Finding Connie Converse: in conversation with filmmaker Andrea Kannes

July 1, 2016
Words: Jasper Willems

In the intro of I Have Considered The Lilies – the final cut from 18-song compilation LP How Sad, How Lovely – Connie Converse reluctantly tells recording engineer Gene Deitch she doesn’t want to record this song, because she hasn’t tried it enough “to do it well”. “Why don’t you just sing it, and we won’t record it?”, a woman in the room assures her. Converse starts playing. Of course, Deitch pressed record anyway. Thank heavens he did.

That little ruse might be a microcosm of Elizabeth Eaton ‘Connie’ Converse’s elusive tryst with destiny. Tragically, love, success and self-acceptance kept blindsiding her, despite her many obvious talents. In 1974, at age 50, a disillusioned Converse wrote a handful of goodbye letters to friends and family members, drove off in her Volkswagen and disappeared for good. Whereas many assume she took her own life – perhaps serendipitously – her story became a series of blank pages for us to fill in.

It’s easy to familiarize yourself with a grainy recording of a woman’s wistful, lilting voice and a strumming guitar. Same with Converse’s libretto-like lyrical and melodic prowess, which would initially suggest some overlooked songbook classic written by Gershwin. Shockingly enough, I Have Considered The Lilies is completely original, as are all her other songs. And, as stripped as this amateur recording is, you can vividly imagine the song climaxing in this grandiose cavalcade of strings, horns and marching bands. When a song can potentially work as both an intimate confessional and Colonel Bogey March-ish fanfare, that usually means we’re approaching ‘iconic’-territory.

The recordings were made in the 50s, mind you. Yup, before the folkies and beatniks hijacked Greenwich Village. Connie Converse arrived there long before 1961, when Bob Dylan arrived. And before Karen Dalton, Vashti Bunyan, Joni Mitchell and Anne Briggs made their mark, Converse adeptly churned out bookish, resplendent and experimental folk gems. Unknowingly during these ad lib home recording sessions, Connie Converse documented herself as one of the first confessional songwriters in pop music history. Sadly, she likely never lived to see herself recognized as such. You can only hope she found solace in the many things she could do…as in, the many lives she led. Generations later, her music brings solace to a devoted congregation of fans.

One of them being filmmaker Andrea Kannes, who made We Lived Alone: The Connie Converse Documentary with the same off-the-cuff spirit as Converse’s deft, quirky and deeply melancholic writings. Likewise, Kannes, who now lives in Orlando, had to cope with some struggles of her own.

You still remember the first time you heard Connie’s music?
Andrea Kannes: ‘I do. Oddly enough I think, it was two or three embedded mp3’s from a blog. I listened to Empty Pocket Waltz and Talkin’ Like You over and over again, until I realized, “Oh, there is an album out. I can listen to the rest of her songs.” It was haunting, the music made me feel all weird and tingly. I felt embarrassed because I thought I related to it too much. That’s what intrigued me to learn more about her, or what was initially available at Wikipedia anyway. I just figured there might be more to this. These two or three songs lived in my head for weeks until I wasn’t satisfied with just listening to them. I needed to know as much as possible about her, because I wanted to figure out why I was feeling this nervousness. Not anxiety, but just this very physical feeling. Her music felt like it was recorded in a vacuum. Not to mention she is super funny, but in this very subtle way. Which is my favorite kind of funny.’

You started working on this film four years ago. How has it been received thus far?
AK: ‘The film premiered October 14th 2014 at the Sensoria Festival in Sheffield, England, which was a gift from above. Not only had I never been out of the country before, they actually paid for me to go there, to present it and to do a Q&A. It was all thanks to Nat Johnson, a fellow Connie appreciator. She wrote a grant to have me come and show the film, then she did a whole show of Connie’s songs after. She also played a couple of originals inspired by Connie – the show was sold out. It was probably one of the most moving experiences of my life. If you haven’t listened to her originals, you must at least listen to Condor (see Johnson’s rendition below) – it made me cry that night. The film hasn’t played since then. There have been little screenings here and there. I have submitted it to a bunch of places in the States. And the only place that accepted it gave it a Life and Legacy award, was the first year of the Orlando Urban Film Festival. For which I applied even before I lived here. So that’s funny. But every couple of months I am approached by somebody from England, somebody in Austria, in Europe there are a bunch. I just send it to them, because I’m not really in it for anything other than letting people discover Connie Converse. For them to even know who she is in the first place. I’m excited that people are willing to reach out to me to see the film. Because I haven’t been able to get it out there.’

Have you thought about just putting it on YouTube?
AK: ‘I lack the funds to pay for the music rights, so I can’t put it on YouTube. Only if a distribution company buys it and takes care of the music rights. Not to call the people releasing her album super sticklers. David (Herman) and Dan (Dzula) did an amazing job. But they are getting more and more protective of Connie’s music. But I think we’re on good terms, I sold a bunch of their cd’s for them when I was in England. I always ask them for permission before I do anything major. As long as I’m not making any money off of it, it’s really just free advertising for them. I don’t think they care if the documentary screens at smaller locations. But there’s this weird group of people who are trying to own Connie’s story and try and put all these labels on her and use her story to their advantage. I think that’s so wrong. So it’s basically a catch twenty-two: I would love to screen the documentary at more places.’ ‘

I reckon any Connie Converse-enthusiast would be a valuable cog in the machine if you facilitate them.
AK: ‘That was Connie’s spirit behind what she was doing, everything was homemade and DYI. She was a woman trying to make something of herself in a time where being a woman was far worse than it is now. Also, I think there is something called the Connie Converse-curse. If you do a project about her, it dies once it starts building any momentum. Unfortunately, that happened to Dzula and Herman the first time they attempted to crowdsource How Sad, How Lovely on vinyl. Everybody’s like “Yeah, this is going to be great, Connie on vinyl!” And then it died. Fortunately, they were able to regroup (Squirrel Thing co-released it with Captured Tracks in 2015, ed.), and I’m really proud of them that they released it eventually.’

That sounds strangely synonymous to Connie Converse’s career. Writing sixteen years worth of lost classics, reaching a tragic cul de sac and become disillusioned afterwards. Five decades later, the music is finally exhumed.
AK: ‘Exactly. It all feels related and it’s a little bit eerie. But that’s what makes it interesting.’

I read that you made this documentary for your thesis when you were getting your Media Studies-degree in New York. What prompted you do to that?
AK: ‘I heard about Connie from one of my professors, it wasn’t directly from his class. But you had to check his website often for assignments. He posted something about Connie and from that moment on, she lived in my head for six months, until I felt compelled to take action. I graduated that December and then I moved to upstate New York. So I was listening to her music in my room that overlooked a rotted barn by myself. I had a glass of wine… maybe two. And I just had this realization then and there: I need to make something about Connie Converse. People need to know who she is. I feel like we’re soul sisters or something. I need more people to appreciate her and learn about her life and I needed to complete something about her to show that people like us could complete something big. So out of the blue, I e-mailed her brother Phil, who unfortunately passed away two years ago. I told him I wanted to make a documentary about his sister. To my surprise, Phil responded in two hours…and he sent me all this stuff! He sent me a cd and a booklet of lyrics he accumulated from Connie’s filing cabinet. From that point on I figured: “I guess I’ll have to make it now. I made contact. I gotta follow through on this!”‘

CC_Slide_23

Starting out, did you have a clear vision of what kind of documentary this would be? Or did that change on a whim as you were given full access to Connie’s filing cabinet?
AK: ‘I realized I would never finish the movie if I integrated all of the documents from the filing cabinet. I couldn’t bring myself to say definitively who she was. Because it’s just not fair to her. Instead of doing this very Ken Burns-y sequencing of events and intellectually trying to put her in a historical context. As I started reading more, hearing more of her voice, I realized that was not the way to go. It wasn’t the best service to her because trying to put her in any kind of box: saying she was “this” or “that” just seemed really wrong. People would always ask: “you’re going through all these documents, are you trying to find her?” I also toyed with putting myself in the project, but I realized that wasn’t the way to go, either. I appear in the film very briefly, by accident, because I liked the content of a certain clip and didn’t really know how else to include it. I think you might also see the reflection of my face in the screen for the Gene Deitch Skype interview. I’m still not sure whether that’s kind of cool, or whether it’s terrible. I was making the movie by any means necessary, which included a big learning curve for me in terms of technical production.’

‘For a couple of months I was like: Yeah, maybe (I’ll find her). I even talked to a private investigator to see what it would take. But, in the same way that her family decided not to look for her, even though they tried for a little bit, she left all these notes for us to find for a reason. She clearly disappeared on purpose. So it also felt wrong, as a person who never knew her personally, to expose or pretend that I knew where she went exactly and why. She made these deliberate choices: she struggled with mental illness but at the same time, she was very clear-headed. So that changed as I was making it. Instead of making this linear, chronological story, I wanted to make an impression of her personality, the impact that she had on people around her.’

Did the notion of how Connie might have liked the film preoccupy you? You spent a lot of time with this person, you get to know her intimately…even though she’s most likely gone.
‘It definitely did. One particular thing she wrote really affected how I put everything together. There was this poem in one of her journals – now I’m wondering why I didn’t put this in the movie – it was something about publishing her papers for a post-mortem just like F. Scott Fitzgerald. It suggested that she put things in that filing cabinet for a reason. It’s almost like she knew she would get discovered later. I can’t remember the words of the poem journal entry exactly. She hoped it got her family a tidy sum. Knowing that what she had was valuable, she was also downtrodden and insecure.’

‘In the back of her head there was this sense of “maybe I am pretty brilliant”. I wished that she thought that more often, maybe things might’ve panned out differently for her. But it seems she was rejected and lonely and beaten down so much that she became an alcoholic, her job later in Ann Arbor was awful. She was the editor of an academic journal and was great at it, but it was over-the-top stressful and unequal. At the workplace, she didn’t get the time, the respect or the recognition she deserved. Reading about how she felt about all those things and how she thought about herself, definitely dictated which documents I wanted to put on display. It made me feel more comfortable showing certain letters, having people read certain things she wrote. Cause I think that’s the reason she wrote them: for other people to eventually read them.’

You end the film with One By One and a peaceful shot of Lonesome Lake as backdrop. Was that symbolic in any way?
AK: ‘That kind of happened by accident. I thought the footage of the lake was throwaway footage. Walking to Lonesome Lake was said to be a “quick family hike”. But it ended up taking two hours up vertically up the mountain, and two hours down the mountain. By the time we got up, we were on the ‘trail’ for 45 minutes with no end in sight we realized we were not prepared. We didn’t have any water. My now-husband injured his ankle right at the top of the mountain. I was in a weird emotional state. There was fighting and tears. But I sucked it up and started filming things. I knew I wasn’t doing that good of a job.I’m self-defeating that way. I got to this beautiful place and thought I decided I had no energy and no skill and everything was worthless… but I tried anyway. I had no idea I was recording the end of my movie. So yes, it was kind of symbolic: like Connie, I was trying to make everything work for the best, but things kept going wrong all the time.’

‘Either way, I couldn’t predict whether or not the viewer would be familiar with Connie’s music. I feel the most important part of it all is her music. That’s what brought everyone together in the first place. It felt like a disservice to cut off songs all the time. That’s why One By One is played in full. That’s the song that got everything started. When David Garland first heard it. And that’s why he played it on the radio. It kind of helps you relive the moment that sparked it all, the reason why people know about Connie Converse in the first place. The ending reflects all of the heavy stuff that happened to her before. In a way it implies: “This is where I hope she is.”‘

For more info on We Lived Alone: The Connie Converse Documentary, you can contact Andrea Kannes at ConnieConverseDoc.com.

You can order your copy of How Sad, How Lovely at the official Squirrel Thing website.

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Comments (4)
  • D

    Fantastic!

    Dr. Brown  |  July 1, 16:27
  • E

    I was there st the Sheffield showing. It was a great night, lovely music and the film gave fascinating insights. I’m even one of those who bought the CD! Thanks Andrea (and Nat)

    Ed  |  July 1, 16:46
  • N

    Nice interview. How did OCC hear about Connie Converse or Andrea Kannes?
    My connection: my parents were friends of Connie’s when she lived in NYC, and of Gene Deitch. Andrea got in touch with me while she was making the film, and I donated to her crowd-funding effort. I grew up listening to Connie’s music and so it was part of the sound track of my childhood. So I’m always curious how people hear about Connie Converse.

    Naka Ishii  |  July 1, 22:46
  • J

    This great Dutch band called Eerie Wanda had Two Tall Mountains in their playlist. Instantly got me hooked.

    Jasper Willems  |  July 2, 06:26