Music Notes: Anna Lynn Fermin finds her voice | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Music Notes: Anna Lynn Fermin finds her voice 

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Crooning the 30 or so songs she's written so far, Anna Lynn Fermin can sound like Rosanne Cash or Suzanne Vega or Patsy Cline. Or "Jane Siberry and Victoria Williams," she readily admits. Fermin is still forging a musical persona--one that'll embrace "straight-ahead country and western as well as eclectic folk influenced by bluegrass and by the beat of flamenco music." Right now what she has in her favor is a pure, agile, vibrant voice, the kind that helps pave the way to pop divadom. What she fears most is to be labeled as "America's only Filipina country singer."

Fermin's family immigrated to this country in 1972, when she was almost one. "In Manila there were two classes--the rich and the poor. My folks weren't rich so they thought my sister and I could get a much better education and life in the States," she says. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, where her parents found jobs as factory workers, the family eased into comfortable, churchgoing, middle-class routines. Fermin's upbringing was typical of many first-generation Asian-American kids: strict, relatively insular, and filled with violin and piano lessons. "My dad is a big opera fan," she says, "so of course we listened to a lot of classical stuff at home. He and a voice coach, in fact, nudged me into singing in public."

Her father also loved Elvis and did impersonations at karaoke socials. By the time Fermin developed a taste for pop music in her teens--"listening to tons and tons of standards"--she'd joined the act, mimicking Whitney Houston and Bette Midler. Normally shy and quiet, she was happy for the chance to show off. People were often surprised by "such an unexpectedly big and booming alto voice coming out of a petite girl," she says.

It was only three years ago--after she'd graduated from the School of the Art Institute--that Fermin decided to take up singing and songwriting in earnest. "My initial motivation was to use it as an emotional outlet," she says. "There were problems with a boyfriend, naturally. Since I wasn't the confiding type, songs became my way to share my feelings with others." While making a living as a graphic designer--her major in college and a field deemed "practical" by her parents--she taught herself to play the guitar and to wrap lyrics around melodies. And she started playing at open mikes around town.

"I pull influences from the air, from tunes I hear on radio," says Fermin, whose approach is largely intuitive and unencumbered by such technicalities as notation. "Words then come to me. The first of my lyrics owe an obvious debt to country. Later on, some words took more than months to find. More often than not I write on impulse." When she quit her full-time job, Fermin came up with "Heaven in My New Shoes"--a song on her self-produced CD--as a bittersweet ballad to starting over. A broken affair prompted the melancholic "August Moon." A description by her mother of her hometown in the Philippines resulted in the Spanish-twanged "San Carlos," whose sun-drenched nostalgia is rare in her output. "I've discovered that most of the songs are self-accusatory while dealing with the rut I'm in. They're not terribly hopeful--through them I seem to say that adversity is my best friend."

Her blend of vulnerability and forthrightness onstage caught the attention of Janeen Porter, a self-described "den mother" to new local acts. "Anna projects charisma," says Porter. "She shows she's in charge yet is willing to confide." After listening to Fermin one night at the Abbey Pub's open mike, Porter started helping her get club dates. One gig led to another, and in early December Fermin and her all-male backup trio Anaboy opened for Johnny Cash at the House of Blues. "I ran into Cash in the elevator after the show," she recalls with a broad grin. "He looked me over and said, 'Young lady, keep up the good work--you have a lot of promise.' I was in seventh heaven."

Fermin and her new, as-yet-unnamed band will perform at 9:30 this Tuesday at FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt in Berwyn. Call 708-788-2118. --Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Randy Tunnell.

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