CHRISTINA GREEN, Singer-Songwriter and composer, A LIFE IN MUSIC
CHRISTINA GREEN, Singer-Songwriter and Composer: a Life of Music
I first met Christina 20 years ago at a music jam session in South London. I liked her musical versatility. We became friends and played a few gigs together. Then the 21st century started and she went back to Australia. It was time to grow up.
1.1 What music instruments do you play?
I play quite a few instruments – guitar, ukulele, blues harmonica, tin whistle, piano, electric bass, djembe.
1.2 What inspired you to become a musician and a songwriter?
I was inspired by singer-guitarists I saw on tv when I was a child – I always liked watching and listening to this form of music and performance. I wrote some songs at school and began to develop it more in my 20s. I was given piano lessons from about the age of 7, but I also wanted to learn the guitar and asked to be able to do that, and to move into singing and playing. My parents gave me a guitar and five lessons at a shop to start with. After that I continued to work from the books I was given, and was mostly self-taught till my 20s.
At some point I realised that I loved the song form and the way it works, the emotional impact it can have. I liked country songs on the radio as a child. An important influence was studying French popular chanson as part of year 12 French at school with an inspired teacher. From there I moved into listening to Kate and Anna McGarrigle (contemporary folk with both English and French lyrics, from Montreal), and in 1988 I heard the Indigo Girls and Tracy Chapman. Patty Larkin’s songwriting and guitar playing also inspired me in the early 90s when I heard it on a tape given to me by a fellow music therapy student in London.
1.3 Did you start live performances in Australia or in the UK?
I started live performances in Australia around 1989, with open spots at folk/acoustic venues that are now long gone, including the Green Lantern, the Green Man and the Café Yartz, which was in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote – it was a great cafe run by people involved in a Rainforest Action group. In these first years I heard some emerging Aboriginal musicians – Tiddas (three women, two of whom were Aboriginal) – at the Café Yartz, and Archie Roach in Fitzroy (The Troubadour I think) – they became very successful artists in the Australian music scene, and were an inspiration to me.
2.1 When did you move to London? Was it a cultural shock, musically and otherwise?
I moved to London in 1993 to start study in the academic year 1993-1994. I remember wondering – will they have all the multi-cultural foods I like in Melbourne? (This is hard to imagine now, of course. I was very proud of Melbourne’s culture at this time). Will I be able to get hummus? Of course, it was as multi-cultural as Melbourne, just with a slightly different mix. I found the pace of walking and moving through public space much faster; the tube and volumes of people on it especially at peak times was an adjustment. For me it was a change not to drive everywhere, and I enjoyed being able to use the fantastic public transport for just about everything here. One thing that was very different for me was living in a country that does not have a background of oppression/genocide of its indigenous people. But there are other things, the relationship of Anglo Britain to its Caribbean immigrants, and the legacy of colonialism. On a trip to the south west I met, for the first time, a couple who were ‘in service’ at a stately home. I also met, along the way, people from upper class Britain – and learned to meet them as who they were. I heard more than once a certain judgement towards Australia for its treatment of Aboriginal people, while I heard little mention of the British colonisation of Australia. I experienced a weird sense of being ‘classless and free’ – thinking of the Marianne Faithfull song – I was aware that it was difficult for people to place me class-wise, and enjoyed this relative anonymity. Musically the scene was not so different from Melbourne, but I would say that I found open mic nights quite male-dominated. I have enjoyed getting to know the Afro-Caribbean music to some extent, and have discovered some great things, including the reggae melodica of Augustus Pablo, which I really like.
2.2 What was the London music scene like throughout the 90’s?
I can speak of the scene from 1993 to the year 2000. I was taken to some gigs by friends, and I did not look to play myself until 1997. I heard women artists including the Scottish Horse McDonald and local artists Jan Allain and Lucy Ray, whose songs I liked, and also touring artists including the Indigo Girls. I started playing in 1997 at open nights including one at a venue in Harlesden (the Rising Sun pub), and then at the Lewisham Labour Club, SYLVIA night – Support Your Local Venues & Independent Artists … and I believe that is where you and I met. Over the years I played at a lot of open nights, including more rock/less folk-oriented ones around Camden. For a while I was based in Hackney and loved playing at Chats Palace, a community arts venue there with a vibe that was favourable to cabaret and spoken word. I enjoyed being able to move into some queer culture gigs in South London – playing at the Railton Road squat/women’s café, Queeruption Festival 1998, etc. I played at a series of folk clubs – including the 12-bar Club, Deptford Folk Club, Cecil Sharp House (open nights), Bunjies Folk Cellar and The Weavers in Newington Green, a night at the Hope and Anchor, Islington. I remember the deals at these places not being terribly favourable, with venues reaping the proceeds of door charges until you brought more than 10 people. I don’t remember playing a paid gig in London, but I might have done.
A big part of this time was the explosion of Oasis onto the scene, and I got my dose of this while teaching at a youth music program in EC1, where the students enjoyed this and other music like Nirvana. All of this went into my own musical melting pot, and I wrote a set of songs influenced by post-punk and grunge and based on stories gathered in London, releasing them on a CD in Australia in 2004. This CD, Mindless Fun, was recorded by Andrew Parker, a British friend in Melbourne who ‘got’ the music and had great fun with it.
I tried in the later years to get gigs in some festivals, and organised a gig in the Stoke Newington Festival in 1999. I attended a folk festival, Cropredy, but noted that this was full of acts that were much more established names. My attempts to get into some smaller festivals here were unsuccessful, and in 2000, for many reasons, I returned to Australia, where I have lived since. But I really gained a lot of experience in the London open mic, folk and community music (including the queer) scene between 1997 and 2000 before I left.
2.3 How does working as a music therapist influence your music, if at all?
The skills I have gained through working as a music therapist have really helped build my performing confidence and skills. There are differences, but through developing the skills involved in standing in front of groups (disability groups) and singing through many distractions, I built resilience and the capacity to keep on going through anything. There is a different quality of communication and conveying of the emotional content of songs that I have had to develop separately. Relating to an audience bringing verbal sophistication, many cultural references, the need to be entertained and so on, is a multi-stranded art. One small way in which I would see some influence from my music therapy work coming through into my songs is that I have derived some guitar ideas from the picking and strumming ideas I have come up with to do old time songs for clients. These have moved into my own songs, in a way that is a few removes from the original songs. My music therapy work has been a springboard for composition, as I have worked from improvisational starting points to write composed works, drawing on the many years of improvisation practice I have done as a music therapist.
3.1 In 2000, you moved back to Australia. What is the music scene like in Australia?
When I moved back to Australia I found inroads into the music scene pretty quickly. It has taken a long time to build my activities to a professional level, and I do a mixture of gigs. I have been able to move into a stream of paid gigs and gigs that are in favourable venues with listening audiences. I have done quite a few festivals over the years including Victorian festivals Maldon, Chewton, Newstead, The Basin, Mia Mia (these are smaller festivals) – I have never played at the bigger ones like Port Fairy or Woodford in Queensland. A couple of festivals based in the Dandenong Ranges, The Basin and PAVE (Performing and Visual Arts in Emerald) have booked me for multiple years, which has been great. There are a lot of festivals, even just in Victoria where I live – different scenes in different areas such as Central Victoria and the south coast. There are open mikes and gig venues across Melbourne. My efforts have been concentrated with a group of collaborators in the Dandenong Ranges, and in a radius in the inner Melbourne area, taking in some well-established old acoustic gigs at pubs, and so on. I have become involved in a network of songwriting peer review groups, attended a lot of community music stuff, given some songwriting workshops, and completed several CDs. I launched my new double CD Some Days/Life I Can Live at a range of gigs at venues in Melbourne and in regional areas in Victoria – Ballarat, Hepburn Springs. In September I also played at a community ukulele festival in New South Wales. One thing I would say about the Australian scene is that there is not really a lot of true folk singer-songwriter stuff. It is either really more ‘indie’, or to the blues/roots end – blues/roots is more the staple of a lot of the festivals. There is also a country music scene. There is a good scene for traditional music, and I have enjoyed a bit of involvement with some musos from the Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club. In recent years an Americana strand has also grown, in part through the influence of (the wonderful) Gillian Welch and through songwriting workshops that have been given by Pat Pattison from Berklee College of Music (Boston, Mass.) who visits Australia regularly (Gillian Welch studied with Pat Pattison for a while). At the moment the scene is suffering a bit from reduced funding and harder financial times. Open mics are replacing what were once paid gigs and the scene is not benefitting from this. I have been focusing on local gigs and keeping a presence that way. I still look for the ‘do an open mic spot-ask for a paid gig’ trajectory, and still find it and get that to work from time to time. I also do gigs with a view to giving something in terms of support to a venue that is community-focused, where the only money involved is a door charge. For that, the venue has to be a pretty nice play and attractive for people to come to.
3.2 You decided to go back to university. What did you choose to study and why?
I went back to university to study composition. I reached a point where I wanted to expand from songs, though I wanted to do this in parallel to my songwriting activities. I had a desire to return to academic music study, and I have to say there was a certain level of peer review that I was looking for, a value that has stayed with me from my original academic background. It is nice to get likes on Facebook and other social media/internet sites for our music, but for me there is a whimsical and random quality to the whole ‘liking’ thing. I do not have complete faith in it to reflect things like a recognition of the craft side of music – I think it reflects what people find entertaining and immediately hearable, and a large part of this is about the quality of the recording/‘production values’. As someone coming from a classical music training as well as a songwriting background, I do not have a concept of the recording being the only version of a work that has value – the score has value, the live performance, etc. I have found it rewarding to have my compositions peer-reviewed and given the thumbs up for publication by a music publisher, and to have gained representation as a composer with the Australian Music Centre. To be honest, I have found the set of values that people bring to the singer-songwriter scene to be limited … I hear the word ‘brilliant’ thrown around to a point where it feels virtually meaningless. I wanted to operate in another field, and that has been helpful for me. In the process I have come to the feeling that a lot of my singer-songwriter stuff is really at the ‘art-song’ end of the singer songwriter area. There are other role models that I am exploring at the moment, and some fellow travellers that I have ‘met’ along the way, particularly amongst the lyric-focused New England songwriters, like Cheryl Wheeler. I am really more aligned with the lyric-focused songwriters of earlier times, like Noel Coward, Cole Porter, and so on. I like a range of song forms, not just the verse/chorus/bridge. This includes Tin Pan Alley/AABA and a return to an interest in the art song form, in which a poem is set, usually with intro and outro material, and an accompaniment based on a small amount of musical material (like a riff, a musical idea/feel, etc.). I have moved more in this direction in the last couple of years, experimenting with different forms including writing my own art songs – this in itself is a bit experimental, though there are others doing it, but the majority of composers coming just from a classical background set the poems of others rather than writing their own lyrics. I have not put any of this music (two song cycles, one using my own poems/ukulele/my voice, and one using the poems of an Australian collaborator/guitar/my voice) out on CDs yet and am really developing the performance practice needed, also working with a violinist collaborator and writing parts for her, and so on. My arrangement skills have grown through doing all the parts for Some Days/Life I Can Live and I am building on that now.
3.3 How did/do your studies influence your music? How do you define your music now?
When I moved back into composition I was immediately aware that I was using a much greater harmonic range than I had been bringing into songwriting, for example when writing solo piano music and ensemble music. I have also identified an affinity with the experimental field of contemporary music, and have an interest in the ‘downtown’ New York scene in particular. I love work that seems to straddle genres to me, for example the work of multi-media–focused performance artist/composer Meredith Monk. In the last few years I found, by chance, a way to bring an expanded harmonic palette into songwriting, finding that the ukulele opens up a different harmonic area for me than the guitar. I have worked with this and found it a very rich seam over the last five or six years. I hear the word ‘post-genre’ around, and I guess this is where I feel we are at, and I am at. What I am looking for is the right avenues through which to put my music out. I am interested in listening audiences and am aware that my music is quite particular. I am playing both beat- and non-beat-driven music and trying to combine it in the same programs. I continue to be lo-fi and record in a kind of pure acoustic way, with not a lot of rhythm tracks. I am virtually uninterested in putting out music with produced-sounding groove/beat elements, and in this way I am more like a classical musician, though I do like folk beat sources like stomp box and the ‘pieds’ (feet on floor) of the French Canadian folk tradition. I have used stomp boxes and small percussion in quite a lot of tracks on Some Days/Life I Can Live. At the moment I still have a reservoir of unrecorded songs and a group of re-recordings in progress – more than I can record quickly – this will keep me going for quite a while. It is difficult to know what to prioritise and what to leave in the recording process, but it has always been my dream to record all the songs that I still perform, and I haven’t let that go yet. I welcome new songs and am on the lookout for ideas, with a particular interest in creating song cycles. Meanwhile I have compositions in progress – enough to take me to the end of 2017 and beyond. I will also be doing some improvising in the contemporary experimental area in the last part of this year, a short course, and want to develop that area. I also do occasional performances as an instrumental musician/composer and will continue with that thread too. A good summary would be to say that I bring more of a composer mind to my songwriting now – this is where I want it to go, but it is taking it out of the folk acoustic area in some ways, and what is of interest to those audiences. So, I am branching out, trying to find the right places for the music. It is going well in concert settings with the women composers’ group I am involved with in Melbourne, and at experimental concerts in a cabaret-style venue in Northcote put on by the Melbourne Composers’ League. I am enjoying combining songs and instrumentals in a set, and do that when I can. I still play pubs too (but often songwriter-focused nights, for example, nights organised around a theme) and I am beginning to try out my art-songs there, with some good results. I am continually crossing between the two scenes, trying to straddle them both and connect with audiences. I value being seen as both a songwriter and composer, and as a performer of both of these streams of music that I write.
4.1 Tell us about the albums you’ve recorded.
I started recording in the early 90s in Melbourne just before I came to England in 1993. I recorded with a couple called Bo and Perri in a pocket handkerchief-sized studio in Carlton (inner Melbourne near Melbourne University). I got a bit done on a couple of songs, I think. I don’t think I have that recording, and can’t completely remember what I did, except for Lonely Town (1991). It is hard even to remember whether I did it on my original classical guitar or on the first acoustic that I bought, which would have been around that time. Anyway, I believe that the opportunity to come to the UK (to study music therapy) intervened and I left that strand behind. I have never reconnected with Bo and Perri in later years or heard their names around the Melbourne music scene.
In London I made contact with a women’s recording studio, Overtones. I discussed my project with them and somehow afforded to do it. I completed my first CD Dreaming Me (1998) there, and most of the work for my second (which included some songs from the first), Separation Street. Separation Street was replicated and released in Melbourne in 2001 following my return in 2000. I worked with two engineers, Liv and Felix – I enjoyed working with both these women and learned from their different styles. Felix had a background in dance music and she created a different overall feel, which I liked in a different way from the sound that Liv got for me.
In 2002 I recorded True Stories, a duo CD with Michelle Chandler, whom I had met at a music business/DIY short course at Swinburne in Prahran, Melbourne, which I did to get the feel of the scene in Melbourne, to make contacts, get info, etc. We put down four songs each with an engineer known to Michelle, Richard Cooke, who worked on analogue rather than digital equipment. We sold this at a few festivals we played. One of the songs on this CD, Myth of the Other, was included on two compilations, Positive Women (to benefit an organisation called Positive Women Victoria) and Change for the Record, (to benefit a grassroots organisation called Women, Earth and Change). It has proven difficult to completely recycle or successfully re-release the four songs (as recorded then) in years beyond the time when Michelle and I played as a duo. I am now at the point of re-recording a selection of these older songs, because I feel that the songs have outlasted the recordings. I don’t sound like I did in the early 2000s now – my voice grew in strength and colour/richness, and gained a lower register.
My next recording project was Mindless Fun, the set of grunge/punk-influence songs written mostly in London and recorded with Andrew Parker (released 2004, mentioned above). I really like what Andrew did with the songs, and he gave me the recording time as a gift, for him a way to practice and get experience with home recording. He heard me sing Myth of the Other in a song contest and wanted to give me this opportunity as he was gutted the song didn’t win! I produced this recording at the glass mastering/500 copy level (at the time the other option was CD-R – things have moved on so much since then). It still stands as an integrated group of songs connected by a feel and sound, it works. It is having a bit of a moment in the sun again now – the songs appear to be timeless and people really like the upbeat feels and the effects that I am still using, and I am really still enjoying playing that way. My violinist collaborator Hayley Anderson has a background in metal/Goth and she is enjoying adding an effect-laden violin line in the title track. I would actually like to do another project in this vein and am on the lookout for ideas.
In 2005 I connected with then Dandenong Ranges-based musician and engineer Janette Geri, who was also working in a home studio set up in the ‘granny flat’ in her backyard. With Janette I met a different recording approach, and she used sounds within the Cubase program as well as the lines I played on various instruments. She tended to line things up with rhythmic precision. There are strengths and weaknesses with everything. Recording fashions change, and the trend now is toward a much less interventionist approach than this, a more ‘honest’ sound, as people say. I recorded quite a lot of stuff with Janette and used it variously; the 2008 CD Sitting On Saturna is into a second run and I still sell one from time to time. It successfully combines four acoustic folk songs with two sets of three short instrumental pieces, for guitar (jazz/classical fusion) and for small combo (folk/world). Some of the material was written on Saturna Island, Canada, where I went on a creative retreat with Canadian singer-songwriter Ferron and eight other women in 2006. I am looking to include other material recorded at that time in the group of re-recordings/re-releases that I am working on.
Due to involvement in postgraduate study, limited resources and so on, I did not record again until 2013, when I could see that I would have to try somehow to fit this in and needed to move on it. Janette had moved away from Melbourne and I asked a songwriter friend for a recommendation. She sent me to Hugh McDonald, a well-regarded folk musician and engineer in Melbourne who was known for his involvement in Australian band Redgum. Hugh and I got on well and established a working relationship that lasted till he passed away in November 2016. I recorded over 40 songs/instrumentals with Hugh, and 28 of these now form the double CD Some Days/Life I Can Live (2017). Others will be included in the re-recordings/re-releases and in another planned project. Hugh was able to turn his hand to anything I brought – regular verse/chorus/bridge songs, piano pieces, folk instrumentals. He became a mentor and I was able to discuss many aspects of performing, writing, recording, doing radio interviews, music business, etc., with him. At the time when he passed away I was within a few accompaniment line additions of completing the 26 tracks originally planned for the CD.
I wanted not to lose momentum and it was a difficult time. I took a leap in faith and enlisted the services of Brian Baker, also in the Dandenong Ranges. Brian was great to work with and wanted to honour the vision that Hugh and I had, but at the same time complete the project with style. I feel very lucky as I think I got the best of both worlds – the sustained work with Hugh and some very skilful arrangement touches from Brian. It was great that Brian liked the work, and also had a feel for composed music and knowledge of classical music, which was very helpful for working with my stuff. I added more, I guess, than originally planned – but no regrets – the tracks are really substantial now and the feeling from people listening has been great. I took delivery of the CDs in May and had the first of a series of launch gigs late that month. I have really enjoyed doing this series of gigs with a friend from the Central Victorian music scene, Vanessa Craven, and her band Lunar Dust, as the support act. We have played in Melbourne, Ballarat and Hepburn Springs.
It is rewarding to hold a double CD in my hand, whose songs range from 1997 through to 2016, with the bulk sitting between 2003 and 2016. I have caught up on a lot that I really hoped to record in the period with Janette (I hoped to include more on Sitting On Saturna, but due to vicissitudes, travel and so on I made a decision to go with what I had at a certain point and never regretted it, but there was a backlog). I play all the songs that are on the two CDs in various contexts, they’re all current. At this point I have the re-recordings/re-releases and two other CD projects still in the works, without writing anything further.
5.1 This double CD is a collection of snapshots, portraits, landscapes, stories and moments in time, pieces of mindfulness. Where do you get your inspirations from?
I am so happy that you see the songs like this - 'pieces of mindfulness' is a wonderful expression and it captures what I am trying to do very well.
One of my songwriting inspirations, Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, was asked where songs come from, and she answered that songs come from life. The 24 songs and 4 instrumentals on Some Days/Life I Can Live span a 20-year period (1997, 1999, 2001, 2003-2016), documenting travels, experiences and observations. Quite a few of the tracks have been inspired by my involvement in Buddhist practice.
There are a few strands to my approach, which has worked for me in generating ideas for songs in a pretty much unbroken stream since 1989, with ebbs and flows in the amount I produce at different times, of course.
Firstly, I try to bring mindfulness to everyday life. I had always had some kind of idea of this, then read more about it, and became involved in Buddhist practice in 2003. I have always felt that to be able to bring ideas from one's life it is crucial to be truly present as things happen. A second strand is ongoing journaling and writing - my main inspirations for this were Julia Cameron (The Artist's Way and other books) and Natalie Goldberg (Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones). These books date from the 80s and 90s and their focus is more on handwritten work. I now combine handwriting and work on computer, with an intention never to give up the handwriting. Doing 'timed writings' as Natalie Goldberg calls them is a way to mine the stored images, stories, fragments and so on that we build up - to access them and bring them to the surface, make them available for art. A third strand comes from Australian writer Valerie Parv's The Idea Factory - Parv suggests always being on the lookout for things of interest while visiting new places. Travel has given me lots of experiences and stories that have become material for songs. Stories and song ideas have come from my own life experiences, thoughts, responses, etc., from reading widely (articles, news and books), from images/visual art. I have produced several songs from writing exercises given at workshops or found in books - the key here is that these topics have been thought of by others and have opened a door for me.
I look at what other songwriters write about in songs because this is interesting. At the end of the day there is no guaranteed way to generate a song any time one wishes, but keeping the pot simmering in all these ways makes it much more likely. Recently I have written chord progressions first and then used them, with some shaping, as the basis for the music when a subject idea has arrived. Mostly I have written at least some lyrics first, found music for them, then progressed with the lyrics and music together to complete the song. I have also written the lyrics complete and then the music. This way is a bit out of fashion now, but it still works for me, though I feel that writing both in tandem is preferable. Writing a musical structure with some inbuilt flexibility first and then fitting lyrics into it can produce a very good fit. I must say that chords/melody never suggest a subject idea to me as they do for some people, but once I have a subject idea I can work pre-composed music into the mix as I write words, working with other elements such as tempo, strumming patterns, etc., to get a good fit of feel and mood for the subject matter. I would say similar about groove - I would not expect to start with a groove and have it suggest the subject of the song, but becoming familiar with new grooves and feels has opened up new territory over the years and given me new groups of songs as a result. In a similar way, working with new instruments and tunings, particularly the ukulele as already mentioned, has opened up new musical territory and brought new stuff into the songs. I basically just try to keep the whole thing alive through ongoing openness, noticing and engaging, listening, reading, talking, connecting.
I am aware that the work of Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg is from an earlier time and that newer work on creativity exists. A more recent addition to my reading was Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I enjoyed this, and remain open to work by new authors, but I do not expect anything to take the place of these early influences with which I have worked for so long. It is a matter of adding to it now with anything new that I find. US songwriting teacher Pat Pattison uses ‘object writing’ and this has a lot in common with Natalie’s timed writing – I have not found it preferable to what I already know. In her most recent book Natalie talks about how the internet and technology have changed things, and a feeling that what she developed and cultivated is less valuable now. I think it still stands as a basic creative practice, with a strong element of mindfulness/meditation underpinning it. It is probably not what you would do if what you are interested in is producing to the max and producing very mainstream material. I am interested in producing at the speed of life, and I certainly can’t afford to make CDs any faster than that! In the last couple of years I have also read Austin Kleon’s books on making the best use of the internet to share your work. I could see that there are others who know more than I do about that. I still want a bedrock practice that is pre- sharing on the net, and not work in progress, half-written stuff.
I still complete songs on paper, then type the lyrics. I write poems in handwritten draft form and keep them in a word document. I use hand-drawn chord diagrams and often handwritten manuscript lines. The first draft of melodies for me is in sol-fa, then onto a staff. For some of my more complex fingerstyle guitar and ukulele accompaniments I have been using a staff combined with a tab staff in Finale notation program to create a finished product. For musical/guitar/uke/chord ideas I increasingly capture ideas roughly on the voice memos feature on my mobile phone, and write them out from that.
I think that’s about it – thank you so much for your interest and for the interview, with great questions – it has been a lot of fun to do.
Christina Green – October 2017