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Anne Watts and Boister: Music from Madness

Anne Watts of Boister, performing in NPR's Studio 4A.
Photos by Chris Nelson, NPR /
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Anne Watts of Boister, performing in NPR's Studio 4A.
From left, Craig Considine, Denis Maloy and Lyle Kissack of Boister.
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From left, Craig Considine, Denis Maloy and Lyle Kissack of Boister.
Boister's Charles Freeman, left, and Curt Heavey.
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Boister's Charles Freeman, left, and Curt Heavey.

Artists can find inspiration in the unlikeliest places. Musician Anne Watts, of the band Boister, has been influenced by the time she spent volunteering in a mental institution -- and by the odd things kids say.

"Demons Come," from the Baltimore band's new album Sister City, is a revised version of "The Saints Come Marching In," the theme song of New Orleans, which has seen its share of demons lately. But Watts is singing about far more private disasters.

She worked for years with Alzheimer's patients, helping them to create their own art. Before that, she volunteered to work with people in a mental institution.

She recalls an old man, who had been institutionalized most of his life, "shuffling around in the hallways looking for cigarette butts on the floor that he would chew on.

"I just became fascinated with him. And then one day I gave him a piece of paper and a pen and he made a drawing that was really extraordinary."

The man had never spoken to Watts before, but with a groan he confirmed that it was a picture of a windmill.

"And then I realized this person is brimming with soul and brimming with life," Watts says.

After that experience, Watts said her music became more melodic, and she became "less afraid to speak my heart. Many times I would just tell stories directly that I would cull from the residents, direct quotes from them."

These days, she's working with younger people, as a teacher and as a mother, and she finds them equally fascinating.

"You can get a whole song out of one line that a kid says," like a reference to "a mango being a lady" or a "cloud being crushed" (a line that came from her 2-year-old daughter).

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.