recorded it, it was magic," Wells says. "It sounded so beautiful that I couldn't come in on my vocals. My jaw dropped, my mouth hung open. It was so exciting to see that song go from something I plinked out on my piano to that beautiful accordion part." Drummer Dave Tedeschi and bassist Jesse Breheney were similarly impressed, says Wells. "They were, like 'Wow, instant band.'" For more, check

— Gannett news by Jeff Spevak • Staff music critic • July 2, 2009

WORDS ABOUT “Sleepy Town"

“Annie Wells' new album Sleepy Town plays out in a way we can all relate to in our efforts to hold onto fleeting childhood wonderment. I don't care who you are: Everybody needs a lullaby. Wells delivers 11 blissfully sleepy vignettes full of innocence and genuine sweetness as seen through the eyes of her nieces and nephews.

Wells's beautiful voice is pleasantly plaintive yet reserved, as if she were in church; she's full of the spirit but perhaps a little shy to let it all out full blast. Her piano playing lies just beneath, sparse and proficient, full of thoughtful musical ellipses and counterpoints. Phillip Marshall adds guitar and dobro to further the album's overall dreamy elegance. Have you ever heard this man play? The combination of these two musicians couldn't sound sweeter.

Wells' lyrics weigh in loud and clear despite the hush, addressing things like fireflies, trains, wishing on stars, and seeing diamonds in the snow. Pleasant and wonderful.”
— Frank De Blasé, City Newspaper

 “Yeah, we're relatively grown up. We pay bills. We have insurance. We willingly watch the news over cartoons (sometimes). But some hectic nights now and then, who wouldn't mind being tucked in with a lullaby? That's where Rochester songstress Annie Wells comes in. Her new release, Sleepy Town, is an assemblage of pillow-soft ballads delivered with feather-light vocals and a delicate restraint that will (no matter how much is on your mind) pull you toward slumber.
— Tim Karan, The Insider

“The office was able to mellow a bit with Annie Wells' new CD, Sleepy Town, which Wells describes as "a collection of lullabies for all ages." Pure, simple innocence drips off these tracks, like Abbott's on a cone, with a vocal delivery both ethereal and earthy at once. Somewhere between jazzy and folky, Wells is at home behind her piano, playing notes that dance next to emoted words of softness, or as she writes in her song, "Powerful Flower," "she's like a powerful flower." See Annie Wells perform at the "Music on the Block" along ArtWalk summer series, on Saturday, June 25th, in front of Craft Company No. 6 (2-4pm).”
— Michelle Picardo, Freetime Magazine

“Wells’ evocative piano accompaniment complements perfectly her reflective lyrics and expressive singing … She’s got a warm breathy delivery and she’s able to move easily from full deep notes to delicate ethereal highs. Her voice is amazing.”
— Chuck Cuminale, City Newspaper, Rochester, NY

“ … with passionate singing and honest, gospel tinged vocals, her sophisticated music echos that of Laura Nyro …”
— Greg Haymes, The Albany Times-Union

“A precise vocal style, whose angelic tones at times drift to the ethereal … there may be something yearning to go darker here: Her song 'The Faraway' is based on the letters of painter Georgia O’Keeffe, a woman of broad, stark colors and bleached cattle skulls.”
— Jeff Spevak, The Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY


“On each of twelve songs, Annie Wells finds a new way to surprise her listeners. She stays cool, never using more volume that she needs, never bringing the pain in a lot of her lyrics up above the surface of the music. The anger and passion don’t jump up at you; Wells asks you to look into the music and find them on your own. Easily bored by pop conventions, she screens her own songs for predictable melodic, rhythmic or harmonic structures, dickering with them until they hold her interest from beginning to end … Wells messes around with a piano with the same idiosyncratic confidence that [Bruce] Hornsby displays, and goes boldly beyond him in other ways, challenging the listeners to rethink the definition of a pop song.”
— H.B. Ward, City Newspaper, Rochester, NY

“ … 'Sad and Beautiful' was worth the wait. Wells has made the jump to the same territory worked by Suzanne Vega and Rickie Lee Jones. She sings more confidently and more provocatively and her piano style is filled out by inventive work by her band and guests Mick Fambro and Lalaland’s Phillip Marshall.”
— Jeff Spevak. The Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY

“Ultimately, every artist’s work is judged by the level of emotional contact made between the artist and the listener. ‘Sad and Beautiful’ builds a powerful connection from the first notes of the title cut to the moving evocation of loss in 'Rosary,' the closing song.”
— Martin Edic, Rochester, NY


“This time around, Wells goes for a bigger band driven sound that creates a point/counterpoint between vocals and music. This effort allows both to weave and blend beautifully. As an experienced story teller, she’s constantly casting below the surface in search of deeper meanings.”
— Scott Gudell, Freetime Magazine

“It’s a fine compilation of originals and two covers that showcase Wells’ substantial vocal gifts as well as some solid backing by local musicians Phillip Marshall on guitar, Jon Gary on bass and Seam Sullivan on Drums. Marshall gives Wells’ CD more of an edge than I’m used to hearing on similar outings. It’s a nice change of pace.”
— Rob Cullivan, City Newspaper, Rochester, NY

“She’s always had one of the nicest singing voices on the Rochester Scene, but on the new album she sounds a little more like a pop star, thanks to producer Phil Marshall. 'Something to Dream About' shows how nicely her voice fits in with a band. Wells’ soaring voice could lull the listener into a dreamy state of mind. But then the singer stops singing and wakes you with a whispered line or two as she does on 'Idaho'.”
— Jeff Spevak, The Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY


Annie Wells Lonely Hearts Club CD

Listen to tracks from Annie Wells' newest release, "Lonely Hearts Club."

(click on the cover image for the high res print verson).

Annie Wells

Photo of Annie Wells by Scott Cole
(click on the photo for the high res print verson).

Annie Wells

Photo of Annie Wells by Scott Cole
(click on the photo for the high res print verson).

View a video of Annie performing and being interviewed on RNews.

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