Monday, February 2, 2015

Interview: Leanne Tennant

Recently I had the chance to interview - live, in person, which is a rarity! - Cairns artist Leanne Tennant, who has released the impressive debut album Pull Up Your Britches. Leanne talked at length about the strength of the music scene in Cairns, as well as what led her to take a break from music for eight years. 


I'll start off by asking you about Cairns, as I noticed you have Simon McMenamin playing on your album, and the liner notes mention Roz Pappalardo from women in docs, who lives in Cairns. So what's the Cairns music scene like?
It has its good points and its bad points, I guess, but for me it's been great. Because it's a community everyone's really supportive of each other. People don't compete with one another, and if you need someone for a gig – if you need a drummer or a bass player because someone can't make it – other groups say, 'Hey, use mine'. It's got a really nice vibe to it. They're the positives. But I guess the negatives are that there isn't a huge scene. But the scene that is there is really passionate. 

And the venues are supportive?
Some are, some aren't as much. Some are really supportive and they're your smaller ones – they're really passionate about getting a music scene up and running. And there are some larger ones – the Jack and the Tanks Art Centre, which Roz has a lot to do with, is a massive one. There isn't as much support as there should be, but it's getting there. There are venues that are really dedicated to making themselves live music venues.

Because your music has elements of country, as well as rock, folk and blues, is there a burgeoning country scene?
There is. It's funny you say that – there's a bit of a country scene in Cairns. I think because it's rural as well. That's what I love about Cairns – that's why I moved up there from Brisbane – I love the camping. Everyone wants to go camping and go fishing and go to the creeks. So with that comes a lot of folk music and a lot of country music. Because I wasn't a huge country fan when I moved up to Cairns – I wasn't even particularly writing music that was classified as country – but I guess then the alt country developed from being up there and doing a lot of gigs with other musicians are who are very country or bluegrassy. It's a bit of a scene.

Your voice sounds like it could have gone to jazz.
Oh, very much so.

But certainly there's blues and country in it too. And it's quite unusual to find a voice that can do a variety of things. Most voices seem to be born to do something in particular. Have you had jazz training?
No. I grew up with my mum listening to jazz. She loved jazz. And so I do as well – I really enjoy jazz. My mother-in-law hates it. My husband – I guess I had to pour it down him and now he really appreciates it. But I love it. And I guess from there I discovered a lot of the blues – and that's where my heart is. But I studied period music and played flute for five years, so that was classical, and I guess some of that comes out.         

Well, it does. I'm a believer in lineages in musicians, and it's not just in songwriting, it's in voices as well. There's a maturity in the voice and in the command of the song. So your album sounds very assured, even though it's a debut album – some debut artists can still be trying to work out where they fit. But that training probably gave you the foundation for an assured first album.
That's nice to hear. Because I like so many different styles of music – I grew up listening to folk. My dad loved folk, my mum loved jazz – so I grew up with that. Then I fell in love with blues and then discovered rockabilly, and off my own bat discovered what I label as 'horror country' – that sort of real alt country that's quite dark. Because I couldn't decide on the album I just wrote stuff that I felt connected to at the time, and there's definite shifts between genres. But I think that they all piece together kind of okay … But it's nice to hear you say that [laughs].


With the country music audience – even if you have just one song on the album that's country, the country audience is quite happy to have you, and I think for an artist who has a first album and it still relatively new in your career, that audience is a great one to have in your corner. And they don't mind if you're 18 or 80 years old, either.
That's good, because I'm 34 in a couple of weeks and there's a certain age – especially places where people are being discovered – that they want you to be really, really young.

I think you can be 60 and starting out in country music, and no one minds.
That's good! [laughs]

I also looked around Tamworth one year and realised that the artists were pretty much evenly split between men and women, and the audience don't even seem to notice whether an artist is male or female.
Yes – yes, definitely. I've never thought of it until you said that – you're dead right. Whereas in other genres it's quite weighted towards men. It's quite even keel [in country]. And a lot of respect for female musicians.

And age makes no difference, either. I remember one gig Harmony James played in Tamworth, maybe three years ago – it was her one gig for the festival, at Wests Diggers. Her rhythm section were in their fifties, her lead guitarist was about 23 and her rhythm guitarist was in his late thirties. The principle seems to be that if people want to play together, they just play together.
Well, that's what Cairns is like. My launch band, I had a bass player and a guitarist who I play with very regularly and they're sort of sixties, and a drummer my age, mid-thirties, and then a 21-year-old. But the majority of the time I play with older people.

That somewhat leads me to mentioning Bill Chambers … I was listening to your album and heard someone who sounded familiar on track 7, I think it is.
That gravelly voice.

How did that association come about?
I went down to Tamworth in 2011, I think it was – it was a while ago. Cairns did a little fundraiser and they got enough money to be able to fund a few of us – transport down there, petrol money, basically. And it was the first time I'd been on tour, and I went down there. And I was freaked out because I was predominantly very jazz sounding at that time, and I thought, I'm just going to get fruit thrown at me. They're going to kick me out. It's going to be horrible. But I played in one venue the entire time – I think it was called the Green Room, I don't know if it's even open now – but I learnt so much. And at that time Bill came and he was playing with another band, and I introduced myself to him and we just started chatting and stuff, and we just became friends. And he drove me back to the airport so I could fly home and on the drive we were talking about music we liked and I said that I really loved jazz and the blues and all this stuff, and he said, 'Well, you know, country's really great', and I said, 'I don't really like country' … He said, 'Right, listen to this.' That was the whole way to the airport. And that changed my writing style a lot. I was really na├»ve to think that I didn't like one type of music or totally understood one type of music. He introduced me to a lot of really dark alt country, which I just fell in love with – I really, really adored it and that brought down the walls for me a little bit and I started listening to other stuff off my own bat and discovering new things. And on the drive home I was showing him a lot of things I loved that he hadn't heard of before, and I guess opening his mind up a little bit to some other things that he wouldn't normally like. So it was an unlikely thing that we started playing together, because we're very different but it works and we get along really well, and I learn a lot from him and he's really supportive. He's very down to earth. No ego at all. And just says what needs to be said when it needs to be said.

I hesitate to say he's a mentor, because it sounds like you were already fairly well educated in music, but maybe he was a river guide.
Yeah. Him and Roz Pappalardo. Roz has been a big mentor to me, she's been great. But I guess someone of [Bill's] level and his experience to be so like your mate at a barbecue – it is good and refreshing and you feel comfortable enough to learn from someone when they're like that. It's good to cross paths with people like that, and Roz as well, because she's been doing it for so long with women in docs.

I've interviewed Chanel Lucas [from women in docs] and she's talked about how they essentially crowd funded their albums in the days before that was possible online. How did you find the experience?
It was really positive. I was really nervous about doing it because I thought if I don't succeed, the ego will obviously be bruised a little bit. But I couldn't afford to do the CD [otherwise] at that time. I still would have done it but it would have taken a lot longer, because I had half the money saved. So it was a bit of a risk, a bit of a jump, but I had a chat with Fleur McMenamin – [the McMenamins] also crowd funded their [album] – just researched other people who had done it and thought, well, look, it was the right time, and either I did it then or I didn't do it at all. Sometimes it feels right, and it felt right. And I had a lot of support and went over my target. I was so stoked. It was nerve wracking, though, I was biting all my nails off – 'Am I going to make it?' But it's the best thing I did, I think.

Increasingly country music artists are doing it, and I've noticed mostly women doing it – at least, that I've spoken to – and with great results.
It's a great concept. And it's a nice idea to know that you've already presold so may albums, because you know 'I'm not crazy in what I'm doing and what I'm trying to achieve isn't just some sort of weird idea that I have', and that people do connect with your music. I think that was the biggest thing for me, at the end of it, that, wow, people actually like some of this stuff.

And also being able to choose your producer, choose where you record and actually own your music.
Yep, it's great – I love it. In today's world it's very achievable to be an indie musician – there are just so many resources out there to tell you what to do, that are supportive. You don't feel alone.

I interviewed a woman recently called Martine Cotton.
Oh, I know Martine.

She's just launched this new website – have you seen it?
Music Industry Inside Out – yes. She's lovely. She's great.

So for you now – part of making a go of it is touring, and I know you have a small child. That's one of the challenges of running a household and being a parent, is how you manage that creative work, especially when it involves touring.
It's hard. I'm lucky that I have a supportive partner who's willing to – not just with touring but when I have gigs, things like this when I have to fly down to Sydney, he takes some time off work or he stays at home and looks after Willow. I'm lucky in that sense. I have a few friends who are doing it on their own and hats off to them – it's really tough. But I took my little girl on the road for a tour when she was three months old, so she got very used to being in a car and I wanted it that way. I didn't want to change my life too much because I knew that I would be unhappy and she would be unhappy, so she's adapted. But now she's getting old – she's nearly two – she's starting to get a bit more 'I'll put my foot down'. So it will get harder and harder. But, you know, you just make things work, and you just have to work at it a bit harder.

But as you said, it makes you happy to do it – and if you're not content then you can't be a content parent.
That's right, and I have had doubts. I put off having children for a long time because I thought, That's it – I can either have that or that, I can't have both. And I decided to do it and you can have both, but everything's twice as complicated [laughs].

You just had to be really organised with your time.
Really organised, but you just get sick all the time. I've been sick for about four months – it's this constant daycare disease, which makes doing things harder. But it's doable. We're born to do all this sort of stuff, aren't we?

Given that we're talking about touring – when did you start performing live?
At about16 or 17. I went to high school in Brisbane. Loved music – started busking. I used to wag school and go busking in subways. Hated school. And then when I was 18 I fell in with a group of musos who were a fair bit older than me but they were actively gigging around Brisbane, so they started getting me as a support act. So I did that for about two years but then I quit for eight years because of stage fright. Then I went up to Cairns. I just started getting really bad anxiety about the whole thing, and it didn't go away. It wasn't healthy nerves – it just got worse and worse and worse, and I thought, Why am I doing this? If it's not making me feel good, why am I doing it? So I stopped, and then I went over to London because I was born in England and my family's over there. And I went over and lived there for a year, and I was just totally immersed in all this stuff happening, like art and music and theatre, and I got that little fire back. And all I could think about was picking up the guitar again, you know, I was just obsessing over it. So I made the decision that when I went back to Australia I was going to get over this bullshit and make it happen – face my fears. And I did. I used to have to have a lot to drink before I got up on stage – that was a big thing, I had to do it alcohol free and just feel it, go through it. It was horrible, but it got easier.

The fear was horrible?
The fear was horrible – not the not having the alcohol. So I managed to get through that, and now I don't have it any more. I have natural, normal fears but they're not like I want to be sick and run away and cry.

That's a pretty profound thing. Eight years away from it.
It's a long time, yeah.

Did you sing to yourself in that time?
Not really. I just got allergic to music. I enjoyed listening to it but I also got to the stage where I was listening to music and picking it apart. Instead of just being able to listen to it and enjoy it, I was picking it apart and I wasn't even in a position to do that. I wasn't a good songwriter or anything, and it was just silly. I'd just started hating music. I don't think it's a good thing, you know.

Not when it's something that's brought you so much joy.  
Yes. But that break, I look at it and wish it wasn't so long, but it was so necessary because I wouldn't be back doing it now with so much feeling and determination if I hadn't done that and gone through those motions. I had to wait till I was ready.

So it was part of your maturation as an artist. But eight years is a long time.
It is a long time. And we were talking about age before and I was thinking, I should have just taken a three-year break to sort my shit out.

But it had to be whatever amount of time it was. If you're going to be Taylor Swift, a young age helps, but –
But if you're going to be Tom Waits, it doesn't matter.

If you're in a storytelling genre, people like you to have stories to tell, and they often come after you've lived a bit of life. For your songwriting process, when you came to do the album, did you have more songs than you needed?
I did – that was what I wanted to do with this album. I had an EP before that and I was scrambling to get songs for it and [for the album] I wanted to have more songs so I could choose my favourite ones. So I did have a couple that didn't make it onto the album that will hopefully get onto the next one. I just had a big writing spurt, because I was pregnant at the time – I had the time and energy to focus. I knew that the 'only thing I have to do now is nothing' and I had to allow myself that, whereas – you know you feel guilty, I should be doing this and I should be doing that? And when I was pregnant it was like, 'No, you shouldn't be doing anything right now'. So that allowed me the space to write.

So you took on the birth of a baby and the birth of an album at the same time.
Yeah – 100 per cent {laughs].

So for your next album …
I'm not having another baby! Don't even put it out there!

Pull Up Your Britches is available now.

No comments: