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Getting To Know: Annemarie Quinn

Hailing from the picturesque landscapes of The Lake District, Annemarie Quinn is more than just your average singer-songwriter. With a musical journey that began at a tender age, mastering the guitar, violin, and vocals, Annemarie has graced renowned stages across the globe, from the iconic 02 Academy London to Jamie Oliver's Big Feastival.

But her story takes an unexpected turn – in 2016, Annemarie packed her bags and ventured to Malawi, Africa, embarking on a six-year odyssey of musical exploration and collaboration. Amidst the vibrant culture and rhythms of Malawi, she found inspiration, weaving together the rich tapestry of local talent and her own artistry to craft her upcoming album, 'Blue Sky Thinking.'

Recorded in breathtaking locations, from the shores of Lake Malawi to makeshift studios echoing with laughter and malaria-induced perseverance, 'Blue Sky Thinking' is more than an album; it's a testament to human connection and resilience. Featuring over 40 musicians and infused with the spirit of Malawi, each track resonates with meaning and storytelling.

But Annemarie's impact extends beyond music – as Arts Programs Director at The Jacaranda School For Orphans and co-director of Music Against Malaria, she's on a mission to make a difference. And her dedication hasn't gone unnoticed, earning her a heartfelt embrace from none other than Madonna herself during a visit to Malawi.

With her infectious energy and soulful melodies, Annemarie Quinn is not just a singer-songwriter; she's a beacon of positivity and cultural fusion, spreading joy with every note. As BBC Introducing aptly puts it, "Annemarie's music is like a hug – warm, positive, and utterly delightful." Get ready to be captivated by the sounds of Annemarie Quinn – a talent like no other.

1. Can you share more about your musical journey from The Lake District to Malawi and how this transition influenced your sound and style as a singer-songwriter?

I grew up in the Lake District, went to University in Manchester where I studied music, and then based back in The Lake District after I graduated, playing all over the UK from O2 Academy in London, to The Wickerman Festival in Scotland. I’ve always been inspired by my surroundings, which of course Cumbria, with its beautiful mountains and peaceful lakes was a great place to begin songwriting. I alway tried to explore different subjects to write about and growing up in Keswick was a wonderful place to be inspired by. My husband and I were living in Cockermouth in 2015 when there was terrible rains and the house we were renting was flooded. We’d always talked perhaps living abroad one day, and I totally believe that things happen when they’re meant to. So whilst our life felt upside down after being flooded, we decided to go for it as it seemed the perfect chance. So we packed up everything and moved to Malawi, Africa! When I first arrived I had this great idea about writing an album with musicians I hadn’t met yet, and songs I hadn’t written. So I began writing and took inspiration from the culture and country I was living in - everywhere you turn in Malawi there’s colour, life, song and noise. It’s like the contrast has been turned to high and a total attack on your senses. And I loved it. I drank the culture in and took inspiration from the scenery,  the people I met, the way of life and attitudes, which led me to write my first song here in Malawi, titled ‘Osadandaula’, meaning ‘don’t worry’. I began meeting and jamming with local artists, who are absolutely incredible musicians, and who I still play with to this day. I’ve alway been conscious of cultural appropriation and, with this in mind, i’ve not tried to write ‘African’ music, but instead draw inspiration and weave flicks of the sound of Malawi into my own songwriting, and really lean into the beautiful act of collaboration.


2. Your album 'Blue Sky Thinking' is an extraordinary collaboration with over 40 Malawian musicians. Can you walk us through the creative process and the unique experiences you had recording in various locations, including on the shores of Lake Malawi?

I arrived in Malawi and started writing, taking inspiration from the culture and my experiences living in what felt like a totally different world. Music’s ability to transcend cultures has been the key to opening doors, especially in a country where it is in the blood. When I arrived I didn’t know anyone or anything but on the second weekend we were here it was a festival that is the equivalent of Glastonbury on the shore of Lake Malawi. We drove ten hours on the lakeshore road and once we got there met loads of musicians and one contact led to another. I went to every jam session, every gig and got to know people. You just have to go for it! 

I didn’t presume people would want to work with me. One show led to another and I got to know people and they got to know me naturally. People live in music in a completely different way here. In the UK you have to fight or really make an effort to do music at school and beyond. Here music is free and accessible. I spent three years in a technical music environment learning theory and rhythms. Here, there are children by the side of the road playing on a tin can, and the harmonies they sing are incredible. I have worked with the most amazing musicians who can’t write a note of music but who can make guitars out of oil drums with bicycle brakes for strings. The feeling is much more important to them, it’s so freeing, and this was a huge inspiration to me when we began jamming and sketching out the songs prior to recording. Everybody goes to church so everybody sings. In the evening there is no TV because of the power cuts so everyone sings and plays. Music is a way to bring people together, it’s so normal, people sing all the time, everybody plays, it’s incredible. I didn’t set out to write an African album. I think music should be culturally appropriate so I’ve taken my style and added flicks and other things from the Malawian musicians. So when we started coming together with musicians and working on the songs, they added their own styles and some came up with things I could never have imagined. I’ve learned so much from them. I’ve found that sometimes in the West collaboration can be seen as a weakness whereas here it’s been amazing to collaborate. It’s great to have my classical training but there is so much more to learn and try. 

We then began recording in our home built studio with sound baffles made by the carpenters in the market and walls and ceilings covered in chitenje (Malawi’s local fabric) and foam for sound proofing treatment. We had many recording sessions stopped due to power cuts, and often had to stop recording mid take as the monkeys were jumping on the roof and you could hear the banging through the mics! We also packed up the studio and set it up on the side of Lake Malawi at a beautiful backpacker’s lodge called Mayoka Village, where we met with Malawi’s only brass group - The Lusubilo Band, where we recorded their brass sections for ‘Size of The Sky’ and ‘Blue Sky Thinking’ - we then all had a gig together that night in the bar! We just had the best time recording this album - every song has a meaning. There was laughter, friendship and struggle, transport breaking down, power cuts, musicians unable to make the session due to malaria, and some turning up with malaria and recording anyway - you name it, it happened!

3. Living in Malawi, you're deeply involved in charitable work, serving as the Arts Programs Director at The Jacaranda School For Orphans and co-director of Music Against Malaria. How has your role in these organizations shaped your music and vice versa?

Whilst living here in Malawi, I feel it’s only right to contribute to the country you are living in. And using music as a vehicle is the perfect way to do that! I’ve always loved teaching and sharing music, and living in Malawi and seeing the conditions and the lack of access to healthcare and education that I was lucky enough to grow up with, is very humbling. I feel it's important to share the education I have been given and do my small part to help. For Music Against Malaria - gigs fundraise - so that’s exactly what we do. We hold concerts and raise funds funds for the healthcare in the fight against malaria, whilst promoting and preserving the cultural heritage of Malawi and giving musicians a platform to showcase their talent. 

I first heard of Jacaranda School for Orphans in 2017, and was told they had an amazing choir, so I had to visit. It’s an incredible school providing free education for 400 children and promoting education for girls. I fell in love with it and started volunteering, offering choir, vocal training and guitar. To sit and teach girls guitar there is awesome. You have to be respectful of their culture and background and we still play their traditional songs, but I can also teach them chords and other tools to excel and develop the music they are doing already. Fast forward to 2024 and I am the arts programs director of Jacaranda which is funded by Madonna’s charity Raising Malawi. To be part of that while I’m here and share the skills and knowledge I have to further their education is really rewarding. I feel like I have a responsibility to give back to the country in whatever capacity I can, to say thanks for having us.

4. The title track of your album was chosen as BBC Introducing's Track Of The Week. How did that recognition impact your career, and what does it mean to you to have your work acknowledged in this way?

I was honoured that ‘Blue Sky Thinking’ was chosen as BBC Introducing’s Track Of The Week. The album, from start to finish took 5 years, so to have the title track chosen and for our hard work to be acknowledged was just wonderful - and how awesome for Malawian artists to be played on the BBC - they were all so excited! A huge thank you to Tom Salmon at the BBC who has always supported my music and followed my journey. As much as i’m so happy with the result of ‘Blue Sky Thinking’, for me it’s never been so much about what comes after it, but that we had the most amazing time recording it, which I will never forget. And now the fact that people want to listen, play, and enjoy the album is a huge, huge bonus! This is something that i’ve definitely been reminded of living here in Malawi - the reason why you are doing something. I’ve worked with the most amazing musicians whilst living here, and whilst of course we need to be driven, motivated with an idea of what we’d like to achieve, these musicians don’t play to “make it” or “become famous”. They play for the absolute joy of music, a lesson that was important to be reminded of and one that I always circle back to if I ever need a reminder. I’m honoured that people have been enjoying the album as much as we loved creating it!

5. Your music is described as having a warm, positive, and lovely vibe. How do you approach infusing cultural elements and the energy of Malawi into your music to create this unique atmosphere?

The energy in Malawi is contagious, and I’ve always believed that you are the energy and people you attract. This is what i’ve tried to incorporate into my music; some sunshine and happiness that hopefully people can connect to in their own way. But i’m always mindful for this not to be forced, as that kind of defeats the point! Things should be natural and come from the heart. The relationships i’ve made with the musicians i’ve collaborated with over the album’s creation have been made in this way, and I think that’s what you can hear in the music; the brilliant time we had together (i’ve been to their homes, weddings, christenings, the lot!) - and there’s no faking that. 

6. You had the incredible opportunity to meet and perform with Madonna during her visit to Malawi. Can you share some highlights from that experience and how it felt to share your work with such an iconic figure?

I was wonderful to meet Madonna on her visit to Malawi in January 2021. She visited Jacaranda School For Orphans to check in on the arts programs. I presented our work to her, I was so nervous but she was lovely, so nice and genuine and asked some brilliant questions. She said ‘let’s sing’ and we had a jam session with her son playing guitar, it was so surreal. We sang “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis and  “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers which I taught the choir. To have one of the biggest stars in the word in a small music room in Malawi, sharing music with the Jacaranda students was just amazing and it was an honour to meet her, and still be working with her now!  

7. As a singer, songwriter, and collaborator with various artists, can you tell us about the themes and inspirations behind the songs on 'Blue Sky Thinking' and the stories that unfolded during the recording sessions?

Whilst writing Blue Sky Thinking, I was mindful to document the sights and sounds of Malawi alongside my own experiences of living in a different culture, whilst remaining culturally appropriate, whilst making the lyrics accessible to those who may have not visited somewhere like Malawi before - not an easy line to walk! But I tried by best and hopefully succeeded in this! Let me break down a couple of the songs for you - 

The first track of the album, “Size Of The Sky” begins with a soundscape of audio I’ve captured on my phone for the last 4 years. We created a drone from a guitar strum and layered on top audio clips from gigs, crowds, safari drives, traditional drumming groups, choirs passing on the back of pickup trucks, audience cheers from festivals I’ve played and local musicians busking on the roadside to create a wash of Malawian culture to transport you to this beautiful country. When I first arrived in Malawi I noticed the size of the sky - it’s vast, the bright sunshine and it’s horizon stained with red dust. Five years on I am still in awe of the sky. I wanted this piece to capture that feeling you get when you arrive in a brand new country when you step off the plane - the heat rising off the tarmac, the smell of the air and a brand new culture to explore. Embracing the feeling of being out of your comfort zone - I love it! I wanted a big song to start the album with, a hit of sound, just like how the Malawian culture hits you - it’s consuming and emotional- “Stepping out, just outside these walls, there’s a world that sings only the brightest sounds”. This was one of the first songs I began writing when I arrived in Malawi and it really set the tone of the album - I felt a new sense of freedom and creativity with so much to navigate and experience. The line "I've got monkeys on my roof" always makes me smile; in a few of the recording sessions we had to stop mid take as there was monkeys running around on the roof and the microphones were picking them up! This song features the wonderful Lusubilo Band on brass. There’s lots of collaboration on this album so I consciously decided to have a single vocal on Size of The Sky as a nod to this journey being one I’ve taken and made happen independently.

The song “Osadandaula” has been a really important song to help me break down barriers here in Malawi. I wanted to write a song with a strong hook line that no matter your background, culture or language everyone could sing together. There were often shows I played at the beginning where the language barrier was difficult as I was still learning Chichewa and felt I couldn’t connect with the audience. This song helps to break these barriers down with the line "Hey, Osadandaula" everyone can sing, which means ‘don’t worry’ - the Malawian version of Hakunamatata! This song talks about how moving away from friends and family is hard and spending this short amount of time we have on earth away from the ones we love seems wrong. But if you are going to be away you have to make the absolute most of every moment and seize every opportunity so when things come to an end, as they always must, you can look back and have no regrets. Don’t worry and focus on now. The chorus features The Jacaranda School For Orphans, Lazarus, Waliko Makhala and Agorosso. We’ve performed this song at festivals and venues all over the country and to have so many people sing it along with you, and sometimes shout it at you down the street, is brilliant!

And the title track of the album “Blue Sky Thinking” was a really interesting song to create - I wanted to compose a song that was fun, a total hit of sunshine and energy, that’s the feeling Malawi gives you! I was inspired by the music here in Malawi as a lot of songs are written around just three chords, in this case G, C & D. I feel sometimes in western music ‘three choir songs’ are shunned as ‘simple’ but I saw it as a challenge – to write a song that catches your attention with just three chords, it’s really hard, so I wanted to give it a go! It’s also the perfect song to jam with Malawians, everyone knows G, C & D, again, breaking down boundaries. I knew I wanted a really strong lead guitar line so wrote the melody that Manyozo Tchado plays perfectly on the electric - super bright and catchy. The song features Waliko Makhala on spoken word – in Chichewa he speaks in the importance of collaboration and how we must think without limits- the meaning of Blue Sky Thinking! We added the effect on his vocals to sound like a speaker on the back of a pickup truck. (They’re often driven round the city and used to advertised, it’s such a typical everyday sound of Blantyre city, so I wanted to feature it in the song!) Over all the song promotes positivity - we have a choice as to what we want to focus on and the energy we attract. “All I’m asking for is a bit more positivity please so we can have blue sky thinking” – you can make the everyday special if you choose to.

This song was recorded in 5 different locations – Ituma Music Productions for drums, Lusubilo Band on brass on the shore of Lake Malawi, acoustic guitar at The Music Farm in the UK, Pamodzi Studio and choir in The Jacaranda School For Orphans’ hall! We had so much fun recording with the Jacaranda students – they had ALL the energy and just would not stand still while we trying to record! I made a deal with them - get the main vocal takes down and then you can dance all you like! So the cheers you can hear on the song are the jacaranda students having the best time, I’ve never seen people embody joy like those students do! The Lusubilo Band live right in the North of Malawi, a good 18 hour drive away, so I worked with them over Whatsapp - I sent them the song to have a jam around and then a day later I got a reply saying ‘done!’ We travelled to Nkhata bay and met them in the north of Malawi so they didn’t have to travel all the way to Blantyre on minibuses. We set up the studio on the lake shore at the amazing Mayoka village, had a brilliant 6 hour recording session in 30 degrees before jumping in the lake afterwards to cool off! There are over 32 performers on the song celebrating the power of collaboration! I really hope it makes you smile!


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