It's hard to imagine Annabel Lee ever being shy or uncertain, especially if you saw her at the Madison Area Music Awards in June. Her show-stopping performance of her single "Pray" announced her status as one of Madison's hottest up-and-coming musicians. With remarkable vocal talent and a stage presence that oozes power and sex appeal, the 28-year-old artist had the audience in the palm of her hand.
Lee was also the breakout star of the ceremony. She took home five awards, including Female Vocalist of the Year and Electronic Performer of the Year.
Though she's comfortable in the spotlight now, she didn't perform in public until she was 22.
"I've always been good at singing, but I was really shy," she explains. "I could sing in front of my family or put on a show for my mom's friends, but I would go out for choir solos, and then I would be so nervous I'd get physically ill and be unable to perform."
Encouraged by some good friends and a little alcohol, Lee took a chance one night at an open mic in her hometown of La Crosse.
"I got on stage and just started singing a cappella," she says.
Lee's performing career grew quickly from there. She moved to Madison five years ago and got her start with the band A Torrid Affair. Then she launched a solo career in 2013.
A Torrid Affair drew inspiration from classical music, but Lee wanted to perform songs that would get modern crowds to dance.
"I feed on my audience. I wanted to try something that was more dance-centric, and I also wanted to be able to take a three-month tour and not have to coordinate anyone else's schedules," she says.
Simply receiving a MAMA nomination for Female Vocalist of the Year has been Lee's goal for four years, so her success at the awards show came as a surprise.
"I was not expecting to take home five awards. It feels really great to be noticed and acknowledged," she says. "That is the most satisfying thing for me, just being told, 'Thank you for being on stage and being so confident.' I'm not a small person, and I was always told that being plus size was going to hold me back."
Lee says Madison's strong contingent of female musicians made her move from La Crosse easier.
"There's a really strong, female-centric music scene here in Madison: Beth Kille, Anna Vogelzang, [Sexy Ester's] Lyndsay Evans," she points out. "All those girls helped me figure out how to break into the scene, and there are a lot of really talented women here who are just killing it."
Lee's songs often focus on the tension between social norms and personal desires. They're also a way of exploring her rebellious nature.
"I'm an intense person. Music is a really great space to be able to express those emotions in a positive way. Without music, I tend to be kind of manic. I can be out of control, and made bad choices in the past. In high school I skipped school a lot, got smoking tickets, truancy tickets," she says, laughing.
As fans of "Pray" might guess, Lee's religious background contributes to her distrust for authority and convention.
"Christianity had a very heavy hand in my upbringing, and our society in general is very shameful," she says, noting that these topics were on her mind while writing her new single, "Hush Hush." "It was kind of like, 'Stop worrying so much about all your dirty little secrets, and just exist and embrace yourself the way you are.'"
These days, Lee is eager to challenge gender roles. As a confident woman commanding a stage unapologetically, she's a role model for other female artists. She's also proud that her performance style has resonated with other Madison women.
"I'm embracing my sexuality," she says. "I would rather be on stage than do anything else. It's better than sex; it's better than chocolate; it's better than anything. It's the best."