Here's to a magical, musical 2015!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, friends!

I know most of you are in 2015 now, dreaming up the wildest, most fantastical adventures you could have in the year to come, and writing your wishes on handcrafted paper to keep in a jar by the door. Or, perhaps you're just making a sandwich. Either way, I'd like to thank you for your support and encouragement in 2014!

I still have an hour left before the new year begins...because at this very moment, I'm writing to you from Austin, Texas, y'all...the live music capital of the world! I'm here visiting family, but I've been enjoying checking out the music scene and meeting local songwriters too. More on that soon.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with the latest piece of music that's inspired me. On these cold Austin winter days, I've been curled up on the couch with my two-year-old niece watching a delightful animated children's film called Room on the Broom. I wasn't planning on watching it, but the soundtrack by French composer René Aubry got me hooked!

Here's one of its prettiest musical themes:

The film (based on a book) is a lovely tale about magic and sharing, and it represents what I'd like 2015 to be for me - full of exciting new ideas and adventures, enriching friendships and beautiful music.

I hope it is for you too. Dream big! xox

P.S. Did anyone notice the Eleanor Rigby reference I made earlier?

A world music side project...and a gig!

There's an old phrase (I think it's from America's South) which goes, "You gotta dance with the one who brung ya". I thought about that phrase when deciding whether or not to tell you about a musical side project.

But I'm gonna.

See, I was going to keep this website focussed on my original music and written output. But I don't know where I'd be musically without having taken up the clarinet at the age of ten. Without having learnt from a Romanian clarinet teacher who introduced me to gypsy and Klezmer music. Without having simultaneously gone through a Celtic music phase, playing Irish tin whistle in a smoky Irish bar every week for a couple of years. Which then ironically led me back to clarinet and down a rabbit-hole of Balkan and Middle-Eastern music, playing with amazing people, discovering a new world of mind-boggling melodies and rhythms.

I don't know where I'd be without the musical skills I picked up and the intricate melodies that I welcomed into my head. (They take up a lot of space in there).

So,  I will mention that I've been dancing again with "the one who brung me", playing clarinet and tin whistles with Ensemble Diaspora, a 9-piece world music ensemble featuring some of Brisbane's finest folk musicians. The repertoire combines all the different types of world music that I love - Irish, English, Balkan, Middle Eastern, Russian and Jewish - and I'm having a blast. It's as though everything I've learnt over the years is finally merging, like dogs from the neighbourhood coming to play in one big dog park. Let's hope they get along.

We'll be playing this Wednesday night, 5 November 2014 at the spectacular St John's Cathedral (Ann St, Brisbane) as part of the G20 Cultural Celebrations! The  gig starts at 7.30pm, beginning with our support act Nicholas Ng playing Chinese erhu. We'll be on around 8pm. It's a FREE, all ages performance.

I cannot wait, because it's been a long time since I've performed in the beautiful St Johns Cathedral. How long? Since I was in high school. Was I wearing a cummerbund at the time? Most likely. 

See the G20 website for more details. 

Just some of the members of Ensemble Diaspora! 

Just some of the members of Ensemble Diaspora! 

The 100 Songs Project 2014

In May this year, I was super-fortunate to be picked to record my song "Childish" as part of the QUT 100 Songs Project! Around 72 acts were chosen to record a grand total of 100 songs, in about a week - a marathon recording session! The fancy-pants Gasworks Studio was transformed into Brisbane's own song factory, as day and night, musicians were recording tunes in the three recording rooms.

Luckily I'm a late-night person, because I was given a 10pm-2am slot to record and mix a song, but it seemed perfect to record a song about the stars and the moon while the stars and moon were out! (However, producer Craig McCollough did have to tell me "Wakey wakey" after about 12.30am. Engineer Jake Tomlins seemed to draw energy from the night.)

As much as I would have loved, I didn't get to record in the room with the luscious grand piano, so this version is recorded with a keyboard, but overall it's not too shabby. Let me know what you think!

Thanks to QUT for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this exciting project!

You can buy the song for just 50 cents. The cost of a rapper!

Producer Craig McCollough, me, and engineer Jake Tomlins, trying to stay awake after our midnight recording session!

Producer Craig McCollough, me, and engineer Jake Tomlins, trying to stay awake after our midnight recording session!

The Curse of the Gothic Symphony - on ABC1 TV TONIGHT!

Here's a story that for me, started eight years ago.

Sometime in 2004, I was doing work experience at 4MBS Classic FM - a community classical music radio station in Brisbane. If the words "community classical music radio station" trigger in your mind images of jolly retirees discussing opera and the last cruise ship they went on, with a backdrop of homemade bottled jam and a soundtrack of Mozart, well, you've nailed it.

But the more time I spent at 4MBS, the more I realised this wasn't just a place for baby boomers and older to come and play their favourite tunes. Rather, the station was very active in producing concerts and festivals, engaging and encouraging local classical musicians - both young and old. 

And as it turned out, the station's General Manager Gary Thorpe had a MUCH bigger vision.

I was sitting at my desk one day when, completely out of the blue, Gary came to me and asked, "Have I told you about the Gothic?".  

I said no. And he plopped a giant score (A3 size and half the thickness of a phone book) and a photocopy of an old photo on my desk. The score, he said, was of a symphony by a relatively unknown eccentric British composer named Havergal Brian. Symphony No. 1, The Gothic was considered to be the largest, longest and most complicated symphony ever written. It was such a ridiculously huge thing that hardly anyone had performed it. 

Gary had managed to catch a rare performance of the work in England in 1980 and ever since then, had dreamt of getting it performed in Brisbane. He'd had about four failed attempts already.

The photocopied photo he showed me gave a clue as to why. It was of one of the few performances ever staged - showing hundreds and hundreds of musicians and singers crammed into a concert hall. This mammoth symphony actually requires over 1000 musicians. That includes over 600 singers, four brass bands, one massive orchestra and one self-disrespecting conductor. 

Where in Brisbane, do you find a stage that can fit that many musicians, let alone find that many musicians who are skilled enough to handle such a musically complex work? Oh yeah, and the music itself divides people. For every person in the world who thinks the Gothic is an undiscovered masterpiece, there's another spitting and saying "Ugh, it's horrible!".

So yeah, Gary had a bit of a challenge on his hands. But also a potentially fascinating story. So I called my friend, documentary producer Veronica Fury (from WildFury), and she was crazy enough to take it on.

Eight years later, the feature-length documentary The Curse of the Gothic Symphony screens on ABC1 TV, December 30 2012 at 10.20pm.

I sang in the chorus so I can testify how NUTS the piece is!

But it was a pretty special experience. I've written more about it here

And now I shan't tell you any more because you've got to watch the documentary! 



 

Songs I Wish I’d Written: Adele’s “Skyfall”

Song: Skyfall
Performer: Adele
Writers: Adele, Paul Epworth
Producer: Paul Epworth
Released: 5 October 2012 

 The name’s ADELE. James...no wait, just Adele. 

*insert cockney laugh here*

British singer/songwriter Adele has co-written and performed a James Bond themesong for the new film Skyfall. Coincidentally, the song’s called Skyfall.

She’s written it with Paul Epworth with whom she wrote Rolling in the Deep. (Another song I wish I’d written). Big tick to the James Bond Music Director for choosing these two.

Look, I don’t have the faintest idea what the film Skyfall is about, and just like most of the other James Bond films, I’m unlikely to go and see it. Action films aren’t my thing. But we all know the James Bond theme music is a killer. (Sorry). But it is! Those flaring muted trumpets! And that sly guitar! They don’t make it like that anymore. 

So I was excited when I heard echoes of the original theme music creep into the new song, starting with the iconic murky brass chords, using the trademark step-wise bassline in the verses, kept in place by simple drumkit rhythms (which always remind me of high school stage bands).

On first listen I was blasé about it. It doesn’t rival Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger. But it walks all over Madonna’s Die Another Day. And now, I can’t get this darn thing out of my head! It’s catchy, but not annoyingly so. The lyrics are vague, like a lot of Adele’s songs, but the writing’s clean, so it just lets the melody do its thing. And what a strong melody! Seriously, as a result of me singing this constantly around the house, (along with having the flu), I’ve lost my voice. I’m dying for it to return completely so I can sing this song again!

Speaking of voices, let’s speak of Adele’s. How does she do it? How does she sound so effortlessly powerful? Most other belters around seem to overdo it. But Adele sounds incredibly strong without being forced. And unlike a lot of belters, it seems to come directly from the very depths of her soul. A cliche, but so true. 

Adele is also the master of vocal textures and colours, in my opinion. One minute she sounds soft and tender; the next, she’s as assertive as all hell. I love the textural differences between her lower and upper registers. She does lovely little slides without being indulgent. She uses just the right amount of vibrato. And those little jazz ornaments floor me. Listen to the little vocal turn she’s put in on the end of the word “overdue” at 1.11. Gorgeous. 

Favourite line: “You may have my number. You can have my name. But you cannot take my heart.”

Adele, can I take your voice?

Skyfall 




James Bond theme music





 

 

The Ten Recording Studio Commandments

Earlier this year I spent time making a little pop music (to be revealed next month!) in a few different recording studios around Brisbane. It was something I'd always wanted to do, and as expected, I found the process to be thrilling.

But I also found it to be emotionally draining.

As TED speaker Brene Brown says, "Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change". And boy, did I feel vulnerable in those studios! Anxious thoughts would rush through my head like, "Maybe I'm not making the right choices. Maybe people will laugh at me. Maybe I'm wasting everyone's time. Maybe I shouldn't have had those triple-choc-chip-fudge cookies instead of an apple".

Often, I'd leave the studio feeling gloomy.

After one particularly disenchanting session, I finally put my foot down. Or at least, I put my pen down...on paper. I'd had enough of feeling so sensitive in the studio. It was counter-productive. So...I WROTE A LIST! 

I thought hard about how to make the studio experience a positive one, and came up with about seven points. At my next studio session, engineer/producer Andrei Maberley contributed his excellent ideas (drawn from many years of experience), and we ended up with a guide that would make Moses proud. It works wonders! (Especially Commandments One and Ten). Drumroll, please...


THE TEN RECORDING STUDIO COMMANDMENTS

1. Thou shalt not go hungry or thirsty.
Fed, watered musicians = happy musicians. Stick to healthy snacks + good quality chocolate! Carrot and celery sticks = rock 'n' roll.

2. Thou shalt come mentally prepared.
Don't let small worries and disorganisation get in the way of big ideas!

3.  Thou shalt not use the word 'no'.
Instead, maintain morale and ask 'how' it can be better. Some may disagree with this point.

4. Thou shalt remain positive.
Disillusionment will only hold you back! 

5. Thou shalt write fearlessly.
Borrowed from Pat Pattison. Fortune favours the brave!

6. Thou shalt have FUN.
Isn't that what you're here for?

7. Thou shalt take breaks.
Give your mind some space!

8. Thou shalt protect thy ears
Keep volume to a safe level. 

9. Thou shalt be decisive.
Because, as Steve Jobs would say, "Real artists ship".

10. Thou shalt bounce and take away!
At the end of the studio day - even if you think what you've done so far is lame - a recording in the hand will give you a proud sense of achievement. This is a powerful one!

I'd love to hear your thoughts on these commandments. Let me know if you agree or disagree with any of the points - or if you'd like to add your own. Feel free to share!

Dabke: The Funkiest Beat from Baalbek?

Three years ago, I found my niche amongst a group of musicians who played music from the Balkans and the Middle East. Every Thursday night, I took my clarinet along to Brisbane’s iconic Three Monkeys Cafe and learnt songs and tunes from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Armenia, and goodness knows what other countries. All accompanied by bowls of chai. Mmmm. Heaven.

(I’ll write more about this group in future posts because so much of my musical knowledge has come from this group of musicians).

As well as fantastic music, my friends introduced me to what I consider to be one of the funkiest types of dance/rhythm - the “dabke”. An Arabic word, dabke literally means “stamping of the feet”. It’s performed in countries like Lebanon, at weddings and other celebrations. The dancers stand in lines, usually holding hands with the people on either side, and do various leaning-forward-and-stomping movements. As far as I’m concerned, it looks like a group of people stamping rhythmically on a row of snails. But what a rhythm!

I’ve done a bit of hip-hop and funk dancing in my time, but nothing felt earthier than dancing the dabke. (I say "earthier", because it's a good method of soil compacting. Just invite a dabke dance troupe around and voila! Your front lawn will be ready for pavers). The heavy emphasis on beat one of the bar, the staccato rhythms in between...seriously, the kids of the Western World don’t know what they’re missing! Drinking in nightclubs would be vastly reduced if the kids danced the dabke rather than the step-to-the-right-step-to-the-left pendulum dance. 

To prove my point, check out this video I recently discovered of a troupe from the Lebanese town of Baalbeck. At least, I think it is. I can’t read Arabic. Feel free to prove me wrong.

I like it so much that I’m thinking of using the rhythm in a pop song of mine. So, watch it, and if you don’t feel the need to jump out of your chair and either join the stamping men in the front, or the hip-shaking ladies in the back, then I’ll return your money. They got rhythm...who could ask for anything more?

The dance starts at about 0.50.

New Songs I Wish I’d Written - Regina Spektor “All The Rowboats”

It’s true. I’m one of those girls. One of those “Regina” fans. In recent years, I’ve discovered that I prefer my pop with paint splattered on it. I prefer the sort of pop song that didn’t hang out with the cool girls in school, but spent the entire lunch hour by the art block. The sort that was on first-name basis with all the library ladies. The sort that shopped in op-shops before “vintage” clothing became hip. The sort of music that Russian-born, New York singer/songwriter Regina Spektor carves out of marble.

I first fell under Regina’s spell when an artsy housemate of mine played me “Apres Moi”. The dark, Russian piano chords and the multi-lingual lyrics ignited a fire inside. Her storyteller voice gave me chills. It reminded me of childhood, of dreaming about exotic lands, of the little red Baboushka doll my Russian neighbours gave me.

She’s brilliant at writing melody. Her lyrics take your head and spin it around on a carousel.  Her voice is deliciously thick and luscious and loaded with soul like a thousand-year old tree. The arrangements of her songs forever fascinate.

To my excitement, Regina’s just released the first single from her upcoming album, called “All The Rowboats”. The verdict? On first listen, I felt like she’d plucked me out of my office chair at lightning speed and dropped me into a European art gallery. On second listen, I felt like she’d plucked me out of my office chair at lightning speed and dropped me into a European art gallery. On seventh listen, I felt...well, you get the idea. I love it!

It’s got the trademark Regina piano quavers, the Russian-esque melodies, but it’s the percussion that grabs your breath. From an unexpected beat-box/drumbeat that wakes up the start of the song - to layers of funky drums and beats and bells - it’s familiar and yet musically shocking. 

At first, I couldn’t quite grasp where the melody was going or which bit was the “chorus”. But of course, the brilliance of Regina is that she manages to write incredibly catchy, intelligent songs that don’t follow standard songwriting structures. (And yet, they kinda do). How on earth does she do that?

“All the Rowboats” tells the story of those poor oil paintings in museums; the rowboats and the captains that can’t escape because “It’s their own fault for being timeless / There’s a price to pay and a consequence”. Not to mention the violins who are in “glass coffins / They keep coughing / They’ve forgotten how to sing / La la la la la”. 

Do your imagination a favour. Give Regina a spin!