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Interview : Lisa Mitchell

Singer-songwriter, Australian Music Prize winner and former Australian Idol star Lisa Mitchell is making her way north this month for her first ever show in Cairns, to showcase news songs and new band ahead of an upcoming album release.

It’s been a while between drinks; her last record ‘Warriors’ was released in 2016 to broad acclaim and was followed by an extensive European tour. Now fifteen years after her appearance on Australia Idol (watch her audition video here to feel old), Mitchell has forged a career that, it seems, has managed to depart from those stage-managed roots. Indeed, it’s fair to say she belongs to a small group of ex-Idol stars who have successfully navigated a path from that music machine to be recognised as an artist in their own right and separate to Idol (see also Matt Corby and maybe Jessica Mauboy).

Ahead of her show on the 31st, NQMP sat down with Mitchell for a chat about her experience recording with a band, the importance of laziness, learning Gaelic, and how COVID ruins plans.

You were recording an album late last year which was affected by COVID, is that right?

Yeah. Because of the big lockdown in Melbourne/Naarm throughout last year we weren’t able to record as we planned. We live-tracked everything in December last year and then we’ve just been mixing and getting everything together.

And when can we expect to hear it?

The first single will be out in September, and the record will be out early next year. We’ll kinda drip out a few singles between then.

It’s your first since 2016. How have things changed for you and what can people expect from the new album?

Well this record has really been about me bringing my songs to the band. The core band is a trio. We’ve been working together for probably two nearly three years now. There’s Jess Warren on bass; she’s an old friend of mine for like ten years, and Kishore Ryan is on drums. And so the three of us really arranged everything together, so the sound of the record is very much the three of us. It’s very particular to each of our playing and how we play together. I was really vigilant at making sure that that was the basis of the recordings, and we didn’t really add a lot more. There’s an honesty and a sparseness to the arrangements.

Has that been very different to how you had previously recorded?

Yeah, I’ve never worked that way before. It’s always been me and a producer and we’ve sort of micromanaged and played everything just on the day. So it was just really great having the whole story of the last few years of playing with them, in the record.

The album also was basically all live-tracked which, again, I’ve never worked that way and it’s probably some of the hardest work we’ve ever done. Ha it’s so hard! But I love how Jesse plays, I love how Kishore plays. And I love that the arrangements were this very long process. We were meeting every week and sort of naturally tweak different rhythms or a bass melody, so it was this really beautiful long organic process.

It’s more collaborative. For a songwriter it can be really challenging and terrifying to let other people bring their own creativity to your song. But that is something that I consciously chose because I feel like the sum of parts equal more, like two and two isn’t four – it’s six or something. Something magical happens in that alchemy of collaboration.

Is there something perhaps liberating too, in that dilution of responsibility?

Absolutely, for sure. I just get to focus on my parts. And it’s also about choosing players that you love. Generally I was just wanting them to bring their own voices.

I read an interview from a while back where you’re asked about your daily routine. I always love reading these because people usually describe a bullshit perfect day that just sounds too high-functioning to be true. Yours was really nice and honest though, and you said something along the lines of ‘leaning towards laziness’. Is that still important to you, to leave room in the day for downtime and not fall into the trap of being busy for the sake of it?

Hmm. Absolutely. I don’t remember writing that but that’s cool. I agree with my former self. I think that laziness and boredom are important, especially if you’re a bit of a thinker. I think downtime when you don’t have anything on is really important.

But it’s also really hard isn’t it? I think we’re so programmed – I mean, genetically, we’ve had times in our lineages where we’ve just been in survival mode – for some people it’s this lifetime or for others it’s their parents or their parent’s parents. You can feel that still. I think it takes physical exercises like breathwork or mediation or things that are communicating to the body to say ‘alright we’re not in survival mode right now’. We can relax, we can go into that parasympathetic nervous system where we’re relaxed and then we’re more creative and we can rest and feel more nourished. I definitely try. I do Qi Gong and that’s just a beautiful way slow down.

That actually doesn’t sound very lazy at all. I think your laziness is different to my laziness.

Ha, I guess whatever works?

When I google you, you come up as an “English singer-songwriter”. Is that right or do we need to send a letter to Google? I understand you were born there but I thought Australia had dibs to be honest.

I think Google needs a lot of letters sent to them generally! I guess technically I’m both. I spent a lot of time from 18 onwards in the UK, I made my first record there’s a lot of ties there. But yeah, ha, I definitely identify as from here, as Australian. I feel more Australian, whatever that means. I grew up here.

At the time of this interview it’s NAIDOC week. Having a look through your socials, I can see that you’re an outspoken ally for First Nations people. What has been your own journey and how important is it to you make your position clear, and is it something that permeates your work, perhaps on the latest album?

My ancestry is Scottish and so-called Australian for a few generations on my mum’s side, and then German, but as a writer I’m interested in the narratives of wherever I am. I’m interested in the oldest stories of this place. As a non-indigenous person it’s been a journey of course, to peel back all the layers of conditioning and the racism that’s internalised in all of us. So yeah, it’s a process – an important, critical process. I’ve been finding that in my generation – I’m 31 – that a lot of people are ready to start questioning their internal biases. I take a lot of inspiration from the younger generations, who are so outspoken as you say about injustices. Whether they be indigenous rights or climate justice, all these things that are so obvious but that the older generations are, in a lot of cases, not ready to change in themselves.

And of-course it has influenced my music, I’ve got a song on the record called ‘Supporting the Unravelling’ which is about that- waking up on deeper levels as a non-indigenous person, as a white person, and living on stolen country. I also think that it’s a bit complicated being a non-indigenous artist with a platform, and sort of taking up space. I’m so aware now of the space that I occupy and that I want to make sure I’m representing people that maybe don’t have much space or a platform.

But yeah, I’m on that lifelong path of unlearning and I know there’s no such thing as a finish line in terms of being an ally or being anti-racist.

Music aside, how else did you pass time during Lockdown?

Ha, I’m learning some Scottish Gaelic. My great grandpa spoke on a little island near where my dad grew up, so me and my dad have been learning that.

Can you drop a bit of Gaelic now? Like, ‘I’m looking forward to the show’, would that translate at all?

Oh I don’t know how to say that I’m pretty early days! Umm. ‘tha mi a ’faireachdainn toilichte’ (sounds like ‘harme koeche’) which means ‘I feel happy’. Or… ‘ciamar a tha thu’ (sounds like ‘kimre har’) is like ‘How are you?’. That’s a good one to know.

What else are you listening to at the moment?

I got pretty into that Adrianne Lenker solo record. Did you listen?

Yeah, she’s amazing.

Totally. I found it late. I was a bit late the party, but I was pretty obsessed with that.

Hmm what else… actually my Irish friend sent me this playlist of Scottish Gaelic music, and there’s this beautiful Scottish pipes player… I’m just going to find her name because it’s really hard to pronounce. Okay I’ve found it. It’s – actually do you want me to spell it for you?

Go on then.

B-R-I-G-H-D-E and then surname C-H-A-I-M-B-E-U-L.

Oh whoa yeah I’m glad you did that.

Ha yeah it’s tricky. It’s amazing though. It’s kind of like- I don’t know if you know the Irish pipes? Like do you know Riverdance, there’s that really low, long ‘whoooooooo’ like whale noise?

Um yeah I think so (I had no idea)

So the Scottish pipes are similar. They’re like a little under your arm one, they’re not like the hectic bagpipes, they’re a much more mellow and melodic sounds. But yeah, this girl is an amazing piper.

I’ll check her out! What can people expect from the show on the 31st July?

Well for this Cairns show we’ve really splashed out! My partner is going to play guitars and we’ve got another amazing songwriter Sophie Koh and she’s going to play keys. So yeah, a five piece which is going to be so much fun. It’ll be a walkthrough from the last three albums and then some of the new tracks. I’m super excited.

Us too! Thanks for taking time Lisa.

Thanks to you too, appreciate it!

Lisa Mitchell and band play Tanks Arts Centre 7:30pm July 31st. Tickets available here.

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