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Interview – Ella Hooper, November 2012

| 4 December 2012 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Story originally published in Xpress Magazine – CLICK HERE TO READ

Below is the full interview

Australian rock fans will likely know Ella Hooper from her teenage band with brother Jesse, Killing Heidi.  That band’s debut album “Reflector” went ballistic way back in 1999, making Ella a household name, splattered on every magazine cover and radio station in the land.

More recently she has collaborated with Jesse again on the album “Seasons” by their alt-rock ensemble Verses, but it’s regular appearances on the TV shows Rockwiz and Spicks & Specks which have kept her face and name in the public eye over the past few years.

Throw in some musical theatre, radio and music TV hosting and guesting on a bunch of other artist’s records, and Ms Hooper has kept herself busy – though not too busy to finally have recorded her debut solo album, “In Tongues”, and released the first single from it – the wonderfully stark and confronting Low High.

Usually we’re connected through a conferencing centre for interviews, but when the phone rings this morning, it’s Ella Hooper herself down the line, and she’s in fine form throughout our twenty or so minutes, thoughtful and a little careful in parts, but always cheery and ebullient, and obviously very excited to have got the single out there, and the album pretty much finished.

Hi Ella – congratulations on your new single Low High.

Ella: Thank you so much.

You must be thrilled, from what I can tell, you finished the album – what, 6 or 9 months ago?

Ella: Yeah, that’s the thing, I mean I am secretly still working on it, fiddling away with mixes and track listing and boring stuff like that. But I did finish the bulk of it quite a while ago.

That’s one of my questions; when you’ve finished recording something like that and there’s such a long time in between the release date, are you tempted to go back and tinker and add, and just fix that bit up…

Ella: Yes, definitely. I heard a great quote which is; great art is never finished, it’s just a work in progress. You have to walk away at some point or you keep putting that other brush stroke on and, yeah, it’s hard to let go. But I’m actually really itching to put it out – I’m very keen to get it the hell out there!

I guess once you draw a line under it you can always embellish it or change it in the live forum.

Ella: That’s true. And I find myself doing that. I’ve done a lot of other stuff. Part of you wants to give to the fans and the crowds a pretty good representation of the album. I’m not going to do it and make it into a skiffle track, or a waltz or anything when its not, but I like to kind of represent the album pretty accurately but then add some flourishes that weren’t there, or that you thought of later.

Cool. So what struck me immediately about Low High, vocally speaking it’s got that Leadbelly, chain gang, call and response blues thing going on, but musically it’s almost anti-rock.

Ella: Thank you so much! Yeah I’ve been listening to a lot of blues. I think you’re the first person to cite the blues or Leadbelly. Lots of people say it’s a little bit this, it’s a little bit like sea shanty, or a little bit Caribbean, but I’ve actually been listening to lots and lots of old, old blues. So thanks for picking up on that. Yeah, I mean musically I wanted to keep it stripped back. I didn’t want to come out and the first thing that people hear from me after such a long hiatus, I didn’t want it to be rock. I’m trying to change that perception.

How did the song evolve for you? Was it written as a vocal piece first and then you worked out the music?

Ella: Yeah, it was written as a vocal piece to a percussive line, which I kind of created. It’s unusual for me, I usually come up with a chorus and melody, then lyrics, then a theme, and then I flesh the song out, but this song came from literally a rhythm, clinking on a whiskey bottle. I had a whiskey bottle in the studio, as I always do [laughs] and I was just tapping on it like this [taps a glass] and then I started singing to that very sparsely, to try and turn myself off the track of singing something very busy, and that made me sing a lot more sparsely.  Then I kind of got the idea of the song being a call and answer type of thing from the sparseness of the vocal line.

Interesting. Both of your parents were teachers I believe?

Ella: Yeah, kind of teachers, and then mum went off to do social work, teaching in another kind of way.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is; did they encourage you to always be searching and exploring musically?

Ella: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. They’re both very… well Mum is more stylistically open minded than Dad is. Dad’s a bit of a… he enjoys the finer things in music and life, so he’s kind of got this great classical collection which is just the good stuff: the good blues, the good folk and the good rock, and he brought me up on very high quality music and almost kind of sulked when I went through my pop phases or my rock phases.  He was like ‘that’s not gonna last’, he always ended up being right, and Mum is very open minded musically and artistically, so she would always say ‘check that out, check this’. We went to everything from African gospel concerts, to folk festivals where we’d stay in camps for days, to driving me down to Melbourne so I could go and see my favourite rock bands, like when I was 13 I wanted to go and see Smashing Pumpkins, and Silverchair, and Everclear. I was just very lucky with very musically supportive parents.

Well it’s starting to show in your music. On the strength of the single it’s certainly evolved a lot and you’ve got those other influences coming through.

Ella: It’s coming out. As I’m maturing I’m kind of thinking all that world music, and all that folk music, and all that blues that we were brought up on is definitely coming out, and there is even some more Fleetwood Mac-y, kind of moody tracks on the record as well. I know it’s hard to guess that when you’ve only heard one song, but I think it will definitely sound a lot more mature and a lot more diverse to most people.

And how representative is Low High of the rest of the album?

Ella: Good question. It’s… gee, that’s a tricky one. I think it’s a good representation in mood, but maybe not totally in sonics. It’s actually a perfect representation, subject matter-wise Low High deals with ups and downs, and kind of emotional turmoil, and the record does as well. It’s to do with a real challenging time in myself, and for myself – growing up out of being a carefree younger person, going into that early adulthood, awkward… I consider real adulthood beginning at 30. 20s are the new teens so really I’m just hitting it now, and it’s been challenging. So Low High is a good connection in that sense, but I do go into some pretty different sonic territories as well.

Cool, well I’m looking forward to hearing it.

Ella: Don’t worry, there’s some rock on there. There’s some guitar and there’s some amazing edgy, spiky kind of distortion moments as well.

Its interesting; my taste, I grew up in the early 80s and rock and metal was my number one always, but my tastes have always been really eclectic and it strikes me, as I get older (I’m in my 40s now) that rock to me was always about individualism and being part of a group, yet nowadays I just find the younger rocker guys, they’re just so closed off to anything that’s not just straight down the line rock or metal.

Ella: Yeah, yeah, and that’s not going to bode well for the future of rock too, because it’s always come from change and experimentation – mixing things together. Rock is a funny term because its such a huge umbrella term, and I would always consider myself a rock lover and a rock artist, even though I make kind of experimental pop music, or whatever you want to call it; indie. But I do believe that the strongest rock comes out of being open and experimenting.

That’s how you develop a style of your own, by having other influences in there…

Ella: That’s totally right. I’m interested in sounding like myself. I’m actually striving to push myself to sound more and more like myself as I get older. I don’t really care to be chasing a scene, or wondering what kind of radio can play this; is it indie? Is it dance? Is it commercial? You’ve just got to start trying to find what it is about yourself as an artist that is unique. I think highlighting that, not what makes you the same, makes sense.

Ella with brother Jesse Hooper (left) in their Killing Heidi days

Absolutely. Now you’ve said that the single lyrically speaking, is about going through the struggle to keep mental and emotional balance, and it hinted at manic depression and so on. Is this something that you’ve had to deal with?

Ella: Yes, but not first hand. I have several of my favourite people who are close to me, like best friends, boyfriends, partners. So it’s from the perspective of somebody who loves them, not actually myself. But that still gives you a pretty close up, bird’s eye view of the situation.

Oh yeah, been there done that.

Ella: Yeah well – you know, totally. I go there repeatedly. There’s something about those people that I must be attracted to, or I must love, and that’s kind of what I wanted to explore in the record too, is why am I attracted to such crazy bastards?

[Laughter] Maybe it’s from a nurturing perspective or something.

Ella: Ah definitely, I’m a fixer. Not a feeder, a fixer.

Do you have any advice for anyone in a similar situation, either suffering from depressive issues or dealing with loved ones who are suffering?

Ella: I’m not really qualified to dish out advice, but I think that [you should] always come at it with love, and truth, and come at things with an open mind. Over the years I’ve learned to just not be too reactionary as well, just take it for what it is. Everyone has a varying experience. Some people probably shouldn’t take that advice if it’s used in the extreme, but for me, as I’ve had more time with it and gone through it again and again, I’ve actually learned to see the positives in it.

You are wise beyond your years, Miss Hooper.

Ella: Aw, thank you. People say that I must be 80 or something.

You’ve got the guys from Graveyard Train in the video, how did they get involved?

Ella: Well, I’ve known them for a while actually. Three of the boys have all worked in one of my favourite bars so I got to know them from going to this one bar in Melbourne called Prudence, and we’d all hung out there, probably a couple of years ago now. For about three or four years I went there almost every evening, so became good friends with them that way and loved it when they started up the band. My brother, Jesse, is literally their number one fan. He doesn’t miss a show, has all the t-shirts, all the CDs. So I’ve just been a huge Graveyard Train fan for a while and I think it was when we came up with Low High we thought we need some… at first I did the call and answer vocal myself, and it sounded really lame me pretending to be a dude or a chain gang, and my producer was like ‘Don’t you know the Graveyard Train boys? Couldn’t they come in and do it?’ so we asked them and they owed me a favour because I’ve sung on a few of their records, even though I wasn’t technically singing, I was more howling and screaming in the background. You can hear me on some of their recordings as a bit of a banshee. So I got them to come and sing on mine.

Awesome. Having got famous pretty young doing the mainstream rock thing with Killing Heidi, and you’ve dabbled with alt country with The Verses with Jesse, how do you handle fame nowadays?

Ella: Well things have definitely calmed down a bit, I don’t feel that I’m as famous as I used to be and its always been a strange thing to gauge yourself because you’re in it, so, I’ve never really felt famous, so it’s a really funny thing. I don’t know, I guess I’m some kind of celebrity because otherwise I wouldn’t get asked to do certain things, people wouldn’t be interviewing me and stuff like that, but I don’t really feel famous.

Do you ever have people wandering up to you going ‘Hey aren’t you that chick on Rockwiz or Spicks and Specks’ or whatever?

Ella: It doesn’t happen that much. I think another thing for me is that I don’t look the same – every three months I kind of change my look! Some people recognise me and that’s really nice if they’re a hard core fan and they’re like ‘hey, love your work’ and that still happens probably once or twice a week, and it’s just nice to have a chat with somebody who likes what you’re doing, and it gives you a little pep in your step thinking ‘yay, I’m not just throwing stuff out there into the abyss and nobody gets it’. So I like that side of it, and I welcome it back because it just means people get you, I guess.

Yeah, for sure. So with both Killing Heidi and The Verses, you partnered up with Jesse, your brother.  Is he involved somehow in this solo work?

Ella: He’s not involved creatively, apart from having co-written one of the tracks. The very last track on the record is a song called Last Rites, and it’s one of my favourites, and its one that Jess and I came up with together, under no particular guise. We weren’t Killing Heidi, we weren’t The Verses, we were just two people in a room and out popped a song, as it often does whenever we sit down together. It was a conscious decision for me to kind of move away from Jesse, just creatively. We’re still the very best of friends and extremely close, even for family, but I kind of needed to do this myself and I kind of needed to do it without my brother.

Sure. Now the video for Low High is really striking, I loved it. What was it like to work with Wilk on the shoot?

Ella: It was fantastic. It was so… I feel like it was a real turning point for me actually. I though I’ve already been pretty excited by how my record has turned out, and I’ve been really stoked, but another thing I have always wanted to do was have more control of the visuals, and I haven’t been honestly enamoured with my own visual output in the past. So I really wanted to try and get that on the right track, and get that to represent my taste more. So working with Wilk, he knows me really, really well, and we’ve worked together on some other things. So he just nailed it. It was both of our ideas. We kind of came up with the concept together. I came up with the concept of the lifting and being taken over physically, and he’s just a great director, so he kind of set it in this setting and lit it in a way that I just went ‘Yes! That’s what I’m talking about! Yay!’

I saw some stills on the internet that were shot in colour, so, at what point did you make the decision that it’s going to work better in black and white than in colour?

Ella: At the start. We always intended to have it black and white, but we knew our cameras could film in colour and then we’d grade it to black and white, so we shot a bit of both.


Ella: It’s staying in black and white for this record because this record to me is about extremes and stuff. I’m pretty sure the front cover will be black and white, the next clip’s going to be in black and white, and it’s going to be a running theme.

Yeah I can see that, if you’re talking about the extremes of emotion and so on, light and shade – that works!

Ella: With the occasional burst of colour…

Cool, well look the video is awesome and the song is fantastic, so really impressed.

Ella: Thank you for saying that. I really appreciate that.

No probs. So Killing Heidi’s album, Reflector came out, what – 1999/ 2000? It was a full decade before you put out The Verses’ album Seasons. Have you got a load of material up your sleeve that you really want to record at some point?

Ella: Yes I do! I have a lot of songs on my iTunes library that don’t really have homes, and only 11 or 12 could go on this album, so there’s a lot more songs out there from my kind of old country period, and there’s a lot more songs from my folky period. But now I just want to write a fresh batch, and I’ve written more since! Obviously we’re finishing this album. One day I will just have to find the time and the money to go and record them all.

Yeah well that’s half the battle nowadays.

Ella: If I was smart I would have just taught myself Protools over the years, but I haven’t… so yes, that is the battle.

Well there you go, make sure “In Tongues” is a hit and then build your own studio and hire someone to run it for you! There you go.

Ella: Hey, that is the dream. That is the exact plan!

So if you could go back magically in time and be a part of the recording of any one album throughout history, what would that be?

Ella: Ooooh, I’d have liked to be in the room when Dylan was doing Like a Rolling Stone and the crazy guy was on the piano, who hadn’t even played piano before and it ended up getting mixed really high, you know that crazy like… [makes noises] and everyone talks about the fact that he just jumped on there and said ‘How about this?’ and it ended up really high in the mix. Well if he can do that on the recording, I want to be in there playing the tambourine, or the harmonica, because it’s basically just blow in, blow out kind of easy thing that I could play, and then I could say that I’m on a Dylan record.

Fantastic. So, Ella, what to you is the meaning of life?

Ella: Ooh, gee, big question. I think it is basically to go in peace, and prosper, and explore.

Great stuff. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

Ella: Thanks so much. Yeah, likewise.

Hopefully we will have another chat when the album comes out. When are we looking for that, early next year?

Ella: We’re thinking late February/ early March time. Not really long now. I mean knowing me, it will get pushed back as it always does, but that’s what I’m aiming for.

It will be here before you know it. Christmas will just go by in a whirlwind.

Ella: I know. I’m freaking out. It’s already here. It’s snapping at our heels. Cheers Shane!


Category: Interviews

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