Anna Isachenko’s life is made up of dichotomies. Soviet roots and American capitalism. Years of classical voice training and a love of alternative music. The practical business world and ephemeral artistic realm. Anna’s ability to seamlessly navigate these domains for the past 26 years is what makes it possible for her to simultaneously be the co-founder/den mother of The Forge and songwriter/frontwoman for Detroit indie-pop band, Soviet Girls – and be damn good at both.
Music was ingrained in Anna’s life from an early age. Born in Moscow, Russia, Anna and her twin sister, Sima, were often recruited to sing traditional Russian folk songs at family parties, or anywhere entertainment was needed. Raised in a single-parent home, Anna says her mother made music education a priority, even when there were times when they barely had enough to put food on the table. Her dream was for her daughters to be opera singers, but the girls weren’t exactly on board. “We weren’t good,” says Anna. “We didn’t have vibrato or opera voices, but at the same time, we learned a lot of great skill like voice control and other stuff.”
Despite their self-proclaimed shortcomings, the girls conceded and spent years training with the most prestigious instructors. When she was ten, Anna and her family moved from Russia to New Jersey, where she was introduced to a whole new world, musically and otherwise. Though the classical training continued, Anna began to develop different tastes in music. She credits the Springfield, Missouri band, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – named after the first post-Soviet Union president – as the gateway to her love of alternative indie pop. From middle school on, Anna ditched Russian folk songs for The Kooks covers or writing original songs.
Although Anna knew she wanted a future in music, she didn’t think it was possible until she started playing with other musicians.
“I didn’t feel like I was good enough to be a musician or an artist until I met other musicians and saw that it’s do-able and there’s no clear path,” says Anna. “There are different ways to get there and you don’t have to follow a formula. Realizing that really helped me and allowed me to open up and become who I want to be.”
After playing in an alt-rock duo, Anna & Robbie, her senior year of high school, Anna started college with a newfound confidence for writing and playing music with others. She formed a band with a friend and fellow Russian musician, Katya Anderson, appropriately named Soviet Babies. The girls played folk-pop covers and wrote their own songs, planting the seeds for Anna’s musical future.
When Anna graduated from Ithaca College, she found herself trying to fit a mold of what other people wanted from her. Between singing with a big band hoping to make her mom proud and writing pop songs that she thought would be commercially viable, Anna realized that she was doing everything but what she really wanted. Taking a break from music, she moved to Detroit in 2015 to begin the Venture for America program. Although she wasn’t completely sold on the work she was doing, she fell in love with the city’s raw creative environment and unrelenting energy.
While in Detroit, Anna learned her mom had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. The devastating news left her torn, traveling back and forth between New Jersey and Detroit for months. When she was in New Jersey, she reconnected with old friends Rob Hlavaty and Jonathan Rodriguez and formed an alternative soul project that she performed and wrote songs with when she wasn't taking care of her mom. The band not only served as a creative outlet for Anna during this incredibly tumultuous time, but also as a way for her to connect with and comfort her mother in her final days.
Anna recounts playing some of the band's new songs for her mom while she was on bedrest and the joy that it brought both of them. "We literally played some of these songs for my mom on her deathbed, when she was no longer responsive, and then at the celebration party in honor of her when she passed," explains Anna.
In the wake of complete devastation, Anna was conflicted about whether to go back to New Jersey and be with family or fight through and continue to make a life in Detroit. She decided that her mom would've wanted her to follow the path she set out on and not give up, so that's what she did. Even in her state of extreme grief, Anna continued to create. She finished and released a recording project with her teacher and friend, Ken Zampella, including four jazz standards and one original composition.
Staying active in music gave Anna a way to cope with loss while also allowing her to immerse herself in Detroit’s lush creative community, where she noticed a lack of nurturing spaces for emerging artists, especially musicians. Thus, The Forge was born.
“The Forge was and is something that connects a lot of who I am into one,” says Anna. “It fills my love for entrepreneurship and building something while creating an environment for artists and musicians that empowers them to create and feel like they can realize their potential.”
Starting The Forge didn’t only allow Anna to support other artists, but also helped her find her own creative voice. The time she spent living in and renovating the space served as an intense healing and creative period where she was able to write songs the way she wanted to, not caring what anyone else thought of them. “I think that apathy comes from a strong place of knowing I like it, and I don’t care if someone else doesn’t because it’s not going to change my opinion of the song.”
With her new “f*ck it” outlook guiding the way, Anna felt comfortable sharing her songs with her friends Devin Poisson and Jonathan Franco, both talented musicians in their own right. This resulted in many a late night, Sutter Home-fueled jam sessions that eventually led to forming the three-piece indie-pop outfit, Soviet Girls. Now, after years of experimenting, Anna feels like she’s finally making music that represents who she really is. “The most important thing is that you like what you create, and the rest will fall into place,” says Anna.
Anna hopes that The Forge will provide the same kind of encouraging, breakthrough experience for residents. She explains that although The Forge provides a nurturing space for creating, it’s just as much about the people. “I would love to see The Forge live on through the artists who stay there,” says Anna. If Anna’s footprint is any indication of what’s to come, The Forge has a bright, shiny future ahead.