Kathy’s Irish Pub is not a music venue. It’s a self described dive bar. And that’s kind of the point.
I walk in a few minutes after seven o’clock on this Tuesday night and immediately run into Annie Kemble, the star of the evening. We’re here for an early listening party for her debut release, “Dive Bar,” which won’t officially be released until the weekend. We smile and exchange pleasantries as musical acquaintances in the Des Moines Metro scene do.
The bar is filling up fast. I’m not familiar with Kathy’s so I ask a regular if they’re busy for a Tuesday night. I’m told that yes indeed, this was an unusual Tuesday.
Kylie works the weekend shift, but she’s here tonight to support Annie, who is a friend of the bar. Kylie points out the regulars lined up around the dark room, seated at the horseshoe bar. They are definitely in the minority. I worry for Annie that we’re invading their space, but everyone seems to be in good spirits. I credit Annie’s natural charisma for that; she has that undeniable quality found in only the most successful stage artists, a natural likability and friendliness. She seems to know no enemies nor strangers.
I spend the next hour with a Guinness and my new bar friends as we wait for the featured music to begin. Finally the house music dies and Annie takes up the mic on a PA behind the pool table. She welcomes her guests and starts the album.
Immediately I’m struck by her voice. Annie sings with the grace of Adelle, the edge of Fiona Apple, and spins tales in a way that reminds me of Tom Waits.
A little later I’m talking to Annie and I tell her of my observation. She doesn’t know who Tom Waits is and I feel old. But I don’t let that bother me too much and we continue our conversation.
“I spent some time in LA,” Annie tells me, “where I was about to be on a TV show. And I got cut. They flew me back to Iowa. And I was really struggling. And I was right back to what I was doing. I was singing in a lot of dive bars in the past three years before this. And I came right back to where I was before. And I was just feeling really very lonely and sad.”
Annie says she was in a bad place. “But the dive bar was always there for me. And there was a lot of people that were there for me that really loved to come hear me sing and that was like, holding me up.”
That’s where the titular song, “Dive Bar,” came from. “I just wanted to kind of pay tribute to my time singing in the dive bars in Des Moines. And mostly, the Yacht Club.” The Des Moines Yacht Club is where Annie is hosting her official album release show this Saturday night.
“I just wanted to encapsulate my feelings of this period of my life. And I hope to do that with my future albums as well. And kind of almost give a layout of my life,” says Annie, “like a timeline.”
“I love listening parties,” Annie confesses. Her album, “Dive Bar”, is meant to be listened to front to back without interruption. There are film noir-esque interludes between songs that help tell the story of the album. “So I love to, like, force people to sit down and listen to it in this way. I can't control what people do at home, but I'm going to have a listening party so I can make a couple of people do that.”
There are definitely more than a couple people in the bar this night being “forced” to listen to this siren’s song. As the hour passes, I start to wonder what the capacity of this little bar might be and by how much we’re violating that restriction.
Annie Kemble’s sound is a mixture of jazz tones and pop sensibility, which she describes to me as “jazz pop.” It’s difficult, even for Annie, to describe what her genre is. That’s part of the reason it’s taken so long for her to record an album; she’s been finding herself sonically.
“I actually saw a Linda Ronstadt documentary a couple years ago, and that, like, totally blew my mind because I had heard her songs and stuff, but I didn't know how many different genres she had number ones in and how she just, like, dominated every single different [genre]. So that really was eye opening, because I'm like, ‘Oh, I don't have to be one thing.’ And I feel like once I figured that out, it was like, okay, so now I don't have to make myself suffer. I can just express myself.”
And she does. “Dive Bar” is a candid, soul-baring showcase of Annie’s range and talent.
My time at Kathy’s Irish Pub is coming to a close, so I ask one last question of Annie. I wonder where she sees herself in five years. She tells me with a glint in her eye, “The Grammys.” At the very least she hopes to have two more albums under her belt by then. And she plans to produce them here in Des Moines, bringing the industry to her.
“I just think everywhere else stresses me out, honestly. And like, I love my family. I'm not super close to them, but I like to be around. And I have so many friends from here and stuff. I don't know if I can see myself moving.”
I heap a bit more praise upon Annie before bidding her goodnight. I close my tab, say goodnight to my new acquaintances in this neighborhood dive, and make for the parking lot. I sigh in dismay as most of the crowd has made the most of the limited parking lot here on Hickman, making their own spots. I start-up my car and roll over the curb onto the main road, my only option home. It makes me wonder what kinds of crowds Annie will draw in the future. This dive bar diva is about to outgrow the watering holes that nurtured her thus far.
Go check out her album release this Saturday night, October 15, at The Des Moines Yacht Club. Say you were there at the beginning.