INTERVIEW: Lissie (USA), May 2011

Was I the only Australian that got into Lissie? I swear everyone else jumped ship not long after her Oz tour from 2011. I still think she’s lovely – her album from last year was good fun, and it featured one of my favourite songs of the year. She was very sweet to interview, as well – giggly, charming, enthusiastic. Bit like Ben Kweller, really!

– DJY, October 2014

***

It’s probably hyperbole to say something like “Lissie has taken the world by storm.” With that in mind, it’s no secret by now that the clouds have certainly been gathering – following a slew of singles, tours with Lenny Kravitz and Ellie Goulding and a top 5 album in Norway of all places, the young singer born Elisabeth Maurus has certainly got a name for herself out there. This month sees the big-voiced Californian make her first-ever trip to Australia as the main support act for Megan Washington, an idea that has been coming together ever since the two first met in Paris late last year.

At the time of the interview, Lissie claims she has “literally just pulled into the driveway” of her home in Ojai (say it “oh-hi”), in California’s Ventura County. “It’s really nice to be home! I was gone since, like, early March. I did some shows and stuff like that, which was awesome, but it’s really nice to just sit down at home and have a deep breath.”

Maurus is unpretentious, sweet and engaged with everything that is going on around her – and it’s these traits that translate into the stunning songs of her debut album, Catching a Tiger. Released in June of last year, the album has garnered a strong critical reception and comparisons to everyone from Linda Rondstadt to Stevie Nicks. It’s a diverse, intelligently-crafted record that allows Lissie to stand out from a myriad of other girls with guitars. It is also an album that has been a long time coming.

“Going into making this record was really weird,” she confesses. “I started out working with some different people [in 2008] and not liking the direction it was going in, all the while thinking I was recording my first album. I had a bunch of old songs, and some songs from when that was going on. When it came to Catching a Tiger, the songs that ended up on the record were ones that I’d written for a year up to the actual recording, so they were all fairly new.”

Along with penning tracks on her own, Catching a Tiger also saw Lissie in sessions of productive co-writing with a handful of other songwriters, including former Furniture frontman Jim Irvin and his production partner Julian Emery. As she discusses her craft in depth, it becomes clearer just how much work has gone into creating the album. “Loosen the Knot was a hard one to write,” says Maurus when considering which of the songs proved the most difficult. “I knew when I was making it that my heart wasn’t too into it, because I was co-writing and I thought it was sounding a little too Avril Lavigne.” She lets out a hearty laugh when mentioning the Sk8er Boi songstress before explaining that “The ones that came the easiest were ones like Bully, Everywhere I Go, Oh Mississippi, When I’m Alone… songs like that were fairly immediate. These lyrics came very genuinely and sort of sporadically. It’s different when you’re co-writing, and it’s different when you write songs alone.”

The topic of co-writing is brought up again, and Lissie is happy to discuss it in further elaboration. It’s often quite contentious with many singer-songwriters, who feel as though they may grow more vulnerable when exposing their quite personal lyrics and music to someone else. This was, initially, a perspective shared by Lissie herself. “When I started I was worried about that,” she confesses, “This is a really private thing, and I didn’t think I wanted to do it. With Jim and Julian, who did a few songs on the album with me, I just really liked talking to them. It’s like I could talk to them about everything in my life, and when you earn that trust, you feel really safe with them. So I’ve been lucky with some of my co-writes – even though I hardly know them, I just have this instinct that it’s a safe zone that I can open up in. I think I’ve made a point of only really pursuing writing with people that I immediately connect with.”

In addition, Lissie believes that working with musicians of different heritage and style to hers is beneficial in expanding her musical palette. Describing her vocals as having “relative pitch” as opposed to perfect pitch and confessing to “honestly knowing nothing about music theory,” the humble Maurus is excited by the prospect of growing as a musician. “I come from a folk background, and I can only really play so many chords on guitar,” she says. “It’s very easy for me to rely on C to F to G when I sit down and write. So when someone else comes in the room and plays an A7 diminished chord – and I don’t know how to play that! It opens up a new possibility with melodies and stuff.”

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INTERVIEW: Ben Kweller (USA), September 2010

Let’s make something clear. I don’t care if you’re a metalhead, a dance nut, a hip-hop head… whatever you are. If you don’t like Ben Kweller, I’m calling shenanigans. The highest order of shenanigans. How could you say not to that adorable, forever-twentysomething face? Those insanely catchy songs? The joy that just thinking of Ben Kweller brings? Naturally, motherfucker brought the sunshine in this interview. Haven’t had the pleasure since, but I did finally get to see him live in 2012. He was really great. Of course he was.

– DJY, October 2014

***

It’s seemingly impossible to find Ben Kweller in an unhappy mood. The chipper singer-songwriter is in high spirits, on the line from his house. He even sounds upbeat about housework: “I did some yard work today!” he reports happily.

Kweller lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Liz, and two kids – Dorian, 4, and Judah, five months. The Kwellers made the move shortly after Dorian’s birth. “A lot of people still think I’m a New Yorker,” says Kweller, formerly of Brooklyn, “but I made the move after I recorded [last album] Changing Horses. It was actually recorded down here in Spoon’s studio – y’know the band Spoon? And after being here for like a month, we were like “man, let’s just move to Austin.” I grew up in Texas, and it’s nice being near my parents – I think it was a good change.”

Aside from raising both his family and his plants, Kweller has been working on a new record. At the time of the interview, its working title is Go Fly a Kite. “It’s basically code for ‘go fuck yourself,’” says Kweller with a snicker. He talks at length and with a great excitement about the album, which marks yet another change of direction from the down-beat Americana of Changing Horses. “It’s definitely a rock & roll record,” he comments. “A lot of electric guitars, piano and what have you. I’m really happy with it.” It also marks a musical change of having significantly less musicians than last time, whittling it down to just bassist Chris Morrissey and drummer Mark Stepro. “I did that one record where I played everything myself [2006’s Ben Kweller ] – and that was fun, and I might try it again sometime, but there’s really nothing like playing with other people. I think the thrill of music can be found in reacting to another person when you’re playing, seeing what they’re doing – y’know, just creating something as a group.”

The way Kweller discusses the lyrics of the record, Go Fly a Kite may also feature some of Ben’s darker work to date. “It’s kind of a grittier subject matter,” he says frankly when asked about the songwriting process. I had a big falling-out with one of my best friends. He had this new girlfriend that just came in and didn’t want him to do anything with the friends he already had and the people who loved him. She just wanted to push him away from everything. So there’s a few songs addressing all that – one called Gossip, and there’s another one called Jealous Girl.” In spite of all this, Ben is also quick to assure that “there’s still that Kweller optimism” when it comes down to it. Don’t let the bastards get you down, right, Ben?

It seems out of character for Kweller to be singing about such interpersonal dramas – he’s usually the type to sing sweet lines like “I’m in love with someone who’s as pretty as a flower” and “I’d do anything you want me to.” The twenty-nine-year-old may seem like one of rock’s biggest softies, but Kweller laughs good-naturedly at the suggestion, adding that he’s definitely “had his fights.” “I just have a different outlook on life,” he continues. “I try to stay positive and deal with the bullshit that comes my way, but always remember that tomorrow is a new day.”

It’s on this note that conversation switches to Kweller bringing his sunny disposition, as well as his two-piece band, to Australia for the first time in about eighteen months.”Oh yeah!” says Kweller with a smile so obvious it can be seen through a phone line. “Can’t wait for that. It’s always so much fun in Australia. I’m ready for my Vegemite in the morning!”

This tour will also see Kweller playing on the south coast of New South Wales for the first time ever, as a part of a three-day blues festival. Despite being a frequent visitor to Australia since the famous Bens tour in 2003 (alongside fellow ‘Bens’ – Lee and Folds), Kweller has never played many places beyond the capital cities. Exploring the country is always a treat for him, however – “I’ve been to a few outskirts,” he recalls. “I had a friend who lived in Geelong, so I’ve been to the suburbs; and I’ve been to the little beach-y towns. I seem to have a good time everywhere I go [in Australia] – the people are always so mellow. Kinda reminds me a bit of being in Texas, actually. The land looks the same, and the people have the right vibe.”

2012 – A Year in the Front Row. Part One: Jan/Feb/March

So, here’s an idea I had. I go to so many damn shows, why not do a retrospective? Especially considering 2012 was easily my busiest year of gigs ever. So, here is part one of four. It’s a very brief recount of the year that was, but one I was compelled to share. Enjoy! – DJY

JANUARY

With a slew of bands still staying over from the New Year’s festivals, as well as some perfectly timed tours, my first few weeks of January 2012 were insanely busy. Within the first week alone, I’d seen old favourites Bluejuice, Italian skramz band Raein, U.S. hip-hopper Jean Grae, U.K. movers-and-shakers The Jim Jones Revue, pop-punk heroes Tonight Alive (the first of four times I’d see them this year) and mid-teen heroes The Dresden Dolls. An exhausting highlight reel of great, diverse and interesting music hanging around Sydney and Wollongong at the time.

Unfortunately, the only sour note among the lot was Jean – arriving forty minutes late on stage and proceeding to treat her fans like idiots while barely putting any effort into her rapping still ranks highly among my year’s sorest disappointments. Still, you’ve got to take the good with the bad – and, there was so much good to take.

In particular, I point to the Dresden Dolls show at the Enmore Theatre as still one of the best shows I went to this year. For two-and-a-half hours, I partied like it was 2006 and celebrated the reunion of one of my biggest high-school obsessions. Having seen Amanda solo twice before, I already had an idea of what to expect – but bringing drummer Brian Viglione into the mix sent the entire affair to strange new levels. A great one to tick off the bucket list.

Not long after that, I was headed to Melbourne for the first time ever. I had the honour of playing with former A Death in the Family vocalist/guitarist Jamie Hay – eerily enough, on Friday the 13th, the day that AditF had announced their split. He didn’t let the news get in the way of a phenomenal performance, thankfully. The weekend immediately following this show lead to my main purpose of visiting Melbourne – Sugar Mountain.

An awesome initiative from Two Bright Lakes, this night was the first of three times I would see percussive adventurers tUnE-yArDs in this month. Getting to see the delightful Deerhoof and the blistering Thee Oh Sees was the icing on an already delicious cake. The next night at the Corner Hotel, I got to see tUnE-yArDs doing her thing once again. I appreciated a total switch-up of her live set – she even started on the same song that she had closed with the day before, and vice versa! My final time seeing her was a day after returning home, at the Famous Spiegeltent as a part of the 2012 Sydney Festival. I also managed to sneak in a breathtaking set from U.K. chanteuse Beth Orton at City Recital Hall for the Festival, too. Gotta be happy with that.

Onto a far-less cultured festival, the one and only Big Day Out. I only managed to get in a single sideshow this time, but it was more than worth it. Battles shook the foundations of the Metro Theatre like nobody’s business. Having now seen these guys 4 times, I can affirm their status as mind-melting musos that you could watch individually for a set’s entirety and not get bored. That said, their MVP is unquestonably Mr. John Stanier. ‘Tis no man! ‘Tis a drumming machine! Onto the BDO itself: Highlights included the bombastic Kanye headlining set, the world-class rock & roll of Soundgarden, Cage the Elephant and My Chemical Romance and the insane celebratory dance party of Girl Talk. Despite relatively poor ticket sales, BDO was a tonne of fun.

The month finished with a quick visit to Wollongong for day 2 of the Stacked Music Festival. Although I attended almost exclusively for Sydney legends Gay Paris, there were also a few treats thrown in for good measure – local champions The Conspiracy Plan, brattish post-punks Chicks Who Love Guns and the always-delightful folk-rockers The Pennys.

TOP 5:

  1. The Dresden Dolls
  2. tUnE-yArDs
  3. Kanye West
  4. Battles
  5. Jamie Hay

DISHONOURABLE MENTION: Jean Grae, plus the shitty local band that opened for Tonight Alive whose name escapes me.

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FEBRUARY

I was eased into February quite nicely by one of my favourite events in Blood, Sweat and Beers. This show would mark the first of many times I would see positive-thinking pop-rockers Milhouse, as well as sets from Canberran bong-ripping favourites I Exist, Tassie boys Luca Brasi, country bumpkins Wagons and the brilliant Harmony. With Laneway in town, I caught a sideshow for Canadian sensation Leslie Feist, although admittedly I was going almost exclusively for her support in the delightful Mountain Man. These sweet-singing ladies subsequently wiped the floor with Feist herself, who was half-an-hour late on stage and caught up in her own self indulgences too much to make this show worthwhile.

I then returned to my second home of the Annandale Hotel for three shows headlined by Michigan post-hardcore cult heroes La Dispute. These shows were just as inspiring and engaging as the very first time I saw them back in 2009, but for very different reasons. The 2009 shows were inspiring on account of an American band doing a completely D.I.Y. Australian tour that was done out a pure love for what they do as a band.

These shows were inspiring on account of seeing a relatively little-known band playing a very unfriendly style of music managing to pack out the Annandale for three shows with a huge, hungry and wildly boisterous audience. In other words, they’ve more or less arrived in Australia. We also got some fantastic local supports at these shows: Let Me Down Jungleman, Hira Hira (shout out to Jack Wotton for doing double duty!), Perspectives, Between the Devil and the Deep, Making and the late, great Animal Shapes.

Nearing the end of the month, I got to spend some quality time with some of my songwriting heroes – namely, Dan Mangan and Ben Gibbard. The former played a wondrously joyful set at Notes in Newtown, while the latter lead his band (and one of my all-time favourites), Death Cab for Cutie, into a second headlining show at the Enmore Theatre just up the road. Despite an annoying, iPhone-ready audience, I still had a great time at my third Death Cab show.

Sandwiched in-between Dan and DcfC was SoundDave, a DIY all-day festival held at another one of my Sydney “homes,” Black Wire Records, curated by Milhouse/Between the Devil and the Deep bassist/FBi radio personality/all-round heartthrob Dave Drayton. I was a volunteer for the entire day, and was so happy to be involved. Highlights including decidedly bitchin’ sets from Epics, Fat Guy Wears Mystic Wolf Shirt and Surprise Wasp, fronted by Gay Paris bassist Dean “Slim Pickin’s” Podmore. Top stuff.

Although I gave Soundwave a miss, I still managed to wrap up the month with two great “Sidewaves” at the Metro Theatre. The first was the final Sydney show from Thursday, a band that I will gladly admit meant a hell of a lot more to most people in that room than me. I was a late bloomer for Thursday, only really getting into them later in high school. And I was a War All the Time guy, as opposed to a Full Collapse guy, which was the album they were playing in its entirety. Even so, I came out of that show with a mountain of respect for what they accomplished in their time, and it was an honour to be a part of it. Finally getting to see Circa Survive live was also a treat.

A few days later, on a rare February 29th, I got a triple-horned hardcore treat with Enter Shikari, letlive. and Your Demise. Each put on a great set with their own style and energy, but I’d be kidding myself if I wasn’t there to get properly mental to letlive. After discovering them in mid-2011, I vowed that I’d be front row centre as soon as they toured. And so it was – I screamed, I jumped, I climbed on things and I essentially acted all of the ways a 21-year-old really, really shouldn’t. And it was GLORIOUS.

TOP 5:

  1. La Dispute
  2. Dan Mangan
  3. letlive.
  4. Death Cab for Cutie
  5. I Exist

DISHONOURABLE MENTION: Feist. Sorry, babe. Maybe next time.

+++

MARCH

A pinch, a punch and some motherfucking MASTODON for the first of the month! Don’t mind if I do, thanks. With French destroyers Gojira and Norwegian warriors Kvelertak in tow, my brother Chris and I were treated to one of the most brutal shows I’ve seen all year. This was also the first of three shows at new Sydney venue The Hi-Fi I would attend this month, and all within a few days of one another. The very next day, I saw the delightful Ben Kweller doing his thing, while on the Sunday I’d finally get to see Manchester Orchestra live. Along with my ridiculously similar appearance to Andy Hull, I love all of their albums, especially Mean Everything to Nothing. Watching the band play “Everything to Nothing” live is one of the few gig moments from 2012 where I’ve actually teared up. Truly incredible stuff.

With Future Music Festival in town, I had yet another chance to see Die Antwoord after catching them at both the 2011 Big Day Out and at their show with M.I.A. the very next day, at which they completely blew her off the stage. Here, I found them in the illustrious surrounds of the Enmore, which was decidedly packed full of people from the Zef Side of Sydney. Despite going on late, they put on a truly fantastic show – bounding energy and a seemingly endless supply of bangers.

Next up was a return to Black Wire, to see the hilarious Battle Pope get rowdy along with Fat Guy Wears Mystic Wolf Shirt, The Reverend Jesse Custer and Jesus Christ Posse. Right there is four of my favourite heavy bands in the country, so that was more or less a dream come true. Another festival in March was Golden Plains, and from the cool streets of Portland came the femme-fatale quartet of Wild Flag. Lots of dancing to be had at their show at the Manning Bar with Love of Diagrams and impressive upstarts Unity Floors.

I’ve had the chance to do multiple shows on tours a few times this year, as evidenced back in February with La Dispute. These next two shows would be the first of two times I’d double up on some Children Collide action this year, bringing my grand total to nine times of seeing them live. For what it’s worth, they never let me down. Although the turnout for their Metro Theatre show was abysmal, they packed out the Patch in Wollongong and put on a truly hectic show for all involved.

During the final song, I decided to flip myself off the foldback and into the crowd. Half-expecting to fall to the ground, I ended up being carried all the way to the back of the venue, eventually toppling downward in-front of my bug-eyed sister, who could not believe her baby brother had just crowdsurfed like an absolute champion. Good times. Shout out to the killer supports, Deep Sea Arcade and Palms.

Nearing the end of the month, I was back at Black Wire to see two of my favourite Australian musicians, and people that I’m honoured to count as friends – Jamie Hay and Jen Buxton. I also had the pleasure of meeting Jen’s little dude, Eli. He has the biggest cheeks I’ve ever seen. I showed a world of restraint for not just sinking my teeth directly into them. Don’t tell her I said that, of course.

Oh yeah, I also saw Evanescence. The less said about that, the better. At least Blaqk Audio were pretty good.

TOP 5:

  1. Manchester Orchestra
  2. Mastodon
  3. Die Antwoord
  4. Children Collide
  5. Jamie Hay and Jen Buxton

DISHONOURABLE MENTION: Evanescence. Childhood memories tainted forever by this soulless display of mediocrity.