Alesa Lajana is an award winning Australian singer-songwriter, storyteller, guitarist and banjoist. For the last eight years she has travelled the dusty highways of Australia, collecting stories from post European contact history, and setting them to music. Her new album Frontier Lullaby is the collection of songs and stories from this wild and epic adventure, leading listeners on a heartfelt journey through shadowy chapters of Australian history.
THE STREET TALKS TO ALESA BEFORE HER CONCERT IN CANBERRA.
DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC.
I hear music and songs in everything around me, every day. It feels like just another of my senses now; something that instantaneously responds to the events unfolding around me. I like what Victor Hugo said on the topic: “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words, and that which cannot remain silent.”
WAS THERE A POINT IN YOUR LIFE WHEN YOU KNEW YOU WANTED TO BE A SINGER/SONGWRITER?
One of the pivotal moments in my life that led me to build a career as a singer/songwriter happened one afternoon in high school, when a teacher gifted me a shoe box full of Bob Dylan cassette tapes. He had just upgraded to CDs, and knew that I was very interested in song writing. I used to spend hours listening those tapes after school, and I had fallen in with a group of friends who also loved that style of music. It was right around that time that I was beginning to play guitar. I was painfully shy about singing in public, so I mostly just made up little songs in my room and played them very quietly behind closed doors. It took me some time to finally muster up the courage to do something in front of people.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO THE BANJO?
I began playing banjo specifically for the Frontier Lullaby album. It is a very recent addition to my instrumental skill set, but one that I took to with great devotion. For me, the sound of the banjo, when handled in a particular way, truly captures the silvery tones of the Australian landscape. It is an amazing instrument, having been adopted by so many different genres of music since it’s migration from Africa. Now that it has arrived in Australia, I am so curious as to how it will be adopted into our music over the next few hundred years.
FRONTIER LULLABY HAS TAKEN OVER EIGHT YEARS TO CREATE A NEW ALBUM. TELL US ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY.
Frontier Lullaby was inspired by stories from Australian history, in particular the chapters of our history we have found difficult to acknowledge. Prior to recording the album, I spent eight years on the road, researching and meeting people connected to the history I wrote about. It has been both a very life affirming, and emotionally tumultuous experience. Reading history in a book, one can distance oneself from the humanity in the story, and thus not have too strong an emotional reaction to it. When you meet people who are still deeply affected by that history, you can’t distance yourself from the humanity at all. For that reason, the research really knocked me around for a time there; taking in all that hope, pain and sadness. It’s not an easy thing. There is so much unfinished business in our country. Now I feel as though I am bringing those songs home to where they came from, and that, with the many reunions that it brings, is for me the beating heart of this journey.
YOU HAVE COLLABORATED WITH OTHER AWARD WINNING ARTISTS ON YOUR ALBUMS. TALK US THROUGH THE PROCESS OF COLLABORATION WITH OTHER MUSICIANS.
I was pretty selective about the people I worked with on the album. The thematic material is quite confronting, and I needed to surround myself with a team of people who had a deep capacity for empathy, and who were able to share this in the way they played music or wrote songs. I did give the occasional brief during the recording sessions, but mostly, I just invited my colleagues into the story by sharing how the song came to be written, and then let them freely interpret their voice in the composition. The co-writing itself just happened organically, sitting in a kitchen or likes, with guitars, pens and notepads.
YOU HAVE SPECIAL GUESTS PERFORMING WITH YOU AT THE STREET. TELL US ABOUT THEM.
The special guests I have performing with me at The Street are Cielle Montgomery and James Church. We met in Tamworth during the country music festival when James was playing in the house band at The Supper Club. I played some songs there over a few nights and asked James if he would like to guest. It is not often you meet someone in Australia with the level of musicianship that James has, particularly on dobro, and his partner Cielle is also a beautiful singer/songwriter. They both played in my band at the Woodford Folk Festival, and from there we decided to do some regional and remote touring together. We travel in convoy with our two little caravans.
ARE YOU SUPERSTITIOUS? IS THERE A PROCESS THAT YOU ALWAYS LIKE TO GO THROUGH BEFORE STEPPING OUT ON STAGE?
I would not describe myself as a particularly superstitious person…. Touch wood! I often spend a bit of time before a concert thinking about the conversations I have had with locals on the day. I also reflect on my travels around Australia, in particular the people I have met, the stories I can and can’t speak of in public, the significance of singing the hidden history songs in the location where I am, and my ancestors. Every concert I do becomes part of the bigger narrative of the Frontier Lullaby story.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
I will be on the road with James and Cielle for the rest of the year. We are currently working on a central QLD tour leg. At the end of my 2017 commitments, I have decided to retire from my involvement in the Australian music industry. I was a judge for the ARIA Awards in 2016, and found the judging process very questionable. After seeing corruption first hand, and knowing how closely different organisations are linked in the music industry, I can’t see a way forward that meets my need for authenticity and integrity. I believe it is impossible to properly, formally release music in the Australian music industry without the involvement of certain organisations, and I care too much about the music I write to subject it to that process any further. There are also not enough musicians willing to stand up for their rights in the industry. We are mostly so weary from the struggle towards ‘success’ that once we get to a certain level, we don’t want to rock the boat. Truth is, those organisations need us more than we need them. At the end of the day, it is all rather simple. Audiences just want to listen to good, well produced music, and we musicians just want to play for an appreciative, attentive audience. What needs to be addressed are the standardised platforms that the middle men have built. They are very rickety, and don’t meet my health and safety standards.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
My main source of inspiration is the land around me. I love being on tour and taking in the beauty and grit of Australia, it’s people and the way they live. Every moment is inspiration to me, although sometimes I need some hindsight to fully comprehend the significance of a particular moment.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
I am currently reading The Emperor of Scent, by Chandler Burr. I am a huge fan of the olfactory arts, and this particular book of his is an utterly beguiling account of maverick scientist Luca Turin’s quest to prove his ‘vibration’ smell theory. As for what I am watching, at present we are picking our way through Larry David’s seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Interestingly, watching Curb helps me deal with the inner workings of the Australian Music Industry with more humour, which is the only way I can do it without going completely crazy.