GETTING TO KNOW: ALYX DENNISON

Alyx Dennison is a singer, composer and sound artist who cut her teeth on experimental pop duo kyü before releasing her solo debut album, Popfrenzy/Caroline, in 2015. She toured her album nationally, and supported some of her heroines such as Juana Molina (Argentina), Deradoorian (Dirty Projectors), and LAMB (UK).

She has composed music for dance, film, theatre and has lent her unmistakable voice to artists and composers, notably performing in Megan Clune’s score alongside Joan La Barbara in Agatha Gothe-Snape’s Rhetorical Chorus at Liveworks 2017 (vocalist);  Oliver Beer’s Composition For Mouths which premiered at The Art Gallery of NSW as part of The Sydney Biennale this year (vocalist); and Lauren Brincat’s Bravi Brava Brave at Carriageworks as Part of Sydney Contemporary 2018 (percussionist/vocalist).

Original music and sound design work includes film Outbreak Generation by Brooke Goldfinch which premiered at Sydney Film Festival 2017 and Taree Sansbury’s directorial debut MI:WI – an acclaimed dance work which premiered at Next Wave 2018.

Alyx is a music educator with a particular interest in encouraging gender, culturally and linguistically diverse kids.

THE STREET TALKED TO ALYX BEFORE THE UPCOMING PHENO AND BAND SHOW IN APRIL.

WHY MUSIC?
Why indeed!! I’ve spent my life trying to prove I can do other things, but I always come back to music. Deep down I think it is an incredible vehicle for human expression. It can break down walls inside yourself and among people. It exists and doesn’t – I love that music is in a room with you but you can’t touch it. Music and dancing is the core of human joy, celebration, mourning – of FEELINGS… it is a voice. It has given voice to oppressed, it has sparked revolutions, is has been hummed quietly in private in showers and lulled people into and out of the world. Its ephemeral, its magical, it takes shape within you – you make it and it gets received in a totally different way – it is truly collaborative.

YOU WORK WITH MUSIC IN MANY WAYS. WHAT IS AT THE CORE OF YOUR MUSIC MAKING?
I feel like this is something I’m still figuring out, I don’t really have a theory behind my practise or a method of working. I love exploring and experimenting, I love bringing in instrumentalists and explore their instrument vicariously. Aesthetically I employ lots of voice and percussion – my friend recently said to me that I should get a job “making dreamscapes”. Everything I make sounds like a whoozy dream.

WHAT IS EXPERIMENTAL POP?
I guess I don’t know the definition officially, but my understanding of experimental pop is that it is a form of music that employs elements of pop music – traditional/abstracted song structures, hooks, melodies etc – but isn’t confined by rules or conventions of pop songwriting. Pop songs are traditionally short, repetitive, catchy and clean sounding. They’ll probably have a chorus/vs/chorus/bridge structure that lots of songwriting tutors will tell you is essential for a good song. I firmly believe there shouldn’t be rules to music-making, and anything that comes from a genuine place should be honoured and not contorted into something entirely for the sake of listenability. I like that you can say what you mean, go to unexpected places, have long rambly moments, or two minute transitions from one song to another, make a song go for eight minutes if you want to. I think I identity most with the genre because I genuinely love to experiment with how a song or piece of music might be presented. All that being said, I think loads of contemporary pop music is experimental by nature. I also think I identify with term because it can be an umbrella for trying all sorts of genre’s in one place. I also am still very much an album artist, and not hugely excited about the age of streaming. I love a solid full length album full of pieces of music that reference to and contrast with one another.

HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE THE SOUNDS YOU CREATE WITH PHENO?
I mainly use one particular synth for Pheno, a Yamaha DX-7, which is largely a very recognisable, referential instrument. I think it was the most popular synth in the 80s and is all over pop music from that era, as well as heaps of Brian Eno, the Akira Original Soundtrack by Geinoh Yamashirogumi, as well as a personal favourite of mine: Keyboard Fantasies by Beverly Glenn Copeland – a beautiful whimsical record entirely comprised of DX7 sounds. Before Pheno, the DX7 largely sat in my studio as an ornament, as I usually gravitated to warm, warbly analogue synths. It sat it my dad’s sound studio before that, for decades. The bright, dramatic, crystalline sounds on it are the perfect match to Pheno. Like the DX, Pheno as a band has elements that are recognisable and referential – there are splashes of 80s art pop and 70s funk, there are things you’ve never heard before in there too. I think the sounds of the DX sit really well within the music. Jess will give me a very abstract direction like “I want it to sound like we’re underwater and the sun is shining through the water!” which is luckily my language, and I might build something at my lil station. I sing as well in the band and do samples – I guess my job is to sprinkle wobbly, camp fairy dust all over the solid foundations of Jess and the rotation of other kick arse musicians that play with Pheno.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR HISTORY IN MAKING MUSIC WITH JESS GREEN.
Jess and I met when we were both playing in an epic dance show by Shaun Parker Company, with a live musical score by Nick Wales. The music by Nick was absolutely beautiful, and his generous spirit allowed us to workshop and explore the music. This creative process, as well as the extensive touring of the show around the world, meant that we all became family. Jess, Jessica O’Donoghue (an incredible punk opera singer) and I, were the vocalists and sung a lot of very difficult music together. That was the start of it. Around this time, Jess told me about her idea for a new pop project. I remember sitting and musing about it, and her deciding that was what she was going to do. Having a new born baby, it was emotional and scary. Its incredible to me that she ran with it and did it. A few years later, she released the absolutely HUGE EP “Dragon Year”, and went from strength to strength – both playing as Jess Green the ridiculous guitarist as well as Pheno the scifi rock queen. Jess also played in my band around the time my album was released in 2015. The band was comprised of Jess, myself and our friend Bonnie Stewart – and was really special. If you listen to the record, it doesn’t sound like a live album at all – but many remarked upon how amazingly well realised the live show was which absolutely all owed to the incredible versatility of Jess and Bonnie. Jess and I have always been a sounding board for each other with our projects – our musical background and our interests/what we gravitate to aesthetically is actually very different, but we have common ground and deep respect for eachother. In my composition work, Jess has always been a fresh set of ears for me and has steered me in the right direction when I’m feeling lost. I’m really grateful that Jess has brought me along for the Pheno ride, we’ve played some amazing shows, and recently working on the Skywhale with Patricia Piccinini project was a huge, creatively exciting thing. I think we’ll always create together one way or another.

WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO COLLABORATION WITH OTHER ARTISTS?
I can find collaboration really difficult, but I think if you can master it, it is an absolute superpower. If you can surrender what you think is right and honour everything that is brought to the table, you’re guaranteed to create something that you can learn from. Most important rule is to break down any kind of hierarchy and respect eachother. Collaborating with people is the best education.

DOES BEING A PERFORMER CHANGE THE WAY YOU COMPOSER?
It does if I’m thinking about how it will be performed, if its a pre-record (like for dance/theatre), then no. I’m always trying to convince people I’m working with to incorporate elements of my score into the live performance though!

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE MUSIC SCENE IN AUSTRALIA FOR WOMAN IN MUSIC?
Look, I think its definitely getting better but I also think that some people are generally just being more careful for their own sakes – a la #metoo. You want to get society to a place where there is a deep-seated, intrinsic respect for women – and of people – and not just a behavioural change because people are scared of being caught out. Despite the excitement and success for which I remain truly grateful, I had a pretty rough time in my first project kyü, which was me and another young woman Freya Berkhout – we were 18 when we started out. We were insulted, belittled, sexually harassed often – Freya had a well-known musician let himself into her hotel room once – and nothing was done about it, that was 2009. We were always asked about what it was like being women in music, and my answer was always that I wasn’t a woman in music, I was a person in music, I didn’t want it to matter. But it did. For a long time the experience made me ultra defensive, cynical and angry which took me some years to unpack. We felt powerless in a position of relative power, being middle-class white girls. Its important to recognise that our struggles pailed in comparison to the struggle of other people, of POC, indigenous people, non-binary people and trans women. There is so much more visibility and representation of these people, but they have to work so much harder and it is a credit to them. Until they are properly respected, represented and heard – until those people are in curatorial positions, I won’t feel hugely optimistic about and progress that “the music scene” has made. Its not a place for everyone, and it should be. I will say that women are killing it though.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Trees and stars, walking, books, things my kids say.

WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
Reading:I’m reading Unquiet by Linn Ullmann – who is Ingmar Bergman’s daughter, she reminisces on her childhood and relationship with her father. I love it so much so far, it is very atmospheric and immersive. I’m also slowly moving through Writing by Marguerite Duras, Bone by Yrsa Daley Ward and The Carrying by Ida Limon. I revisit poetry books a lot – particularly Elena Gomez’s Admit The Joyous Passion of Revolt. Recent favs are Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (which I revisit a lot).
Watching: I recently watched the first season of Rake – about a coke-addicted, womanising lawyer – a premise which which isn’t hugely exciting for me – but I totally loved it. Really good fluffy watching. Really good women characters. Hasn’t aged too badly! I’ve been watching Xena Warrior Princess – which HAS aged pretty badly – but I’m so into the Xena/Gabrielle dynamic I spend the whole time grinning. Fluffy and light has been good in the last year – I’m in no rush to watch anything too thought provoking or upsetting.My favourite thing I’ve watched in a LONG time is It’s A Sin by Russell T Davies about the AIDS crisis in the 80s, specifically London. The characters are delightful and their friendships are real and deep and beautiful, it’s of course completely devastating but not gratuitous at all and really important watching.

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