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For Anna Vogelzang, South by Southwest was an endurance test
Fighting crowds and yawns
Vogelzang: Working the fest is 'like finding a new family.'
Vogelzang: Working the fest is 'like finding a new family.'

Anna Vogelzang has tweeted what could be the lyrics to the world's shortest country song: "Broke my phone screen, broke my boot soles, but did manage to catch a cab home!"

It's Sunday, March 18, and the Madison-based singer-songwriter has wrapped up her sixth and final performance at this year's South by Southwest, the music festival that draws thousands to Austin, Texas, to watch musicians make venues out of the most unlikely spaces. It's not unusual to catch a soul band at a barbecue joint or applaud a folk singer warbling from a tree house. Anything goes, and that's part of the charm.

Vogelzang admits that the 2012 edition of the fest - her first - intimidated her.

"I hate crowds, so I kind of didn't want to do it at first," she says. "I thought I might shut down and not enjoy it."

But the tides turned when she arrived in Austin. The collective enthusiasm was palpable, and she gobbled it up. Of course, humans can't live on good vibes alone, not even those chased with a giant mug of coffee, Vogelzang's drink of choice.

For the many musicians who aren't diehard night owls, this fest is a test of will, strength and the ability to function on two hours of sleep. Those who succeed might land a record deal - or new Twitter followers, who can be molded into song-buying fans with a little TLC. The latter is the more likely scenario, and it takes just as much work as the former.

According to Vogelzang, empathy plays a key role in this rite of passage. Seeing fellow musicians push through fatigue is motivating, even moving.

"All day, I get to see friends play, and other musicians I really respect. It's incredibly inspiring, and it makes me want to go play a set myself," she explains.

There's a show-and-tell aspect to many performances. Vogelzang is unveiling Canary in a Coal Mine, a new recording of banjo-fueled folk-pop that was penned in a cabin in Green Lake, Wis. At the studio, with producer James Frazee, she assembled a backing band that included the Dresden Dolls' Brian Viglione on drums, former Hold Steady member Franz Nicolay on accordion and Ani DiFranco collaborator Todd Sickafoose on upright bass.

Even as Vogelzang doubted her ability to battle crowds and yawns, she knew she had to share the album with a larger-than-Madison audience. Fans from near and far helped her fund the project through Kickstarter.

"It was humbling to see people step up and want this record to be made. I feel like I owe it to this group to make the most of the experience," she says.

When Vogelzang started planning the album's release, she put South by Southwest on her calendar and booked the rest of the tour around it.

"Once I'd committed to it, there was no looking back," she says.

The Austin leg of Vogelzang's journey began with back-to-back performances at Casa Chapala, a Mexican restaurant, and the Whip In, a beer bar meets Indian café meets grocery store. At the second of the two venues, Vogelzang sang in a round with two other folk musicians.

"It's such a wonderful format. I got to sing with all of these songwriters I so admire. Then they'd turn around and sing my songs, too," she says.

Meeting indie folk songstress Anas Mitchell, one of her fellow performers that evening, was a thrill. The informal nature of the event made it feel like a gathering of old friends, Vogelzang says.

Next up was a string of three hotel-room shows, where Vogelzang let Canary test its wings. These concerts felt like house parties as passersby poked their heads into her suite and casually wafted in.

Then, on Saturday, she capped off her trip with a performance at Greenhouse Concerts Presents, a showcase curated by Jon Green, an Austin-based organizer of house concerts.

From here, she'll wend her way through Texas, stopping in Houston, Lubbock and Amarillo before trekking back to Wisconsin for an April 14 gig with Ari Herstand at the High Noon Saloon.

Look for Vogelzang to return confident, creative and - surprisingly enough - refreshed.

"This festival is definitely exhausting, but there's this group mentality of 'Let's have fun and not stress ourselves out,'" she says. "I thought people might be kind of negative and networky, but they've been supportive and uplifting. It's like finding a new family, one you never knew you had."

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