Monochrome

November 26, 2009

Beyond The Sun

Filed under: Interviews — Tags: , — Anthony @ 10:56 pm

Finn AndrewsAs CBD workers and uni students navigate past each other on an unseasonably warm Melbourne afternoon, it’s clear even from a distance that the man leaning against the wall outside a makeshift bar is from another place. Dressed in vintage clothes and hiding from the sun under a hat from somewhere in the distant past, he smokes a rollie and seems lost in thought. It’s not, it turns out, an act.

Quietly spoken and perhaps a little uncomfortable with the ritual of the interview, Finn Andrews is here to talk about his band, The Veils, and their upcoming Australian tour. But this is a man who resolutely never listens to anything he’s recorded after it’s completed, and whose relationship with the creative process – both songwriting and recording – is a visceral one, to the extent that he often isn’t entirely sure what his own lyrics are about – not yet, anyway.

“You never really know what you’re writing until a few years after it’s written, that’s been my experience of it,” Andrews says at the mention of reviews that described the latest Veils album Sun Gangs as their ‘breakup record’. “That’s what it felt like to me, I suppose. It was written during a pretty kind of destructive time, I guess, and it felt – to me, anyway – like it charted the disintegration of something and the beginning of something else.”

Breakups are familiar territory, in a way, to Andrews; when The Veils first appeared in London in 2002, Andrews found himself signed to a major label on the strength of his demos, playing with band members recruited out of necessity. By the time the album arrived there had already been court cases, a subsequent change of label and, shortly after the album’s release, the band parted ways.

“It was just a result of getting signed very, very young, on the basis of the first songs I ever wrote, Andrews recalls. “Seven of those ten songs were written before I was 16, so by the time I was 20 when it came out, I didn’t relate to that part of myself any more. I just didn’t really know what I was, or what I wanted to do particularly. I like that that record exists now, but at the time it was very frustrating. And that record did very well in Europe – it was odd, because suddenly I was playing to quite a lot of people, and I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I kind of hated what I was doing. I felt like I’d been led down that path, and we hadn’t even put an album out yet. It was all a bit much for me at the time.”

The Veils And with that, Andrews left the UK, did some brief touring of his own, then returned home to New Zealand, figuring the whole ride had been an unmitigated disaster. “Yeah, I thought that was it for me. I’d seen a side of things that I’d heard existed, from my dad and mates of his growing up. It just seemed very ugly to me, the whole thing. We were a very young band. If it wasn’t for Geoff at Rough Trade helping us get out of the Warners thing and onto his label, we would have been totally fucked. So I just left. I said to Geoff I was going home to New Zealand, and he told me if I wrote anything, he’d like to put it out. Which was very good of him at the time.” And Travis’s faith didn’t take long to be repaid, either, as Andrews found old friends Sophia Burn and Liam Gerrard, and new songs started to take shape. “I thought I wouldn’t do anything again, but within two months of being rid of the old band and rid of living in London and feeling that kind of pressure, I’d written most of Nux Vomica and started playing with Soph and Liam… I just felt like I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder.”

Why, then, not just bring the new songs to the band that had recorded the first album, and record without the distraction of record company pressure? “That first band, we didn’t really talk or hang out. I got them together purely to play those songs. It was a solo album, really, that first album. And I didn’t want that. I wanted a band. It was just very lonely, that world, and I wanted some people to come along with me, I suppose, that were on the same… thing.”

Creating music without the destructive influence of outside expectation proved, says Andrews, to be liberating. “I don’t feel an awful lot of external pressure. I just feel it from myself, really. I’m never very happy with… I don’t know. I don’t want a career, really. I suppose that’s why I don’t feel any pressure. I hate that word. That’s exactly what I don’t want. That’s why I want to do this. I would happily stop making records. I don’t feel any pressure that I have to do this for the rest of my life. With each record I spend a good six months to a year just deciding if it’s worth doing. I just feel like there’s so much shit in the world, and I don’t want to add to that. It takes a lot out of you. With the first album, by the end I wasn’t behind it enough and it just made the whole thing kind of pointless. So with these last two, I’ve really had to prove it to myself, I guess, that there’s no choice but to do that, to write those songs.”

The Veils’ third album Sun Gangs vindicates Andrews’ holistic approach; warm, dark and viscerally emotional, it was, surprisingly, recorded in a few short weeks after interminable touring. “We wanted to get it out quick. There’s quite a big gap between Nux and Sun Gangs, it’s weird. We spent that whole time touring, basically two and a half years straight on the road. So by the end of that it was pretty easy to get something recorded that quickly.” It doesn’t sound like the sort of album bands make after writing on tour, though… “We’re a perverse lot. Things don’t tend to affect us the way you’d expect. It’s a very introspective record. But I feel it’s a very optimistic record as well – it’s not a mopey breakup record, it’s very hopeful. Nux was a very angry record, and this one… I’m still making sense of this one. It takes a little while.”

Veils 5The songs themselves have been evolving since the release of the record last April, too. “They start meaning different things. We’ve got a different drummer now as well, which has changed the feel of it a lot – it’s a lot heavier now. I’m really excited about the shows we’re doing. That’s taken me a while to get my head around – spending so much time working on writing I felt like I’d got something of a grip on what I wanted to do with that, but the live thing is this whole other thing. It’s only in the last year or two that I feel like we’re a great live band. And the side of it I enjoy most at the moment is touring and doing these shows. It’s a whole other thing.”And as such, there won’t be any desperate attempts to recreate the sound of the record on stage – though Andrews points out repeatedly that the album was pretty close to being a live recording anyway. “We were playing it live in rehearsals beforehand, and we just recorded what we were doing. There’s not an awful lot of overdubs on that record – or with Nux, they were both recorded very live, and with Nux the string sections were done live in the room with us. I like that kind of recording – it’s something we got off (Nux Vomica producer) Nick Launay, really. That’s how he does all his stuff. He’s the best producer in the world, I think. I’d love to work with him again.”

Of the two emotional centrepieces of Sun Gangs – the intense-emotion-meets-pop-song The Letter with its heart-wrenchingly forlorn vocal, and the lengthy, menacingly detailed Larkspur – it’s the latter that is perhaps the more remarkable, simply because what you’re hearing on the record is quite literally the first time the band had ever played it. “We did that in one take, and we’d never played it before that. I told everyone I had the song – and it really freaked me out when I wrote it, I just played it all day in a loop, I was hypnotised by it. And I knew how we should begin it and how we should end it, but didn’t know what went in between that. So we just went in and did it. It’s pushing the self-indulgence thing, it’s a little long. But it was just trying something new for us. There are no overdubs on there, that’s the first performance of it on the record. It was a real little moment.”

As for the subject matter of some of the more intense lyrical moments on Sun Gangs, Andrews insists that he hasn’t yet figured out what his songs are exactly about. “I just wanted to make someone up and then kill them. That was the basic idea,” he says with a laugh when asked who Killed By The Boom might be referring to; could this be a songwriter who prefers to leave the interpretation of songs to the listener? “I would willingly talk about it, I just really don’t know. They are what they are, and I’m trying to make sense of them a lot of the time.”

But whatever the underlying meaning of his songs, Andrews says he feels compelled to write them; this isn’t a man who writes to order or to a deadline. There are other reasons, perhaps connected to his growing up with XTC and Shriekback founder Barry Andrews as his father. “Running to words, running to music… it’s certainly a family trait. Since I was 12 or 13, playing guitar… ever since then it’s something I naturally run towards, I think. It keeps me focussed. Makes the world make sense for me. I think everyone has something like that, which brings them comfort and structure and orders the chaos out a little bit. That’s all it is for me, really. The writing is ordering the chaos – and playing live is kind of throwing it on everyone else!”

Finn Andrews All of which makes Andrews sound somewhat insular, isolated from what is going on in the wider musical world. Nothing could be further from the truth. “You tend to listen to things in quite a… forensic manner, I think. But then, some things come along that completely knock you off your feet, you feel like a kid again and you can’t stop listening to it. I think there’s a lot of good stuff going on at the moment. There’s so much out there, it’s harder and harder to find things of quality, I suppose. But I think there’s still just as much there as there ever was.”

“I think this is a great time to be making music. I’m very glad to be alive and making music right now. I’ve had my doubts about that in the past. But I think you have to stick to your guns, really fight for what you’re doing. That can breed some great things. It’s not easy, not easy right now to be making music. And I think that’s good. You’ve got to prove yourself. Which is a weird duality, because it’s easier and easier to produce music, but it’s the hardest time ever to make something of quality.”

So, in other words, don’t hold your breath waiting for the next Veils album. While it’s unlikely to be another two years of touring and travelling before one materialises, nothing is a certainly in this band’s world. “I tend to get to the point where I think I’m never going to be able to write another song again,” Andrews says ruefully. “And then the next week I’ll write ten. It seems to usually be that I’ve got to be teetering right on the edge of the creative black hole. I’ve got to get to that place – I’ve got to walk the tightrope for a while.”

© Anthony Horan 2009

Originally published in edited form in Inpress Magazine issue 1098, 18th November 2009

November 25, 2009

Shadowfacts

Filed under: Interviews — Tags: — Anthony @ 1:09 am

“It’s all a common thread, so it always sounds… well, not the same, but it’s still me.”

Angie Hart A lot can change in two years, both in the life of a songwriter and in the very songs themselves. It was only that short space of time ago that Angie Hart reinvented herself musically with her solo debut Grounded Bird – a remarkable, densely textured and sonically beautiful record which contained, under the shimmering surface, what was almost a public catharsis. Two years on, and the layered vocals and widescreen production are gone – and with them, much of the darkness.

Those approaching Angie Hart’s new album Eat My Shadow expecting another collection of lush, elaborate introspection are in for something of a shock. In place of Grounded Bird’s opening statement of out-there intent, there’s the straight-ahead, band-in-a-studio simplicity of There’s Nothing Wrong With You, in which subtle backing vocals and strings sneak in almost apologetically (but to spot-on effect). It’s only after a few plays that you realise that this album, in fact, sits perfectly well as a companion to its predecessor. It just doesn’t sound anything like it.

“Yeah… it’s a bit of a relief,” Angie says of the pared-down recording ethic that producer Shane Nicholson put in place for Eat My Shadow. “I loved the last record and I really enjoyed the experience, but it took me five years altogether. This was a much more concise effort.” That lengthy period of sporadic songwriting that eventually resulted in Grounded Bird was not an option this time. “I started writing while I was promoting the last record and touring it. I started writing right away, too, which I haven’t really done before; I used to do everything in blocks. So it’s nice to kind of integrate everything together and have a musical life, you know?” And a personal life as well, of course? “Yeah… I guess that’s why I write. But I’ve been living. It’s been good just having a life without drama.”

Writing whilst in the midst of touring often results in songs and arrangements that reflect the more straightforward approach of the gig, rather than the wanton experimentation that the studio offers. No exception here; road-testing her new songs as they were finished, Angie found them shaping themselves live on stage.

“Yeah, I think being able to play some of the songs live was part of it. Like when I wrote the first batch, I got to play those live right away. And I don’t know if that’s a great thing or a bad thing, because when I got into the studio it was hard to let go of some of the ideas that I had about them, and I really wanted Shane to do what Shane does best. Yeah, I got a little bit of demo-itis, which was not great. But it was wonderful to be able to be with the songs and see it all happen in, as I said, a concise manner.”

Angie HartConcise indeed; by the time the songs made it to the studio, many of them were already as good as finished. The emphasis was on keeping it simple; the album’s instant-appeal pop highlight, I Lead When We Dance, was played live to tape, the result a wonderfully infectious pop song all the more appealing for its rough edges.

“We recorded in Shane’s studio, which is really small, so there wasn’t a lot that we could do live. But everything we recorded, whether we could do it live or not, we kept with the concept that there are only a certain number of members in a band, and that it had to be a believable recording, it had to sound like that same band. Which it was, but sometimes we weren’t in the same room.”

Could this have been a direct reaction to the challenge of re-arranging the elaborate Grounded Bird songs for live shows? “Definitely, yeah. That was really difficult. The band that played with me for that tour was amazing. They turned up for rehearsals and they’d worked out the parts so beautifully. But with all the vocals and everything it was difficult. Recently I’ve been doing shows with just me and a guitarist, and it’s going right back to the songs, which is good. That’s been interesting too – to lay the songs bare and play them for people that have never heard them, and see how that translates. That’s definitely one of the reasons I wrote the album the way I did.”

And that’s meant extensive road-testing of the songs in front of audiences, where they’ve taken shape in a very different way to the studio-bound methodology of Grounded Bird. “I’ve been playing about three quarters of the album in my live sets already. In fact, the reason Simple is on the album – that one didn’t make it onto the last record – is because I’ve been playing it live and people have been getting very bossy about it. So I gave it another shot and Shane finally did it justice, which I was very happy about. It didn’t even make it to tape last time – we’d tried it out a few times, but it has been a hard one. As per the title, it’s quite a simple song – but it’s actually quite a difficult one to record. The lightness to it, when you’re recording it, can betray the song, so you’ve got to be very careful with it.”

Angie HartUltimately, this straightforward approach to the songs was the reason Nicholson was approached to produce the record. “I was hoping for a stripped-back album, and I was hoping that he’d be the person to be able to do that. I’d had a lot of people come to my shows and ask for me to strip it back even more at the shows – and I don’t know if I could get any more stripped-back! – but people were pretty excited that it was going to be just me and a few instruments. It was actually a little bit of a wrestle for me in my mind, because I wanna throw the whole kitchen sink in there but I’d asked somebody not to. So I’d sit there with my hands tied behind my back sometimes just allowing Shane to do what he does best. Because I knew that I would be my own worst enemy there. And I’m really happy with the results. It’s hard for me to let go sometimes, and I felt… I felt very adult, just allowing him to create something that flowed. I do want to put a bunch of things in the songs – and when you don’t, they really do just start to speak for themselves. So I learnt a lot.”

That newfound sense of spontaneity resulted in one of the album’s best surprises, too, as Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) turns up to share the lead vocal with Angie on the album’s second-last song, Little Bridges. Getting him to do the song was as easy as simply asking. “One little email and it all took off. He was very quick in responding, on the weekend and all. He loved the song, and recorded it really quickly – we thought the whole record might get held up with making sure he had time to do it, but he was right into it.” The song is, especially with Oldham’s vocal, one of the closest things to straight-up country music Angie’s ever done. “Yeah, Fridays and Little Bridges are my first forays into country. Poor Shane – I turned up and told him I wanted to do a sparse record. He’d heard my last record and loved all of the sampling and multi-layers and everything. His shoulders sagged a little when I told him that – and then he heard the first song and it was kinda country! He ‘de-countrified’ them, as he puts it.”

Nicholson also works wonders on the record with Angie’s vocals, recording them close-miked and placing them very much front and centre in the mix. They become, essentially, an instrument working in harmony with the rest of the band. “That’s what won me over,” Angie enthuses. “We went and did a week’s work together before I started the record, and that was the thing that really got me. It’s a great way to perform when you’re recording, knowing that it’s going to come out sounding like you’re a part of the band.”

The first ‘single’ from the new album (these days, basically the first track sent to radio) is I’m Afraid of Fridays - a song that’s a statement of intent in itself. It’s not the obvious ‘radio song’ by any means, but it pushes the keep-it-simple point perfectly. It also marks a change in songwriting terms…

“I guess, dare I say it, it’s my first nod to Kelly Street,” Angie admits. “I didn’t realise at the time, but I’d been trying to write much more positive songs. And when I play that song, I get feelings of Frente, which is the first time I’ve noticed that in my writing.”

Angie HartLyrically, there’s still plenty of introspection, honesty and confessional truth to be found in the lyrics; there’s a wonderfully blunt honesty within these songs. Are they all drawn from personal experiences? “Yeah, I guess. Sometimes I write them about other people or to other people, but they always end up being to me. So as I play them live I start to receive the message that I was trying to say to myself.” Angie laughs as though realising this for the first time – but then, there’s a great deal of self-deprecating humour within the lyrics on this album. You won’t find self-loathing and pathos here.

“It’s kind of my way. I don’t know if that’s a masking tool as well, but for me, innovative songwriting – and that’s not for everyone – is to try and write something embarrassing about myself. Because I think that’s where original writing comes from, where you get lyrics that people don’t use all the time. So a little bit of exposure can create something new.”

The sequencing of those songs on Eat My Shadow is, perhaps, a bit unconventional – rather than the usual put-the-potential-singles-up-the-front philosophy used so often these days, here they’re a cohesive collection of song that flow. A quiet, fragile beginning gives way gracefully to effusive, organic pop and then, ever so gently, you’re taken to a quiet conclusion. It’s very much an album that should be listened to as such. And not many people are doing that these days, as the iTunes generation all but abandons the idea of a collection of songs as a cohesive work.

“They’re always like that,” Angie says of her own albums. “They seem to only be able to sequenced in one way, so you battle over that. It’s like pushing memory cards around and trying to find a spot for the round card. There are some songs that didn’t make it on there because they didn’t fit the flow of what I was trying to say, or the way that the sound worked altogether. I still believe in the album.”

© Anthony Horan 2009

Originally published in edited form in Inpress Magazine issue 1096, 4th November 2009

Back In Black. And White.

Filed under: Commentary — Anthony @ 12:30 am

Cow Up A Tree (Photo © 2006 Anthony Horan)

It’s been a little bit quiet over here in my WordPress world, and that’s been for a few different reasons. Aside from the other distractions of life that have kept me procrastinating whenever I’ve intended to get some of the archived interviews and features I promised onto this site, it’s also been a fairly quiet last half of the year interview-wise, so the new stuff’s been a little thin on the ground. That’s about to change, though, with an Angie Hart interview coming in mere minutes, followed later this week by a fascinating interview with Finn Andrews of The Veils.

I also wanted to change the name of the site. “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” seemed like a great idea at the time, but it had its problems: it makes telling people what the site’s called rather cumbersome, and the name’s so long that it doesn’t even fit into the title area of most of WordPress’s templates. And of course, there’s always someone who’s going to think it’s a Smiths blog.

So after tossing around names for an eternity and coming up empty, I was still looking around for inspiration when the last track of the album I was listening to at the time – The Sundays’ wonderful Static And Silence – came on in my headphones. It’s called Monochrome. Of course. Short, simple, and a perfect description of the content in all its black-and-white texty glory.

So, Monochrome it is. Welcome to it.

April 24, 2009

Sia, Later

Filed under: Interviews — Anthony @ 12:49 am

When her last album came out in Australia, nobody noticed; last time she was in the country, you’d never have known about it save for the odd throwaway press mention. As a living illustration of how talent needs a healthy dose of good timing when it comes to navigating the music industry, Sia Furler is getting the kind of global attention that goes hand in hand with being a newly-arrived, hugely admired artist. And it only took her fifteen years to get there.

Sia talks fast. Really fast. Perhaps it’s the endurance test of sitting on the phone for consecutive 15-minute interrogations, but there’s no boredom evident here – it’s all uncontained enthusiasm, transforming her usual left-of-centre ebullience into a rapid-fire stream of consciousness that crackles down the phone line, disintegrating into digital data noises every so often (“The modern phone woes of a pop star… I’m using a Blackberry that I bought off Craigslist – I bought it for a hundred bucks from someone we met at the Burger King down in Chinatown. So that’s probably why the phone’s very quiet unless I give it a good old bash and thwack!”)

Of course, there’s a real-world reason for such unbridled enthusiasm. After two solo albums that were greeted by the quiet applause of a contented few (and solid appreciation from Zero 7 fans for her extensive guest work with that band), Sia’s third – Some People Have Real Problems – is finding a wider audience, one large enough to see her finally do an Australian tour this month. And she’s writing songs with Christina Aguilera for that uberstar’s next album. Suddenly, people are paying attention. “This part happened in just the past year; I’d always made enough money to survive, but I was never famous, which was good, great.” You don’t want to be famous? “No! But I made a reasonable income, and Zero 7 afforded me the luxury of sabotaging my solo career. When we’d made Some People Have Real Problems though, my management decided it was going to be huge, that I couldn’t do both things anymore and be part of Zero 7. And I think that gave me a bit of a kick up the butt. So now I’m actually doing the work that goes hand in hand with putting out a record when it’s your only source of income. And that is, essentially, promo and a marketing budget. This is the first record I’ve ever done promo for. I’ve done something like 1200 interviews for this record. I did four for Colour The Small One.”

That remarkable album – a complete departure musically into a lush, dark, and often cinematically orchestrated world – was released five years ago to critical praise, but such lack of record company enthusiasm that it sank without trace. But then, Sia wasn’t exactly all over the music press talking it up… “Yeah, well… I was kind of sad. So I didn’t want to do any talking to anybody. I was under the misconception that I was like Radiohead and I didn’t need to do promo, that people would hear about the record and I’d sell millions of copies just because people were psychic. But actually, I sold 13,000 copies before I was dropped by Universal. And it was two weeks later that the Breathe Me thing happened in Six Feet Under, and that totally resuscitated my dying career.”

Official press photo for Colour The Small One, 2004She’s not exaggerating. The day after the final episode of Six Feet Under aired with its intensely emotional ending soundtracked by Breathe Me, Sia had countless instant new fans… and a call from Universal wanting her to sign a new deal. “Yeah, that was pretty funny. I laughed out of my vagina,” she recalls with a playful laugh, calmly throwing a grenade into the conversation. That almost child-like mix of uncontained enthusiasm and a delight in naughtiness is a constant surprise to those whose mental picture of Sia has come from her music; Californian public radio station KCRW experienced that first-hand during a live-to-air interview and live performance in 2006 when host Nic Harcourt suddenly found himself on the receiving end of Sia’s brand of mischievous humour (it’s still on their web site here).

“I got into big trouble for that. And then the producer told me they wouldn’t be able to have me back on if I didn’t clean my act up, and then I cried, because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.” It made for memorable radio, though… “Great that it was cool, but I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, and apparently although I’m allowed to use those words, the context they were in was teetering on the verge of what they consider vulgar. And they can be fined for that. They’re a public radio station, so I was basically risking their licence. I felt really bad. But we’re all happy families now… and I watch my language!”

Ironically it was KCRW that championed Sia’s music when she didn’t even have a record out in the US – and two of the station’s staff were responsible for the Six Feet Under break that literally rescued her career. “They originally pitched it for a trailer for the fourth season, I believe. But because I was really struggling in my solo career, we gave them rights in perpetuity – which we would never do now, but it’s often normal to give the network those rights so they can reuse the song for that one thing without asking permission or letting you know when or where they’re going to use it. So they actually didn’t tell me they were using it in the final episode. It was a surprise to everybody – I woke up to ten emails about it. It was fantastic for us, it was fucking amazing, but it could have been even more amazing if we’d known about it a little bit in advance so we could have had the record out the week that aired or had some sort of press around it. But thankfully it worked out beautifully anyway; people liked it enough to wait for it and then buy it when we did get it released in the US.”

Photograph by Michal Sendaydiego As the conversation draws to a close, Sia mentions that she’s off to see Rufus Wainwright play that evening – though she doesn’t know quite what to expect, since, as she puts it, “I don’t listen to music.” It is, needless to say, rare to hear a singer, musician or songwriter so plainly state that they’re not disciples of their own craft; surely, accepted thinking goes, one has to absorb music in order to create your own?

Sia laughs, then pauses for a moment. “I don’t believe in that at all. I think that you should allow yourself to be an instrument, and you don’t necessarily have to buy into what it is that you create. I think everybody has a right to create and not have to buy into that which they create, or into the scene. I think god gives people a gift and they should use it. I know that my gift is to write songs and to sing them – but that doesn’t mean that I have to buy into my scene. I can buy into another scene. I’m into visual stuff. I like visual art so that’s my hobby, and my job and my gift is singing and writing songs. And I love doing that. I appreciate a good voice; I just don’t really listen to music. I can appreciate music – when I go to my friend’s house and they have a record on and it’s beautiful I can see that. But I don’t buy music and I don’t listen to it.”

This fact – which perhaps is as much as a way of defusing the inevitable what-are-your-influences questions as it is a simple truth that runs against the grain of the way an artist is expected to be – rubbed Inpress journalist Anthony Carew the wrong way during an interview with Sia in September 2008, his scathing article concluding that Sia was “an egotist uninterested in the actual product of her artistic labours.” Despite it having been a virtual how-to manual for giving an artist bad press, Sia’s response is calm, measured… and defiant. “I think he’s being quite reverent. And I’m not really a fan of that. I pride myself on being irreverent and not buying into the hype of being an artist, and artistry, or glamorising dysfunction or any of that stuff that goes hand in hand with being an artist. I think that’s kind of naïve, because I know what it takes to write a song and write music, and there’s nothing special about it. It’s a talent, like painting a house, if you can paint a wall without dripping paint on the floor, that’s a rad talent and god gave it to you, so you use it.”

© Anthony Horan 2009

Originally published in edited form in Inpress Magazine issue 1063, 18th March 2009

April 8, 2009

Jessica Says Hello

Filed under: Interviews — Anthony @ 1:27 am

Jessica Venables is nervous. Which is completely understandable, given the fact that after several years of discovering the songwriter within her and transferring it to tape almost completely by herself, she suddenly finds herself having conversations with strangers about something that, up until now, has been the most insular of creative processes.

Photo by Darren Sylvester The something in question is a remarkable debut album, a 35-minute, ten-track collection of intelligent, affecting songs that sound for all the world like she’s been doing this for years. But this emotionally honest and musically rich batch of songs actually represents a sample of Jessica’s first foray into songwriting; this is only the fourth interview she’s ever done. And needless to say, her recording moniker and band name Jessica Says comes tailor-made for interviews.

It was the music lessons so many school students fear that brought her to this point. “My mum’s a violin teacher and my dad makes violins, and I think they wanted a family string quartet,” Jessica says. “I wanted to be a gymnast when I was little, but it was lucky that they didn’t let me pursue that, because I would never have gotten anywhere with it. I feel lucky that my parents prioritised music, because it’s something you can use forever, and use however you want.” Before long she was the lead cellist in the Melbourne Youth Orchestra – and already restless. “I was in that till I finished school, and then I left classical music forever. I teach cello now, but I don’t partake in that world. Being able to play is easy. But singing and songwriting is the challenge, and the more exciting thing.”

And so while taking on other gigs – most notably touring with New Buffalo on cello and backing vocals – Jessica started to put the songs she’d been inventing onto tape. Her debut album We Need To Talk started taking shape in a tiny North Melbourne home studio with her friend Geoff O’Connor. “I started writing songs when I was in Year 12 – I heard Joanna Newsome, and I hadn’t really heard music like that before, by someone who was obviously classically trained, but also was really lyrically driven. Geoff encouraged me to record things, so I started working on that slowly before I started playing with New Buffalo, and when I came back from touring with her I finished it off.”

We Need To Talk is a solo album in the true sense of the word; almost everything is played and sung by Jessica herself, layering multiple tracks of cello and vocals as the songs demanded. There’s a natural ease to the whole thing, though, that has you checking the booklet to confirm that this isn’t an artist hiring in a bunch of extra help. Which of course raises the question of how this is all going to work at live shows…

“It’s a bit different live. We’ve got a drummer playing with us now that’s made it so much better – he’s a very creative drummer, it’s not like we’re trying to turn it into a rock thing. But I can be a bit of a loose cannon, I suppose, so it’s good to have that grounding. And it also just makes it a lot more textured, because obviously I can’t have ten cellos. So then my younger brother Nick plays violin, sings and plays guitar, and a girl called Stella who I was in Melbourne Youth Orchestra with plays bass cello, and I play keyboards.”

Photo by Darren SylvesterSo these songs are going to change drastically on stage, then? “Not really. I don’t think so. I guess there’s a couple of tracks on the album where there’s no keyboard on them at all, it’s pretty much ten layers of cello. I’m never really going to get that sound live, but I originally wrote those songs on a keyboard anyway, just playing them on a Casiotone and me singing, so they’ve translated fine.” But which is more rewarding, though – assembling a song in a studio yourself, or trusting others to help perform it at a live show? The answer: neither.

“I like the songwriting the best. I just record everything into my phone and trust my memory a lot… All I’m interested in in the world is songs, I think. But I’ve been getting to like performing more and more, especially after playing with New Buffalo and getting to do these big tours. So I get really excited about playing now, and not as nervous as I used to. Making the transition from classical stuff to playing in a pub, I guess your priorities become different in terms of what a performance is about. It’s not especially about accuracy now. It’s taken me a couple of years to get my head around that, I suppose. And I can’t believe you can stand up there and ask people to listen to you, it seems amazing.”

There’s a lot of what used to fashionably be called “confessional” writing in Jessica’s lyrics on this record – direct and personal, and often very pointed (“He thought he read me but he only skimmed, still I got one or two songs out of him”). She’s having none of such stereotyping, though. “I think everyone’s songs are personal… but I think humans are all pretty much the same. It’d be silly to think that your experience is so unique, so even if what it’s about is not exactly the same emotional experience as what I’m having now, it’s still pretty much all the same.” And of course, some listeners don’t even explore the lyrics… “Yes, it’s interesting how you can appreciate a song so much and know what the lyrics sound like, but not really have thought about them.”

We Need To Talk was actually completed back in May last year, but was delayed until now so that it could make its way into the world at, as Jessica says, “the right time.” But the intervening time hasn’t been wasted; as well as completing a uni degree, Jessica’s been thinking ahead. “I’ve written the next album and I’m ready to record it. But that’s going to be different. I think I was so self-conscious when I started recording this one that I didn’t really feel that comfortable about asking many other people to play on it. But the next one will be different. I hope so.”

Photo by Hana Davies Having a second record ready to be put to tape before the first one was even out is rare indeed, but for Jessica, songwriting is anything but a chore. “I just write all the time. It’s my favourite thing to do. I had a four-track for a while, but I was too lazy to learn to use it. So I probably place too much trust in my memory, but it’s all in my head. And on my phone. My house got broken into last week, and my iPod and laptop and camera were stolen, but luckily not my cello or my keyboard. And luckily I had my phone with me – that would be by far the worst thing to disappear.”

We Need To Talk, meanwhile, is occasionally like reading someone’s diary… “Yes, it is a bit Dear Diary… I don’t think I’ll ever be someone that consciously adopts other people’s perspectives in songs, because I’m a bit of a baby and I don’t really feel like I have the authority to talk about what I imagine someone else might feel. But then, at the same time I think the kind of people that will end up listening to Melbourne indie stuff will probably feel similar things. Unstable Ape asked me if they could put the album out when I had just the one song on MySpace. They’re guys in their mid-30s and I was 19 at the time, and I couldn’t possibly believe that someone older than me wouldn’t think what I was writing was just this little ex-private school girl having a sook or something.”

But when you’re willing to show your true self in your songs… “Do you think it’s my true self?” Jessica says, laughing. “I think I like the person in the songs better! I don’t know, I think writing a song that you’re going to show to other people is kind of like you’re rehearsing for your real life. It’s such a cliché, but you get to choose the kind of person you want to be and rehearse that person.” Playing a character, then? “Not really. Just playing a better version of yourself.”

© Anthony Horan 2009

Originally published in edited form in Inpress Magazine issue 1065, 1st April 2009

Back In Action

Filed under: Commentary — Anthony @ 1:22 am

The most glacially-updated site on WordPress – this one – has been a teensy bit quiet since the start of the year. Which was largely because of other distractions as well as the scarcity of new interviews for me to publish, but I intended to be back a little bit before this!

At any rate, over the coming days there’ll be some long-overdue updates, including an extended interview with Sia and some interviews from the archives. For starters, though, I’ve got an extended interview with new Melbourne indie buzz-thing Jessica Says going online.

As always, I encourage you to leave comments and let me know what you think. As long as you’re not thinking about selling my readers Viagra, because WordPress’s rather efficient spam filter will get you.

January 2, 2009

The Best Albums Of 2008

Filed under: Commentary — Anthony @ 1:41 am

The end-of-year deluge of lists is upon us once again, and I’m not immune to the phenomenon.

Every year, Inpress Magazine asks its writers to fill out an end-of-year poll, headed by the top ten albums of the year and given an added degree of difficulty by the addition of all sorts of other categories. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Everyone loves lists, after all. Reading them, that is – but actually coming up with your own is a somewhat daunting task that has been known to strike fear into the hearts of even the most opinionated.

I’m actually not all that fond of this concept of rating the year’s best albums from 1 to 10, truth be told (and this, from the guy that was declaring a “Single Of The Year” back in his single-reviewing days!) In fact, the very presumption that someone has heard everything that came out during the year and is therefore qualified to make an informed judgement on what was “best” is ludicrous, really. Not to mention the simple truth that any writer’s personal musical taste will affect the outcome; how could it possibly not? Music requires an emotional connection to be appreciated, after all. But I digress.

The other thing that bothers me about simple lists is that they don’t say anything other than “here’s what I liked this year”. When I read them, I want to know why. I want to know what it was about this batch of ten records that inspired you to remember them and rate them highly at the end of the year. Back in 1999 while Music Editor at Inpress, I shamelessly imposed the idea on that year’s poll (which annoyed some writers and terrified others) but that was the only year it was done – page space, as always, is at a premium. But here, where there are no word limits except those enforced by the reader’s patience, I get to indulge myself a little.

So here is my list. The albums that were the most important to me in 2008. I didn’t hear everything that came out (and I know there are records I didn’t get to hear that I would have been floored by if I had), I didn’t recall everything that I had heard when compiling the list (every year has its “oops” moments after the poll’s been submitted) and more than any other year, it perhaps gives an indication of the sort of music that really does it for me. Your tastes are different, that’s a given. But do try to hear these ten (plus three!) albums if you can. They are very, very good. Whether you’d consider them the best the year has to offer, well, that depends on how the bit of your brain that responds to art is wired.

Oh, and while the version of this list in this week’s Inpress is numbered 1 to 10 (I ended up using the play count of each of them in iTunes to help rank them!), I’m not numbering it here, but instead listing the albums in alphabetical order by artist. More than any other year, having to rank my choices from “best” to “tenth best” bothered me. Because they’re all “best”.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on why you think I’m wrong :) You can leave your comments (and lists, if you like) at the bottom of this article.

Click on each album’s title to launch iTunes (if you have it installed) and be taken to that record’s page on the Australian iTunes Music Store where you can double-click each song for a 30-second sample (or even buy the thing, if you’re not a must-own-the-proper-CD person like I am!)

 

The Audreys - When The Flood Comes THE AUDREYS
When The Flood Comes

According to Audreys singer and co-songwriter Taasha Coates, the second album for the Adelaide-based band was a scary proposition. With sudden acclaim for their debut and a pointy trophy to prove that even cynical ARIA voters liked it, that’s not surprising – after all, so many bands and artists have found that after the attention-getting debut, it’s all downhill from there. But there’s something very special about what this band does, and this album showed that the Difficult Second Album cliché (and I promise not to use that phrase again for the whole of 2009!) doesn’t have to mean disappointment. There’s a languid warmth that permeates Flood throughout, and (perhaps ironically) a confident ease in the songwriting that’s often breathtaking. Shane O’Mara’s production outdoes his excellent work on the first album, too. And if you’ve pigeonholed them as a “roots” or “country” band, The Audreys have surprises in store for you here -particularly on penultimate track Songbird, which encapsulates the fear and doubt that underpinned the making of the record both lyrically and in its dark, brittle sound. Like I said – breathtaking. And the (usually) cynical ARIA voters rightly agreed.

 

 

Coldplay - Viva La Vida COLDPLAY
Viva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends

Radiohead knock-offs? Bollocks. It’s mysteriously uncool to say a Coldplay album is good, it seems, and yet quite a lot of people seemed to like this one a lot. When I first heard it, though, I wasn’t convinced. It sounded like a big bag of ideas thrown together in a bag and randomly stuck together with Beatlesque moments. Fortunately, I came back a few more times, encouraged by the gorgeous sound of the thing (Brian Eno’s stamp is everywhere here, and it suits the band perfectly) and somewhere along the way, found myself wanting to come back. I still look at this album more as an audio movie than a batch of sing-along tunes, but that’s a Good Thing. Previous Coldplay records have had an immediacy to them, with the widescreen production distracting from the fact that there’s not a huge amount of depth there. This time, patience is rewarded. Listen in headphones, trust me.

 

 

 

The Hampdens - The Last Party THE HAMPDENS
The Last Party

I love this album. Absolutely love it. And I suspect that I’m one of the only people in the country that does. Released back in May, it was mis-marketed and misunderstood, and sat on record store shelves virtually unnoticed. And that’s an absolute shame. Because this debut album for the former Perth band (now based in Melbourne) who’d put out a series of increasingly excellent EPs over the previous five years is easily one of the best pop albums I’ve heard all decade. Seriously. Its songs take time to properly work their magic with you (once again, all the best albums need some courtship time) but when they do they’re like little magnets pulling you back in time and time again. The band’s lush-pop ambitions finally come to proper fruition here thanks to producer Victor Van Vugt, who keeps things warm and simple and then covers almost every song with lush string arrangements that are cinematic, yet tastefully restrained and perfectly attuned to the songs, just like he did with The Paradise Motel ten years ago. Singer Susannah Legge’s evocative vocals, meanwhile, make the whole thing sound like the summer you think you remember having once. Which makes sense when you hear it. And you really, really should.

 

 

Sophie Koh - All Shook Up SOPHIE KOH
All Shook Up

My vote for Most Misleading Album Title Of The Year. Those expecting Elvis-inspired back-to-basics rock may have been startled by what lay within – an accomplished collection of accessible but unconventional songs from a singer-songwriter who now seems properly at home with the possibilities of studio recording. Her 2005 debut merely hinted at what Sophie was capable of; here, with producer Greg “J” Walker working some real aural magic throughout, she shows just how far her songwriting has come in a few short years, effortlessly leaping between styles and moods and never sounding less than supremely assured. Atmosphere and intrigue is everywhere, but pop hooks abound as well – it’s a remarkable balancing act. This one deserved a lot more attention than it ultimately ended up getting; with songs here like the darkly menacing Somebody Come To End This and the astonishing Threnody amongst the treasures here, those who discover this record will wonder why they didn’t find it sooner.

 

 

Lenka - Lenka LENKA
Lenka

I remember my reaction to this album the first time I listened to it, on my iPod during a Sunday evening tram journey. This is, I had decided by the end, the happiest album I’ve ever heard. And not in a good way. Yet something drew me back for another listen later that night, and a few days later I was back again. And suddenly, I got it – though I’m still not entirely sure I can tell you what “it” is. What sounds on first listen like an over-cute collection of jaunty, simple pop songs turns out to be a subversive ball of clever-pop genius. While I still think the track sequence misrepresents what’s going on in Lenka Kripac’s musical mind, this is a record worth embracing for its intelligent approach to a genre that’s been reduced lately to a svengali-driven mathematical formula. Particularly successful on this multi-producer album are the tracks produced by Mike Elizondo, an unlikely choice who seems to get exactly where Lenka’ s coming from; Trouble Is A Friend is a compact ball of joyous, irresistible brilliance.

 

 

M83 - Saturdays = Youth M83
Saturdays = Youth

There’s something about this album that’s fascinating, well above and beyond its skilled distillation of the smarter pop of the ‘80s into something that sounds totally contemporary. While there’s no shortage of bands trying to mine the shimmer of that decade’s unique approach to pop music, one-man French “band” M83 seems, on this album, to get the balance right (Depeche Mode reference!) without taking it too far and heading into cheese territory. The production and instrumentation pulls this firmly into the 21st century, in fact, and during the journey it’s picked up influences from the more interesting bits of the ‘90s as well.

 

 

 

Laura Marling - Alas, I Cannot Swim LAURA MARLING
Alas, I Cannot Swim

The initial impression this record gives is somewhat misleading – opening track Ghosts starts off sounding all ‘60s-throwback folk, complete with chorus harmonies that come across all Peter Paul & Mary, 18 year-old Marling doing the acoustic storyteller thing that we’ve heard a hundred times before. So at the two minute mark, when she drops the song into a warm, extroverted bridge on the way to the song’s euphoric conclusion, she gets your undivided attention instantly. At that moment, Marling’s 38-minute album debut is off and running, and never looks back. With emotion in her voice that belies her age – a voice that’s equal parts Harriet Wheeler fairy-dust and world-weary regret – and a keen sense of musical economy, Laura Marling is one of the finds of 2008.

 

 

 

My Brightest Diamond - A Thousand Sharks Teeth MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND
A Thousand Shark’s Teeth

Anyone who’s heard me endlessly bang on about how unspeakably brilliant My Brightest Diamond’s 2006 debut Bring Me The Workhorse was will already know that I’m rather fond of Shara Worden’s musical world. Album number two started life as a string quartet-backed companion piece to Workhorse but grew into a proper album in its own right, one which takes an even more adventurous approach than the first record. Muted drums and loops, strings, harps, horns, the kitchen sink, it’s all in here somewhere – and it’s all perfectly placed inside a batch of songs that run the gamut from widescreen epic (first single Inside A Boy) to unnerving theatrical drama (Black And Costaud), late-night serenade (the gorgeous From The Top Of The World) and absolute despair (To Pluto’s Moon). It amazes and challenges throughout; and nobody else – nobody – makes records that sound like this. While the first record took a full year to get an Australian release, this one came out promptly; if you don’t go get yourself a copy you’re missing a unique experience.

 

 

Krista Polvere - Here Be Dragons KRISTA POLVERE
Here Be Dragons

Originally from Adelaide, now based in Melbourne and serendipitously connected to Ryan Adams and members of Mercury Rev on a trip to New York, Krista Polvere’s debut ventures way beyond the folk and country influences that inspired it. Producer Malcolm Burn is an atmosphere specialist from way back (he worked wonders on Archie Roach’s Looking For Butter Boy and helmed Lisa Germano’s best albums) and he drenches this gentle album of slow-burners in an iridescent warm glow that’s impossible to resist immersing yourself in. At times sounding like Mazzy Star doing songs for a David Lynch movie, this is the late-night album of choice for 2008; just try listening to Breakable or The Sinking Sea without finding yourself transported. This is one of the most fully-realised folk-minded albums in years, and one of the most original.

 

 

 

Princess One Point Five - Vous Je Vous PRINCESS ONE POINT FIVE
Vous Je Vous

Last of the ten alphabetically but by no means least, this third album from the boundlessly inventive Sarah-Jane Wentzki and partner Richard Andrew is a marvellously unpretentious and thoroughly alluring not-quite-lo-fi pop album which cheerfully traverses genres throughout its 13 tracks as though it’s a diary of ideas and inspirations, impossibly brought together into a coherent album with a craftsperson’s skill. Within the first few tracks you’ve already visited four different gigs by the same band – Man In A Suitcase’s album-opening instrumental excitement, the totally “up” happy-pop of I’m Onto Something Good, the unhurried slow groove of Easier To Give In Than Walk Away and a trip into Walker Brothers territory (without the overblown strings or, err, Scott Walker) on There’s Got To Be More Than This. And never once does it sound confused; the song titles get shorter as the record progresses but the boundless flow of ideas and hooks just keeps on coming, even taking in an edgy rock blast on Aren’t You Clever that’s exhilarating. If it had come from Manchester rather than Melbourne it’d probably be in everyone’s end-of-year list by now.

 

 

Honourable Mentions

Sarah Slean - The Baroness Albums that came thiiiiis close to landing in the final ten included Canadian clever person Sarah Slean’s The Baroness, which eschewed the deliciously out-there attitude of her two previous albums in favour of organic, nostalgic balladry and the occasional moment of up-ness. As a result, it seemed like a huge disappointment the first few times through – but Slean’s songwriting is subversive and skilful, and this one got under the skin and stayed there, playing with the bit of your head that plays back records when you’re not expecting it. A major-label artist in Canada, Slean’s records are ignored and unreleased everywhere else, so it’s pleasing to note that this one can be bought in Australia via iTunes.

The Presets made the Depeche Mode album that Depeche Mode would have surely traded their souls to have made back in 1985, and managed to please almost everybody. A very good album, Apocalypso was slightly let down by a handful of tracks towards the end that paled in comparison to the electro-pop genius at the front of the album; My People is simultaneously one of the best dance songs and one of the best pop songs ever to come out of this country. So there.

And Kate Miller-Heidke set about polarising people yet again with Curiouser, probably the year’s most defiantly quirky pop album and loaded with memorable strange-pop that was produced to crunchy perfection by husband Keir Nuttall and Flight of the Conchords music man Mickey Petralia.

And finally, the albums of 2008 that weren’t. Nicole Atkins’ magnificent, Orbison-channelling, deliciously overproduced-in-a-good-way Neptune City may have finally made it to stores outside the US this year, but it’s most decidedly a 2007 album. Buy it anyway. It would have effortlessly made the top 10 if I was breaking the rules. And UK one-woman army Bat For Lashes’ Fur And Gold came out everywhere in 2007, somehow completely escaping my attention until a chance encounter with one of the video clips from it on Rage mid-year. It’s got nothing to do with 2008 at all, but I couldn’t let this one pass unmentioned – there’s extreme cleverness at work here.

And somehow, I managed to be the only person writing about music on the planet to not hear Nick Cave’s Dig Lazarus Dig. That will be rectified soon, and unless about four thousand music writers and reviewers are all on Nick’s payroll, I have a funny feeling I’m going to be kicking myself once I push play. But as I said all the way up there at the top, nobody can hear everything. That’s what makes these end-of-year lists so fascinating, polarising and, often, eye-opening.

©2009 Anthony Horan

December 11, 2008

Oh SoKo!

Filed under: Interviews — Anthony @ 11:25 pm

First, it was a huge hit in Denmark. Then it became the ninth most popular song in last year’s Triple J Hottest 100 poll after being played on high rotation on that station. It’s a good part of the reason why the artist behind it is coming to Australia to play this year’s Falls Festival. Only one small problem: the song, I’ll Kill Her, is from an EP which the artist in question, SoKo, would rather not exist at all.

Photo by Sarah Kahn Indeed, SoKo – real name Stéphanie Sokolinski, but that’ll be SoKo to you thanks very much – would rather be doing anything else than spending half an hour on the phone doing an interview. Friendly, often funny and self-deprecating, and constantly laughing at herself and her words, she nonetheless has very strong feelings about publicity. There’s very little information about her or her music to be found online, and that is precisely how she likes it to be.“I don’t want it,” she says firmly, speaking from Seattle’s Bear Creek Studio where she’s mixing her debut album with co-producer Ryan Hadlock. “People only write shit, so I’d rather not spread a lot of information or give a lot of interviews, because people write shit all the time. When people don’t know anything about your music and want to make you a ‘cyber-star’ or a ‘MySpace revelation’… I mean, if I have to listen to that kind of bullshit, I’d rather not talk to anybody.”

It was the London Times that made the small mistake of declaring SoKo a “MySpace Phenomenon”, and the mere mention of that 2007 article still triggers a strong reaction.“Yeah, well… what do they know? I put myself on MySpace like many other people, and the last thing I wanted is having that kind of ‘cyber success’, how people call it, with songs that I hate. Songs that I haven’t produced myself. I like the demos that I do by myself on GarageBand, and I don’t mind putting that to people. But I made the mistake of putting stuff that I was not happy with on MySpace because I didn’t know anybody was going to listen to it. That song I’ll Kill Her, I hate everything on it – the guitars, all the arrangement, the way I sing, the way that person made me sing… everything about it I hate. And then that becoming a kind of ‘thing’ and being called MySpace stuff for that piece of shit… I’d rather just wait two more years and, you know, come to a place where I’m happy with my record, and I’ve chosen every single piece of what is on it and I’ve decided all the arrangements, how it was going to sound, all the musicians I work with and I’ve played a lot of the instruments myself. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t do it that way, because I don’t want to have to justify myself for doing that mistake.”

Recorded some time ago in her native Paris, the rest of the five-song Not Sokute doesn’t fare any better. “It’s something that I hate I and that I should never have released. That was released on the internet unfortunately. It’s on iTunes still, and I’m fighting to take it off.” It’s since been removed from the Danish iTunes store that turned it into a bona fide hit, but of course, it’s still out there for the finding. This is the internet, after all… “Unfortunately I didn’t know about that, and my goal was to make my friends listen to it. I didn’t tell anybody else but the people I know. That’s a big mistake, and that’s a lesson for life that you should never do things and put it out of control when you’re not happy with it.” But surely it’s not an entirely bad thing – the song got good airplay in Australia as well, and… “Hey, I don’t even want to talk about it,” Soko interrupts. “I just hate it, and it makes me angry. And it was, like, two years ago, and it’s so different from what I’m doing now. It’s been produced by somebody that I will never, ever work again with… I don’t wanna talk about it. It makes me feel weird. I mean, I’ve taken it out of my MySpace more than a year and a half ago because I had already realised my mistake, and I feel like I have had to justify myself for a year and a half for that, and I don’t want to.” But then, it’s gotten you a gig on the other side of the world… “That’s the only good part of what had happened, is that I can actually make it to Australia, but really…nothing can make me happy about it.”

Determined to make a record she is happy with, SoKo first hooked up with former members of Welsh band Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, sessions that were ultimately abandoned. “It’s not that it was not working – I love them so much and worship them so much, I’m the biggest fan, and I will always be. I think I was just not mature enough in my music to do anything good at that time. I was still not able to play any instruments, I didn’t even know how to play guitar, I was only playing ukulele. And now I can play guitar, drums, keyboards, banjo, a little bit of mandolin. It was just too early to do anything that is actually me, and where I can play the stuff that I want to hear.”

The key thing about SoKo’s rather fractious relationship with music is that it’s not her main calling. She is, in fact, an actress with nearly a dozen movies on her resume, including one in which she plays alongside Gérard Depardieu, due out in France around the same time she heads to Australia as a singer. “I want to do movies. But unfortunately now that I’m singing, people think I’m a singer and I’m not an actress. So all they offer to me is parts like the poor little girl that is writing songs nobody understands, or the artist or whatever. I don’t wanna play myself”

To date her movie credits have been under her real name, but that’s about to change. “This is going to be the first movie where I’m credited as SoKo,” she says, sounding pleased. “Just because SoKo is my nickname, it’s my name since I was a kid. And when people call me Stephanie, I feel like they’re talking to someone else. I don’t feel like it’s me. My agent said ‘you should go by SoKo, because when you do interviews people are going to call you Stephanie and you’re gonna hate it, and then you’re gonna hate them, and then you’re gonna do bad interviews.’ But I’d rather be called SoKo just because it’s me. Sometimes I have people that I don’t know who write me really nice email on MySpace, and they’re like ‘Dear Stephanie…’ – and I’m like, do you call me by my real name because you think you’re going to be closer to me? Because it’s actually the contrary. It’s feels like you’re calling someone else.”

Having moved past the fractious issue of that EP, SoKo seems to be enjoying talking about herself and her view of life. The reason, most likely, is simply that she tries to avoid doing press at all, either for her music or in support of the movies she’s in. “I don’t do a lot of interviews. I really don’t like it. I mean, I don’t mind talking to you right now, but it’s just that it’s something else. I don’t want to be in a magazine, I don’t want to be in the papers, I don’t want to be on TV for something else but acting. I don’t want to be like all those people that want to be famous and like to see themselves in the magazines. I don’t do music to sell records or anything. I do music because I like it. And if it happens that people like it and it happens that I sell records, it’s fine. But I wouldn’t be sad at all… I mean, I just challenge myself all the time, and the challenge was making a double album. I had so many songs that I thought hey, it’s never going to fit in one, maybe I have to do a double album. It was just a challenge to record everything, come up with all the arrangements and, you know, not make my record polished or anything, not make it like a perfect piece of pop or whatever, because that’s not at all where I come from. It’s as imperfect as I am, and that’s what I like about it.”

Photo by David MushegainSoKo, you’re probably realising by this stage, isn’t exactly the sort of person to have spent her formative years dreaming of being a pop star. She’s having fun with it, even being playful with the business of creating it, but she points out that if her double-album debut were to sink without trace, there’d be plenty of other things to keep her occupied. “I want to do so much stuff in my life. I don’t want to do music forever. I want to have a band and do other stuff with other people, and share stuff with other people. It’s so hard to do music by yourself, and to be a girl, young… people put so much expectation on you, and because of all that MySpace stuff, people want to see me as something that I am not and I will never be. It’s pretty scary. So I could do anything else. I could just as well work in a shop and be happy. I want to open a vegan restaurant, and… I wanna do a lot of stuff, like travel and see different stuff. I don’t want to do touring and do promotions and all that, it’s not what I want. It’s a different job. Some people just want to do music and be famous, so they have to do interviews and stuff. I want to do music, but I don’t want to be famous for it. I want to do music as well as doing movies as well as probably directing movies, writing, doing poetry, creating recipes for vegan people, and opening a restaurant.”

It’s incredibly rare, though, to find oneself interviewing a singer, songwriter or musician that doesn’t want to be famous, at least in terms of some level of public appreciation and success… “Well, I don’t see the point. If you think about it for two seconds, it’s just problems. It’s only problems. I mean, I don’t have a lot of money, and if I had, I wouldn’t know what to do with it myself. I would just give it away to people, because I don’t need it. I’m happy without. I don’t need that. I don’t need to go to parties, I don’t need to know famous people, I don’t need all that. I have a happy life right now, and I’m doing what I want and I don’t want it to change at all.”

Why SoKo, you’re starting to sound like something of a 21st Century hippie…! “I am super-hippie!” she says emphatically, laughing. “I recycle my garbage, I am vegan, protect animals, I burn a lot of incense. Though I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs and I don’t drink. So I’m like a healthy hippie. I don’t need that to be happy. I think it’s so obvious that I don’t want it that I have never been offered drugs in my life. I feel like it’s written on my face that I’m against it.”

But in the music world, the gigs, the studios… surely you must see a fair bit of it going on? “I’m really tolerant about that. I don’t mind other people doing it at all, if they are happy with it. Everybody should do what makes them happy. And if they do it to forget that their life sucks, if they do it because they want to have fun when they are not able to have it when they are conscious and clear, then they should question their life, and not take drugs. But everyone has fun as they want it. Who am I to preach?”


© Anthony Horan 2008

Originally published in edited form in Inpress Magazine issue 1048, 3rd December 2008

December 3, 2008

Awarding The Audreys

Filed under: Interviews — Anthony @ 12:46 am

The look of stunned amazement written on Taasha Coates’s face when her band accepted their second ARIA Award last month spoke volumes. The Best Blues and Roots Album category was loaded with hugely respected bands and artists, and having won that same award for their debut album in 2006, taking it out again with the Difficult Second Album may well have seemed like an impossibility.

But When The Flood Comes mines a unique corner of that broad category in a way that seems to fascinate those who connect with it. It’s neither blues nor roots, really – or even, for that matter, country – but rather a melting pot of bits of all of those, seasoned with the unexpected and fused into a cohesive whole that sounds so effortless it’s like a genre of its own making. And that sort of thing gets attention.

“It was such a tough field,” recalls Coates. “I was genuinely shocked. And when we watched it back, I saw that I walked up to Mikey, our violin player, while he was talking and gave him a big kiss on the cheek because I was just so excited. I totally forgot that he was making a speech.” But what of the category itself – do The Audreys really fit into what misleadingly sounds like a neatly described sub-genre? “It’s pretty vague, really. Blues and roots, what does that actually mean anyway? It’s like Adult Contemporary – that could be anything. There’s no defining exactly what fits in and what doesn’t with blues and roots, I think. But it’s certainly where we’re coming from. If we were an American band we’d definitely be classed as Alternative Country. I quite like that term, I think it’s kind of hip – but if you say it to people in Australia, well, just the use of the word ‘country’ and their pupils start to dilate and they start looking around the room for easy ways to get out of the conversation.”

It was a fitting honour regardless – especially given the amount of pressure Coates had found herself under after the success of the debut album and its exposure to an even wider audience through the extensive use of its songs as the soundtrack to the ABC’s TV series Rain Shadow (“I thought they did a great job of putting the songs into the action, I thought it suited it really well.”) The cliché of the Difficult Second Album was, in this case, absolute truth.

“Yeah, I found the second one really difficult. It was hard, personally and emotionally. I just didn’t want to stuff it up. I wanted to get it right. I wanted to be able to have this as a career and to keep going. There are so many bands that just crash and burn on their second record. I didn’t want to be one of those bands.” And much of the time the thing that trips bands up is that unlike the first record with all those songs tested and perfected over a long period, this one has to be written from scratch.”Yeah, and often in a short space of time. Writing for the second record, knowing people were going to be hearing it, I found really different to just writing because we had a gig on Friday and 30 people were going to be there. Actually writing a song and knowing that people who had already seen our band, heard our first record, were going to go out and buy it with expectations… I found that really strange.”

But there would be no chance of Coates referring back to the debut record and trying to recreate its winning formula. Because this is not one of those people that keep their own album within easy reach of the CD player in case the urge arises to admire (or pick holes in) their work. “Oh, no,” she says unhesitatingly. “No. I don’t even go back and listen to the second album. I would probably find it easier to listen to the first one now. I’m so self-critical. You have to be.” Does that extend to avoiding reviews of the records? “Lots of bad stuff gets printed about anyone in the public eye on the internet, so I tend to try and avoid bloggers and all that shit. But most of our reviews have been good. I’ve been a bit spoilt.”

The reluctance to revisit past recordings could just as easily be due to a lack of listening time, though. Referring often to other artists and their records during the conversation, it’s clear that Taasha Coates is a voracious consumer of music; so just what, then, does she listen to when not being an Audrey? “I’ve got lots of CDs. Heaps. I love buying CDs. Let me walk over to my CD player and I’ll tell you what’s here. Right at the top, because this is all the stuff I’ve been listening to recently. I just bought both Damian Rice records recently, the new Jolie Holland, the new Springsteen – I love Springsteen, love love love – Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Tim Williams, Tom Petty… ooh, that’s not mine! Nick Cave’s Dig Lazarus Dig, Iron And Wine, Paul Kelly, three Cat Power records, The Wilson Pickers who we’re touring with, Conor Oberst, Kasey Chambers, Bob Evans, Neil Young’s Harvest Moon is sitting here, the new Martha Wainwright record… see, lots of things.”

The inclusion of Nick cave in the above list is telling; there are tracks on When The Flood Comes that seem to have soaked up some of the late-night menace and understated grandeur of Cave’s recent work, after all. And late in the album, the astonishing Songbird fully embraces the sense of space and theatricality of Cave’s Berlin-era work, then takes it somewhere else entirely. “I’m obsessed with Nick Cave,” Coates admits. “Songbird was definitely an ode to him. When we did that live on our last tour I would dedicate the song to him. I’d say ‘this song is for my dream boyfriend Nick Cave,’ and then sort of snigger. Because he would be the most dreadful boyfriend!”

With the officially difficult one conquered successfully, work on songs for album number three is underway, and this time around, says Coates, it’s going to be different. “We’ve started writing already. I’m kind of excited about it, whereas with the second one I just felt… scared. I was scared putting it out, even. When it got released I sort of hid under the doona for two days. I really thought people might not like it.” And you’re ready to put yourself through all that again? “You know what? I’m just going to follow my instincts and just do whatever I want to do on the third record. I’m just not going to think about all that stuff, I’m really not. I’m going to do my best not to, anyway. I’m feeling really good about the third one, I really am. I just hope that doesn’t change.”

At least there’s not the pressure of writing radio-pleasing singles to deal with; while perfectly capable of coming up with songs that stand out on the radio (the latest single grab from the album, Lay Me Down, is one of ‘em) there’s no pressure from the label to create airplay fodder. “I think they know they can’t get away with that stuff with us. They’ve got enough bands that do that. I think they see us more as an album band, a career band that’s going to keep making records.” But then, there are those who argue that the album is a dying format and it’s individual songs that sell… “Oh, that just depresses me. Because what else is there? Musicians can’t make a living out of selling one song. But then, vinyl’s been making a bit of a comeback, so maybe it’s a ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’ sort of thing.”

One thing musicians can make a living out that iTunes can’t change is touring, and the quick three-state run which saw The Audreys playing Northcote Social Club, a jazz club in a converted Castlemaine theatre and the Queenscliff Music Festival on three consecutive days gives them the chance to approach the same songs in diverse ways.”It’s fun for us as performers. If we’re playing a festival or something you’ve got quick breaks between songs, a big stage to cover, you’ve got to keep it up. But if you’re doing a show where people have paid to see you and they’re sitting down and know your music, it’s such a different vibe. They both have things going for them, but they’re very different.”

A few weeks later, the sold-out Northcote Social Club show (where people were standing up and knew the music) gives, perhaps, some clues as to where The Audreys are taking their music next. Songs from Flood get gently pushed in subtle new directions (the title track, for example, heads into a searing guitar-powered instrumental coda) while some from the debut are more markedly changing – Nothing Wrong With Me in particular, now a blazingly intense out-there experience rather than just a song. The audience is enraptured, the show is luminous, and by the end, somehow, it feels like Melbourne’s claimed a little bit of The Audreys for itself.

But this is, says Coates, a band that’s deliberately from Adelaide (something which may or may not be a first). “I lived in Melbourne for about four years – we came back to Adelaide when we started the band, because we wanted to use Adelaide musicians, first of all, and also we wanted to be an Adelaide band, because that was home. There is something nice about being in your home town, being known as a band from your home town. I wouldn’t want to be known as a Melbourne band, because I grew up in Adelaide. Although I think about moving sometimes.”


© Anthony Horan 2008

Expanded from an article originally published in Inpress Magazine issue 1047, 26th November 2008

November 16, 2008

Curiouser And Curiouser, Said Kate

Filed under: Interviews — Anthony @ 11:38 pm

So much for the Difficult Second Album cliché, then. Barely a year after making her album debut with the well-received Little Eve – which nudged the Top 10, went gold and established a solid fan base – Kate Miller-Heidke has already sent record number two, Curiouser, out into the world. In an era where the usual post-album sequence is to tour, milk the album for singles, tour some more, panic, pull out songs hastily written on tour and then get the next record out two or three years down the track, it’s an impressively fast follow-up – especially so given that the songs were entirely written in the intervening period.

Fortunately, Miller-Heidke’s label was willing to get another album out good and fast. “They were happy. The singles were over, and Little Eve wasn’t really an album about singles anyway. The singles were largely ignored by the radio – they got a few spins on Rage and Video Hits and that was it. It was definitely more about the album as a whole and about live touring. I think we must have done about 100 gigs last year, and I got kind of sick of playing the same songs all the time.”

Surprisingly, Space They Cannot Touch, a song which first appeared on CD four years ago, isn’t one of them. “That’s one of those special songs that you don’t get sick of. I love playing that song – it’s this tool that puts me in the moment every night, it’s great. Unlike other songs – like Make It Last, I’ve been waiting quite some time to drop that one from the set. It’s hard, though. We played a big gig at the Caloundra Festival a few nights ago, sandwiched in between Ian Moss and Pete Murray, which went really well. I was doing a signing for Curiouser afterwards, and this little girl was there with her mum and dad, she must have been about six years old. And she couldn’t even look at me; her eyes were bright red because she’d rubbed them so much. Her dad said ‘we’ve got a very upset little girl here because you didn’t play Make It Last.’ That kind of thing makes you think twice – maybe there is some merit in that song. But at the same time it’s such a luxury to have this new pool of material to draw from.”

The new songs were melded into recorded shape in Los Angeles with producer Mickey Petralia, renowned for his work with everyone from Ladytron and Luscious Jackson to Linkin Park and John Cale. But it was his recent producing work for a musical comedy duo that was the clincher… “Keir and I sent our demos out to a few different people who we admired, and Mickey was the first person to respond. He called us and said that he really liked the songs; he was impressed with our demos because they were very detailed, we’d worked on the arrangements a lot ourselves at home. And I was totally obsessed with Flight of the Conchords at that stage, so I didn’t even care what else he’d done! I’ve always had that slight element of humour in my music, and the way Flight of the Conchords is done, it’s musically brilliant and at the same time it’s funny. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish. As well, I think Mickey’s one of the best drum programmers in the world. So we get that blend of electronic and organic elements.”

Petralia’s out-there-but-still-pop style, as it turns out, suits the Miller-Heidke penchant for blending quirky pop with wide-eyed sincerity perfectly. Knowing when to bring the wacky (the sly groove of God’s Gift To Women an early highlight) and when to pull back and let the song do the talking (as on the Hampdens-like The End Of School) he, along with Kate’s husband and co-producer Keir Nuttal, has put Miller-Heidke squarely in the middle of clever-pop territory and actually gotten away with it. The recording sessions themselves were anything but conventional; Petralia’s preferred working day starts at 4pm and finishes at 4 in the morning.

“Those working hours were kind of insane,” Miller-Heidke admits with a wry laugh. “But we had to do it – that’s how Mickey worked. But it was great to be able to be totally immersed in the universe of those songs – with those kind of working hours you really don’t have any time in your life for anything else. And we didn’t have days off, either. It’d be waking up at 2 in the afternoon, having some Cheerio’s and then heading off to the studio. And the thing is, the later you go into the night, the further the next day’s start gets pushed back.”

There’s always been a healthy dose of quirky humour in Miller-Heidke’s songs and performance – and there’s plenty on Curiouser – but could things like her infamous Australian Idol song or her operatic cover of Psycho Killer on Spicks and Specks run the risk of having people peg her as a novelty act? “Yeah, totally, it’s dangerous to do covers like that. I weighed up the pros and cons of that, and I nearly didn’t do it. But they wouldn’t have any other song, they wanted that song, and my album was about to come out, and I just ended up saying yes. It is hard, being where I sit in the context of the whole music scene – not having that radio support and all that – working out how to get people to the gigs, and get them to hear about your music. And it’s that kind of thing that gets people talking. They come to the gigs to see things that they can’t hear on the album, and I’ve always thought it’s important to make it worth people’s while to come to the shows. I know that what I do is not something that everybody likes, that it’s polarising and that people have a strong reaction to it, they either like it or hate it. But in a way that’s good, because the people that do love it are extremely loyal.”

The Miller-Heidke live band has changed a little for this album’s shows, with new guitarist Nicole Brophy replacing violinist Sallie Campbell. “I think it’s indicative of the fact that with this album I was really moving away from that folky background,” Miller-Heidke explains. “We were putting violin in a lot of songs when it didn’t need to be there, simply because we had a violinist there. It just made more sense to have a second guitarist and singer. Nicole’s really fantastic, definitely an asset to the band.”

As the conversation winds up, one final question has to be asked. Album track Supergirl is a paean to a certain Marieke. Could it possibly be… “It’s about Marieke Hardy. Was it the ‘sex toys” line that gave it away? I’m a fan of hers, I like her work… I’ve never met her though, I’ve just admired her from afar. I’m a fan.” Does Hardy know she’s been immortalised in song? “No, I don’t think she knows yet. I guess she’ll find out soon and it’ll be awkward and weird. But I’m not going to tell her!

© Anthony Horan 2008

Originally published in Inpress Magazine issue 1045, 12th November 2008

 

 

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