women in docs – formed by Queenslanders Chanel Lucas and Roz Pappalardo – are a little bit folk, a little bit pop and just enough country to qualify them for inclusion on this website, which is a very good thing, as their new album, Carousel, is terrific. They tell great stories and sing beautiful harmonies doing it. Recently, I spoke to Chanel Lucas about crowdfunding the album, recording it and producing it, and the business of keeping the show on the road.
You’ve run things yourselves all your career. How do you maintain the fire in the belly to do that, because I would think that sometimes the enthusiasm must wane doing it all yourself?
Well, we have just had a couple of years break. We did tour for many, many years and run our business all ourselves and we did actually kind of get to a point a couple of years ago where we just went, you know what, we just need a rest. So we went and worked on solo projects and we went and did some other work in the creative industries just for a couple of years. So then when we came back to prepare for this album we sort of had this renewed energy and kind of enthusiasm for what we were doing, which meant that we were able to pull an album together even though we all now live all over Australia, and we could still write songs and make the best use of our time because we’re kind of refreshed and ready to go. So I don’t think you can keep going kind of ad finitum. It’s good to kind of balance your time between your different pursuits.
There’s a song on the album called ‘The Hard Way’ and the lyric is ‘I’m going to choose the hard way’ and the song does end up saying ‘And that’s all right’, but I was wondering if you thought that doing everything on your own was the hard way, especially because I was reading the press release and it was talking about you did online crowdfunding for this album but you used to do the pre-sales and fundraising through snail mail. It’s really only now that a lot of bands are starting to do it on their own. When you two started it must have seemed unusual and also like quite a daunting prospect. It must have seemed like the hard way.
I think when we started it actually didn’t feel hard at all. When we started playing music we were playing in Townsville in North Queensland and there were no other folk acts in that town. There was a musos’ night at the local blues bar and so usually it would be all big guitar bands, lots of drum kits and all that sort of stuff. We went in just with two guitars and sang a bunch of Indigo Girls songs and other songs, which was weird in between two big rock bands. The owner just loved it and he booked us for a residency that week and we had a Wednesday night residency in his blues bar for weeks. That was how we built our set up. We actually were terrified because we only knew five songs when he booked us the residency. So we were like, holy shit, we better learn some music or write some songs. So that was a really great motivator. In seven days we worked out a good two-hour set. That was good. We may have played a few songs twice after I got drunk. I’ll give you my secrets now.
Fifteen years later [laughs]. But I think we started how we meant to continue. But it never occurred to us that it was hard. It was just, well, this is what we want to do. Let’s see if it’s going to work, and it did work. People started coming to our shows and we started getting more gigs. So it never occurred to us not to do the work to get that stuff done. Because we’d come from a place where there was no one else like us and there was no one else doing what we did, it didn’t occur to us that we were owed anything or that there were any systems in place to support us. I think that’s why we have done what we’ve done. It’s not because we’re staunchly independent or we think we’ve got something to prove. It’s just how we’ve always done things, I think. So the crowdfunding right back in the snail-mail days, we needed money to produce an album and we just went, well, why don’t we just ask our fans? We’ve got a really good email list. Why don’t we just see if they will pre-order the album? That’s what we did, and they did. So we were able to produce an album and we’ve just done that ever since.
So you are well ahead of the curve. we could say?
[Laughs] There were a few other independent bands doing similar things to us, but we didn’t realise it until we left Townsville and started touring around Australia and we met other like-minded people. But before that we didn’t know that there were other people like us.
I’ve seen a lot of independent Australian acts in my time, including around the early ’90s, and I don’t recall a lot of them doing it. I think a lot of them were trying very hard to get signed up, even on small labels. So I do think, even though to you it might have seemed like a natural progression or an organic development, I think until very recently people wanted the record deal. Even the idea of not pursuing that was unusual.
Yeah, I think people still want a record deal. I’d love a record deal. That’d be awesome [laughs]. But I think the other side of that is because there’s so much information around now and because it is perceptively more easy – people think that because you can do it through digital platforms and stuff it is easier. I don’t think it’s any easier. We just have different tools to use now, that’s all. Any crowdfunding only works if you’ve got an audience who are going to purchase that product. If you don’t have a following – if you haven’t gone out and done any gigs or built a relationship with your audience – strangers aren’t going to buy your music, not $10,000 worth anyway. You still have to work really hard at the same things that we’ve always worked at in terms of audience development, in terms of developing a great live show and your performance skills and your musical skills. All of that is still exactly the same regardless of these new technologies we’ve got.
Given that you know your audience to an extent do you feel like you’re writing songs for them or you are still writing songs for yourselves to sing later?
I think as a collaborative duo – which is the focus of this act, women in docs – it’s really about this collaboration between two songwriters and two performers, and we get a very different product working together. So our focus as a songwriting duo is to try to really tap into the everyday experience of people and to kind of celebrate that. So we write songs about falling in love in the supermarket on one of our previous albums. On this album, on Carousel, there’s a song called ‘Monday’, which is pretty much a celebration of that city life, of the routine of getting up and going to work every day and all that sort of stuff. The last line of the song says, ‘This is a city serenade’. It’s a celebration of the city. So that’s what we’re trying to focus on with women in docs. What we do separately in our solo projects or our other creative work is a very different focus. So we’re kind of really focusing on celebration, on a bit of humour, our sense of humour when we work together, and that kind of everyday life story.
Of course, running things yourself means you get to choose who works on your album and Anthony Lycenko is quite in demand. I’ve seen his name popping up all over the place. So I was wondering how you came to choose him to mix your album?
He actually recorded our very first album years ago – not our first EP but our first full-length album. We worked with him at Rockinghorse Studios down at Byron Bay along with a man called Ben McCarthy, and Ben has just recently produced Pete Murray’s latest album, I think … So they helped us produce our very first album, which was called Under a Different Sky. And [Anthony] has been at us for years to come and work with him again and we were really happy with that album, considering we were a brand new band and we’d never even recorded an album before. We were really happy with the production qualities on that CD. So we wanted to work with him again and we asked him to mix this album. He’s probably one of the best mixing engineers in Australia I think. So we’re really happy with the work that he’s done on the album. And it was great to work with him again.
Because you two were producing it he got to take orders from you to an extent.
[Laughs] Well, he was just doing the mixing. He wasn’t involved in the recording process.
Okay. See, I don’t understand how this works, Chanel. I’ve never had to record anything.
We recorded and produced – when we produced the album, I guess we do kind of get to boss him around a bit. But we also respect his abilities. So we give him the tracks that we’ve recorded and he makes it sound good by mixing all the volumes and putting EQs on things and he makes us sound better. That’s what his job is. All he’s got to put up with is us going, ‘My voice isn’t loud enough. Can you turn me up?’
Well, I think he’s done a very good job because your voices are both really clean and clear in the mix.
[Laughs] And he’s put up with us harassing him about it. So I think it’s a great creative relationship.
Producing must create a lot of extra work when you’re singing your tracks and you’re looking after the songs being recorded, and you’re also having to be producers. Does it mean that you’re thinking of a lot of things while you’re in the studio, or can you separate those tasks so that by the time you actually come to record you’re very clear on what you want?
It’s a bit tricky because I think there’s a real advantage in having someone outside the band as a producer to have that outside ear. In the past that’s what we have done. But we decided to produce this ourselves this time and just see how it came out. But how we do it is if I’m playing Roz will sit in the booth with the producer’s hat on and kind of go, ‘Oh, can you change this?’ or, ‘You need to work on that’. Then vice versa. She’ll go in and I’ll give her some feedback and try to kind of put the producer’s hat on then. So it works okay because we’ve got the two of us. I think it would be a lot harder as a soloist.
It’s a lot of different parts of your brain, I would imagine.
Yeah, and it’s a different focus. Like when you’re playing something, really all you’re focused on is, Am I playing this right? But when you’re the producer you’ve got to think of the whole track and the context of the whole track and is this enough instrumentation, do we need to put something else on here, does this fit? Yeah, it’s a different kind of focus.
Given all of the band members are in different parts of the country and this is recorded and mixed and mastered in different places, how long was the end-to-end process for this album, from the point where you started to organise people to be in a certain place at a certain time to when you got the finished product?
It took two years in real time. But I think it only took a few weeks in terms of actual time that we spent working on it. We had to be really strategic. So when we were together to do gigs or festivals that’s when we would write a song. So ‘Carousel’, which is the single off the album, we wrote backstage at a gig in Cairns. We had an hour to kill and Roz said to me, ‘Let’s write a song’, and I went, ‘Okay’, and she went, ‘Here, I’m going to do the first line, and now you’. We just kind of went line for line. Then we thought we’d written a bridge and then we sang it a few times and realised the bridge was actually the chorus. Then by the time we went on stage that night we had most of ‘Carousel’ kind of done and arranged and written. So we just had to be a lot more intense, we just had to be more strategic with our time.
An hour is pretty intense, I’ve got to say, to write a song. Do you pull out a notebook at that stage or do you record yourselves going back and forth?
There’s a lot of recording onto the iPhone. That’s how we kind of do it.
The iPhone has become the unsung hero for a lot of songwriters. I’ve heard other people talk about recording on their iPhone and I think, before that what happened?
Well, I used to carry around a little portable tape player or a little portable voice recorder and I would just leave it in my handbag and whip it out. So if I was driving along and I got an idea, I’d just whip the voice recorder out and sing into it. I’d probably use that more than actually writing it down on the page. But, having said that, I’ve gone back to writing things on the page, but I use my computer. So I type the lyrics out now.
There are a couple of names I recognised in your special guests list, namely Danny Widdicombe and Sue Ray. Sue Ray has also turned up on Brad Butcher’s album. I know Danny is in Brisbane. So are these people you’ve met playing in the scene?
Yeah, they’re friends of ours. Sue is now based in Nashville, I think. But at the time when we were recording, yeah, she was in Brisbane. We decided as we were halfway through the track that she’s singing on – she sings on ‘It’s Raining on Me’, which is one of the songs. We were listening to the track and we had our producers’ hats on and we decided that the song needed a big choir at the end of it. So we just rang everyone we knew could sing, that we knew sort of worked in the city area near where we were recording, and said, ‘Hey, we need a choir. Any chance you’re free after work today?’ We recorded whoever showed up [laughs]. So Sue showed up and Rebecca Wright, who’s a folkie. Then Chris Kellett, who’s involved with kind of the musical theatre scene in Brisbane. They all showed up and we went, ‘Great, we have a quorum. Let’s go, choir.’ So that’s how they ended up on there. Danny has been a friend of ours for years. We’ve played lots of gigs together and known each other for a long time. So we just asked him if he would mind playing some guitar parts and he said yes and we were stoked.
Well, yes, because he’s extremely good on that guitar.
Yeah. Some of the lead guitar tracks are Roz and then some of the others on the other tracks are Danny. He played on ‘Hard Way’ and ‘Nobody Left Here’ … which was great. He’s a very busy man.
He is, and certainly I think there’s a fertile musical community in Brisbane to draw on. So it’s good to have those people close by.
Yes, and we’re just really lucky to have such great musos. Brisbane is really happening at the moment and there’s just great music coming out of Brisbane. Some of the oldies, like us, but also from some of the younger bands. So it’s kind of nice to be here and help each other out. Because we’re so small we all help each other out all the time.
Yeah, I think ‘oldies’ only because you’ve been in the business for a while, not because you’re actually old, Chanel.
Yeah, thank you, thank you [laughs].
When you’re 90 you can be an oldie.
Right. You can interview me any day, can I just say.
Well, I might take you up on that. Actually on that theme, I have a question that was down my list but it kind of relates to being older, and it could apply to when you’re 90, because one of the songs is called ‘You Can’t Go Back’ and it’s a song you wrote. So I was wondering what wouldn’t you go back to?
That’s a good question. What wouldn’t I go back to? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d go back to the blues bar where we started [laughs]. Yeah, I don’t know. I think that song was kind of about how your life forms you. I don’t know if I would change anything that I’ve done, especially in terms of my musical career. I think it’s kind of really formed who I am as a musician and a business person. But I think that song is really about moving forward, learning from what’s happened and you can’t go backwards so you may as well just keep walking forwards and doing the best that you can.
Carousel is available now – visit womenindocs.com for more information about the band and their music.