From acoustic covers on Vine to a viral America’s Got Talent audition with nearly 30 million views, Chapel Hill native Anna Clendening is a veteran of our ever-changing internet. Clendening had a robust Vine following of one million during the platform’s lifespan, with videos that featured both her singing and cracking personable jokes. Since then, the clips that she’s posted on YouTube have gained hundreds of thousands of views.
In her 2014 America’s Got Talent audition, Clendening spoke about a crippling anxiety and depression diagnosis that she’d suffered from since she was a teenager, which had left her bedridden at points. In the audition, she performed a passionate “Hallelujah,” showcasing her voice’s mature control and range, to rousing applause; she went on to the quarter-finals of the competition.
Even as Clendening’s sound has shifted from acoustic covers to original alt-pop songs in the vein of Halsey and Julia Michaels, the twenty-six-year-old singer-songwriter has maintained her unique perspective and attention to mental health. Now based in Los Angeles, Clendening has a recent EP, this spring’s Waves, and a new single, “If I’m Being Honest,” a forthright breakup song directed at a deceptive ex-boyfriend. It’s clear she’s not looking to be pigeonholed as just an internet sensation. She spoke with the INDY about how growing up in Chapel Hill shaped her and the importance of mental health.
INDY: Was your new single, “If I’m Being Honest,” a step forward for you?
ANNA CLENDENING: I would definitely say it’s a step forward. I, for a long time, didn’t know my sound and wasn’t really confident in my voice. Now I know I’m kind of a singer-songwriter pop artist. I still like taking elements of acoustic things—I usually start out with just piano and guitar and then we build around that. Also, what person doesn’t like a big “fuck you” to their ex?
How did you get to a place where you could be vulnerable in your songwriting?
I don’t know when the whole unfiltered thing happened. I think it was when I blew up on Vine and I was a little bit heavier—I just carried a lot of weight in my face. A lot of people started asking, “Hey, are you pregnant?” They would talk about my teeth, the discoloration, how they were crooked. I just got to the point where I was like, I don’t give a fuck about anything.
Why do I need to reserve myself? It doesn’t matter if you put on makeup or you try to put on this different face, people are going to tear you down regardless, so why not just be yourself? It takes less time, less money, less energy.
How did growing up in Chapel Hill lead you to pursue music and shape you as an artist?
I always liked singing. There was never really a big push behind my parents, which is not their fault. They were just like, “Do what you want.” So I was like, “I want to be a singer.” And I turned eighteen and I was like, “I don’t know how to do that.” I followed a boyfriend to UNC-Charlotte, and obviously , it didn’t last. I went there for two years and stopped singing. I was drinking pretty heavily and dropped out of college after the end of my second year. I got pretty close to alcohol poisoning one night, and that just spiraled me into this agoraphobic state.
I couldn’t leave the house, and I was building my way back to being a normal human. Then I put a video up on Vine, and I just kept putting stuff up. People liked it. I learned how to network, started doing shows. It took me four years after that to move outside of North Carolina.
I think I was very fortunate to grow up in Chapel Hill. I was exposed to current events and freethinking. Moving out [to LA], anything goes. You can be whatever you want, identify as whoever you would like to be, dress however you want. I think [Chapel Hill] really prepared me for that.
Your America’s Got Talent audition is interesting, because anxiety and mental health are abstract concepts but your discussion of them resonated with people.
I blocked a lot of that out. Even then it was still at the point where it was like, “Oh, she’s faking [her anxiety] because she’s making videos online.” I had to bite the bullet on that one for a lot of people because I got a lot of backlash. I don’t edit the show, I don’t produce the show. I went and I sang, that’s what I wanted to do. Every moment I cried, there were three cameras on my face. It was so hard. While I felt like they exploited it, I still get messages that are like, “I just saw your [audition] video and I have anxiety, how did you do that? That’s amazing.”
I don’t know if it was different or groundbreaking but it obviously struck a chord and I’m really glad. That’s the thing: If I can be uncomfortable, and it helps one more person feel comfortable, that’s all that matters.
What are you working on at the moment?
My sanity. I’m signing a new deal so everything’s up in the air. But I would like to put an EP out at the top of the year. That’s the plan.
Are there any goals you’re aiming for with this next release?
I really want to start showcasing my voice. I think I did that a little bit more in [“If I’m Being Honest”]. And just to make people feel not alone. That’s the main goal.