Interview: Lisa Mitchell

This interview was originally published in Issue #8, June 2009.

On the coastline of New South Wales’ scorched flatlands there is a city called Albury; proud home to one-fifth of the Charles Sturt University campus, local dramatist society the Murray River Performing Group, and a manmade lake named after an explorer who dared wander through the area in 1824. Its sister town is China’s Nanping. It lies approximately 365 miles South West of Sydney, and a mere 190 miles from the equally prosperous Melbourne. Its total population is 43,787 and there is an average summertime temperature of 30oC. It is by all means an unexceptional Australian town.

It does however have one outstanding feature, and that is 19-year-old singer-songwriter Lisa Mitchell. A former Australian Idol contestant, the teenager gained international recognition with single “Neopolitan Dreams”, which has subsequently featured on a UK Surf advert, a US 3Mobile advert and the Packed to the Rafters OST. In 2007 and 2008 she released EP’s Said One to the Other and Welcome to the Afternoon respectively, and her debut album Wonder hit the shelves on July 13th of this year.

A powerful mixture of enchanting and often meandering melody and weirdo-folk vocals, the music repels away from the musicians’ commercial history to the point of irony. But, as Mitchell reveals to DrunkenWerewolf’s Tiffany Daniels, she doesn’t believe that her time on Australian Idol hampered her chances of credible success. Far from it, Mitchell appears to have moulded her good fortune into a rare kind of treasure, and her critics continue to dwindle in numbers. Forget idolatry - readers, it’s time to meet Australia’s next great icon…

Before your solo career took off, how did you express yourself musically? Did you ever perform in a band, or have you always preferred life as an independent artist?

Before it took off? So, you mean to say I’m flying? Brilliant! I’ve always wanted to fly. Like a raven or an eagle, a little swallow or a sparrow…But back when I was a mere earth dweller […] before I took flight my music came out in the same way it does now. And I’m not talking about taking a shit (nothing’s changed there either); I’m talking about the way the things I think about take real form: songs, pictures, poems, essays, diary entries and conversations with friends.

In High School I played in a band [called Chrome] with three of my best friends. We thought that The Donnas and Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the ultimate women of the world. That hasn’t changed much, really! I have another lovely friend, Katherine Green, and we had a little duo project brewing for a while as well. It was a lot different to Chrome! More along the lines of what I do on my own now, only a lot folkier. We sang […] colonial folk tunes actually. Quite traditional and harmony based. We had brilliant fun playing in the chalkboard tents at the folk festivals in Australia.

You’re still relatively young – do you think experience affects your ability as a songwriter?

I think ‘life’ experience affects your writing the most. What you feel to be relevant and important enough to write about changes constantly as you’re exposed to new circumstances. But parts like structure and when a chord should change is […] preference and can’t really be measured, can it? It’s just where your experimentation takes you. And it won’t necessarily [make your songs] ‘better’, I don’t think.

I suppose I am still at an early stage with my writing. I’m still forging my own style. I think it’s that I have to grow into my own habits to some extent, and sounding more like ‘myself’ [can be] just as valuable as writing a song that a lot of people connect with. And when the stars align and the two combine…

What do you concentrate on when you write? Does a particular aspect of your life or just life in general inspire you?

For me, most of the point of song-writing is that I’m not really concentrating and therefore I’m concentrating on not concentrating - the subconscious; letting the subconscious out and hearing the words that float out of my mouth and into the air [makes me feel] relief from the release. But specifically my songs are my life. They’ve always been an extension of my private journals - I do go into fantasy sometimes but it always stems from reality - so if you know me then it’s more than likely you’ll be in my songs.

Did your time on Australian Idol inspire you at all? Did you learn any valuable lessons?

As a distracted High School kid from a country town, the idea of being in the Big Smoke surrounded by musicians who wrote songs like me was Heaven on Earth!

The auditions came to my town and […] you could play your guitar and do an original song – a lot different to the usual set up. So I thought, why not? I ended up coming sixth and being recognised on the street. I was uncomfortable with elements of the show and unhappy about the compromises sometimes. I didn’t know what I wanted with music but I did know that I loved it. I think that was what the experience cemented. It’s taken me a long time to find my own way. But I never went back to school. I might one day. I’d like to go to University and study Theology and Literature. It’s been the most wonderful meandering adventure ever since that show, though.

There aren’t many musicians that come away from the competition and take an entirely different path to ‘fame’, but you seem to have built upon your credentials from the ground up, rather than taking the easy route. Did you find your involvement in the program affected your career negatively?

Some […] think that my commercial beginning […] negatively affected my path forward, but it hasn’t in the slightest. I don’t agree with judging music on a panel, but like I said before, I see now that it was a compromise [because] I have been so lucky with the support I’ve had. It’s hard to talk about this without making huge generalisations, but I think sometimes the stance that people have on musicians - or creative people in any line of work really - who’ve been involved in commercial endeavours is a little archaic. I suppose people choose to close their minds to some things, which is sad because they miss out. But it does mean you have to work a little harder in order to open minds, which breeds creativity anyhow.

What was your personal highlight of recording debut Wonder? You’ve collaborated with some key figures….

While the majority of the songs on Wonder are my own, four are collaborations. My friend Ed Harcourt helped me with a song called “Stevie”. We wrote it last year in his front room in west London. His house is like a musical instrument museum! Anthony Whiting produced “Stevie” and Ed played keys for it as well. Anthony and I worked on some other songs, “Animals” and “So Jealous” while I was in London last year. The other collaboration is called “‘Clean White Love”, a track about a boy who was too good to be true, that Crispin Hunt helped me with.

How does your album differ from your previous two EPs (Said One to the Other and Welcome to the Afternoon)?

There are elements of both EPs in the album. Some of the darker energy from Welcome to the Afternoon has followed through from tracks like “See You When You Get Here” into the album recordings of “Pirouette” and “Valium”, and yet there is still the simplicity of “Said One to the Other” in the album track “Love Letter”. Generally though, it’s the child of experimentation and the last two years of my life.

“Coin Laundry” especially seems to fall under a different category from your usual material. Is this a sound you’d like to explore more in the future?

“Coin Laundry” has electronic elements that are foreign to the rest of the album. I love experimenting with different sounds. Dann [Hume, producer] and I experiment with different ideas all the time and this was the special ingredient that we dreamt up for “Coin Laundry”. I like that it does stick out like a sore thumb. It sticks out perfectly.

I first heard your music on a Surf washing detergent advert, and I genuinely thought “Neapolitan Dreams” was a Tegan & Sara track until I looked it up. I’ve noticed one of your new tracks, “So Jealous”, shares a name with the duo’s fourth studio album. Is this deliberate? Have they consciously influenced your music?

Wow, I’ve never had that comparison before, thank you; I’ll take it as a compliment. I love Tegan & Sara. Maybe they’ve subconsciously influenced my brain. They seem pretty bright so it wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve worked out a way of brainwashing other songwriters with Tegan & Sara tendencies in order to mind-control the entire world. No, honestly, I’m quite surprised that you made that comparison and no, I’m not consciously regurgitating them, I swear. Cross my heart and hope to die.

You spent a lot of 2008 in Britain. How does the British music scene differ from the Australian music scene?

The British music scene seems so diverse! Australia doesn’t have anywhere near as many cultures as Britain does. It’s like a melting pot [in Britain] and I think everybody is so much more open-minded because of it [but] there are heaps of bands and artists coming out of Australia. There is a large folk contingent in Melbourne, where I’m from, and everyone helps each other out. It’s probably less competitive over here though, because there are so many more musicians. Funny that, isn’t it? I’ve been in London for a little while now so I feel a detached from [Australia]. I’m not the best person to talk to about the Australian scene though. I’m back and forth from London to Melbourne like a bloody yo-yo at the moment!

And finally, what have you got planned for the foreseeable future? Will you be spending 2009 in Australia, Britain, or elsewhere?

I’m touring in Australia in September and back in the UK on some support tours after that. I’ll be in Australia for Christmas. I want to go camping with my sister and friends in the mangroves on the coast.

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