Catherine Traicos’s music is hard to define in terms of genre – she has had some country music influences, though, and that was enough of a connection for me to want to talk to her, because she is a quite extraordinary artist. Catherine’s new album is the wonderful The Earth, The Sea, The Moon, The Sky and it’s available now. I spoke to Catherine at the end of 2013, when she was just about to go on tour with her band.
I’ve read variously in interviews with you and on your website that you’re based in Sydney or you’re based in Melbourne, but I know that you are now in Perth. So I was wondering what Perth is like for a working musician.
I’ve only just moved and I’ve got heaps of friends who are musicians who have been doing incredibly well there. It’s a really good music scene and before I left Perth I hadn’t – I’m originally from there and I played a couple of gigs but I hadn’t really immersed myself on the music scene as a musician, but I was going out to gigs every week and I was really familiar with all the bands and it’s a really really beautiful scene. I love it.
Is there a dominant genre of music there or is it a mixture of things?
I think that the dominant thing is that people are really good at what they do and that there is a lovely community as well. I wouldn’t say there’s a dominant genre because it quite varied, there’s a lot of everything, so there’s a lot going on there.
Which I would think for you is fertile ground. Given that you have released a lot of albums and you are immersed in the life of a working musician, one hopes that being in an environment like that it spurs you on to more and more creativity and feeling like there are more potential collaborators out there.
I hope so. My band, who are in Sydney, most of them are actually from Perth so that’s saying a lot about [laughs] yeah, the contribution of Perth already to my music life.
Except now I’m wondering if they’re in Sydney and you’re in Perth, are you feeling lonely without them?
Well, at the moment because we’re preparing for the tour, I’m actually in Sydney and we’ve been rehearsing and it’s been really good but I am feeling the sense of this is all ending really soon, and I try not to dwell on that because I don’t think it will, but it does feel quite sad that I’m going to be leaving them, but at the same time I have to look after myself. And I got quite ill living in Sydney and I need to be near my family right now.
And I know that you’re originally from Zimbabwe and you moved to Perth a few years ago.
And a lot of people from Zimbabwe, South Africa do move to Perth, obviously because it’s close, it’s closer than the east coast of Australia. I don’t think I need to ask you why you left Zimbabwe, it’s probably obvious, but it must have been a huge change.
Yeah, it was. It was a big move. I think it was bigger for my parents because they were older and I was leaving school so I was probably going to leave Zimbabwe anyway. So it’s a difficult move but I feel really at home in Perth and I think that’s important to know where your home is.
And it’s important to have community. When in exile it must feel like you are when you leave under those circumstances, it’s important to have that community, and it’s not unlike having a community of – it’s a community of like minded people, the same way as having a community and musicians is a community of like minded people.
Absolutely. Well, when we left Zimbabwe we were very lucky because it was by choice. We weren’t forced out. So we weren’t in a very terrible position, unlike a lot of people who actually have been and it’s been really, really difficult for them. I’ve got a few friends around Australia who have struggled to get citizenship but even then they’re in a better position than, say, refugees coming from Pakistan or somewhere so, you know. It’s not extreme, but it’s still difficult.
In terms of where you grew up – the African musical traditions are ancient and well defined. I was wondering if you bring any of the musical traditions of your homeland into your work now.
I haven’t as yet, no. I think I would feel a little bit too much like Paul Simon and I’m not ready for that [laughs]. Just because I was raised on Elvis and The Beatles. I wasn’t raised on African music.
So it doesn’t feel like it’s my cultural heritage. I would feel like I was appropriating someone else’s cultural heritage in order to make money, and I probably wouldn’t make money [laughs].
And it strikes me that what you do comes from an authentic place. It doesn’t sound like you’re writing songs to get on radio. You’re writings songs to create something unique and special. So I would imagine that authenticity is of importance.
I think it is. I think it’s of importance to everyone. It’s just that some people authentically want to be on the radio and –
– for me – no, I’m being serious. And for me authenticity is about being true to myself and what I want to create music and do that with people who are as passionate about it as I am. Whereas other people, to them their passion is being heard and being seen and being the centre of attention and I respect that, that they know what they want and that’s their thing, but I’ve learnt that that’s really not my thing, and people want you to want to that, they want you to be this crazily ambitious person. But if you’re not, you don’t have to be, and you shouldn’t put that pressure on yourself just because you’re creative.
Everyone’s motivations are different and I think it’s always good for creative people to know whether their motivation is fame or the work or money or both.
It’s so important. Or else you just end up – you’re not in control of your work and you need to be. It’s very important to be.
Absolutely. Now, in terms of your work I read that you started listening to music as inspiration for your painting, and on the latest album you seem to be painting musical portraits. So I was wondering if you still think of yourself as a painter.
Oh [laughs]. Yes, I do. I do often think of things in terms of specific cues of oil paints. I do love to paint and I’m looking forward to having some time to do that now, yeah, after this album, after this tour.
Because I think that the parts of the brain that see things visually are not the parts of the brain that actually can play music. The musical part of the brain is more a mathematical – I think they even found that scientifically that it’s more the mathematical part of the brain. And so I often think from people who can deal in images and words, sometimes it’s hard to know which one to follow and sometimes I think it gets a bit difficult to follow both.
I think so, yes. I think they are quite different but there’s definitely a point where they meet, and I say that point is probably rhythm.
Because you’ve got the mathematics rhythm and you’ve got the rhythm of the action of painting. So for me painting is always about the action, not the end result, if that makes sense. But it’s all defined by my environment really. I paint a lot more when I’m in Perth and I don’t find the time to paint when I’m in Sydney and therefore I have more time to write songs.
It’s always good for storytellers, regardless of how the story is being told, to tell their stories in context. So obviously for you in Perth it’s painted stories and that’s the context there.
Well, I – we’ll see what happens now [laughs]. Who knows? Who knows [laughs]?
Now, the songs on this album, according to your press release, are about desire – that’s the top level theme. Was that was a consciously chosen theme or did it emerge through the process of – because I know you all individually wrote songs, is that right?
We pretty much wrote them together. We would jam them out mostly and then I was the one who always put the words in and who kind of went, “This is how it’s going to go,” but then everyone was incredibly instrumental in saying, the chorus should come in here or we should do this now, or this is too long or this is too short … we agreed on everything and that was – we would all argue our way to [laughs] an end agreement that we were all happy with. So, yes, desire – well, desire, I think, is incredibly important. It’s very closely linked to passion and to need. I’m very interested in the difference between your needs and your desires and if you can get them to coincide then you’re winning [laughs].
How often do you think that happens?
Oh gosh, I don’t know [laughs]. Yeah, because you’re driven by your desires but you’re also – you’re more driven by your needs. So when it does happen it’s serendipitous [laughs].
Obviously for musicians in particular, I think it’s sort of – actually, I guess it’s true of painters or writers and other creative people as well but I tend to see with musicians that the desire and the need to play music or create music are very much the same, and it’s – you can’t really extrapolate the desire to do it from what seems to be a very fundamental need within the musician to create music.
Yeah, I think that there’s – you can definitely see when someone actually needs to play, almost like their life depends on it, you can see that when Jimi Hendrix is playing and, I don’t know, heaps of amazing musicians [laughs]. But, yeah, it’s an interesting one, isn’t it?
Well, yeah, because I think for some musicians it becomes so dominant that that’s all they can see and that upsets the balance of their lives to a great extent.
Yeah. Yeah. Mmm.
Sorry, I’m just thinking about that, this is great. Lovely food for thought, yeah. Complete passion and you can let it consume you; can’t you?
And the thing with music is that it does consume a lot of musicians, in a very positive way, in that they’re constantly engaged in it but I do see – with some, it’s – maybe it’s also getting to the point of wondering whether it’s performance that consumes them. So whether it’s the need to perform as much as the need of – for music itself.
Yeah, that’s interesting, because I’ve noticed with myself recently that practising on my own is not as much fun as practising with the band, engaging with other people, and then performing is a whole other level of engaging with people. And it’s kind of like you create the music and then when you’re sharing it with people that can – that just takes it to a different level and it becomes more real I suppose. It’s interesting. And that you get people with – I used to have major performance anxiety and, yeah – now I don’t, which is good [laughs].
On the subject of performance: listening to your album, I was thinking
about how you perform it. It sounds like it’s not necessarily going to be easy to recreate the sound just because they – the songs don’t sound polished in that polished can mean overproduced. But they sound like they’re very perfected, in a way. So how do you take that recorded sound into a live environment?
That’s an awesome question. Because we very specifically went into the studio this time with the aim of being able to, as accurately as possible, recreate what we’ve put down. So what’s really interesting is that we didn’t do too much happening at the same time, and a couple of songs we couldn’t help ourselves because we just had all these amazing instruments and we were just like, “No, we’ve got to put auto harp on everything”, and stuff like that. But a lot of the interesting sounds that you hear are actually my guitarist, Darren, he’s a bit of a genius and, yeah, you won’t realise it but it’s actually an electric guitar with amazing effect. So he’s brilliant. So I think there’s only a couple of songs where we wouldn’t be able to really get what we did on the album, but other than that we’re pretty close and we aimed for that because there’s a – with the last album, it was – after we recorded it we were like, “Okay, how are we going to do this now? We can’t play the way we used to play it,” because now it sounds – it’s so much more interesting.
So you have these lovely jewels of recordedness and then try to make them live.
That’s a lovely way of describing it, yeah.
Part of the mystery of performance, I guess, is who turns up on the night and how that can affect how you play, but have you and the band been together long enough now that you have your own way of working together but it’s quite elastic, that you can respond to what happens on the night?
Yes, absolutely. We’ve played a lot of shows together and we’re all familiar with each other’s touring needs and the way we are and that just makes it fun, because everyone is relaxed and – that’s good [laughs]. And you kind of look out for each other. It’s like you’re like a team [laughs].
And how did you all originally come together?
Well, I knew Darren, my guitarist from Perth. He was in the Tucker B’s and they were – they still are – one of my favourite bands ever, and I used to go and watch them play – just a little band girl every week – and I just made friends with Darren, and he’s a very quiet, intelligent, brilliant guitarist, and we just got on really, really well. And he moved to Sydney about a year after I did and we didn’t start playing music together until a couple of years ago though. So when he wanted to play with me, that was awesome. But he was insistent that we get a full band together. And I’d met Casper – I was playing in a band for a charity night a few years ago, and Casper was the bass player. And he’s awesome. He plays bass in so many bands and he’s just enthusiastic and incredibly good at what he does. And he was really keen to play as well. And then Darren got another Tucker B’s member, their old drummer Tim, which made me so happy [laughs] to come and drum for us. And I was like, “Yeah,” I’ve got like half of my favourite band playing for me, awesome [laughs]. So that was really good. And Tim hadn’t played drums in a while, so I think it was good for him to get back into it, and I’ve had so many of his old friends being just like completely ecstatic that he’s playing drums again because he’s a really good drummer, so rhat’s how we came together [laughs].
So you said you went from being a band girl to playing with half your favourite band. At what point in your life did you decide to go from being a band girl to being the band girl, if you know what I mean?
[Laughs] Well, it was never really a conscious choice at all. Just came together years later. It sounds like awesome instant gratification but it really wasn’t. The way it came together it was just like, oh wow, that’s kind of cool. The Tucker B’s hadn’t played in years because half of them were living in Sydney anyway – so they don’t play many gigs any more. But I think that I was so in awe of live music and bands that I didn’t – like, I started learning guitar but I found it a very personal and private thing and I wouldn’t play for many people. But I did play for one of my friends and he said, “You should do a gig”, and I did and it was disastrous and I didn’t want to play ever again. So it was a really long and slow journey to get to the point.
Except I notice you play quite a few instruments, not just guitar, so obviously along the way you’ve picked up quite a bit.
Yes, well my first instrument was piano but I’m not very good at playing pop piano. I can play classical and I can fill in stuff on an album to give it a fuller sound but I think writing songs is a lot easier for me on a guitar. nd the other instruments I play, you just hit them and make noise [laughs] basically.
So in terms of your creative process and you’ve got an album out now, are you constantly writing or do you write on a project by project basis? Do you think, “Okay, it’s time for a new album. I’m going to sit down now and get some songs done?”
I’ve never really worked that way because I’ve tried to and it doesn’t work. The songs just appear). With the band we did, I suppose, say we’re going to work towards a new album, but we didn’t give ourselves a timeline and we just wrote very slowly over two years. And I don’t like to create a pressure on myself because I just think that’s disrespectful to my creative drive [laughs]. It’s not like doing your homework and handing it in. It’s an art form and you have to work with it. You can’t – it’s like a wild horse [laughs]. And, yeah, every now and then it might calm down a little bit and let you ride it but …
The Earth, The Sea, The Moon, The Sky is out now through AOA Records.www.catherinetraicos.com