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Interview: Rowena Wise

Rowena Wise

Born and raised in the country, folk songstress Rowena Wise has come a long way in her 22 years. We caught up to have a chat about her latest single Then We Met, inspiration, collaboration, and growing up as a member of the Wise Family Band.

You’ve just finished a tour promoting your new single Then We Met, how was that?

We played a show in Sydney on Thursday evening and that went really well, that was the first time I’ve really headlined a show there, and it was a really decent crowd! That was at DJango Bar, and I played at The Toff on Saturday night with the boys as well, and that was great. That’s my home city, so yeah, we got a good crowd to that too, I love The Toff. I did a solo show in Hobart followed by a few more solo gigs, and a Friday night show in Adelaide – it’s been great.

Did you have a lot of family and friends come out to see your home town show?

Yeah! I did a gig for family and friends to launch my new band in January in the northern suburbs, and at the Talking Tongue there were quite a lot of new faces, which was really nice to see, but I’ve had some family along before which is really nice.

Let’s talk about the lyrics to Then We Met, what was the single written about?

It was sort of a mixture of a love song for a particular person and also a love song for Melbourne. I wanted to try and embrace Melbourne in all of its big, scary, new glory. I’m a country lass, right? I’m from Margaret River, three hours south of Perth, and moving to Melbourne was such a big change, so many crazy exciting opportunities and big new things to experience. I wanted to capture a little bit of that exuberance in the lyrics of the song, I guess. It’s quite a happy-go-lucky song.

What’s your favourite thing about the local music scene in Melbourne?

My favourite thing about the local music scene in Melbourne is probably how diverse [it is]. There’s always something on, every night of the week. It’s such a melting pot of faces and influences, and everyone’s supporting each other, which is always ideal. I live in a sharehouse full of other musicians who all have their own projects going on. I think Melbourne’s probably the best place for me to base myself [because of] the style of music I have. I guess I’m sort of indie-folk, but I feel like my songs span a range of different styles, and I think Melbourne is a really nice platform to feel that artistic freedom and to try [things] out because it’s so supportive.

It sounds like it’s been a great launching pad for you!

Yeah, for sure! It’s great. Lots of festivals around there as well.

Of the artists in Melbourne, who has been the biggest musical inspiration for you?

(Laughs) I don’t know, it changes! It changes all the time…first and foremost, I guess, I’m inspired by my own mother. I grew up in a folk family band, and my older sister Lucy is also a musician in Melbourne. She’s great, and she’s really inspired me. She made the move when she was 18, and I did as well.  [There are] particular musicians I’m inspired by in terms of songwriting and their awesome musicianship…I really like Darren Hanlon, he’s great…and there’s a bunch of other bands I like listening to. I love James Teague, he’s another local Melbourne musician, and there’s also other singer-songwriters from across the waters like Laura Marling and Feist…I listen to a lot of Sufjan Stevens as well, and Rachel Sermanni is an amazing musician from Scotland who writes really quirky, poetic lyrics, and I’m inspired by that too…but yeah, Melbourne has a bunch of great musicians that I’ve been listening to lately.

That’s quite a melting pot of influences! You mentioned growing up with the Wise Family Band – how did that early experience shape the musician that you’ve become?

[I was] totally immersed in that [during] childhood…family time was music for us, jamming around the kitchen table. We recorded our own album in the kitchen – Dad set up recording equipment and put egg cartons on the roof to minimise echoing. Travelling across Australia in our truck for four or five summers back in our heyday just to go and play at festivals, [and] travelling around every summer across the Nullaboor was just such a fun experience. It was really nice being totally saturated in that from an early age, and I think if I was to do anything besides music it would feel quite strange because it’s very much part of my…I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it’s part of my familial identity. Dad is an instrument maker and he made all of the instruments I play, [including my violin], and Mum taught me to play a lot of the instruments.

What’s been your favourite touring experience so far?

I supported Jordie Lane on tour early last year. That was a solo tour, [and] one of the first tours I had done with my solo project since I moved to Melbourne, and playing with Jordie was really great! We met up in all the big cities and towns we were playing in…and for a bunch of festivals we were at the same festival together. He’s influenced me as well, he’s from Melbourne and  I think he’s based in LA now with his partner Clare Reynolds, who’s amazing. Doing that tour with him was great, he’s such a crazy character and an amazing songwriter, so I loved that! It was awesome.

If you could go anywhere on tour, where would you go?

I would really love to travel around Scandinavia. I know it’s sort of odd…maybe a bit of Germany as well, but just Europe in general. It’s just so supportive of the arts. A lot of projects are going on here and there, festivals… there’s stuff happening all the time. I have an American citizenship so I should be saying America. My mum was American. I guess America as well…it might make no sense to move to the States or to Europe. I guess Melbourne and the East Coast and parts of Perth as well have a lot of stuff going on that could really launch young musicians like me into the world.

You’ve done a few collaborations, and there’s a few guest appearances on ‘Then We Met’. What was it like working with all those other artists?

It was wonderful! [They’re] such self-sufficient musicians, [and] they were all mates of mine as well. I co-produced the album with Nick Huggins who engineered the whole thing, and he played a bit of electric guitar – a few twangy electric guitar notes on that track, but as for other friends, I’ve got my own mother doing string parts and Liz Frencham on double bass, and I’m playing the rest, I think, but yeah, the album has a few guests. I basically told them what kind of style I was after and gave them the freedom to come up with whatever sounded good because I think it’s always good to have that  collaborative thing where it’s sort of like, “Oh yeah, I think this feel would be nice. Can you do something like that?” and then they come up with [something]. It’s a pleasant surprise, and it always keeps you on your toes. It’s always fun.

If you could choose one musician to work with on a new track, who would it be?

That’s a hard one! (laughs) I know this is a stab in the dark, but I think collaborating with someone like St Vincent would be really, really fun! She’s really quirky, she’s an amazing guitarist and musician. I think she did a collaborative thing with Dave Byrne from Talking Heads once. I’ve listened to a bit of their stuff and I like some of [what they’ve done] together. She’s such a strong female performer, she really holds her own. I would love to collaborate with her, I know we have completely different musical styles, but just her originality and her strength and everything…I think I would love to try and leech off that.

When you’re writing a new song, what does your process involve?

I start with lyrics and melody at the same time if I can. I get kind of obsessed with lyrics…maybe that’s a folk sensibility, I’m not really sure. Nutting them out on ukulele initially is really nice, because you can take the ukulele with you everywhere you go – not that I take it with me everywhere I go, I’d attract a lot of weird looks (laughs) – but yeah, strumming it out on the ukulele and coming up with a melody that’s just catchy and that will stick, and then just kind of humming along and zooming in on lyrics. It starts with melody, and then it’s very lyric-centric.

I’ve heard many artists say they have to write the lyrics first or they can’t make it work, so it’s interesting that you would do the melody first!

Yeah, I’d love to try different styles of writing a song sometime. I heard that David Bowie once had this computer that generated lyrics – he put phrases into his computer and it would spurt out different ideas. I think a couple of his songs used that.

You can do anything with technology these days!

Yeah (laughs), yeah, you can. It’s great, I had a jam at the National Folk Festival recently [where] I played with my band. We had some really great gigs and great reception as well. I had a jam at this Folk Festival with the drum kit on Garage Band on my iPhone and someone else was playing ukulele and someone else was on double bass, it was just very surreal and fun. I think technology is pretty fun, I’m a bit of a nerd (laughs).

We hear you’re preparing to release a debut album around the middle of this year?

Yeah, August! I’m still looking for a label to work with for that.

So what can we expect from the new album?

The material is stuff that’s been bouncing around in my performances for about a year and a half, two years, so it’s well and truly my debut album. I’m so proud of it. All of the songs are very lyrically focussed, but the melodies as well are all very distinct in each of the songs, which is always nice. You want a bit of variation there. They’re basically quite lyrical pop songs with a lot of different influences and imagery and stuff thrown in. There’s a definite folk sensibility and a story-telling style to it, and the instrumentation… there’s all this warm, acoustic, multi-layered instrumentation from double bass, strings, guitar, ukulele, piano, accordion, and always three-part harmonies. I love the three-part harmonies. It’s going to be fun, quirky, and hopefully it’s got some extra spicy dimensions to it – a bit of depth.

Written by Jess Martyn