“Why do you do what you do?” That was the first thing Anna Diem said to me when I met her at an event for MusicPortland, a grassroots nonprofit that advocates for local music. I’d soon learn that speaking straight to the heart of the matter is what Diem is all about.
Diem won’t touch projects she doesn’t care about—and the ones she does take on, she takes on completely. That includes her sophomore album, Hello Oregon, which she wrote, recorded, produced and released herself on Nov. 1. It’s an ambitious collection with touches of alt-pop, queer pop, and even soul as it dips its toe into synth-kissed hip-hop waters.
Title tune “Hello Oregon” feels like a soundtrack for someone leaving behind where they came from. It’s a feeling a lot of relocated folks can relate to—like Diem, who left Portland in 2015 to give herself the time and space to focus on music.
“I wanted to really get to know myself as an artist and to have the space to not work so much so I could really hone my craft and make the kinds of recordings I wanted to make,” she tells WW. As a sound recordist, she wanted to capture the wide range of sonic information surrounding her at the time and to thread those sounds within the fabric of each track.
From a crackling fire to a rumbling thunderstorm to jangling dog collars, the album paints an auditory portrait of Diem’s life at the time. When listening to the tracks now, she says she can pinpoint exactly where she was when she made each recording: “I’m just right back there.”
“There” refers to Sunny Valley, the rural town in Southern Oregon where Diem spent the past seven years or so. “The move supported a very inward time in my life,” she says. “I was able to go really far within—but so much so I hit a point where I needed to have connection with other people. It taught me the lesson that you can’t actually survive without community. Which is something I really rejected for a long time.”
Each track shares a deeply personal moment. Opening song “Lucky” is about falling asleep and waking up in a peaceful, woodland atmosphere. “Hang On” speaks to a time in which Diem’s sister was battling suicidal ideation. “Deep Sea Diver” is an empowering love song for Diem’s wife, Rosa, which encourages her to open up and connect with the people around her more, with the promise that a strong hand is there to hold hers.
The verses come out in a fire-whisper, with oceanic synth keeping our ears afloat: “Lamp on like a deep sea diver/Hold your hand like a backseat driver/Make you look when you wanna shrink back/When your hope falls flat/When the room goes black.” And it all leads to a Weezer-meets-Jeff Buckley-vibed cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song Diem’s dad used to sing to her at bedtime.
In an interview she conducted with herself on her website, Diem says at some point along the way, she made it to the top of a “metaphorical mountain of musical exploration.”
And when she got there? “I saw that it was all actually very simple,” she says. “I saw that the first take is usually the best take. That less is more. That I had done my best to overcomplicate things, but in the end, for me, it’s all about feeling. In my music, I strive to capture a feeling.”
Hello Oregon welcomes an ambitious, genre-spanning artist back to the Portland music scene. As Diem wrote in a recent newsletter, it is “the most me thing I’ve ever made.”
COMING UP: Anna Diem plays on 99.1 FM at 6 pm Friday, Nov. 18. She also plays in person as part of Listen Up!, a series curated by Portland Radio Project and Artichoke Music, 2001 SE Powell Blvd., 503-232-8845, artichokemusic.org. 7 pm Friday, Dec. 16. $15. Hello Oregon is available online and at Music Millennium.