If you live your entire life avoiding those moments of sheer panic, you’re avoiding basically being born. And I think we’re all out to be born a few times in our lives.
Music is a challenging, yet beautiful madness for anyone brave enough to embrace it as a career. Take Anna Bulbrook, a former classical violinist who founded and fronts indie band, The Bulls, plays in The Airborne Toxic Event and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and started music and arts collective, Girl School LA. “I was like, a smart, nerdy violinist, from a nice family from Boston,” says Anna, who is based in the Echo Park neighborhood of LA. “I probably should have become a lawyer or something, really.” But, that wasn’t in the cards.
She started playing classical violin at age 4. And, early on, she was troubled by the side effects of her own perfectionism, which were amplified by the rigors of classical performance. “Every time I performed a classical recital, I would feel terrible,” she remembers. “I would just dwell on how imperfect everything was. How I wasn’t ready enough. It’s a really neurotic space to be in, to know that there is something perfect you’re striving towards, yet you can’t identify it, you can’t get there fast enough. In fact, you might never get there.”
It didn’t help that she felt like a fish out of water among her musician buddies, most of whom were 100% sure of their life path. Anna, on the other hand, was interested in many different art forms, like “drawing and writing and painting and building stuff and cooking.” She enrolled at Columbia University and majored not in music, but creative writing, while continuing to seriously pursue the violin in hopes of landing a spot in an orchestra.
Then, in the last few months of college, something shifted. “It was weird, I actually kind of blew off practicing,” she remembers. “I started to show up less-than-prepared for the first time ever. And it felt amazing. That precipitated the thought process of, ‘Is this really the lifestyle for me?’”
There was a voice in her head, quite faint at the time, urging her towards a form of creative expression that was all her own, rather than an interpretation of Beethoven or Mozart. She started to face the reality: classical violin would never provide her with the life nor emotional state for which she yearned. “I had to break up with it. I wasn’t sure yet what other life there was for me as a violinist, so I just broke from it entirely. I killed that person.”
She quit classical violin at 21, with no real Plan B. The result? A whole lot of guilt and uncertainty. She would visit her old teacher’s studio in LA, and it was almost unbearably sad.
“I’d watch the kids continuing on the trajectory that I had abandoned, and I would just feel terrible. I was really paranoid that I’d let my family down—I had this beautiful violin that they’d bought for me, you know, a professional level violin, and they’d paid for all these lessons over the years and here I was, maybe throwing it all away.”
Her parents, while shocked at Anna’s change of heart toward the violin, knew better than to question what she was doing. “My mom said the most generous thing anyone’s ever said, which was: ‘We just wanted you to be good at something. It’s yours now to do what you want with it.’”
Anna worked in PR for a while and thought about writing for a living. Then, a chance opportunity arose—to play in a small string orchestra backing Kanye West in Aspen. Sitting behind Kanye on stage, she had a revelation. “I was like, wait, wait, you can do this as a job? You can entertain people with music in this really positive way, and it can be relaxing and it can be fun, and you can wear whatever you want?”
At the time, she was an intern at Filter magazine, a music publication. The magazine’s editor, Mikel Jollett, also happened to be lead singer of The Airborne Toxic Event. He invited her to play strings live, right around the time the band exploded in popularity. Overnight, Anna found herself on the road, as a touring rock musician. “When I started touring, I was like 23, 24,” she says. “Young and hungry and just excited to do it.”
During her first tour, the band had an alternative radio hit, “Sometime Around Midnight.” “We chased that hit around the world—and then I just didn’t really come home for 18 months.” Suddenly all the things that ran counter to her classical mindset—improvisation, wildness on stage, self-expression, fashion—were key parts of her job as a musician. She had never felt so happy or free on stage before.
Then, a few years later, the voice started up in her head again. It told her she was ready for the next stage in her evolution as an artist—as a frontwoman, writing and performing her own songs. She formed The Bulls with her friend Marc Sallis, former guitarist for The Duke Spirit, and faced her insecurities for a second time.
“I had never really written songs before,” says Anna. “It was a struggle. It was like jumping off a cliff.” She wrote “some really bad songs” until stumbling upon the formula of sounds and singing style that worked for her voice and vision. She spent a year writing and recording The Bulls’ debut, forcing herself to embrace the discomfort of her own growth until the growing pains disappeared. Then, one last hurdle—live performance.
While she felt relaxed performing as part of an ensemble, being the frontwoman of her own band reawakened the crippling perfectionism she’d suffered from as a classical musician. The anxiety hit its peak in 2015, before the first night of The Bulls’ residency at The Satellite in LA.
“My parents were going to see me front for the first time. I had journalists coming. I had all these motivating factors, the need to nail it. Failure was no longer an option. So the only thing I could do was take a really uncomfortable, really giant risk.” And she did it. She allowed herself to let go. “The door opened—all it took was feeling like I was maybe going to have a mental breakdown.”
Each step in her growth as an artist, from shy classical performer to indie rock goddess, has felt akin to rebirth for Anna. And while rebirth isn’t always comfortable nor pleasant, she has come to embrace it. “If you live your entire life avoiding those moments of sheer panic, you’re avoiding basically being born. And I think we’re all out to be born a few times in our lives,” she says. “That’s what makes it fun, in the end.”
Stories & Surroundings
"One of the biggest barriers to entry for women in rock (or amplified) music of any kind is technology. Gear (and software, and engineering) feels off-limits, somehow. But if you can plug in instruments and run a PA, you can play shows. You can record music. You can record demos. You can shop those demos to labels. You can license that music in film or TV. You can learn how to mix. You can become a DJ, or a composer, or a performance-artist, or whatever you want. I want women and girls to know that no one, of any gender, knows anything about any of this stuff when they start, and if you're interested -- just get in there and figure it out. It's OK to look a little silly while you're learning; everyone does. It's ok to ask questions. And it's OK to touch gear. It's actually pretty cool."
"That's my gold record. I wish those things don't matter, but they totally do, and having that one object makes me feel a notch cooler than I really am."
"I was a classically-trained violinist, but I picked up viola to play in Airborne. When this Realist five-string violin came my way, with internal electronics, and the range of both a violin and viola, but the feel of a violin -- and it sounded and looked like a real violin when amplified -- it changed the quality of my daily life. I take it everywhere. I even secretly played it on a big pop record recently, and I promise that it was the only five-string in the recording studio."
"Making rock music is messy and emotional and fun, and it's nearly impossible to keep a writing and rehearsal space organized if you're actually using it. Our friend, Travis, who has a band called Piebald, made that spray-painted sign for us, which was really sweet. And I'm a bit of a tambourine enthusiast -- I play a lot of tambourine for Airborne, and I've come to really appreciate it as it's own specific little instrument. People don't take it seriously enough."
Directed by Lance Drake Written by Caroline Ryder Photography by Curtis Buchanan Music by The Bulls