California songwriter pursues her music career in Nashville
By Amanda Duvall
Photographs by Sam Street
Like many college students, Anna Vaus was home over Christmas. While driving around her Southern California neighborhood with her mom, one particular house caught her eye because what used to be tiny was now a mansion. She asked her mom what changed to cause such a huge transformation— new job? No, somebody died.
And a song was born. In “Somebody Died,” a tune about the sometimes awkward financial windfall from a family death, she writes with both clarity and humor. “The lawyer got a cut, they got a check, momma cried. Everybody knows why— somebody died.”
This is hallmark Anna, the ability to tell the story in an unexpected, maybe even quirky, way. She attributes this to her self-described weird sense of humor formed from the artists and movies she enjoyed growing up, like Randy Newman and Raising Arizona.
While also a performer and artist in her own right, songwriting for country is her first love. Even if other artists become the public face of her songs, she says, “You’re the one that tells the story.”
That love brought Anna from San Diego to Nashville to study at Belmont University, where she has quickly become a songwriter to watch among a competitive field. She is the first recipient of the Miranda Lambert Women Creators Fund, which provides more than $40,000 for a female Belmont student pursuing a career in music. Anna has since built on that success, playing this year’s CMA fest and signing with Black River Publishing. And she has yet to finish college, entering her senior year this fall.
Standing out in the “Belmont bubble” is a notable feat alone. With so much extraordinary talent vying for the music industry’s attention, it can feel like a pressure cooker. Now, with wisdom beyond her years, she can speak about the experience,“We are all trying to do the same thing, you are looking at the picture so close up. You think, she can’t do that— or he can’t do that— because that’s what I want to do.”
Thankfully, her father, who also worked in the music industry, offered sage advice: focus on doing one thing each day to push toward your goal. She also credits Belmont professors who know the competitiveness is palpable and readily call it out, reminding students just because one person succeeds doesn’t mean you can’t.
Anna has found that to be true. Nashville is a songwriters’ town that runs on collaboration. In addition to being a full-time student, she carries a full-time writing schedule, meeting Monday through Friday with other songwriters in town.
She is learning to navigate this environment as a young writer and a female. Consider that in the last 30 years, female artists have won the top CMA prize for Entertainer of the Year only five times (Taylor Swift won twice; Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks and Reba McEntire once each).
So while it was not surprising to be asked, “Do you write guy songs?” She can and does, Anna knows her strongest contribution is to bring her unique voice to the writer’s room and write the best song possible. She loves the classic country approach to writing and is excited for the shot to contribute to the genre’s great tradition of storytelling.
She found a match in Black River Publishing, who is encouraging her to do just that. “To get to be who I am in an industry [where] a lot of people are forced to change who they are, is so cool. And I am so thankful for that.”
Accomplishing such a major goal before graduation— signing with a publisher— what is next? Well, she is opening up to the fact she’d like to release her own project too.
It is an exciting time to be a female in country, seeing different kinds of artists succeeding, like Kelsey Ballerini and Marin Morris. She notes,“Just looking at labels and who they are signing to their rosters— not necessarily that are playing on the radio right now, but you see being streamed on Spotify— it is so exciting… It is a chance for a new type of song. It is cool because we get to be different and not necessarily all just the same type of person trying to get a record deal or a song on the radio.”
In the end for Anna, guy or girl, it all still comes back to the love of songwriting—“I just hope the best song wins.”