Monday, November 11, 2013

Interview: Lizanne Richards

Lizanne Richards is a Victorian singer-songwriter whose self-titled debut album was released recently. But while it's Lizanne's debut under her own name, she has performed before under the name Lady Grey - and her experience as a songwriter and singer shows on this very accomplished 'debut'. Recently I had the great pleasure of talking to Lizanne, whose wonderful songs have clearly emerged from a rich, interesting life. 

I only got the album yesterday, but I’ve already listened to it many, many times.  And it’s a really interesting mix of obviously influences, elements, and themes.  And I was wondering if pressed to describe it in – if someone said to you, what genre are you, what genre would you say you are?
R&B alt folk.

Which is quite an interesting combination.
Yeah.  R&B alt folk with jazz-tinged vocals, I suppose.

And in terms of those jazz-tinged vocals, is that your natural inclination?  Is that where your voice wants to go or is that something you’ve developed over time?
It actually is where my voice wants to go, I think.  I’ve been kind of struggling for genres of country – Americana is probably more accurate.  For a few years under the [banner of] Lady Grey as well.  I was probably more towards the Americana.  But then with this album, I really wanted to get to the heart of what I do as me – obviously you’re influenced by whoever you’ve listened to, but I just really wanted to get closer to the heart of what I do and who I am.  It’s what I do well and I think the jazz thing – my voice is just naturally a little bit that way inclined and so I was able to really adjust with my writing, it naturally happened.  There are a few songs where you can probably hear that more so; probably ‘Awkward Smile’ and ‘Hands Up’.  A bit more of the jazz diva comes out perhaps [laughs].

Jazz in performance is quite different to alt folk or R&B in performance – do you find when you’re performing that you kind of have to rein in the jazz diva if the instruments aren’t quite matching it, if you know what I mean?
Not at all, not at all.  And when I say jazz tinged, that’s probably all it is.

Right [laughs].
As a younger woman, I used to listen to a lot of jazz and I used to go to a lot of jazz music, but then it just wasn’t really what made my bell ring in the end.  I think I got sick of the long solos and, as a vocalist, primarily I was more interested in hearing what the person was singing about.  Finally I found my niche in singer-songwriting.  The jazz is just a little touch, but it certainly is evidence of me having listened to Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holliday, Etta James, who’s probably more blues than jazz, if you can say it.  Just in my years of developing as a vocalist.

I think some singers probably find that they desperately want to be one kind of singer, but their voice really is another kind of singer.  And I’m thinking of people who might want to sing country for example, but they’ve actually got a pop voice.  It’s always interesting how voices really have their own natures that way.  But it sounds like you’ve always been comfortable with where your voice sits and what you can express using it.
I’d like to think so.  I think with each album, if I’m lucky enough to do another album, my aim will be to get a step closer to the heart of who I am and what I do in music.  So that’s what I love about it.  It’s just an ongoing path of discovery and I think with this album, maybe I got a step closer.  And that’s not to say that the next album will be more jazz because maybe I’ll have a side step back to the Americana; I’m not sure, but it’s exciting to think about anyway.

Speaking of this album, how long ago did the gestation of this album start?  How old is the oldest song on the album?
That’s a good question.  So ‘Of the Sea’ is the oldest song.  It’s the only song from my Lady Grey [days], when I was playing under Lady Grey, that kind of made the cut onto the album and it’s just been kicking around for a few years.  And actually it’s probably the most Americana song on the album.  Shane O’Mara, the producer, and I would call it my Emmylou Harris song, because it somehow – we spoke about what the song kind of sounded like and I think his production decisions ended up being influenced a little bit.  We put on Wrecking Ball and listened to her album produced by Daniel Lanois.  I ended up feeling like I sang more like Emmylou or something. 

In terms of the process of putting it together – I know you had a bit of a tree change, for lack of a better term, and so your life obviously changed a bit. So I’m wondering at what point the process proper started when you thought, right, I’m going to do this and then I will go about making it happen.
Another good question.  I reckon it happened in a January of a few years ago.  A hot summer’s day – there had been a gestation period to get to this point, but I realised I’m going to start writing songs for a full-length album.  I’d saved a bit of money; I was keeping it in a jar [laughs].  I was actually saving for an electric guitar, but I’d kind of gone beyond a couple of thousand that I needed for that and I thought, Oh well, I’m going to keep saving and save for a full-length album and see if I can do it with a real producer.  I just thought, Right, and I wrote ‘Stuck on You’ that day, which is track three.  Obviously that was the first version of it and I ended up workshopping it quite a bit to where it got to.  But at that stage, still, I was going to release it under Lady Grey.  The whole coming-out-as-me kind of came out in the wash through the process of recording and me then realising, okay, I’m going to do it now.

Obviously if you’ve got a pseudonym of sorts – as Lady Grey would be, to an extent – you’re creating a persona or you have permission to create a persona, especially when you’re performing. You talk about coming out as yourself – is it a sense of being exposed and vulnerable when you’re putting it out under your own name?
Absolutely.  You know, in a strange kind of way – I don’t like to talk about this, but, you know, the tall poppy syndrome more or less and even on a smaller familial basis. To put yourself out there in such an explicit way – I’m the youngest of five and if you brought too much attention to yourself, you were probably just told to shut up, which is great.  It keeps you kind of real.  So for me to come out with my real name and putting it out there like that, it was definitely a step which I’m happy I’ve taken now.  It’s funny, but I’ve had a long time to sit with it now.

In the history of women as creative forces, there’s a lot of art through the ages that men have released where there is visual artists, or composers, and writers, and they needed the support of a woman – women were running the households and doing everything that was required for those men to create.  But it’s meant that actually it’s not until recent times that we’ve had a lot of visible women creating, particularly in music.  And my main focus is country music, but as an umbrella term, and there are a lot of female artists in country, more I think than any other genre.  I think it’s still not just the tall poppy syndrome; it’s that sense that you don’t have centuries’ worth of creators behind you.
Yeah, you’re right.  And now is the time as a young woman, you can do anything you want.  You’ve just got to work out a way to make it happen.  You know, there’s nothing holding you back and definitely not gender.  So it’s just about your own determination and how you see yourself and how good you are at reaching your goals that you set for yourself, which is great.  And I do more or less run a little household as well at the same time have a supportive husband, and a supportive family that enables it to all happen really.

I often talk about creative people running households.  I think running a household is possibly the biggest enemy of creative work in terms of the amount of time and organisation it takes up.  The household can be a household of one or two; it doesn’t have to involve many or children, but I think it’s a really hard balance to strike.
Yeah, it is.  And I suppose it depends on how the household looks at the end of the day [laughs].  Just looking around at my living room, it could do with a vacuum that’s for sure. 

Now, you brought 16 songs into this recording process and you left with 13, so there are three orphaned songs out there somewhere.  Do you have any regrets about the choice of songs you made for the album? 
No, I don’t.  Really, the best thing about getting a producer on board – and especially Shane O’Mara – was that you have someone that has a strong opinion as to whether a song gets through or not, so I really like that.  Because often you’re kind of on your own and have to make all the decisions on your own, so it’s just nice to have someone who actually cares enough to have a strong opinion.  So those three songs – look, there is one that we recorded that didn’t get on the album and I perform that at gigs.  It’s called ‘Do-gooder’.  And the only reason it didn’t get on the album was because Shane was a bit concerned, and maybe a few of my friends were concerned, that it would be taken the wrong way.  I’m just having a bit of fun and poking some fun at do-gooders and I like to get a little bit contentious, but that’s probably the most contentious I’ve tried to get.  One of my do-gooder friends got a bit offended.  Well, she didn’t realise what a do-gooder was; she thought it was a person who does good things, but really I’m meaning do-gooders who aren’t just people who do good things, they attach things onto it.  Blah, blah, blah, you know.

Yes.  I understand [laughs].
I do like to have a bit of fun, but that didn’t make it on.  So if ever you hear me live, I might still sing that song.

 [Laughs] I read that you and Shane seem to be working on weekends a bit.  Like, you did some recording and then you catch up on weekends or once a week to keep working on the album.  Is that because you’re now in regional Victoria?
A little bit, yeah.  And also we just both have a lot of stuff going on, whether it be work or family commitments.  And it only took me an hour from door to door.  So a lot of people coming from Melbourne, to go to his studio, would only take that time anyway.  I don’t know how I could have ever done it in a different way.  But in a way, I like the breathing space that comes from that.  I’ve taken my time with the whole thing, so there was no reason to rush through this.  And look, I don’t know who can when you’re working and stuff, get three weeks off your work calendar like that.  It’s a hard thing to pull off really, for anyone.

I read in your bio, you were talking about giving up a day of work, or giving up some work when you moved to regional Victoria, and I was thinking about the idea of sacrifices being made in the name of art.  Whether it’s a change in lifestyle so you have more time to create, or whether it is giving up some work so you have time to create, or working more so you can fund your own creation.  And I thought it would be appropriate to ask you why it’s important to make those sacrifices, because it seems like you have made some adjustments in your life for your art.
All of the stuff you just said then, I completely agree with all of them.  And I often think that it’s important to do that in my own life and I really … Look, I tried not to do it.  Trust me, I tried to think, Come on, you don’t need to spend all this money on something – look, it’s an indulgence.  It’s an absolute indulgence, I think, to do what I’ve done.  But I’ve enjoyed every moment that I got to go and be in the studio working on the songs, because I’ve worked so hard to get to that point to have the songs to that standard.  And I guess I have only been enriched since having done it, and I think you’ve got to get to a point in your life where I have to look myself in the face and see that the only reason that you’re doing this is for yourself.  You know, there was no one else needing me to do this and really, with all life, that’s the case isn’t it?  There’s no good reason why we need another album in the world.  Really, other than the fact that it gives me something to do, and be engaged within the world in a healthy way, and if anything else springboards from that, then great.  But that’s really what I had to weigh up.

I dispute that assessment, in that I think singer-songwriters are storytellers, every culture needs storytellers and every culture needs stories and wants stories.  And so even though it could seem like a personal indulgence in terms of time and the amount of money you’re spending, I think it’s a really important role to play in society when you are a storyteller.  And I think if you feel that drive to do it, and to get to the stage you’re at, having gone through the process of doing the album, releasing it and everything else, I think there’s a really fundamental, almost unwilled, drive to do it.  It’s not even something you can necessarily control.  So I would dispute the idea that it’s an indulgence, Lizanne, and I would say that it’s a cultural necessity.
You’re lovely, Sophie.  Listen, if you want to get the funding bodies to continue to put money into my account just so I can keep doing it; that would be wonderful [laughs].

I’ve got to confess; I work in the publishing industry and I was on a federal government body for a year and we are working on just that kind of thing going to the future for cultural change – cultural change regarding storytelling.
Absolutely.  And it brings up an interesting discussion. I have a few critical discussions with friends and funding for arts and all of that stuff, but ultimately my output, this album, has been just me working hard in my own life, earning my money and putting my own money into it.  And so I mean, and it’s a good result and a good outcome; it keeps me happy.  I suppose I’m just not so sure that I think when people get given things for free in a way and don’t have to work so hard at it, it’s not so desperate.  The decision to actually make it in the first time hasn’t been made so desperately, I suppose.  It’s an interesting discussion.  Maybe we can have more of a discussion about that at some stage.

Where a lot of the funding could go is in shifting general awareness in the population of Australian cultural artefacts and cultural output.  The cultural cringe tall poppy syndrome is still alive in regards to Australian creators.  We don’t see it a lot in country music, where there’s a huge enthusiasm for local music, but that’s one sector of the population and I think partly we need to just really encourage more awareness of Australian storytelling in all forms.
Well, you’re doing it by having this chat with me really aren’t you.

That’s true [laughs].
I always hesitate or cringe a bit when thinking that people should be paying more attention to me, because people are doing what they do, they work their jobs and I think it’s just all hats off to any artist who’s creating something that can actually end up making people interested.  So that’s the big challenge and it’s a big challenge.  So I don’t know.  And you’ve got to be probably very smart to pull it off and work out a way to make it happen.  Maybe I just need to keep putting out albums.  They say Paul Kelly put out four albums before people really started to pay any attention to him, which is incredible when you think about how big an artist he is now.

It’s the same with novelists.  It’s usually novel three or novel four when people start to pay attention, and I think it is just that growing awareness of things.  But it’s tough for musicians – novelists can put out a novel, they don’t have to go on tour necessarily, but I would imagine you’re thinking about playing some gigs in support of this album.  So from where you are in regional Victoria, is that easy enough to arrange or do you have special travel things to do?
It’s actually really hard, so I’m going to be lucky to even pull off playing a gig in Sydney.  I did have plans – I actually went for a grant, but I was unsuccessful, and fair enough.  I’m not in any way bitter about that, but I was going to try and just do a bit more of a tour through New South Wales, the ACT, and Victoria.  In a way, you’ve got to cut your teeth and it was something that Shane O’Mara and I discussed a little bit.  Like, how do you actually make it all happen?  But to go on tour, is just so expensive and especially with more than just solo, and the logistics of it.  I just take my hat off.  For instance Stringer, Dyson, and Cloher, you know they’re at a stage where they can go on tour together and fill up probably quite substantially venues and therefore make it – pay for itself.  But they’ve been plugging away for years.  In a way, I’m probably just going to go back to the drawing board and just start working on another album.  That’s probably the best I can do, and with any luck in two years I might have another one to flog and we can have another conversation.  And there would be two more people listening and go, oh yeah, I remember that name [laughs].  You know, do the slow build and look, I’m going to try and gig as much as I can in Victoria for sure.  But you can’t over-saturate yourself as well in touring in the same place as well.  It’s tricky.

In terms of writing another album, do you need to let the field lie fallow for a while for your songwriting, or are you just always writing songs?
No.  I’m actually not a prolific writer at all.  I’m very compartmentalised with the way I live, but that’s just through a need to be able to fit in life.  I will probably, at the end of this year – I’ve got my big album launch and I’m probably going to play a few more little gigs after that, and then next year I’m thinking, I’m going to just cosy in a little bit.  I’m going to try and play a gig a month just to keep it all happening still.  But I’ll actually then start trying to dedicate whatever I can, even if it’s just half a day a week, to piping away at getting some songs happening.  Hopefully it will be more than that though.

And you’re on Vitamin Records now, so I guess basically you’ve funded the production of the album, found Shane and all those sorts of things.  Does Vitamin act as your distributor?
Yes.  They’re distributing it for me, which is fantastic.  That was my kind of base minimum goal.  And I guess life’s dream, and I’ve achieved that.  You know, gotten them on board to distribute it for me.  If it’s not at the shop where you go and buy your CDs from, you can order it now, so they can get it to that shop, which is great.  But it’s just a real tick of approval for me to kind of get them on board.  That avenue being set up, I feel like doing another album.  Although it will be a huge undertaking, it’s not going to be as huge as pulling off the first one.

Well, yes, it’s a big amount of organisation and energy to even think about starting that and I think once you’ve done it the first time and you know what’s required of you, it’s easier to roll on again. 
Yeah, I think so.  And maybe – you know I just had the first thoughts of wow, if you do a little photo shoot for your promo shots, I can’t just wear those black jeans again [laughs].  I’ll have to probably get a different look and that’s interesting.  Because I’ve never really gotten to this point having done it number one and thinking, Oh god, now the next challenge is to make it interesting in a different way.  So it’s a whole other ball game, which is great.  I’m just entering that now.  Imagine after album four, what people have to do, to come up with points of interest.

 [Laughs] Well, it sounds like you’ve had a rich and varied life thus far, growing up in Africa and living now in regional Victoria, which must be quite different from an environmental point of view if nothing else.  So it seems like there’s a nice sense of the influences of music and your life coming through in the album; that there’s all these things that you’ve seen and experienced that have reached fruition here, but I imagine there’s still quite a lot left in the tank for future songs.
Look, I hope so.  And I’m really intrigued to see what’s left in the tank.  And in a way it’s great, because the first album, you know, a couple of those songs – namely ‘Better Love’, which I’ve pushed as a single for this release.  That’s been kind of kicking around for quite a few years and it’s of my first big break-up in my life, and I guess I’ve finally nailed that down and written a song that I feel really proud of, because it’s an optimistic break-up song.  I probably don’t need to do that on album two [laughs].  Nick Cave, I remember reading something in an interview of his and how he really treats it like a job.  He goes into his office nine to five and basically he said something about how you’re in your office and really it’s about your ability to use your imagination to take you places based on your experiences and whatever fodder you’re looking into.  But it’s really that skill, isn’t it?  And that’s what I’m looking forward to exploring more.  You know the internal workings that is me and trying to get deeper into that, I suppose.  And with whatever I’m dealing with at the time and whatever I’m reading.  So that excites me a little bit.

Lizanne Richards is out now through Vitamin Records.

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