Can we go through each of the tracks from your new album, Swimmers and you can tell us about them? We said we were nosy!
Ha! I’m happy to spill, but these are only my own meanings for these songs, they are meant to be very open to interpretation…
Alex is a song about Alex Chilton the singer/songwriter, and about how you sometimes hear something in an artist’s body of work that speaks to your experience in a really profound way. That was the case for me when I first heard Big Star’s Sister Lovers, at 27
Swimmers is a song about listening to David Bowie on the radio as a teenager and wondering how long it will be before he walks through the door and/or climbs through the window to have a lie down and a kiss
3. Little Snake
Little Snake is a love song about a stressed out courtship where the stakes are high but proceedings keep being interrupted by experimental noise acts
4. Unbeatable Odds (Mai’s favourite song)
This song is about sex between an older woman and younger man
5. Letter To The Ear
This song is about being at the gig of a very famous Australian male singer-songwriter and wondering what they could have to offer me as an audience member
This is a narrative recounting a long ago failed first love
By Mai Gryffydd
As promised in our interview with Caroline Kennedy published last week (read here), here is the second and final part of her interview with Identical Records.
We have been listening to her new Caroline No album, Swimmers repeatedly as we eagerly await the launch this Sunday 11 March 2018 at the Northcote Social Club. Buy your tickets here so you don’t miss out and if you can’t make the launch, you can pre-order the vinyl here.
How many cups of tea do you have each day?
8. The first one is strong, and the rest are weak!
How do you feel about the music community? What does it mean to you?
The ‘music community’ is a psychological space. Ideally it is where you can talk to other people about music, discover new records, discover new people who make music, and play music yourself – it is this real lived experience of a collaborative space. But music scenes are also a place where you have to be able to imagine possibility. You rely on feelings of good will from others and you provide that to others, if community is functioning well. It is an idea that people would care that you will make a record or play a show. You need to know that, to feel a part of music scenes. This idea of good will is connected to the idea that all art making is an offering of sorts, and the music scene or art scene is a place where you initially offer your art to the world. In divisive or excluding communities that is not possible. So I’m very aware of politics in community around who is in and who is out and things like that, I always have been. I watch who the gatekeepers are and I try to understand their motivations. I feel I am in a privileged position to be able to do this, where many artists are not. Many vulnerable, talented artists cannot speak, think or critique in those ways and they become lost. I have spent many years thinking about insiders and outsiders in relation to the production of art and music. The coming community as some philosophers see it is a place where the communal space must necessarily be open to everything, if it is to be ethical, every point of view and every perception. I’ve wondered often how that could be ethically possible and what steps we would take in our communities to make that real. It is a utopian ideal, yet it is the only ethical way to think around these issues in my opinion.
For me, in a practical sense, it was sexism and ageism that could have made me an outsider, so I was putting together in my mind something around what it would be like to be a 45-year-old woman making a pop record, a song-based record. I had people telling me ‘this is what this space could be like’ and being supported by people like Mick who said “You make whatever you want…we can just press record tomorrow and that will be the record”
I had never been told that before. I came from a commercial background that was not really a community, where I had been quite constrained, where everything I had done had been quite controlled in a way. I didn’t have control in the way the music was recorded or produced, or even control in what I wore, so it was a feeling of freedom. I’ll never forget those feelings of liberation in relation to making music, early on when I first began and then recently making the last two Caroline No records, when I had utmost freedom because I no longer cared and was not really answerable to anybody in an industry way. That was incredible to feel that again.
That is exactly what the music community should be, building each other up
Yes, and I say that to students who are from the country or who are not from wealthy backgrounds, because the music scene is notoriously full of rich kids. Those wealthy people have been enabled to think that their opinions are really important. It is absolutely a class issue. I work with a lot of people who do not feel they have a voice. I certainly have been very lucky in that way myself and I think it is important to give back to my community. By enabling people who do not feel they have a voice, by helping them find a voice.
That is something that many people cannot do and also might not want to do. Many musicians would find listening to beginner songwriters rather unpleasant! It would ruin their perfect ears!
Yeah that doesn’t bother me at all. It is incredible witnessing people discover what they can do artistically. This amazing space that is so energised, everything is so intense because people are working out what they are doing. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a vampire – It’s an energy that really drives a lot of my own creativity. I do enjoy it.
It’s important to question when you make music. People tend to make very boring music if they are not questioning. I say this in terms of political matters as well as music; not knowing is a humble space and often it is an undervalued space. Yet it’s a very important space and of course the only real place to be as an artist. I’m very much driven by ideas of openness, which comes from many years witnessing political action and change, from basically witnessing the patriarchy and from trying to see with an open mind and heart the vast array of experience that makes people who they are under these conditions.
It sounds like a critical practice.
Yes, I definitely have a critical practice. I have no illusions that I’m making the most interesting pop music on the planet, or anything like that, but I do think I have a critical practice in art and music and that helps me make something authentic. It’s the same as my critical political practice. I feel there are no boundaries in the life that I lead. The art I make and the views I have are all driven by these guiding principles. I’ve had to work this out mindfully, just as I had to work out how to be a person who rests and doesn’t burn out or have a nervous breakdown.
Self-care is important. Do you have any self-care tips?
My advice would be that trust is something that is not to bestowed upon people, it is something that evolves between. It’s not something that occurs as a kind of imprint. From caring for oneself, to caring for one’s family and loved ones, it’s about building sustainable modes of communication and creating a place of trust. It’s not about having thousands of friends, but rather a small group of friends where trust is built over time and where understanding has been gained in a nuanced way. These are the relationships that sustain you and hold you, that’s what is really meaningful. I care for myself by conducting relationships in that way with other people and by insisting that the relationships I have with people are conducted on that basis.
Wow, I hadn’t considered that as self-care before.
I can talk about baths as well. I also really like baths.
Haha. But it is about being able to trust people. It all feeds into your creative practice.
Sometimes you just need to slow down and feel where you are. I think it was right for me to retire and spend these precious sunny days with my two beautiful children. We were near the beach and we didn’t have any money, but it was right. I had to recover from the patriarchal music industry in that way and then re-enter my life as a songwriter in an empowered way, with loving people around me. It is a completely different practice from the one before, although it’s the same kind of music practice as well.
Advice for how others can persevere with creating music? It can be hard not to feel disheartened.
Try to create interesting music, more than being universally liked. It can become the centre for a really lovely life, full of thinking and questioning. It’s an incredible success to make something that you are proud of, whatever others’ terms are. As with any art form, you are likely to get better the longer you have been doing it. The idea that we throw women away, and particularly women, is deeply sexist, if not misogynist. Although men are subjected to it as well, they are more often allowed to be ‘ageing rockstars’. I’d like to see more 50 year old women, but it’s just me and a couple of others. It’s related to how we can see music in our culture, it’s this short-lived thing. It’s particularly bad in Australia; in other places older women are allowed to be a sexual being as they age, they are allowed to be beautiful, they are allowed to continue to be relevant. I remember being 25 and thinking my use-by date was up. I remember being 30 and thinking this again. It is only by being my age now, that I realise there is no use-by date. I will always make music and art.
Do you still get nervous before shows?
I used to hate it. I would vomit before every show. I was just so nervous. Then that stopped, but still the sound at bar shows was awful. I could never hear anything and it really wrecked me. I love performing and I cannot imagine not performing. There is this relationship between the audience and the performer when things are right, it doesn’t matter how big or small, it’s a circle of energy going back and forth.
Are you looking forward to the launch?
Yes I am. My band includes Ian as ever, Mick Turner and Dee Hannan for this iteration and David from Dag drumming. Dee Hannan is one of the incredible music-making Hannan sisters, who have been making music in Melbourne, Greece and everywhere else, for decades. Dee is still in the Xylouris Ensemble, the band begun many years ago with connections to the contemporary band Xylouris White. She is an amazing musician and I used to admire her back when we first met as eighteen year olds. She has an incredible voice and musical sensibility and I’m looking forward to singing harmonies with her, which is what we will be doing at the launch.
Tell us about the recording process?
I wasn’t sure what to do when it started, I wasn’t living in Melbourne when we started. We did most of the early tracking from a distance, but that didn’t work, so we then we decided to do it on Christmas Eve. The layering came afterwards; we did the rhythm sections, then guitar and vocals. We tried different ways of doing the vocals. He would send me things he had done, then I came in to do backing harmonies but mostly it was recorded in one day. It’s a very loose sounding record, I think. It has an element of improvisation through it. Leaving space to breathe, to dream – it’s so important to our music.
It’s true, there is no urgency to it.
The music has an element to it that it could keep going on forever. It has to be modest though, and simple.
It seems effortless, but it’s not.
Well I’m not a very sophisticated guitar player, but the sound of it, that has taken me years. It’s a personal matter to inhabit all that pain and feel at ease with it at the same time.
I don’t agree with you being a modest guitar player!
Well I have been surrounded by many talented male guitarists my entire life, many of whom have been quite heroically noticeable and that’s had its share of difficulties. Not recently, but I was told not to play guitar by people in bands. It took a long time to feel at ease playing.
Guitarists* can be the worst! We are glad you kept going because it sounds amazing and we cannot wait for the album launch.
Thank you Caroline for your time, wisdom and for creating such wonderful music! See you all at the launch!