By Mai Gryffydd
I remember the first time I met Caroline. It was at a New Years Eve party in 2015, a small intimate celebration hosted by Gabriella Mangano and Paul Williams. Both are exceptional artists, along with Paul being an incredible drummer most known for his band Panel of Judges. Caroline, Lei and I instantly connected and discussed music and feminism at length. We also met Caroline’s children who share our strong love of all things Harry Potter. Since this beautiful first encounter, we have had many more engaging conversations and been fortunate to play shows with Caroline.
After spending another lovely New Years Eve with Caroline and hearing about her new album, the idea for this interview was born. This is the first of two interviews with Caroline Kennedy that Identical Records will be publishing, the first of which will concentrate on her lengthy career in music and previous projects (The Plums, Deadstar and The Tulips) The second interview will primarily focus on her current endeavours and new Caroline No album, Swimmers (out on 1 March 2018).
Last Sunday, I spent hours drinking tea and sitting on Caroline’s leafy porch, a picturesque setting for our interview. Unfortunately, Lei was unable to attend (they are in the final stages of their doctorate), but secretly I relished the opportunity to monopolise Caroline’s time and attention.
Caroline Kennedy is an iconic Australian musician. Over the past thirty years, she has been a prolific songwriter and contributor to the music community. Her music is a soundtrack to many of our childhoods and younger years. She is an inspirational artist and we feel honoured to feature Caroline on our publication.
Tell us a bit about your musical background?
When I was really little, my mother was making a historical record of all early Americana folk music focussing on political folk songs. She was trying to find them, recording them, it was a big historical project…She used to listen to a lot of Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger and people like that…So I heard a lot of music just from her interest in it; but we weren’t really the type of people that sat around playing music or anything like that. I didn’t think it was really possible to be an artist or musician. Then I had the added difficulty of being unable to read music – because I had an undiagnosed numerary disorder – which was interpreted as a lack of interest. In a sense, those kind of early experiences with music were a rejection of the formality of music and an introduction to punk music in a way. These experiences set me up with certain conceptual and strategic practices that were precursors to my own punk approach to music. This was in the 80s, so punk was already on its way.
You were making your own rules! What about songwriting?
I didn’t start composing songs until I was about 13 and then I was just writing lyrics and melodies. I couldn’t play an instrument, so I didn’t know what I was doing or what for. It was so weird. I was really driven to do it, but I wasn’t sure what it was really about, just that I had to keep doing it. It was a secret endeavour as well. I didn’t tell anyone about that or share with anybody. It was a kind of private training, an autodidacticism that set me up to be a melody writer, someone that could later write top line melodies and lyrics professionally, which is what I ended up doing when I was 25.
What age did you start being a backing singer?
From about 17 onwards I had a few stints as a backup singer. It was a classic thing to do if you were a female singer who wasn’t an incredible technician. From there I started to collaborate.
When did you start performing your own songs?
I was probably about 21 or something and I just always collaborated with men. I didn’t really know any women who played guitar actually. I knew like three men who did. I collaborated with two of them.
One of them was Steve Moffat and we started the Plums together. I had been a backing singer in another band and he had been the bass player and we would go off after rehearsals and explore these more experimental music forms, of course they were just conventional pop songs. It was about connecting with each other and it was really amazing. I guess he was the first of a whole string of partners that I have had who I’ve been in bands with. We started the Plums around 1993 and I remember the environment was very different from the environment now. There just weren’t very many women in bands at all.
Wow, so you never saw women in bands?
There were certainly women in bands but there weren’t many. There was a band called The Wet Ones who I saw once and never saw again but who I am still obsessed by – still thinking about all these years later. Thirty years later. Completely memorable.
What was the show like?
I walked into this hall at Melbourne University and The Wet Ones were playing and they were all women. I just couldn’t believe it. The song they were singing was called We Are The Wet Ones. It was a total declaration of ‘we are here and we are doing this’. I was a first year university student and I had never seen anything like that before. When I saw the wet ones I thought I could do something like that.
There was another band called The Killjoys. Anna (Burley) is now an old friend of mine. They had been going for a couple of years. There was really hardly anyone else. They were in a way a sweet femme style of folk music, like Fairground Attraction and bands like that from England in the eighties and I just knew that wasn’t me. I was quite concerned by the limitations that were imposed by the forms. It didn’t seem like there was much potential for that to be a political space.
I didn’t also want to be in a hard rock band. This is an issue I have been working out for the rest of my life because I have a very sweet voice and work with themes of longing often enough; it is very much a part of what I’m interested in. I’m not very interested in tweeness even though I do tend to be twee at times. The work needs to be able to hold a kind of a stance or opinion. I don’t want to play into tropes of submission or something like that, yet I wanted to explore longing and I wanted to explore melodicism. At that time, every band that had a woman at the front would be called a ‘girly band’, that was an actual term people used. If you played and someone reviewed it (and it would always be a man), it would be like “there is a new girly band in town”. I would be totally driven mad by this and wonder how I could avoid being called a girly band.
What about Deadstar?
I wrote all the top line melodies and lyrics. Occasionally I wrote the chords.
I listened to Deeper Water just before and still remember all the words.
Deeper water, that’s my ‘big hit’.
It’s a really great song.
Well, we wrote lots of great songs and did well in a certain way whilst the industry had many modes or whatever that I found quite taxing and difficult. Despite it being difficult for me, we were also a band that had a lot of fun together and that really enjoyed writing and playing music together. We were really interested in making hooky melodic pop songs and I think we did that successfully. I am still proud of many of those songs. I enjoyed the actual writing. I don’t enjoy the sound. A lot of the approach to the music I would have done differently then and would do differently now.
How long were you together for?
About six years. The plums where together from 1992-1996, then Deadstar from 1996-2001 or something like that. Then I had my daughter.
Then there was The Tulips?
That was with my ex-husband Pete. That was great. We didn’t really do anything. We just made a couple of records. I think someone put one of them out through Shock Records but we didn’t promote them or anything. I had babies then and we made the Tulips records because I just wanted to make music. I was also doing professional songwriting, writing songs for other people.
How was your experience with record labels? Positive?
No. Not at all. When Deadstar split up, the record company re-released all of our hits and packaged them together in an album and put it out without even asking me. With a picture of me on the front cover. ‘Deadstar the collection’. Without even referring to me or asking me. I was so furious and so used to this type of treatment by then that I just rang a lawyer, found out my legal rights and told them to pull the cd from the shops, which they had to do. It was a bit like shooting yourself in your own foot you know. But it had to happen.
Who is putting out your new record?
Mick Turner and his label King Crab. He is a very good friend of mine and I have known him for 25 years. There’s no reason not to trust him. He’s just doing it so I can put out a record. He wanted to do it and I am incredibly grateful.
That sounds like exactly what one would want!
I got burned really badly. Because I was a woman and just because of how the entire music industry was, I had all kinds of terrible things happen to me.. I have been on tours where people brought women back stage to perform favours and all that kind of stuff. I have had fake breasts brought to me in a box and been told to put them into my bra because my “tits aren’t big enough” at a photo shoot. Those are just some examples. It was the environment and you don’t think about it at the time.
You think that is just the way it is, which sometimes protects you while you are trying to deal with it.
I was aware of those things being wrong at the time and it being crappy for me. I often complained but that wasn’t appreciated.. I had a reputation for being difficult to work with, “hard work” was the phrase that I remember being said about me.
They should have said hardworking!
What advice would you give to someone who is about to sign to a record label now?
Well I would just be very cautious. The record industry works like this; if you’re a young person, you are fodder for a particular part of the industry. The industry thrives on creating and discovering new talent. That is a really important part of it and for young people it can feel like they are about to become noticed and that is a very heady thing for people who have worked hard to even be able to create anything. You know, often songwriters go through enormous struggles just to be who they are, so it can feel like an end, being signed to a label. It can feel like where you need to be. This is not true, that’s my advice. Better to focus on a self-directed sustainable practice that can engage audiences through time and that may engage audiences after you’re dead. All artists need to think more about how they are going manage their own practice and their own engagement with audiences, so they can keep making music. Don’t just sort of throw up your hands and think I don’t need to do anything anymore, I’ve finally been signed.
Ultimately all that matters is what you do in terms of making quality music. I say that as a way of diminishing the importance of record companies in a sense. Of course they are very important if they actually enable new music, and good record companies have a sort of curatorial care in that way, which is how they become great.
As well, young artists should also know what is happening around money. You should know what is happening to your music, how it will be used. The best record labels are the ones that actually engage in a real dialogue with their artists. A functional record label relationship now is a collaboration. It’s about the artist having a relationship with the label that is personal in a sense, but you understand what the parameters are. It’s good for the terms to be quite modest and contained, especially initially, then if things ‘blow up’, (as my 25-year-old friends say), then there is a relationship that you can actually go to that is sustainable and that means something to both of you. It may be a business relationship – but it is also mutually beneficial and trusting – to me that is a post arch-capitalist model of engagement with a label, where what happens vis a vis money is not the only value.
How did you get into writing songs for other people?
Well I was known as a bit of a hit maker and people requested that I write songs. Sometimes then they would take the song and decide not to use it. It was a very frustrating thing to be involved in, it wasn’t easy always to get songs away.. I wrote a song for Kylie Minogue and she didn’t use it. But then the song went on to be used by another artist and was nominated for an ARIA award. Lots of my songs were nominated for ARIA awards. I think five or six songs.
I would have people coming down and staying at my house to write songs. I lived in the country on the Mornington Peninsula in a broken-down cottage because we had just come off ten years of touring. Pete was the bass player in Deadstar and he was also in The Plums. He was a person I had known since I was young, like my best friend really. We had these beautiful children together. I was so burned out from the music industry and so was he actually. We just decided to run off to the country and never return. That’s what we thought.
That sounds really lovely.
It sustains you. In that time he wrote a novel and I studied art. I’m a visual artist as well as a music artist and I just completed my PhD in Fine Art. Now my life includes being an academic teaching creative practice, teaching cultural theory and songwriting/composition
What is it like teaching songwriting?
It’s amazing, so incredible. It’s about enabling people to come to terms with their own creativity and really to work out what they want to do. It is hard to do anything if you don’t understand what it is you want to do. I remember trying to solve those types of problems as a composer and performer, problems around gender, performance identity and the identity that is mobilised in songs. I remember hearing The Sundays, an incredible English band. They sounded a bit like The Plums first record because we were really influenced by them. You solve those problems of performance and creativity through reference to other artists. Harriet Wheeler is the singer in that band and she is just amazing. Incredible, but then she had children and stopped which happens to lots of women.
Yeah it seems to be a huge occurrence. Do you have any advice for people, women or GNC people planning on having children and continuing playing music.
I don’t really. The reason I say that is because it is very difficult to do both. I think that there is one way to do it and that is to have almost a formal community of people who commit to making that possible. But that just doesn’t happen naturally. You don’t see that happening very much. It does happen for some people who organise it and who are in a community where that happens. I was not in that kind of situation.
Because you were living in the country?
For many personal reasons, it was just the two of us and our children. There weren’t systems in place to support me continuing to be publicly active as an artist whilst having children, that I could perceive. Also the reality is – and this is a fact not discussed enough in relation to feminism – the up swings of feminist activity usually involve a lot of stuff around consciousness raising. And that is very important work, its crucial of course. But the idea that women and GNC people are having children is a reality and it is got to be on the table for feminists. It’s what happens next. When you have children you need to be with them and they need to be with you. There isn’t any way out of that. When I think about these issues and about how this situation might be corrected, I think of a utopia where people actually care about music and it’s okay for children to be at gigs when it’s possible. For it not to be uncool that you’re playing at a time of day when its reasonable for children to be cared for. Not at midnight for example. An idea that it not be crucial that you are drinking and making some scene at 3 am. A different way of thinking about values within art, music and community. It feels dangerous even discussing it.
There are so many different things that need to be considered.
When you try to imagine these things as a feminist prospect, it is often a completely new world that you are imagining, something very different from the advanced dystopian capitalist world. What people do is they make that world themselves in their communities and those communities shrink further when you have children. It would be about trying to make those inclusive environments more expanded, real and actual. And have them involving children. I don’t hear a lot of people talking about children and feminism.
I think that is because the front edge of waves of feminist movements generally are often people who have just had their consciousness raised. They are young and even if they aren’t, they have just discovered feminism. I was raised by a feminist so it’s kind of old news to me.
Like Patti Smith, I was just one those women who really wanted to be with her children and I stopped performing and touring completely for about a decade. It was only when my children were older that I decided…well it was not like I was ever going to give up music forever. In early maternity, I just couldn’t really do both the way I wanted to. So that is what happened and it’s unbelievably common. The main issue for most female songwriters is that once they had children it’s like they didn’t exist.
That is so horrible.
Yeah well there are so many things like that. When I did have children people were forever asking me what it was like to be someone who wrote music and had children. My male contemporaries weren’t being asked that. They might have had five children and never been asked that.
They just assumed men weren’t involved in the child raising?
Which wasn’t always true. It was more they didn’t perceive them to be somehow tainted by that. It was weird. I feel weird even talking about it. The idea of children is such a strange thing to bring into a conversation about music. Really because they are not supposed to exist.
But it’s not something that is shameful. Someone in the industry said to me when I told him I was pregnant, ‘your career is over’.
Oh when you were really excited about it!
Yeah, I was really excited!
Well you proved them wrong.
What happened after you had a break?
I moved back to Melbourne. I had already started Caroline No actually, but I was really enabled by my new relationship to pursue music the way I wanted to. Then the young people I met, one of whom was in my band for a while, were really into the new music I was making. That was really incredible for me. Working with younger musicians which I did for a while and still do
It was touching actually to have Mladen (Mlinkovic) love my music. It was one of the most touching things that has ever happened to me. I am so grateful and was so totally in love with Mladen as a human and just couldn’t believe it. I was just like, really?
That must have been so nice to come back to performing music again on your own terms and people recognising your work.
Yes it was lovely. Romy Vager as well who is a friend, she was just really… she knew all my old songs and she is just so amazing and I was like, how do you know them? So, I was just really surprised by that and also that sort of support gave me a lot of confidence to think about releasing records again. I needed that actually.