“Well you’ll have a better life. You’ll have a better life, you mark our words. Have a better life, you’ll all get what you all deserve. Oh man, this is too f***** up. In anybody’s language it ain’t good enough. ‘Cos I’ve been here almost fifteen years. In anybody’s language, this is fight or fear” Anybody’s Language – Liz Stringer
Liz Stringer is a traveller at heart, offering insight into the ongoing cultural and political issues facing regional Australia and the world. Her songs insist us not to turn a blind eye, as she hasn’t been able to, while touring the county and overseas limitless times. She’s a straight talker – no bullshit, yet laughing easily when we meet on a cold Melbourne night, portraying her understanding of the complexity of human behaviour, which she explores in her song writing.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Yeah I remember the first full song that I wrote. Probably when I was 15. Before that i’d written lots of little sort-of songs, but not fully formed.
Do you remember what it was about?
My mum had died a year earlier, so I wrote it about that which was pretty full on. That was the first one I wrote and definitely the first I recorded, about a year later or something.
That’s pretty young.
Yeah I was using it as a cathartic process, I guess I felt like I had to say something, although I don’t think it was a conscious process. I just did it you know?
You seem to share a lot of personal stories in your songs, intimately telling someone a story with a melancholy feel. Is there a sense of therapy with your writing?
(There) is but it’s not always actually my story. I grew up with the kind of old Irish folk tradition- sort of adopting voices instead of writing from my own perspective. It’s funny, i’m just writing a lot recently, the last 6-8 months and writing a lot more personally than I have for a long time. I guess it’s more the story telling that im interested in but there’s natural catharsis that happens when you’re writing about somebody else. I think that it is used as a form of therapy, or just as a form of expression or exercising kind of emotional demons. People do that in different ways and that’s how I do it I think.
Sometimes more in retrospect, you’ll listen to it a bit down the track and go ‘I was actually writing about such and such’. Also as i’m going through different stuff it can take on different meaning. Which is what everyone does as a listener, you take what you need from it – and I do that with the songs i’ve written. I think that I write in the darker end of the human experience spectrum because it’s a bigger palette than the happy bit and also what im interested in. I find it really beautiful and it moves me and moves things around in me that singing songs about being happy and in love don’t do. And that’s not because I haven’t been in love or i’m not a happy person but that’s just where – as a creative person – that’s where I find the best colour.
Are you more drawn to other people’s songs that are melancholic?
Yeah I would think so. I think my only criteria for liking songs is authenticity. If I feel like they’re telling the truth in whatever they’re singing about, in whatever form that is – not necessarily literally – the way that they get across what they’re trying to get across, then I like it. I dunno, it’s such a funny thought to think that we’re meant to be happy all the time because we’re just not. And that’s not a bad thing, that’s just part of the human experience – it’s that area that people respond to the most, because that’s where everyone is most of the time- and its art and music and thought and the luxurious things we can do that’s aside from just surviving – is working out what it is to be human. And I write a lot of stuff that’s musically upbeat, rock n roll stuff, so it’s not about being depressing or deliberately morose, I just think it’s about discussing and tapping into areas that I feel have the most common ground, (and) is probably what I listen to.
Those other emotions are often harder to put into words, and easier to get across a feeling in a creative way.
A song that has resonated with me is ‘Anybody’s Language’. It comes across as a personal song, but easy for people to relate to in a communal or political way – even without the audience knowing the origin of the story. How did that song come about?
It came about from being on tour and particularly just over the years, on the Hume for example, how many towns had been bypassed and what that’s done to certain communities. And then, I think it was during the Abbott time or just before, I guess it was my only attempt at singing about what I felt like was wrong. That people are so easily shat on and given gambling and booze and all this other shit to distract them for the fact they’re getting f***ed by the people they vote in. It’s a very abstract song – basically imagery – doesn’t really have a narrative or anything, just a loose idea. Then funnily enough later when I was involved with the James Price Point fight, north of Broome – a bunch of musicians were there to play for the ones defending the land, so the stuff that i’d written, the pipes on the beach line – i don’t think I even knew about James Price Point at that stage, but that then became relevant. I didn’t get that line for that experience, but it fit it well.
You relate it to that?
Yeah I do, and I introduce it as that, but chronologically it doesn’t work. But I knew of offshore gas hubs, and the barrier reef and desecration of the natural environment of Australia, particularly in the Kimberley – I think that’s probably where it was bubbling.
I guess with the sentiment there’s a lot of ongoing things that can relate to the feel of that song.
Yeah, totally. Because it’s such a depressing state of affairs. For someone that was lucky enough to be born into a family that had enough money to educate, clothe and feed me – that’s not everyone’s experience. That’s the other thing about being a songwriter or observer. I feel like it’s important to be able to understand other perspectives. I mean my people are pretty f***ed as well. We’re not rich, but I am compared to someone who grew up with nothing, you know what I mean.
Yeah the more you travel, the more you meet people and realize.
Totally, particularly since touring. You don’t have to go far out of the north of Melbourne to tap into the vein of racist, misogynist Australia. I wrote a song about this on my last record, you just have to understand that that’s their experience of the world – I mean we’re all getting f***ed, that’s what that song’s about.
I used to get really angry at people who had different political views to me, just couldn’t understand it. But I think the older i’ve got I realise it’s more about listening to each other and not judging each other and saying well that’s how you grew up, and this is how I grew up – that’s how I know what I know, and you know what you know. No-ones better than everyone else.
I know it’s not as black and white as we think – but then sometimes it is black and white!
Totally! Some things are just wrong. But we’re all united under one fact that is we’re getting f***ed by corporations. Basically the law is that if you have enough money you can do whatever the f**k you want. It’s just what happens and that’s supremely depressing to me (laughs).
Lots of material to write songs from.
Absolutely, infinite. On-going.
I was thinking about how you said with Anybody’s Language, you started then added to it later. Do you have any song writing routines?
No I don’t have any routine. I really am pretty um, what’s the word – pretty relaxed about it. Which I don’t think has necessarily served me that well. At the moment i’m in a period of song writing, and have been for the last 8 months to a year which co-incindently coincided with me not drinking booze for that amount of time.
Mmm Hmm. I just thought I needed a rest. Began with a month, now it’s gonna be a year. And that apparently has been really good for my song writing, which is interesting. Because many of my contemporaries in the music world, drink too much. I needed to recalibrate that, it sucks my creativity and I realise that so I had a period before that of not really writing a lot. And kind of feeling like well maybe now I have to put some sort of practice in place. But now the way I do it is generally have a guitar around the house and I play guitar alot and i write songs almost daily which is what I used to do. And that’s another reason. I’m not going to not drink booze again, but im gonna be careful, because i realise you need energy and you need to be clear and present and able to accept the flow of whatever’s going on. And maybe it works for some people but it doesn’t work for me and that’s been a real revelation.
The same with performing?
Yeah performing sober – oh my god.. the same thing with everything. I realise that (with) performing, there’s so many natural highs that are going on and it’s such a euphoric intense experience that you just totally squash when you drink. I mean early on I used to drink a lot and play, then the last 2 years i’d have two or three drinks which wasn’t a lot for me. But that’s actually something that I think, that I won’t drink on tour. Just at the end of runs, or weeks if I have a few days off because really, i’m so much more open and sing better, I perform better, im more present and clear. It’s ridiculous that it’s such a revelation.
I used to perform a bit and could only have a couple at the most – after that i’d make heaps of mistakes, wouldn’t care and it just wasn’t good.
Do you have that thing where you felt like the signal was taking longer to get to my hands?
Yeah slow – it just never worked for me and I couldn’t understand how people could perform well.
I’ve known people that are incredible when they are but I know that i’m not. I was talking to someone about this yesterday – I don’t subscribe to the idea or myth in the music industry still about the romanticism of the f***ed up artist. I’ve seen incredible people not change their ability to play, but it’s like I was getting to the point where I was like ‘F**k I have to perform’, and now partly because I don’t drink, and have nothing else to do with my time, I get really excited about it and look forward to it and I really enjoy it which is good because it’s my job and a very intense process. I don’t want to turn this whole interview into drinking but for the creative process for me, it’s completely changed and just stripped away all of the block– im at my most creative. Better at performing, better at writing, everything.
And so many positive things coming out of it to prove it.
Totally – the writing is very clearly on the wall to prove how much better it is for me. 1st October, Grand Final day, will be a year so im gonna see. Just re-introduce it slowly and see how I go. But i’m gonna be very careful around that because that’s something I don’t wanna shut off again.
It’s really hard for me to come back to Melbourne and not drink, because I spend time in other countries and it’s just not the same. I’ve spent most of my adult life here getting smashed, so there’s a lot of association for me. Im really happy for it not to be a thing in my life.
Have you done much co-writing?
I just started in the last little bit. It’s funny, I really resisted it – it just didn’t enter into my thought process – it felt like it was just gonna complicate matters, like ‘I can write songs, I don’t have to worry about someone else fu**ing it up’ (laughs). ‘This is not a democracy! I’m the dictator of this thing’ but then I started. Dyson, Stringer, Cloher the band with Mia and Jen – we’ve written a bunch of stuff together. I wrote with this Canadian band called the East Pointers. They just recorded a song we wrote together. It’s gonna be on their new record and they’re really pumped about it, which is great… and I just wrote with Linda Bull, Vika and Linda are putting a record out later in the year – that was really fun. I’m much more into it than I used to be and when I go to the States and Canada in a few weeks i’m seeking out people to do that with. I’m gonna go to New York and write a bunch with a friend of mine there.
Is it a bit of a writing tour, or are you playing as well?
I’m playing for most of the time but not as full on as the last few years. I’ve got a couple of two week blocks where i’m not doing much. One in Nashville at the end, i’m gonna search out some people there. Cos it’s such a massive thing there.. whether or not anything comes out of it, it’s just a good exercise. I’ve found it’s been a really fun, informative way to spend time. That’s the other thing, having irons in the fire like that and that’s ultimately my job, that’s my skill, to write songs so I should use it. But yeah, is a very new thing.
So you’ve been doing the ’String-Along’ shows, starting last night. Any song writing surprises, any surprises in general?
Yeah did the first one. It was really good. We had about 30 or 40 people there. It was great – it was a real pilot season for me. I’ve never done this before.
At the Gasometer?
At the Gasometer. And Micks doing one – Mick (Thomas) and I are old buddies so that’ll be fun. Deborah Conway is next week and Neil Murray. So it’s really an indulgent thing for me cos I enjoy talking about songs and about industry stuff and people’s experience. I had Dr Lou Bennett on last night and she was great. The work she’s doing around songs and language, it’s just amazing. In the same way that co-writing is so collaborative, im interested in all these people who’ve done really diverse stuff, and within the music world use their skills to do such a broad range of things – which is necessary to sustain a career, but it’s also necessary to take yourself away from your own shit, like pushing your own songs. They’ve all run projects, all been in different bands, all played at festivals. I mean, you know how much Mick’s done – its really inspiring for me and interesting. The feedback last night was overwhelmingly positive – they were like ‘its so great to watch you interview people who are knowledgable about something, talk about what their exited and interested about’. Even if there’s not a direct line into the conversation for everyone at all points, it’s still two friends talking about stuff that for us is very obvious maybe, but for punters not at all. So I’m hoping it builds, there’s already a lot of interest for Mick’s show at the end of the month and i’m hoping that people come and enjoy it because it’s really fun.
So you play some songs and chat.
Yeah it’s a 3 part set – I play songs at the start of the night, then we chat and they play songs at the end. I’ve asked them to pick songs based on certain categories ive given them, but it’s pretty loose. Its so nice for me to have access to these people who are all friends of mine, but to have a more formal ‘I wanna pick your brains about stuff’ I think that’s what makes it good for the audience, that I am interested. Im asking questions that are based on knowledge around that person, not just ‘whats your favourite pub?’ (laughs) ‘What was the name of your first band?’ I want to get further into stuff. I’ve already had interest from other venues in Victoria wanting to put it on –and i’m like ‘just hang on a second I don’t know if its gonna work’. It’s not a new format, or new idea but it hasn’t been done here very much.
There’s a need for that in Melbourne – things pop up here and there, then it’s quiet.
And there’s SO many artists. This is exactly where it should be happening, because there’s so many people doing really interesting stuff. To get access to the backend to how that works, and go this is what it is to do what we’re doing and because I feel like everyone’s leading really interesting lives in the creative field, whether or not they’re wildly successful or not – and that’s something I talk about with them – what success is.
It’s very individual – to work in the corporate world it’s like A to B to C, but being creative it’s not like that. There’s similarities but everyone’s doing a different thing in their own way.
Exactly. There’s no direct way, there’s no system where you’re like ‘now you’re qualified for this job, now you get into this pay wave’.
You need to be self motivated.
That’s a terrifying idea – the trade off for having all this autonomy and freedom, is that you also take 100% responsibility for everything. And that can be lonely and frightening and depressing, but the wins and the positive stuff is just so incredible. And that’s the sort of shit you don’t get working in a structured industry or environment. Its fu**ing rollercoaster. And everyone experiences those set of feelings but in completely different contexts.
How do you know when a song is finished?
Good question. What I say to song writing students is you have to keep drafting. Songs are such a cool medium because you have finite number of words and every word has to earn it place to be there. It’s a drafting process – keep going and going, trim all the fat off it and when you can’t change anything else – every word has to be there – that’s when you’re done. For me that’s how it works.
So really focussed on lyric and melody.
Yeah musically things happen way quicker for me. If i play it a dozen times it probably sorts itself out. Lyrics take way longer and that’s always a thing I finish second so um yeah god there’s some songs (looking back ) i think ‘why the f**k did you stop there you idiot?’ there’s this great song on my first record, I just wish that I… it was inexperience that’s what it was and not doing what i just said to do – keep making every word earn its place. It’s such an embarrassing one – it’s so lazy – and it’s such a great song – potentially..
So you feel like the essence is good, but wish you trimmed it back?
Yeah trimmed it back, made the lines better and taken out some of the trite imagery.
I bet you’re the harshest critic on that song.
Oh yeah absolutely.. I don’t know actually (laughs). Im not particularly critical about other people’s lyrics – well I know what I like and I think a good lyricist, I can forgive certain things because the overall way they use language and way they craft a song is so good, its like whatever, doesn’t even matter.
Mick Thomas is a great lyricist – he plays with language a lot. Deb Conway is an amazing songwriter. Um i’m obsessed with this guy called His Golden Messenger at the moment – amazing dude. He’s Southern American – think he lives in New York now – he writes this beautiful stuff thats very imagery rich. I’m not sure what he’s singing about (laughs) but the way he uses language feels authentic, very idiosyncratic. And that’s the other thing I say to students – cleche’s are shit…the more of your own voice you adopt the better your lyrics are gonna be. You don’t have to be smart – sometimes it’s gonna take away from the emotional impact of the song. It’s not about having massive vocabulary, although that helps.
I’m learning this Dylan song at the moment – there’s not many lyrics in it. It goes for about ten minutes (laughs), but its just perfect, how it should be, there’s nothing that doesn’t belong there and there’s nothing that’s missing.
If you don’t have anything to say don’t say it. Don’t take up people s listening space. Maybe that’s what separates artists from people that just do it. This is wandering into dangerous territory…
Like any individual voice or way of seeing the world and expressing that, and connecting across to the audience.
Totally, as opposed to maybe a voice that isn’t saying it in a way that hasn’t been said before. Like Paul Kelly for example, its like ‘Holy f**k that exactly what that feels like!’
That’s the sign of a good writer, it opens up these parts of your mind – and he’s very idiosyncratic, uses language thats his own experience of the world but it makes it bizarrely more accessible.
That’s what’s so special, to know someone else has felt that way – and someone that you don’t know. He’ll use everyday words but it’s the way he uses them.
Totally, he’s not using unnecisary frilly language. Its simplistic, the way he uses words is really skilful and in him..
And the complexity of families.
Exactly. And that’s what works. The fact he can observe and be ‘what is it I feel about this situation’’
He’s staying with his own ideas.
Being able to articulate that and someone else to understand is brilliant.
Image by: Lisa Sorgini
Liz Stringer – String Along shows