Seventeen years ago, Julianne Ankley — a single mom from Port Huron — was shuttling her three children to and from band practices, drama rehearsals, and football and baseball games. Needless to say, she was far too busy to heed the musical aspirations that had been simmering beneath the surface since she learned to play piano at age 4.
Then, when she hit her early 30s, a serious bout of illness spurred an even more serious bout of introspection. “I took a good look at my life, and I realized I wasn’t really happy with my direction,” Ankley says. Facing this fork in the road, she chose to pursue her dream of becoming a songwriter.
But what at the time seemed like a leap of faith was only the first step. As a working mom whose highest level of traditional music education was membership in her high school band, she was starting from scratch. Then she received an auspicious piece of advice: “Someone told me the best way to become a successful songwriter is to make your songs successful yourself first.”
With that, Ankley added “become a country singer” to her to-do list. “I couldn’t move to Nashville, because I was a single mom,” she says. “So, I made some noise here in Detroit, and I was very happy to see a very positive response.”
Though Ankley may have come to the music industry for the songwriting, she stayed for the fans. “It’s always been about the connection to the audience for me,” she says. Putting works straight from the heart on display before a room of people can be terrifying, she says. “You’re so vulnerable. But when the audience responds like they do, it’s the best thing.”
And Ankley’s audiences seem to love her just as much as she loves them. She took home four 2020 Detroit Music Awards, nearly all of them in the country music category. This year’s big wins brought her career total to 11 DMA honors.
If anything matches Ankley’s love of music, it’s her love of the Mitten State’s natural beauty. In fact, her fourth and latest album, fittingly titled With Love from Lake Huron, was entirely inspired by her frequent walks along the shores of its namesake. The record features a diverse range of tracks, from stripped-down acoustic to full-production and up-tempo, but their hometown inspiration is the thread that ties them all together.
Local themes are especially evident in the track “The Ghost of Fort Gresham Lighthouse,” which Ankley penned at a Harbor Springs songwriting retreat held annually by fellow local singer-songwriter John Lamb. At one iteration of the event a few years back, Lamb prompted her to write a song about the ghost that is said to haunt the oldest lighthouse in the state — a challenge she gladly accepted. She later found the song to be a perfect fit for With Love.
Ankley’s Michigan roots have inspired more than just her lyrics. She says influences from the Motown tunes she loved growing up can be heard in the melodies and the vocals of her own music. Impressions from Detroit’s own unique brand of country music also make an appearance. “I’ve always said Detroit country is different from country music in other parts of the world,” she says. “It has its own flair and style because it’s influenced by Detroit rock and soul. So there’s always a little bit of that in my music too.”
Her admiration for the Michigan wilds calling for more than just one creative outlet, Ankley has also been an avid painter since childhood. In her visual artwork, she uses vibrantly colored oils, watercolors, and acrylics to render her favorite subjects — landscapes, flowers, and wildlife — crafting works that, not surprisingly, resemble their auditory counterparts. The lyrics to her songs often inspire her art pieces, or vice versa, she says. She’s even been inspired by this synchronicity to hold joint exhibition-concerts, where she performs her songs interspersed with explanations of how they relate to the paintings on the walls.
Still, it’s her music she can’t imagine living without. “Entering the music business is like being bit by a vampire. It’s in my blood now, and I can’t perceive leaving it,” she says. “I love it truly, and it never feels like work.”
With Love from Lake Huron was released on Facebook Live on September 26. To purchase the album on CD or vinyl, visit julianneankley.com. It’s also available for streaming on all platforms.