Leah Senior on new LP The Passing Scene: “I went through a really long period of not being able to write, this album is rediscovering play in creativity”

Original pic: Jamie Wdziekonski. Handmade collage B.

Melbourne-based musician Leah Senior writes philosophical, thoughtful, joyous songs. New LP The Passing Scene explores impermanence, acceptance, the natural world and the freedom of simply being. Gimmie spoke to Leah about her new record.

Right now you would have been finishing up a US tour with King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard but due to the pandemic it was cancelled. You decided to go ahead and release your album; what inspired you to put it out now?

LEAH SENIOR: I don’t think the pandemic holds that much sway, from my perspective it was always going to come out now and it doesn’t matter if I’m touring or not, it’s a totally separate thing. Now is as good a time as any to put out music, if not more so.

The title of the album The Passing Scene is taken from the song of the same name on the album; as the title of the album what did you want it to represent?

LS: Looking back on all of the songs on the album there’s a real theme I suppose and it’s just acceptance of transit, that nothing ever stays the same. I just started reading a book by Pema Chödrön who is a Buddhist writer. I was reading this morning about the idea that everything falls apart and then comes back together and then falls apart. I think that “The Passing Scene” the song is about tuning into nature but at the same time accepting that nothing stays the same.

Impermanence?

LS: Yes, impermanence is the word I’m looking for.

I love the moving cover of your record, it’s pretty incredible!

LS: Yeah, it’s the same idea, that impermanence or that the passing scene is always changing. It was a way to visually express that idea.

Jamie Wdziekonski did the cover, right?

LS: Yeah, Jamie did it, yep.

Photo/album cover: Jamie Wdziekonski.

Was it his idea or yours?

LS: It was his idea to have it lenticular. I would never have thought of that.

Going into the album did you have a vision for it?

LS: No. This album has been recorded at home over the last few years. It’s taken a long time, I’m a slow song writer. It gradually was a piecing together of a record. I’d have a few songs that took it in one direction so I’d follow that and then I’d have songs that took it in another direction, so I’d cut songs; it was a real process of slowly piecing together the puzzle.

It’s a little bit of a departure from your previous work.

LS: Yeah. It comes out of trying to change my approach to creativity, I suppose. After my second album I went through a really long period of not being able to write, this album is rediscovering play in creativity. I was trying to relax a bit more, the songs come from play rather than anguish.

Often an artist’s work reflects or correlates with what’s going on in their life; were you writing from a happier place?

LS: Absolutely. It’s having stability.

You mentioned you recorded in your lounge room over a long period of time; how did this help shape the record? It feels more intimate.

LS: That’s good. Me and my partner Jesse Williams worked on it. He recorded the album. It affected the way it sounds so much. I have a really strong vision of how I like things to sound and for better or for worse having my partner record it means that I can really get it exactly how I want it. Having total control over how it sounds has affected it. It’s definitely intimate and relaxed and it’s meant that I haven’t been on anyone else’s time when I’ve been making it. I think the relaxed approach has translated to the sound.

I get that from the record, I also get that it’s hopeful and joyous.

LS: That’s good, I hope so.

Photo: Jamie Wdziekonski.

Can you share with us a fond memory from the recording process?

LS: I love doing full band stuff, again it’s just being relaxed and getting to play with all of your friends in the lounge room, it’s the best possible way of recording;  studios can be cold and scary and impersonable. It’s great to be able to just sit in my pyjamas and record [laughs].

I really love the last song on the record “Time Traveller”; what’s it about?

LS: That one I wrote about my niece Eleanor, she was a baby at the time. It’s about being frightened to look into the future. There’s a line in there: see the smoke hanging over the city… that was like a prediction for the summer [bush fires], I guess. It’s about being scared to look into the future and feeling that we never seem to learn from our mistakes.

What were you like growing up?

LS: I guess I was a lot of things. I grew up in the country. I was always really obsessed with music. My dad would sing me Beatles’ songs and my mum would sing me folky songs; she’s Swiss, and would sing me folk songs. From there I really just went on my own discovery expedition. I would work at a shop blowing up balloons on a Saturday morning and then go to the shop next door and look at the covers of CDs and buy the ones I liked trying to find new music.

Nice! I know that Howard Enyon performed in your living room not too long ago; did you learn anything from watching him play?

LS: Yeah, absolutely. That was a really powerful night! He can teach us all a lot. I felt a lot of the themes that I’ve been feeling on the record I made, he embodies that stuff; trying to relinquish ego and accepting impermanence. His presence is so joyous and free and youthful. He’s a perfect example of a way to live a life, I reckon.

Another song I really love on your album is “Jesus Turned into a Bird” it’s really pretty, especially the piano; how did that one come together?

LS: That song was written from being up really, really late one night and looking around me and seeing the sun come up and feeling so profoundly disconnected from nature. I wrote it the very next day. I constantly feel that way, I feel like we are so, so far away from nature the way that we live our lives.

Is there any songs on the album that hold a special significance for you?

LS: I feel like “Graves”… I really like playing that one still, even though we released it a little while ago. My partner Jesse and I wrote that one together. I’ll never not feel like I felt, what I was expressing, in that song. They’re all genuine expressions, they’re all real.

Jesse is from the Girlatones?

LS: Yep.

Is it nice having a partner that is also creative?

LS: Yeah, it’s great. I don’t think I couldn’t not have a creative partner. It’s especially nice working on my music with him. He can play anything on anyone of my songs and it sounds like how I would envision it. He has a total musical understanding of my emotions or something. I feel very lucky to have that.

The video for your song “Evergreen” was shot at a castle?

LS: Yeah. Kryal Castle.

Where did the idea for that come from?

LS: My friend Jess who shot the video we were talking and she was envisioning some kind of fun medieval thing. It was her idea. We were scouting out places and that place was perfect.

Do you have any other film clips coming up?

LS: Nah. I have a live clip… I’m not sure. Not at this point in time.

How has not being able to play live affected you?

LS: It’s been fine. It’s actually been pretty good. It’s freeing and fun for me. I’m not an extrovert, I don’t get my kicks from that sort of thing. I like trying to make things. For me, it’s been fine.

Have you been making anything lately?

LS: I’m always making things here and there. I haven’t been writing that many songs. One day I’ll do a tiny bit of poetry and the next day I’ll do a tiny bit of painting—I’m bad at settling and focusing on things.

What have you been writing about with your poetry?

LS: The last poem I wrote was about this idea that we are attracted to nature because nature can only be itself. It’s not my own idea, it was inspired by John O’Donohue. He was saying that a crow doesn’t wake up one day and go “oh, I wish I was a crow” it can only be itself, and there’s something really beautiful about that. We spend our time trying on new outfits and constantly trying to become, whereas birds don’t sing the song of becoming, they’re not song writers, they’re song singers.

Why is music important to you?

LS: That’s a huge question. It speaks the language of nonsense, the reality of the world is all nonsense—music is in tune with that. Music expresses so much more than we ever could express without it.

Vid: Button Pusher more here.

Please check out LEAH SENIOR; on bandcamp; on Facebook; on Instagram; Get The Passing Scene via Flightless Records.

Thao and the Get Down Stay Down: “Temple was the creation of a space in where I can exist as my whole self”

Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

Thao Nguyen is an Oakland-based musician that is about to drop the most honest, beautiful and self-healing record of her life. Temple finds Thao comfortable in her own skin and sees her finding the courage to finally publicly come out as her whole self, confronting the shame, grief, division and silence she has felt in her life, making for a collection of powerful songs. The album is in essence pop but goes beyond that with elements of hip-hop, funk, folk, with punk roots. Temple is a celebration of living life on your own terms!

THAO NGUYEN: I’ve been screen printing in our garage. I took a screen printing class because I had this idea to offer a tea towel as part of our merch bundle – this was pre-pandemic – I would screen print a tea towel for them. It’s reclaiming my name because kids used to call me “Towel” when I was younger and it was really traumatic. I’ve been screen printing all day.

Nice! It’s cool that people will get to have a handmade little piece of you in their kitchen.

TN: Thank you so much for saying that! I hope they turn out OK. I hope it’s just enough that I’m doing it myself. It’s harder than I thought it would be [laughs].

My husband and I do screen printing in our garage, hand-making things is so much more personal and special.

TN: Totally! It’s been so fun. Do you have trouble with the ink drying up sooner than you think it will and then it gets hard to have a clean print?

Yes! Parts of the screen can get clogged a little, we still haven’t worked out how to combat that, we just try to do the prints as quickly as possible.

TN: [Laughs] Yes! I gotta move faster. It’s getting hotter here, that thickens the ink up too.

I noticed that during the song writing period for your new LP Temple you spent a lot of time in the kitchen baking sourdough bread.

TN: [Laughs] I did. Song writing can be so painful and take you to such dark places, also there can be very little return on a lot of effort. It was so nice to do something tactile and to see your work result in something, besides a song that you don’t know whether it’s good.

With bread I think it’s a food that can be really comforting too.

TN: Oh yeah! It’s been remarkable. Luckily I had already stockpiled a lot of flour from the song writing time, rolling into the pandemic we do have enough flour to keep baking.

What does your new album Temple mean to you?

TN: Temple was the creation of a space in where I can exist as my whole self. It’s the culmination of a whole life that I’ve lived in a very divided way. It has a lot to do with claiming my own life and still belonging to my family, and trying to find out how to still belong to my family and culture while being publicly out. I got married in the process! It was a real culmination of life and a celebration of that.

Congratulations on getting married! I can definitely feel that celebratory vibe on the album. There also seems to be a real feeling of freedom on it.

TN: Yeah, there is. It was like a bloodletting! [laughs]. There are moments of heaviness but also lightness and shedding a lot of the past and ghosts.

On your last album A Man Alive you were talking about your father, and on this record the first song, the title track, is celebrating your mother.

TN: Yeah. They have had drastically different influences on my life. My mom has always been so steady and consistent but, she has her own complex life. I wanted the chance to honour that and make her refugee story to be beyond that, to give her a fuller humanity.

Was it scary to put all of these thoughts and feelings out there?

TN: Oh, terrifying! Absolutely! It took years to make this record, it took probably a year and a half just to get the gumption to write the songs that I knew I had to write. Now it feels almost surreal like it was someone else’s turmoil and toil. It took a lot! I said that I didn’t know if I would make another record because it was such a herculean task to me to confront all these things.

I think sometimes listeners don’t quite get how intense it is for some artists to tap into their pain to write a song. Writing things from an honest place you have to confront yourself and what’s happening in your life, it can be scary.

TN: Yeah. It’s the artists own decision to do that, it was mine. There wasn’t another option for me. It’s the type of work I am drawn to. You hope that people will spend some time with it but it connects how it connects and it finds who it needs to find.

Have you always been creative?

TN: I think so. Growing up I didn’t have a lot of resources. When I started playing guitar that’s when I felt I could tap into creativity, I was about twelve. Before then I watched lot of television [laughs].

I know that some of your favourite writers inspire your lyrics, this time around it was James Baldwin, Octavia Butler and Yiyun Li; what was it about each?

TN: James Baldwin, his language and his eloquence and succinct manner is so remarkable. He’s such an incredible, incisive writer, whenever I reference him it’s the present tense, he is such a presence for so many people. The way he wrote about injustice and abuse of power and systemic inequality, the way he wrote about race, about being queer—it was all inspiring. A real source of courage for me.

Octavia Butler, the way she imagines and created these dystopic realties; this near future dystopia that we have actually been living in now. That was before all of this was happening though, there was already so much to work with as far as the corruption in the world and destruction of the environment and society. She’s a luminary, a prophet.

Yiyun Li, the way she has an incredibly powerful, very potent style of writing that isn’t dramatic at all but it’s devastating to me. The way she writes about families and familial relationships. She writes about Chinese families. I found a lot of similarities and commonalities that resonated with me and my Vietnamese family.

I’ve always liked how in Octavia’s stories she always has fascinating, strong female characters.

TN: Yes. ‘Phenom’ the song that draws the most from Octavia, the narrator of that is the voice that I imagine as one of her strong characters that leads the army of the scorched Earth to come back and bring to bear.

Have there been any books that have had a profound impact on you?

TN: So many, yeah. I love panoramic, cross-generational, sweeping narratives. The first one that I read like that was The Grapes Of Wrath or East Of Eden. More recently, Grace Paley, all of her short stories. I discovered her in college through my roommate; she influenced my song writing a great deal when I was starting to song write more seriously. Her economy with words is something that I have always admired. She’s a general influence.

For the last record, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, oh man there’s one passage in it where the son is getting on the bus and leaving… that influenced the creation of A Man Alive. There were a few sentences within that that just broke me. From there I could access the emotions that I needed to write the record.

Sonically when you started out writing this record, did you have a vision for it?

TN: Not so much. I knew that I would produce it, and produce it with my bandmate Adam [Thompson]. Whatever happened sonically it would be represented in a more truthful was, a more accurate way than any other, because we were doing it. I wanted to be creating more beats. I knew that there would be a strong rhythm and prominent groove and beats. I wanted a lusher soundscape.

I really love the song ‘Marrow’ on the LP; can you tell us a little about it?

TN: ‘Marrow’ I wrote leading up to marrying my partner. The songs aren’t necessarily chronological but they do follow things that lined up with what was happening in my life at the time. ‘Marrow’ is about saying: here I am, you know all these things about me and you accept me still [*gets teary*].

There’s a couple of songs on the album that make me cry every time, one is ‘Marrow’ and the other is ‘I’ve Got Something’. I like ‘Marauders’ too because it’s the most sincere, whole-hearted love song I’ve ever written.

Were those songs hard for you to write?

TN: They were! Especially ‘I’ve Got Something’ it deals with basically getting to a place where I had to be willing to no longer be a part of my family in order to have my own. There are a lot of scenarios that can end up in estrangement, fortunately that wasn’t mine. It’s really hard! How do you belong to where you come from? How do you belong to yourself? And, what are you willing to risk? How much can you deny of your own life?

Last question; what are some things that make you really, really happy?

TN: I love that question! I really love cooking. I love baking bread. I’ve been really into growing vegetables, I know that probably sounds really, really cliché at this point. The only solace I’ve been able to find is really getting into growing our own food. I spend most of my day trying to figure out how to keep the seedlings alive [laughs] and trying to figure out how to make compost. Just this morning the mint had this rust kind of fungus thing, I have to figure that out. It’s a whole other world of being in tune with the food we grow and eat. It’s so awesome! It’s something that I always wanted to do but I’ve always been so busy with tour. Even if I tried I wouldn’t be fully focused on it and I’d come back from tour and it would be dead.

Please check out: THAO & THE GET DOWN STAY DOWN. Get album Temple on Ribbon Music. Thao on Instagram.