Sydney singer-songwriter Rachel Collis has a voice and a talent that can’t be ignored – thankfully, both are well documented on her new album, The Remains of the Day. I very much enjoyed speaking with Rachel recently about the album, her songwriting break and her musical background.

In the past you’ve written songs on piano and this time you wrote a bit on guitar – did that shape the songs differently, to use a different instrument?
I think so. I really don’t play guitar well at all. I’ve always wanted to, but piano’s always been the main instrument for me and the one that I studied. But I think with songwriting any change in your process is a good thing, it’s going to evoke different sounds and ideas, so I wanted to play guitar well enough to be able to write and explore songs on the guitar and see what comes. I think it really does change where things go.
I suppose there’s also the fact that you play gigs and pianos aren’t that portable – a guitar has that benefit.
Absoutely. I think I’m somewhat of a whinger when it comes to lugging a big, heavy keyboard around [laughs]. I tend to do shows where there’s a piano there already. But sometimes if it’s a folk club or if I’m just doing a few songs, it’s a real pest. So I though if I can play the guitar at least I can do a few songs. So I’m working on it. I have done a few performances where I’ve got the guitar up for one or two songs. Still needs time, I think [laughs].
I saw a video of you playing guitar onstage, so I know you’ve done that. I saw something on your website – the song about the duck.
Oh, that’s a ukulele, that one.
Clearly I wasn’t looking closely enough!
I’m quite short, so it probably looked like a guitar.
Since you play the ukulele I’ll divert and ask you a question about that. What do you like about the uke?
The funny thing is I only play the ukulele marginally better than the guitar, but it was a very similar thing. Part of the reason why I’ve never taken to guitar is that I have very small hands and I have a thin, small spread between my fingers, so playing Bach has always been a huge challenge. A few years ago I thought, Why don’t I get a ukulele? They don’t cost too much money. So I did, and I wrote a couple of songs on that. Then a year ago I woke up and thought, I’m going to get a mini guitar – and that was the problem solved. So I have a ukulele and a mini guitar, and that’s how I’m coping with it all [laughs].
You’ve been writing collaboratively with Peta Van Drempt and your husband, Steve – what you do you like about collaboration?
Two heads are better than one. I think that in the creative process you’re trying to bring ideas together. You’re constantly trying to generate ideas and ditching the bad ones and creating new ones and combining them, and you get stuck when you run out of ideas. But when you’ve got someone else with you, they throw in ideas and create new ideas for you. There’s more rubbish to ditch because there’s two people generating lots of bad ideas, but there’s also two people generating good material. All my favourite songwriters out of Nashville cowrite and I think it’s the best practice. The only thing that stops me is my ego that says, ‘I have to write this song on my own to prove to myself or to the world that I’m a genius’. I do write on my own but sometimes I think, Why not grab Peta, my friend, she’s such a great songwriter and let’s work this idea out together.So I do that a lot more now. I think both of us probably write better together than we do on our own. I mean – she’s written great songs on her own and I’m really proud of songs that I’ve written on my own but I think together we can be more productive, because so many of the songs that never get finished because you get stuck, we’ve been able to finish together.
When you were talking about how it was your ego demanding that you write the song on your own – of course, you are very well qualified to write songs because you have a Masters in Composition [laugh]. When you have that background, are there things you need to unlearn to write songs that you want to sing?
I think as a performer there have been things that I’ve needed to unlearn. Writing wise, I haven’t found that to be so much of a problem. I’ve always been able to separate the way I approach writing folk or something really simple from the way that I approach something that’s musically much more complex. Whereas I think performance wise that was a big jump for me, particularly vocally, that I had sort of let go of the need to sing something properly or even well. To just allow the voice to crack and show emotion and to let it be no big deal – that was a process I had to go through. Not that I regret doing the classical training but I think unlearning that really affected way of singing is really important when you’re trying to sound like you just spontaneously picked up the guitar and the singing and it’s just got to be so relaxed and natural, and I think that’s a challenge for a lot of formally trained musicians.
I guess you’re trained to sing in service of the song, whereas when you’re performing your own things, you’ve got to sing in service of the story you’re telling.
Absolutely. And emotion is shown in the vulnerability of your voice, and if you’ve been trained for your voice to be flawless and powerful, and suddenly it needs to sound vulnerable and weak, that just involves a very conscious process of letting go of the need to control everything, which is hard [laughs].
Very hard when you’ve had professional qualifications in getting that way.
That’s right, and spent many years doing it. It’s amazing how much becomes unconscious as well. I’ve listened back to – this was before I started pursuing music, when I was about twenty, and I had recordings I’d done of just singing folk stuff, but at the time I was right in the middle of my classical training. And even though I thought at the time that the way I was singing folk was completely different to my classical stuff, it’s very, very obvious that I was classically trained in the way that I was singing there. It’s something that you just do unconsciously because you’re in a world. I don’t think I would ever go back and do further classical voice training because I think that would interfere with singing the folk-rock stuff too much.
And because you are classically trained, your voice could have gone several different ways – you could have become a jazz singer, or you could have become a classical singer, and you’ve chosen a style that really suits your voice. I think it takes a certain amount of courage to come from that background and say, ‘I will sing the way I want to.’
Yes, it does. My old singing teacher has been such a powerful musical mentor for me and it took me ages to get him out of my head. The very first professional gig I did was a one-woman show back in 2012 and when he came along to that opening season, I was terrified that he would disapprove of all these horrible technical things I was doing that he’d taught me not to do. But of course he didn’t – he was pleased and proud. But that was a big fear at the time. Now it feels like no big deal.
Your voice certainly sounds relaxed, so you must be at a point where you’re comfortable.
That’s right [laughs]. I’ve gotten over it.
I saw a note saying you’d started writing songs five years ago for the first time since you were a teenager. I’m curious about what made you stop writing songs then.
I think fear. Probably lack of self-esteem. I’m a big believer that one of the most important things in being able to be creative is that you need to have a strong sense of self-worth because you have to be able to tolerate your own mistakes and trust your own instincts. And I think that there were times in that period when I wasn’t writing that I would try to write again and I just had no compass for, ‘Is this any good?’ Because I just didn’t trust myself even remotely … I think something just switched in my brain when I decided to start writing again and I just said, ‘I’m going to write something good. That’s all I have to do. If it’s not good, just write it again until it is.’ But I think it takes a certain amount of confidence as a person to be able to do that. And I know some people don’t ever struggle with that but for me that was a big thing, that I had to get over that anxiety about not being perfect, about not being brilliant all the time. I gave myself permission to be terrible – [that] was also part of that transition, was to go, ‘I’m going to start writing songs and I don’t care how bad they are.’ And then I was surprised when people were suddenly turning heads and I thought, Oh, I might actually be all right at this.So that was a lot to do with it. And I didn’t have the courage to pursue a music career so I pushed all that aside. I still played a lot of piano because I would get work as a piano player but in terms of doing my own stuff for a while there it just disappeared off my radar.
It’s a good thing that it’s back now – and speaking of songs, do you have a favourite on the album?
I have two. One is ‘Twenty to Nine’ which is a song I wrote based on Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. And the other favourite is a song called ‘Rest Assured’, which is this sort of unpretentious track buried all the way – I think it’s track seven – it’s just such a simple lullaby-type song. I really love songs that are simple lyrically and musically but are elegant and I’m really proud to have written something like that. I guess referring to the classical training and the composition training, it’s kind of easy to make something interesting by adding complicated features to it but to write something that really only has a couple of chords to it and not that many notes and not that many words and make that interesting is always a great challenge.
How did you choose your producer, Sean Carey?
I worked with Sean for my last album. My drummer, a fellow called Mike Quigley, does a lot of session work for Sean. Mike played with me for my first album and was gigging with me, and I was talking to him about the things I wasn’t pleased with on the first album and what I wanted to achieve, and he said, ‘I think you should check Sean out. I think he might be a good fit for you.’ So I madly researched Sean’s music and people who he had recorded and listened to the sound, then I went into a meeting really prepared – just really clear on what my ideas were, what sounds I liked, what sounds I didn’t like, which artists I liked, which artists I didn’t like and why, and presented that to him and he was absolutely on board. I’d say, ‘I think the piano sounds disgusting in this track’, and he’d say, ‘Absolutely – it sounds like they shoved it on a football field and covered it with a blanket.’ He understood exactly where I was coming from and I thought, This is somebody who has similar taste to me. Because what I took for granted beforehand is that everybody’s different, everybody has a different style and taste and you can go in any direction, and it’s so important to find somebody who agrees with you so that you’re not pushing this uphill battle where you’re trying to get them to create a certain sound. They have to be inspired by what they’re doing too. So we did Nightlight together and it was a no-brainer to work with him again for this album.
It sounds like you had a lot of fun recording it and it sounds like a blended whole, if that makes sense.
Yes, absolutely.
The Remains of the Day is out now and availble on iTunes.