One noteworthy act at this weekend’s Nimbin Roots Festival is women in docs, who have a dedicated fan base around the country thanks to their sublime harmonies and great songwriting. I had a chat to Chanel Lucas from women in docs (on the right in the photo) to ask about her Nimbin preparation and what she’s looking forward to.
I purposely didn’t do much research before talking to you because I thought you could tell me: what have the women in docs been doing?
Since we’ve seen you last in Tamworth last year we’ve finished off touring our album around Australia and since then we’ve been working on a new album, so we’re trying to write songs and record some stuff, which is a bit challenging for us because Roz is in Cairns and I’m in Brisbane, so we just get together when we can. We do a lot of stuff on the internet.
Before the most recent album you had a bit of a break, so now it seems like you’re in a purple patch, may we say, or you’ve got a creative wind underneath you?
[laughs] Maybe. I think we’ve just started developing new ways to collaborate, which is making it a lot easier. Because initially we lived in the same city we were used to getting together face to face, so I think it’s just taken us a while to learn how to collaborate on songs and we’re just starting to get there with that. It’s a lot easier with Dropbox and all the tools we’ve got – social media, chat rooms.
In terms of face to face, Skype offers you that capability – do you find that you tend to still like seeing each other or is it okay to send stuff back and forth.
We get together whenever one of us is nearby. So if Roz is in Brisbane on a trip for work we will always get together, and if I’m up north I’ll try to make a point to go and see her. Because really the best way to collaborate on songwriting is to be together. But long term we send ideas back and forth, especially in the editing process. One of us might say, ‘I’ve changed the bridge a bit, what do you think about this?’ and the other person will listen to it and reply. So once we get to editing it’s a lot easier.
Given that such a big part of the two of you working together is your harmonies, do you sort out the harmonising when you’re recording or is it something you work into the songwriting?
We do it at exactly the same time as the song’s being written. Both of us are singing and playing as we write, and if one person comes up with an idea and they’re sending it through – say Roz is sending something on Dropbox or Google Drive, I will record my harmonies or bass playing, whatever it is, over the top of it and send it back. So it happens at the same time because it is so integral to the women in docs style. Whereas our individual work that we do with other bands or other projects, there’s not the same focus on the harmonies.
And it’s a focus because it works so beautifully – now having seen you play live, it seems so … I don’t want to say ‘effortless’ because those things are never effortless, so I’ll say it seems very natural. When you first started to sing together, did it feel natural or has it taken a lot of working together to get to that point?
As soon as we started playing together we naturally sang harmonies to each other. And we first started playing together in rock bands in Townsville and that was the one thing that people commented on: ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a rock band with so many harmonies.’ And that was part of the motivation to then ditch the rock band and focus on the more acoustic instruments and on our harmony songwriting. Also when we first started women in docs it was the same year as the Indigo Girls, who were super popular then. And bands like Tiddas, out of Melbourne. Which we weren’t aware of until we started touring. So we were already doing what was becoming popular without having any connection to Melbourne or Sydney or Brisbane. So it was like there was this kind of national movement that happened without anyone realising [laughs]. It was weird.
I remember reading something authoritative a while ago talking about how humans respond instinctually to harmonic voices – which is why people go crazy over the Beatles and ABBA, I guess. And One Direction. But I don’t think it ever goes out of fashion, what you’re doing.
It’s a tricky one. We did a gig in Melbourne during the last album tour and one of the young guys we played with came up to us and said, ‘That was really good – really ’90s sounding.’ [laughs] I don’t know – is it timeless? I’m not sure. But I think that doing lots of harmonies is a particular sound and there’s a lot of room when you’ve got multiple voices and multiple harmonies to create different moods or different themes within the song that you don’t have as a solo singer.
So this new album you’re working on, are you working to a deadline?
Yes, I think the end of last year was the deadline [laughs]. We work at a different speed to what we used to work at because we have other things that we do. We used to do women in docs full time, we were touring nine months of the year and we were able to spend some time on it. These days we have other jobs, we have other musical projects, so it’s not that it gets left behind, it’s more that we’ve just got to be easier on ourselves in terms of deadlines. Now we’re just trying to get some good songs and once we’ve got some good songs we’ll record the album. But the plan to go into the studio is in January because we’re both on kind of a break then.
The whole nation has a break then, so that’s a good time.
Except for the festivals everyone has a little break, so it’s a good time to record.
And of course it is as women in docs that are you going to Nimbin Roots. I would imagine that you two don’t need a lot if any rehearsal time before you play together. But going to something like this, do you get together slightly early and catch up?
Yes. We either all fly in a bit earlier and make sure we’ve got time for rehearsal but also because this is how we do things now, it’s really important for all the individuals involved to be ready, so we all rehearse separately. Usually we come up with a set list, everyone rehearses beforehand then we just have a quick play-through either the day before or the morning if we’re playing that night.
I’m curious about the logistics of this kind of thing because you’re all coming from different places into a place where none of you lives, and it’s not a big town – given that you’re a band not a duo, how do you find a space to rehearse in?
You can rehearse anywhere, really. We don’t need to be plugged in to rehearse. Sometimes if we all come into a city – like if we come into Brisbane – we’ll book a rehearsal room, but if we’re coming in to a festival we’ll just find a space. So we’ll either rehearse in our motel room and drive everyone crazy or we’ll go into the park – if it’s nice weather we’ll go and sit in the park. It’s lucky that it’s not essential for us to be plugged in to rehearse.
And you just need to drive down from where you are [in Brisbane].
Yes. Usually everyone flies in to the closest city and we drive from there.
If you’re all driving together from Brisbane, isn’t it a bit like the royal family – they don’t all travel on the same plane, so why are you all in the same car? What is something happens?
[Laughs] I think maybe our drummer might be coming in a separate car, because he is also playing with Felicity Lawless.
I don’t mean to be rude but, as the drummer, is he not the most expendable member of the women in docs?
Well … we do like him. We kind of need him to be there. But if we all travelled in separate cars, where would the fun road trip be? And how would we go and find the best coffee spot? That’s kind of the fun of going to a festival.
Did you submit an audition tape or CD or something for the festival?
Yes. We’ve played together at Tamworth with Lou and with some of the other people who will be at the festival, but we applied to be part of the awards night – we still apply to be part of festivals regardless of whether you know the organisers or not. That’s the usual process with all of these festivals.
Lou seems to be incredibly good at organising things.
I think this one’s come together particular well because she’s tapped into the local community really well. I think it’s a great idea to use the bowlo – to use local businesses. And she’s really got the support of the local businesses, which I think really makes the difference with a festival and gives it longevity. Apart from the fact that instead of putting a tent up on the showgrounds and people might stop for coffee in town, it’s using venues in the town – the festival’s adding value to the local businesses. They’ve got a reason to support it and a reason to be part of it. And it makes it all-weather. I think she’s done a really great job in getting the word out there. And what a line-up – I’d buy a ticket!
It is. Is there anyone in particular you’re looking forward to seeing either in a personal or professional capacity?
I really love Paddy McHugh. He is out of Brisbane, I think. He sings sort of folk-country which has that tint of Australiana about it. A little bit of Weddings Parties Anything, a little bit of Slim Dusty. He’s telling Australian stories and sings with an Australian accent. A fabulous performer, very upbeat, really strong songwriter. So I’m looking forward to seeing him. In general I think the whole festival is quite an impressive line-up of country, roots and Australiana artists. Really diverse range of artists. So I think if people come, you’re not going to watch the same kind of music over and over again. It’s going to be a really entertaining weekend.
It must be so interesting for you as an artist to see what happens – who you meet, what results from it.
Lots of collaborations come out of these kinds of events, whether it be touring collaborations or songwriting or recording collaborations. The other good thing about playing festivals as an artist is that when we’re on tour, it’s just us, so coming to a festival is a really great connection back into our community, which is why I love playing festivals – I get to see other artists. So we’ll see what happens after this weekend – should be a good one.
Nimbin Roots Festival: 17-18 September 2016