Earmarked for big things since she left high school, the ‘Nothing to Regret’ singer has been dealing with the weight of expectations for a while now. With her debut EP just released, she’s OK with where she’s at.
Given the circumstances, Robinson is surprisingly relaxed. It’s early afternoon on a swelteringly hot mid-February day in Auckland, one which for her has already contained a red-eye flight from Nelson and a full morning of radio promo. If she’s at all exhausted, though, it doesn’t show. “If you’re bored, you just drink some water! It’s like healthy boredom, you know?” she enthuses, toting an already half-empty one-litre bottle and seeming altogether more concerned with the virtues of hydration than any potential anxieties about the occasion for our meeting. And with said occasion being the release of her Watching You EP, a first-ever collection of songs after almost four years of well-received (and often internationally successful) singles, she’d be well within her rights to be slightly tense.
It may be the water, or the blessedly temperate air conditioning in Sony Music’s central Auckland offices, but as we talk it feels more likely that her seeming calm reflects instead a deep confidence in what she’s put together. And while Watching You is a reasonably lean listen, its four songs each coming in around or just under the 3:30 mark, the EP signals not just an early milestone in her still-young career, but a significant forward step in her craft.
Between the subtle evolutions-on-existing-themes of ‘I Tried’ and first single ‘Don’t Say’, and the show-stopping torch song that is EP closer ‘Watching You’, there’s very little here that’s been heard from Robinson before. It’s a growth of which she’s extremely conscious. “On my phone there’s just so many voice memos of like, really old things,” she explains, “I think it’s so cool that I can always go back to those, but it’s really exciting to me that these songs are really the last two years of my life. I think they’ve been essential in character development for me; just growing up and being an adult now … it happened fast.”
That sudden epiphany as to the passing of time may be something of an early-20s cliche, but in the case of Robinson, she may also have a fair point. While she’s London-based now, splitting her time between studio sessions and increasingly prominent tour support slots, the Robinson story started in earnest in the relatively recent past – and like so many others in Aotearoa music, at Rockquest. An admittedly shy year 12 student at Nelson’s Garin College, the not-yet-mononymed Anna Robinson was encouraged by a music teacher into performance. She formed a duo with friend Olivia Nott – younger sibling of Broods’ Georgia and Caleb and ONONO’s Jono – with the pair ultimately reaching the competition’s national final in 2014, but it wasn’t until her own songs came to the attention of Ashley Page, co-founder (with Joel Little) of tastemaking Auckland pop micro-label Dryden Street, that things really started moving for Anna.
“I had left school, but I still had songs up online, and I think Ashley just stumbled across them,” she explains, “and we just started working together after that.” She made the move from Nelson to Auckland to work with Dryden Street, a decision which necessitated not only a significant physical relocation, but which also meant developing her songwriting practice from a solitary endeavour to something much more collaborative.
“When I first started properly writing as, you know, Robinson, the first year of that was really development in the sense of just trying to figure out what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to portray myself as an artist,” she says of the period. “I’d been working by myself for such a long time that it was so cool to be able to go and write with other people and experience that. I was building up this big bag of songs, just writing so much music. And then I wrote ‘Nothing to Regret’.”
By any metric worth measuring, that song blew up. An anthemic and universally relatable ode to the mundanity of workaday life and the commensurate fleeting joy of the weekend, it’s racked up close to 90 million Spotify streams in the two years since its release – for context, outside of The Naked and Famous’ generational banger ‘Young Blood’ and most of the back catalogue of actual international festival headliner Lorde, that’s a mark basically unheard of for a New Zealand artist. And while subsequent releases haven’t scraped those same heights, she still boasts more than 1.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify, a large number of those coming from outside of Aotearoa. But just as that kind of success can be a motivator, it can just as easily seed anxiety.
“There was a time when I was just constantly checking the numbers,” she recalls, “Like I honestly couldn’t believe it. [Earlier single] ‘Crave You’ got a million streams, and I just thought that was insane, but then ‘Nothing to Regret’ blew that away. It’s so crazy, that’s so many people. And it’s funny, because you get to that point and you just want to outdo it. Like, “Where’s the next song? What’s the next song? I need to write something better than that.” You can get caught up in this whirlwind of just trying to please everyone that I think you can get out of touch with the reason why you’re doing it.”
Remembering why she’s doing it was a major spur in the creation of Watching You. Although she’s clear in her ambition for the project, she makes clear that reconciling the drive for professional success with her artistic imperative has helped her to better understand what she’s trying to achieve with the project. “I think that if I’m in it because I love it, and I’m writing songs because I love music and because I’m getting across my feeling and my message to the world,” she explains, “that has more of a chance to connect than if I was like, “I’ve got to write this song because this is what people like.”
“I think [that mindset] has helped me through so much anxiety that I’ve had over the last few years, which I think a lot of people deal with; “I should be here,” or “I should be doing this.” But, in any walk of life, any job you’re in, there’s so much pressure. And I think sometimes the only way through that is to sit with a feeling and try to figure out why you feel it.”
That realisation and its attendant security seem to be coming at exactly the right time for Robinson. As well as the EP release, in March she’ll embark on her first ever headline tour of the country, taking in shows in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and an appearance at Wellington’s Homegrown festival. She’s at an interesting stage in her career, one illustrative of the complicated calculus that determines success for contemporary musicians – taking only stream numbers into account she’d sit comfortably in the absolute top tier of local pop acts, but despite her play counts eclipsing those of local demigods Six60 and matching closely with the likes of Mitch James, The Drax Project and Benee, she’s something of an untested property with local audiences.
If the artist born Anna Robinson is carrying any major anxiety either about the tour or the release, though, it doesn’t show. Never not effusive through the half hour we spend together, as our interview comes to a close she lands on a thought which feels, in context, like something of an informal mission statement. “Even if one person connects with this, that’s such an exciting feeling for me. Because I just love thinking about how my favourite artists have made me feel, and how music has been such a big comfort for me over the course of my life, going through different experiences. Music helps me through that, so I’m like, if I can give that same thing to someone else, that’s just the most amazing feeling. Yeah.”
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.