interview: LUCY ROLEFF

Lucy Roleff’s music is shaped by distance: physical, as she’s based in Melbourne, of musical style, for her connections to an ancient minimal folk, of themes, given her partial move from the intimate loneliness of her debut album “This Paradise” (2016), to the wider dimension of the new “Left Open In A Room“.
Your songs display a minimalist folk attitude, but also a focus on creating some kind of intimate atmosphere: how can you describe the connection between tradition and sound research in your creative attitude?
I am very drawn to minimal folk music, particularly artists of the 60s/70s british folk revival, as well as a number of contemporary ‘bedroom’ folk artists. I just love the purity and closeness of the voices and instruments, keeping things quite raw and human. I am very lucky to have worked with two producers over the years (Tony Dupé on my last record and Pascal Babare on this one) both who have really understood the importance of conveying that intimate atmosphere you mention, while still leaving space for extra arrangements. Coming from a classical background, much of what I do is informed by traditional practices and a sense of craftsmanship, so I like to keep things rooted there while still being open to new things. I am a bit obsessed with the baroque period in classical music, so it makes sense that I can’t help adding embellishments here and there! I especially enjoy arranging for woodwind instruments and vocals. The contemporary finds its way in via my lyrics and in instruments such as electric guitar with subtle effects.

What kind of music were you listening to as a child?
Oh, quite a mix! I wasn’t really allowed to listen to commercial radio for a chunk of my childhood. My Dad is a classical tenor so we heard lots of classical music, a lot of AM radio and some interesting ‘exotic’ performers such as Yma Sumac and Ivan Rebroff. All I really knew of pop music for a while was from my Mum’s small CD collection, which included artists like Billy Joel, Neil Diamond and Supertramp. She also had a Greatest Hits vinyl compilation that I used to play all the time and choreograph little dances to. We also went to church every week so I heard a lot of music there. I think I can remember the feeling of realizing I was a bit behind at some point in primary school when kids were talking about music they’d heard on FM radio, and so I asked my Mum to let us play it in the car. It was so abrasive! But of course as a kid I loved it and fell hard for groups like The Spice Girls and Aqua.

When did you realize you were going to be a singer songwriter? What drove you to become one?
I was writing little songs from a very early age, like 7 or 8. My cousin Alice wrote songs too, so when we saw each other we would perform them for each other and it was mostly just for fun. I was also in a choir for girls from age 5, and learned several instruments, so I sang and played all the time and wasn’t very shy back then. Performing was very normal because I had to do it all the time. It wasn’t until my teen years that I was exposed to the music that would really inspire me to want to pursue songwriting. I remember this summer when I was 16 or so, and I somehow came across a couple of CDs by artists in the folk genre, and played them on the CD player in my Mum’s car. I felt my mind opening, I suppose – the lyrics were just so compelling in how they spoke of ordinary things – going for a walk, doing the dishes, romances (in a not-typical way), just observing little things really. I think it was around then I stopped having private lessons in voice and instruments, and just taught myself classical guitar and started writing songs in the similar style to what I do now.

Is there a particular inspiration in your way of singing? Or is it just the way your voice naturally springs?
I love this question and am very curious about the story of how people develop their singing voices, and have spoken about this a few times with other singers. I think being trained in choral and classical singing throughout my childhood and teen years was very formative – it informs my control, breathing, and perhaps the sound too in a totally unconscious way. But I do remember as a teenager I adopted a much more breathy, pop style of singing and sang with an American accent because I heard so much American stuff on the radio. I remember my sister gently asking why I sang in an American accent, and I’m so glad she did! I dropped it straight away. I think also hearing singers like Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos at the time, who embraced more ‘classical’ aspects of singing gave me the courage to let those parts of my voice come out. My voice is naturally quite low, so the classical training perhaps also gives me the confidence to go for the higher range, which is not so natural for me. These days I get compared to voices like Nick Drake and Bridget St John which is a huge compliment because I see their voices as very natural, and also true to them. I am admittedly very picky about voices and find it hard to listen to contemporary singers who are clearly copying another artist’s voice. You need to hear something of the personality of the person to believe it, I feel.

Your debut album “This Paradise” has been recorded by Tony Dupé (who also worked with artist like Holly Throsby and Grand Salvo). Do you have connections with other artists in Melbourne? Do you feel part of some musical scene?
Yes, absolutely. But having said that, the scene I would consider myself to be in is not very same-y in its sound. We are all pretty underground, which I really like as people take more risks and can change as they please. But it’s not like everyone plays the sort of folk music I do, it’s a real mix, but I think we all appreciate each other’s music for that reason. I am very happy to be joining a little label collective called Little Lake Records, because my music seems to fit in there, but the music on the label is still very varied. I guess there are lots of singer songwriters around, but I wouldn’t really know which style of music is the most prominent in Melbourne at the moment – I am probably in a bit of a bubble!

What are the main differences between your two albums, if any? Did you choose to have different arrangements, or the main themes of your lyrics are different in some ways?
The general approach to each record was fairly similar. I would write the bare bones of each song for guitar or harp, and voice, then I would work on the main arrangements for woodwind and vocal harmonies. Then the recording process began where we’d lay all of that down, and then Tony or Pascal added their ideas and arrangements. I am really fortunate to have worked with people I trust so much – I was very open to whatever they came up with, and we had the kind of relationship where I could make suggestions or chop things out – which I rarely did anyway. So in that way the albums are more a conversation than just ‘me, me, me’ which gets very boring very quickly! So I suppose the records will naturally differ as it’s a different time in my life, different collaborators, different studios etc. Lyrically, this new record is quite a new world for me as it’s pretty much all autobiographical – about my life and relationships past and present. While the last record was still quite intimate in that way, a lot of it was more metaphorical or imagined. While I’m certainly not baring all, it is a strange shift to sing about something that has happened or is happening.

You’ve released your new album “Left Open in a Room” in Europe on Oscarson, a label highly focused on keeping the physical side of music alive: do you think this side is still important (and helpful) for an independent artist, especially nowadays that music is spreading mostly through the web?
Yes! I am so happy to be on Oscarson – Matthias who runs the label is so passionate about vinyl and quality. While I’m certainly not a vinyl expert, this ties in very well to how I feel about music and my roots in traditional practices. I like to make things that last, and I think the physical side of music is still important. It’s true that everything can be accessed online but, at least in the genre where my music fits, lots of people are still interested in physical products such as vinyl – so I can see having that internet presence as well as physical, as a way to be more accessible.

The first song off your new record has been “A Woman’s Worth”. What’s the song about? How do you feel about woman’s condition in society?
This song was written in the way most of my songs are written – slowly fleshing out until the intention or meaning becomes known to me. I don’t really sit down and think ‘today I will write about this topic’ – it is more that the instrument part comes together and then the lyrics or story more or less form around it. So as I was working it out, I found myself thinking about my maternal grandmother who was Maltese, and my paternal grandmother who was German, and how they both had many challenging times being married to difficult or mentally ill men. It’s not an uncommon story for that generation, but I was imagining being such a woman, at any time in history really, who has to wait in the shadows, who observes but feels wary or disrespected much of the time. It sounds like a sad theme for a song, but it is musically quite jubilant with a short instrumental break, during which I could imagine my grandmothers, who have both passed away, ascending happily above all of this rubbish they put up with, before the final line comes, bluntly – “There it is, no shining mantelpiece. There it is, in the stars.” This to me is saying, that their worth is not at all determined by these men or by their roles in society – it is innate, and never able to be touched.

It seems that the multiple nuances of folk music are growing and spreading widely among independent artists in recent years: what do you think about this return to simplicity and to (generally speaking) folk language?
I think it is a really lovely thing, and makes a lot of sense that artists have been heading in that direction because I think many of us are very fatigued by elements of our current culture which has such a fast turn over rate – tastemakers, commercial music, fast fashion etc. These things can be fun but I feel many musicians are craving a certain substance as well as a connection to a time in music that existed long before the internet, this time we’re in of being hyper-connected. I think these styles of music are also appealing because they existed before music and capitalism became so entwined – they were about telling stories, passing on lessons and human connections. I have quite a few friends who are active musicians, but have very little social media presence, and I really respect this decision. I feel that many are trying to forge a path that feels honest and authentic and is more about creating a meaningful life’s work, than lots of money or esteem. That’s how it is for me, anyway!

Many talented (especially female) songwriters are recently surfacing from down under: do you think that the place where you live affects your artistic expression somehow?
That is true! It is hard to say because, as I said, we are all quite connected in general and so influences can come from far and wide. But I think a sense of connection to the land we live on here informs the music of many of my friends and contemporaries – off the top of my head I think of Australian artists such as Mallee Songs, The Orbweavers, Pascal Babare, and artists on the Little Lake label such as Seagull, Nick Huggins, McKisko and Yffer, who reference urban life in their lyrics or sounds, but also native elements of Australia; the bush, creeks, rivers, animals. There is a sense of connection either felt or yearned for that seems to be a recurring theme from what I have noticed.

As a listener, what kind of music have you liked best over the years? And nowadays?
I have been drawn to many different styles over the years, but I always seem to return to music that feels intimate or honest, mostly underground stuff, or by artists who released one album decades ago and then vanished for some reason – folk styles from all over the world, a lot of classical music particularly from the baroque era, early music, dark wave, post-punk… So I guess I have already come full circle from the music I was exposed to as a child! I went through the commercial pop stage, and then… well, I won’t go into my metal stage as a teenager, but that lasted quite a few years! I have been revisiting some of the bands I listened to recently, and I totally understand why classical music kids often rebel by getting into metal. They share many qualities – energy, technique (sometimes!), and a sense of the theatrical. I still like a lot of it – haha.

How do you feel playing your music live?
Mixed feelings! It’s not my favourite part about making music, and I don’t play very often. But when it is good and feels right, there is nothing quite like it! I feel very humbled to be able to communicate with people in that way, but at the same time don’t want much attention on myself for too long. After half an hour I’m ready to slip into the shadows haha – a big change from how I was when I was little, such a performer!

With so much music coming to light every moment, do you think creating music and writing songs is still worth?
Such a good question! I wonder the same thing sometimes, like, are we all just adding to the noise? Things change so much faster these days, you might be popular for a year and then people forget you – it’s a weird industry. But actually shifting how I relate to music has meant that I don’t really care about that stuff very much anymore. I am glad if people hear my music and like it, and hearing what a song has meant to someone really makes me happy. I like living a pretty simple life, doing what feels natural and what I feel drawn to. The way I see it, is if music is what you feel drawn to do and you don’t have unrealistic financial goals, then the outcome doesn’t matter so much. Make it your own.

You express yourself not only through your songs, but also through visual art: is there a running theme to the work you create in the different arts? Does one activity assist with the other?
I think the same interests I explore through music, translate over to my painting – a sense of the traditional, technique and craft, simplicity and a sense of the primal or intimate. I don’t like either form to be too cerebral and I’m not attracted to art or music that has to overly explain itself to be understood. There’s a lot of tedious jargon out there and I just don’t connect to it. Basically, painting and music are just different ways that I see or understand the world – I am very visual and tactile, so the painting sees to that side, but there are certain pictures or feelings that are better described through poetry or music, and so that side is taken care of as well.

(full English version of the interview published on Rockerilla magazine, no. 466 – June 2019)


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