Happy Axe is Emma Kelly. As a child, Emma lived in a shed in the bush and was driven regularly to the big villages of the Blue Mountains in a red wagon to learn violin from some incredible teachers called Rotraud and Gustaw. She decided to do a classical violin degree as a teen, and distracted herself whilst completing this degree by performing at major festivals like Woodford Folk Festival and Groovin the Moo with bands, before graduating in her early twenties with honours and a deep admiration for Ravel and Piazzolla. She formed the bands Mr Fibby and The Ellis Collective with her best friends around this time, leading her to write and do some great things including learning to play the musical saw. In 2015 Emma attended the New York City Musical Saw Festival as the guest of honour, and in 2016 was nominated for best live instrumentalist in the National Live Music Awards after completing a European Tour. This year she has been nominated for this award again, as well as ‘Best Live Electronic Act or DJ.’ Last July she toured to Japan, and in December she will launch her first album as Happy Axe at The Street Theatre.
Photo Credit: by Konrad Lenz
The Street talked to Emmy Kelly before the launch of Dream Punching.
DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC.
Music is a treasured and vital part of my life. My relationship with it has evolved a lot, learning it from violin teachers as a child, institutionalising it at ANU as a young adult, being in rock, folk and gypsy bands, and then piecing it all back together and creating my own world of music as an artist now. It’s been amazing, it’s taken me through an appreciation of so many things, classical music, kicking around the festival circuit for a few years, going on crazy, fun tours with bands, collaborating with inspiring people, and now teaching myself to be a producer and recording engineer meshed with a performer to make Happy Axe. I hope my relationship with music continues to evolve and change as rapidly as it always has; I need to be exciting myself by what I am doing- not rest in the same pattern for too long. Happy Axe is a great project for constant exploration in music, which I see not as an industry or a contest, but an artform.
YOU INCLUDE SAWS IN YOUR REPETOIRE OF INSTRUMENTS. PLEASE EXPLAIN.
Musical saw is such a fun part of the sound palette I use. It’s like having a cross between an opera singer and Theremin in my instrument collection. It’s a cool shiny sound when looped, and great to play and write melodies on as another option from violin and vocals. They’re just saws from the hardware, bowed with a violin bow.
HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE YOUR SOUND?
As far as genres go, probably something like Experimental Trip Hop. It’s music that uses electronic music production techniques to enhance the fairly acoustic, raw sounds of violin and saw, and shape them into songs that don’t necessarily have a traditional song structure, but are kind of strange, dreamy pop-songs.
YOU HAVE HAD A BIG YEAR – TOURED JAPAN AND NOMINATED FOR TWO LIVE MUSIC AWARDS. WHAT WAS IT LIKE PLAYING TO JAPANESE AUDIENCES?
It was so lovely, and similar to the attentive audiences you often find in Canberra. Japanese audiences are very polite in my experience; they won’t start clapping after a song until the performer has visibly nodded or said Arigatou. They’re so kind and respectful of each other too, groups of drunken friends still in the venue at 2am will still bow politely to each other to say their goodbyes. Where I’m from people just smoke-bomb!
HOW DID IT FEEL TO BE NOMINATED FOR TWO AWARDS?
Like a massive compliment! Anytime someone likes or connects with my music it’s a huge compliment. To be recognised in the National part of these awards is so rewarding, because it means all those long drives to Sydney and Melbourne have paid off- I now have a music community that exists outside of Canberra as well. It’s also very humbling to be next to some of those really established artists on the nomination list too.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE TO DEVELOP AND RECORD YOUR NEW ALBUM DREAM PUNCHING?
About two years. The performing of the songs is a big part of the song’s journey in Happy Axe. I see how the songs sound and feel in the performing environment and they develop and change from there. But there’s also a handful of songs I wrote in the last few months that have never been played and will be heard for the first time at the launch.
YOU WILL BE JOINED ON STAGE FOR THE LAUNCH BY AN ENTOURAGE OF SOUND MAKING MUSICIANS. WHAT CAN AUDIENCES EXPECT?
I’ve had a lot of fun sharing out some of the jobs I usually do by myself to some amazing instrumentalists and vocalists. I love Happy Axe as a solo project, but I miss the excitement of bigger ensembles sometimes so I’m treating myself and the audience to a bigger ensemble as a launch night treat. I won’t be the only string player on stage, that’s for sure…
ARE YOU SUPERSTITIOUS? IS THERE A PROCESS THAT YOU ALWAYS LIKE TO GO THROUGH BEFORE STEPPING OUT ON STAGE?
In the past I’ve had to go for a run on the day of a performance, and even further back, I used to have to wear a particular pair of Doc Martens whilst performing. Now I just make sure my violin is in tune.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
Next year I’m performing 10 shows on the tops of mountain summits around Canberra early on Saturday mornings. The Happy Axe Summit Tour is going to combine my love of our bush-infused capital and an interest in the ways people interact with or discover music. If you walk regularly on Mounts Ainslie, Majura, Taylor, Arawang, Pleasant, Mugga Mugga, Waniassa, Stromlo, Painter, or Black Mountain, you might stumble upon me performing in the bush in early Autumn or late Spring. If you want to come to it there’ll be an event on Facebook, but this project isn’t about promoting and getting people to gigs, it’s about accidental and unusual music discovery.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Conversations with friends, science, overnight hiking, experimental artists from Japan. The increase of women who are musicians, comedians or other entertainers that are gleefully ignoring societal pressure to just be eternally youthful or feminine- there are so many more inspiring options of things to be!!! Every day I seem to discover more inspiring women out there making awesome stuff and audiences with brains who are expecting more thought, art and substance to go into what they are being shown.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
Watching: Broad City, Lady Dynamite and Rick and Morty. Reading: Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl, Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Listening to: Björk, LCD Soundsystem, Rozalla.