Interview: Imogen Clark

unnamed-3It seemed like only a minute ago that 23-year-old Australian singer-songwriter Imogen Clark released her debut album, Love & Lovely Lies – and now she’s released her second, the wonderful Collide. As I found out recently when interviewing her, Clark is constantly writing, so a third album probably isn’t far way. She’s a young woman who has dedicated her life to music since childhood, and the work and passion for her craft is evident in everything she does.

Congratulations on your wonderful album. I’ve been listening to it on high rotation and every time I listen there’s a different song that pulls my attention. It’s a really great piece of work.I actually can’t believe you’ve done two albums already, though. When did you start making this one?

We started recording this at Easter last year. The first one came out in May 2016, so we pretty much straight after that album started talking about plans for the next one. So there really wasn’t much wasted time, but that’s great, because that’s what I wanted. I write so much and had been writing, particularly at that time, so, so much, so I was really, really excited to get straight back in the studio and record again, and get some of these songs out. So it was a really good timeline, because I wanted the second album to be out within a couple of years of the first one.

So do you tend to keep writing and stockpile songs as you go?

Yes. We had a ridiculous amount of songs to choose from for this record – something like 40 or 50 songs, and we chose 11. It was a really hard thing, to narrow it down. I don’t even necessarily write for a purpose, generally. I normally feel something that I want to get out into a song and that’s what motivates me to write, and at the end of the day I’m choosing the songs I think fit together best for this next record. I love being the sort of person who writes all the time because it means you have a lot of choice when it comes to making an album.

When did your writing start? Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

Yes, I do – and I wish I didn’t! [laughs] Every songwriter has that very first song they ever wrote and they’re quite embarrassed about. I wrote a lot when I was younger – I suppose I started writing when I was 12 or 13, when I first picked up a guitar. I was just lucky that my dad had guitars lying around for me to pick up. Of course, when you’re that age you’re just writing about angsty things [laughs] and boys that you like who don’t know you exist. Stuff like that, that you look back on when you’re older and think, That really seemed like the end of the world to me then but it doesn’t even cross my radar any more.So I definitely remember those songs and I remember half-writing a lot of songs in the beginning. I was very hard on myself – ‘I don’t think it’s any good’ – then I’d just put it down. The first time I wrote a full song – I still think this song is very precious to me. It’s called ‘By Candlelight’ – you can get it on Spotify – it is a song that I really still like. I remember being so hard on myself and saying, ‘I don’t know if I like it and I don’t know if it’s good enough’, then I played it live, at a gig, and got a really good response and that was it: I realised, This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

It sounds like you writing songs and also playing shows at that young age. How did you come to start doing shows?

That’s once again thanks to my dad. He’s been a musician all his life, and the great thing about my parents is that they never pushed me into music. They just had instruments lying around and it was my choice, ultimately, that I wanted to do it. My parents lent me the money when I was about 14 or 15 to buy my own PA system – that was quite a few thousand dollars, and they said, ‘Over the next few years, as you earn money from your gigs, you can pay this back.’ That was a really wonderful thing for me because it taught me to really value the equipment that I had, and Dad taught me how to set up the PA system and all this cool stuff. I’m very lucky that I have great parents. It really all did start with my dad. I remember the first gig I ever did was at a place called the Sassafras Café, which is very close to my place. It’s in a town called Kurrajong [NSW]. It was basically just sitting out in the garden, playing tunes, and I’d busk a bit back then. It led to more professional gigs where I was being paid. It was how I earnt my money, basically, as a young person in high school. As original music took over a little bit more, it became more about the songwriting and wanting to record, and the money I was earning at the gigs I would put towards making an album and all those sorts of things. So it all grew from there. But it sounds a bit crazy to say I’ve been playing for ten years now. I’m only 23 [laughs] but I have been playing professionally for ten years.

You mentioned that started playing original music, and that implies that you were playing covers as well – I’m curious about which covers you were playing.

I loved a lot of different stuff. I was brought up on heaps of different kinds of music. I took a lot of different influences from that. I’d play some Simon and Garfunkel songs. I also have Missy Higgins songs – she was a big influence on me when I was younger, and still now. Also classic songs – things like ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen. Despite being 12 or 13 at the time, I feel pretty proud of my musical influences at a young age [laughs]. I would mostly play three- or four-hour covers gigs in pubs or cafes, just entertaining people who were there – background music, whatever it might be. And I’d always throw in a few originals, once I started writing – I loved the fact that I was getting a good response to those originals, so over time it became more about those originals than the covers.

Playing for three or four hours at a time – that means there’s a lot of practice going on as well. Have you had a good work ethic from childhood. Were you always very diligent? Because this does suggest quite a lot of work was going on.

I do like to think of myself as a very hard-working person. I do have a really good work ethic – just because, really, at the core of it all, I love it. It’s easy to go to work every day when you love what you’re doing. I’ve always worked hard at it because I’ve always known that that’s what I wanted to do. The way I see it, you don’t want to die wondering, so you have to put everything you have into this music career. There’s a lot of sacrifice as well – I think being young when I started taught me to get used to that way of life. When a lot of my friends were going out, when we started getting a bit older in high school and they were going out to parties and having fun, I was often not able to go to those things because I was gigging. That really taught me a lot about the sacrifice that you have to give to music in order for it to be a lucrative career. So starting at a young age and working so hard from a young age was really good for me.

And there’s that tug that happens when it is something you love, when it’s a creative endeavour and it fills you with joy, and it also becomes your business – it can be hard to find a balance, but you do seem to have a clear-eyed view of it and come to a place where you can maintain that joy and also run the business side of it.

Absolutely. Of course there was a time in school when I felt like I was missing out on things but then I’d be on the stage singing songs that I loved or songs that I wrote to people and thinking, ‘No, this is a stepping stone to where I want to be ultimately, which is an original artist affecting with music in the same way that I am affected by music I love. So I can never feel like I’m missing out on anything because this is what I want to do with my life.’

Now that you’re in the process of creating albums and doing shows and doing interviews, this is a different rhythm again to the time when you could just write songs and you were playing long shows. Are you finding it okay to come up with that balance between all the different parts that you’re doing right now?

Yes, definitely. It gets pretty crazy at times because currently I’m a self-managed artist and I always have been. I’ve certainly had help from great people who have come along and been mentors to me and wonderful helps pushing my career along, but most of it has come from me. So it’s been a really crazy ride so far and getting the balance can be hard. I get very anxious and they say people with anxiety are overachievers because your anxiety pushes you to always be working so hard, but you have to remember that you need a break as well, and that’s something that I’m starting to get a little bit better at – that balance of going, ‘You know what? I’m working on the weekends, every week on this Diesel tour at the moment, and I’m working during the week managing myself, so maybe I’m just going to take today off to chill.

Your album was produced by Mark Lizotte [Diesel] – how did you come to work with him?

Mark and I are on the same agency, the Harbour Agency in Sydney. They are wonderful and a few years back they called me and said, ‘We have a couple of gigs for you – you’ve been offered to support Diesel. Would you like to do these gigs – they’re out in the middle of New South Wales?’ I said of course, I’d love to do that. I’d never met Mark before and on the first night we were at the show and we got chatting in the green room, and it became clear that we had really similar musical influences. Mark is, of course, this rock legend in Australia but he also has these influences that range from Joni Mitchell to Bruce Springsteen and all these people I love as well. So we just hit it off. Then the next morning I woke up to an email offering me the chance to go on Mark’s whole tour as his support act later that year. It was a really wonderful opportunity and I was so, so happy that he felt I was suitable for it. Over the course of the tour we just got to know each other better. At one point he mentioned that he produced albums for other people, and if I was ever looking for someone … And I said, ‘Actually, I am – I’m about to make my second album and I’d love to work with you.’ The pieces fell into place and there really was no one better to work with than Mark because he understands all these different genres of music, and this record really is a cross-genre record so it was perfect.

You’re used to managing your own work but the act of handing over your album to a producer in some ways must be a relief because it’s taking a bit of responsibility from you, but is there also a sense of loss of control? But it could also be a great collaboration.

There’s always that little bit of fear. Absolutely every songwriter would by lying if they said there wasn’t fear no matter who they worked with as a producer. There’s that worry of, ‘Is it going to turn out the way I want it to? What’s going to happen to my songs?’ But I have to say that working with Mark was fantastic. He didn’t want to change any of my songs. I’ve heard lots of horror stories of producers wanting to chop and change people’s songs, and completely change them from their core. There was none of that with Mark. He was very, very open to leaving the songs exactly as they were. We had a really great time in the studio crafting all these different instruments and the way the songs were going to work with all the different instrumentation. Mark really has a fantastic ear for things. Sometimes he’d suggest something and I’d say, ‘I never, ever expected that to work on this song’, and we’d try it out and I’d say, ‘Now we can’t take it away because I love it so much.’ So it was a great pairing, I feel.

I’d like to talk about your voice – you have a beautiful, distinctive voice, and it’s so distinctly years that when I was at Qudos Bank Arena last year to see the Dixie Chicks and I was walking around outside, I heard a song playing and immediately thought, That’s Imogen Clark.

Really? That’s awesome! I had no idea my songs would be played there.

You are still young but you have been playing for a long time, and you’ve had an opportunity to develop your voice, although it sounds like an instinctual voice, not like you’ve constructed it. When did you start singing?

I started singing lessons when I was eight but I really think I was singing since I could talk. It was such a natural part of my life and I have videos of me growing up, of my dad playing music to me when I’m in my pram and I’m trying to sing along with him. I think it was just such a natural part of me; both nature and nurture brought singing into my life. When I started singing lessons I was doing opera and musical theatre, so it was a completely different style. I had this wonderful singing teacher who was like a second grandma to me, this beautiful lady who’d been in the business herself. But eventually when I picked up the guitar I was still doing the singing lessons and I continued those until I was about eighteen. Guitar really took over and I realised that although I really loved the classical side of singing, and it taught me great techniques, really my heart was lying in the contemporary side of things and the songwriting side of things. As for the uniqueness of my voice – and that’s a great compliment, I really appreciate that because that’s the ultimate wish of a singer-songwriter, that someone will hear your song and know that it’s you – I think really the sole reason for my voice sounding the way it is I put down to starting so young. I think sometimes when people start when they’re older, they have all these influences that shape the way they want to sing, whereas when I was starting to sing I was so young I didn’t listen to music. Not consciously. When you’re eight years old you don’t really have music that you listen to on your phone, because you don’t have a phone – you just have what your parents are playing in the car or whatever. And I didn’t really have any songwriters or singers that I was listening to and who I tried to shape my voice to sound like. So really it was just me coming out and that’s the only way I knew how to sing. So I really put it down to just being so young.

Earlier when you mentioned Missy Higgins was someone you listened to – I think she’s had a big influence on how a lot of Australian female artists sing, but I don’t hear any of her in your voice. But on this album I did notice that on some of the songs you sound wistful – like there was something you were missing. Was that the case?

Wistful is totally a good descriptive word for some of the songs. What music for me has always been about is that emotional connection with the audience, and sometimes when the song or subject is really about longing or something very sentimental, I feel very much like I take on that emotion when I’m singing it and it does affect my voice, definitely.

Collide is out now through Lost Highway Australia/Universal Music Australia.

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www.imogenclark.com.au