Songsmith Anni Clark, 67, was completely alone last May, sitting on the end of a long dock, watching the sun sink over Moosehead Lake. Clark was also miserable. The pandemic had taken all her gigs. Both her income and creative life were gone. The global coronavirus outbreak was also keeping her quarantined, away from her boyfriend. Sobbing, Clark despaired for herself and the future of the whole planet.
Then, her situation got worse — much worse.
Bleary eyed with tears, Clark slipped as she stood up, plunging headlong into the frigid water. Alone, there was no one to call for help. Clark had to sink or swim on her own. That was something she was quite used to doing.
Beginning in 1981, Clark spent 23 years on the road as one of Maine’s best-known troubadours, writing, performing and booking all her own gigs until the touring economy forced her to take a day job in middle school education in 2004. When she retired 12 years later, Clark was determined to restart her music career. It was just taking off when the pandemic halted it again.
Nearly a year on, Clark’s near-death experience has renewed her musical muse and determination. She’s just released her first album of new songs since 2002 and Clark has plans for a concert on the shores of Moosehead, not far from the spot where she almost drowned.
“I wanted so badly to survive — and now look what I’m doing,” Clark said. “I feel very blessed, like that fall off the dock was a wake up call to get back to doing what I do best. It’s like the reason I was spared — so I could do it.”
It was a close call. Bundled in thick clothing and wearing heavy shoes, it was a struggle getting to shore. On the way, breathless from the shocking cold, she flailed over sharp shoreline boulders, slicing her leg open and bleeding into the lake. After the ordeal, Clark spent two days recovering in a Bangor hospital, getting 20 stitches in her wounded leg.
Born in Portland, Clark grew up in Yarmouth. She’s always been a songwriter and started playing piano as a child. Clark quit when her teacher wouldn’t let her make up her own songs by ear.
“I think I wrote my first song at 5,” she said. “But I didn’t pursue it full time until after college.”
For her, the turning point was hearing Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album.
“It sounded like she was just taking things from my journal and putting them to music,” Clark said. “And I thought, if she could do that, then I could do that.”
In 1979 Clark began to write seriously, and perform regularly at local open mic nights. By 1981, she had enough paying gigs to quit her job in the L.L. Bean camping department. Clark released seven albums between 1985 and 2002, performing all over the country. Along the way, she made it to the songwriting finals at the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, twice.
It was a good, creative life, but it wasn’t easy. Clark was on the road constantly, struggling to pay her mortgage and always-rising self insurance bills. She always wrote her songs, booked the gigs, financed all her albums and handled all her own press releases.
“I was out there, working my butt off. I did it all and I friggin loved it.” she said, “But the gap between the cost of touring and what I was bringing home was widening.”
By 2004, she knew, her 23-year run as a full-time musician was over.
“I needed something else to stay solvent, pay my bills and keep my car on the road,” Clark said. “That’s when I took a school job.”
For the next dozen years Clark put music aside, focusing on working with behaviorally challenged middle schoolers. Years before, she’d left college with an English degree and education minor. In 2016, she retired with a small pension and a bit of early social security, eager to get back to what Clark calls “hummin’ and strummin'”.
It took a while to get back into her old musical life. At first, her voice just wasn’t there but slowly, with practice, it started to come back. At the same time, Clark started flexing her old songwriting muscles and the new tunes started to flow. With several steady gigs, it all began coming back together.
“Soulfully and musically, I was right back where I was before I took that school job,” she said.
Then, the pandemic brought everything to a standstill. Suddenly, her gigs were gone and she was all alone. At the start of the pandemic, Clark’s boyfriend, an essential worker, had to stay mostly isolated and out of town.
“I didn’t know how I was going to get through this. I didn’t want to be alone,” she said. “I had no gigs, no income. I was scared and lonely — and done.”
Then after her ordeal at the lake, while immobilized at home, Clark picked up her guitar one day and started to noodle. She struck on a series of chords that expressed her sadness but also made her feel good.
“All of a sudden, this song ‘Will It Ever Be the Same’ just spilled out,” she said.
Clark recorded it a few months later and it’s now the title track of her first album of new material in almost 20 years.
The song asks a now familiar set of pandemic questions: “Will I ever see your face? Will we ever be together in one place? Will the joy we’ve known just disappear without a trace? Please tell me, what do you see, will it ever be the same?”
“It’s my favorite song on the album,” said Eric Bailey, a videographer who collaborated with Clark on a series of livestreams, where she tried out many of the new songs. “It will really resonate with anyone who hears it — it’s the perfect song for now.”
The new record is more than just a series of pandemic songs. Clark is back to her old, versatile form with tunes ranging from the soulful to the comedic.
The track “Expirimatin'” — as in experimental mating — is a funny exercise in ridiculous rhymes about giving into lust for curiosity’s sake after a long time in isolation. Another song tells of her love for the sound of the sea.
Clark had the album written, recorded and ready for duplication in just two months.
“I was on fire,” she said. “I haven’t felt this good about my music in a long time. It’s been a healing thing — from this near-death experience — and my energy was otherworldly. I just ran with it.”
Bob Colwell of The Root Cellar recording studio, where Clark laid down the tracks for the new album, isn’t quite sure how long he’s known her.
“Forever, really — no, longer than that,” Colwell said.
But he is definitely sure that he’s not surprised how Clark bounced back from her mishap, even at a retirement age.
“Anni is a force of nature. She gets inspired and then she works hard,” Colwell said. “She’s a creative person, like a painter that paints, no matter their age. She makes her art out of what moves her. If it moves you, too, good for you.”
So far, Clark hasn’t been able to perform any in-person concerts in support of her new song collection. That’s about to change. In May, she’ll perform in Greenville, not far from where she tumbled into Maine’s largest lake.
“I’m doing it as close to the one year anniversary of my potential demise, when I fell off the dock, which birthed this new CD,” Clark said. “It’ll be like I’m bringing the music back home to where this incredible journey began.”
Clark said she understands why she had to put her music on the back burner 20 years ago and get a straight job. She’s not sorry, either, being proud of the work she did with her students. Clark also knows that often you have to lose something to really appreciate it.
“It’s been really hard to come back, but now I’m back,” she said. “Sometimes it takes a push off a dock and a near-death experience to do your best work — but I’m hoping I don’t have to do it that way again.”
Anni Clark performs in Freeport on April 24 and in Greenville on May 22. Tickets and details can be found at anniclark.com.