Interview: Jackie Dee

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Jackie Dee’s latest album, Six String Heart, is one of the most outstanding Australian releases in recent times, and I can attest that after repeated listening its appeal does not fade. So it was an honour to have the chance to talk to Jackie about the inspiration behind and creation of this special collection of songs.

When did your relationship with music start?
Probably at birth [laughs]. I’ve always had a relationship with music, but in a more semi-professional capacity, as young as thirteen I was performing live in venues, so it’s been a while.
It sounds like your household was full of music?
Yes, it was, and I actually have a famous aunt who is one of Australia’s greatest opera-singing exports. So I was surrounded by music and every opportunity I got, basically, to get up and sing at family barbecue or whatever it was, I would take that opportunity.
When you were performing at thirteen was that just singing or were you playing an instrument?
I was playing keyboards – don’t ask me how I was doing that because I really had no formal training other than the music lessons that you take at school. I joined an all-boy band. We were an eight-piece band and I was the token female singer. I got pushed to the side a little bit – it was a bit of an apprenticeship for me, being in an all-boy band at that age, I really had to learn to hold my own. I would be more or less designated lines in songs to sing, as opposed to songs. But it was a great foundation and the guys were writing their own original material, so it was a wonderful experience to learn about songwriting and to have the joy of performing an original song to an audience, even at that age, which was such a thrill.
At what age did you feel your apprenticeship was over?
[Laughs] I’m not sure that it is over. I think I’m learning all the time about my singing and my songwriting and my style, and where my passion lies. It should be that way – I think we should always be learning and growing and moving within the music.
Then I’ll switch and say once you finished with that band – you had opera in your family, you were in this band: how did you start to arrive at your individual style?
The opera singing was never my thing, but when you’re growing up as a little girl and listening to family members talking about Great Aunt Yvonne and what she’s doing, and she’d won scholarships and all this stuff, singing on the stages in France and London – it was pretty exciting. But my parents were pretty humble in their style of music. Dad was really into American country at the time – the ’70s Creedence, swamp rock and Glenn Campbell and Johnny Cash. Mum was more of a rock chick – she was into Status Quo and other bands. We had the old LP player in the lounge room and we would get it cranking up. My taste in music has always been in that country/blues/folk arena. It’s just what’s always drawn me in: the singer-songwriter telling a story. But I’ve dabbled in all kinds – I’ve had affairs with all genres, I promise you [laughs].
And when you love music, it’s like when you love books: you’ll read everything and you’ll listen to everything because all music is great and interesting. Often with singers I wonder if it’s a question of finding the genre that suits your voice best.
I think that’s true. So I didn’t really start my own songwriting career until my late twenties. I played in duos and did lots and lots of weddings, things like that. People were always asking me to sing. And that was lovely. But it wasn’t until I had my second child that this new reservoir of creativity seemed to open up, and I just thought, You know what? I can actually do this myself. I’d been performing other people’s songs for yonks and just felt it was time that I started to back myself a little bit. I was always very big on poetry – I’d write a lot of poetry – so the lyrics were always swimming around in my head, but putting it to music was something new. It’s been about two decades that I’ve been writing my own material and performing it live, culminating in this third album.
And what a great album it is. Just on that opening up of creativity: sometimes I wonder if artists feel like they finally have permission to do something, or they haven’t given themselves permission to do something – because, as you said, there was always poetry in your mind, and it’s interesting that it was at that point in your life that not only was there a creative uprising but you also gave yourself permission to do it.
Yes, and I think the other thing is motherhood, for me. It did open up a whole lot of material that really related to my own childhood and my own parenting, and there was a whole lot of stuff that I wanted to write about. I think it was a life stage, a change in my life, and the songwriting came with it.
Was there any sense that now there was a new generation it was almost your role to be a storyteller to that next generation?
Yes, I think so, and there’s two songs on two of my albums that I’ve almost written as a legacy to my children, with the intention that perhaps one day, many years from now when I’m fertiliser in the ground, that they’ll be listening to those songs with their children and their grandchildren. I think that’s really true. It’s nice to think that you can pass things along in generations. I don’t think there’s enough of that these days.
And often people don’t think to ask, or don’t think to tell, or don’t think they can tell. But stories are fundamental to all cultures, so it’s important to do it.
Absolutely. I’m a big believer in that. There’s likely to be another couple of albums of storytelling yet.
When did you start writing for Six String Heart?
I often say that this, that I’m always songwriting [laughs]. On any given day there’s some idea swimming around in my head that either I’ve just received from being prompted by something I’ve seen, heard or experienced, or it’s something that’s been sitting there for a couple of months and I keep going back to it. But I feel like I’m always songwriting so there’s never a starting point. I guess some contracted artists who are given a time frame and told, ‘You need to have an album ready for us by this time’, they probably work quite differently to me. I have the freedom as an independent artist to write what I want to write and when I feel like it. I guess the realisation [for this album] was probably twelve months ago when I started my crowdfunding campaign; [it] was, ‘I have enough songs now to put this album together and I really want to go through with it.’ It was also around the time that my brother was diagnosed with cancer so that gave me an added incentive to deliver the album as a tribute to him. So there was a couple of life events that really pushed this forward for me, gave it a lot more momentum. There were a lot of reasons to make this album and it was really a personal healing process for me to get this out there. I needed to share it with the world and that was healing for me, to express myself in that way, and also for my other family members.
And given the context of it – your brother’s illness and then his death – it’s not at all a maudlin album. There is joy on it and this sense almost of the universe being unlimited and a lot of beautiful things in it, which is quite an extraordinary thing considering what’s happened.
I definitely have that very universal philosophy on life in general. I don’t see things on shelves or in boxes; I’ve always seen the big-picture stuff. So it doesn’t really matter what I’m writing about, it always falls against that backdrop of something bigger, something greater, something more meaningful sitting behind it. Because for me, that helps me life my life in a more joyful way.
I guess it also helps put a death into context. It feels, from the album, very much as if your relationship with your brother continues – he’s just in a different place.
I didn’t talk about this too much through the songwriting process but my brother battled mental illness for thirty years and it was a grieving process that we had to witness for him for most of his life. To be honest, when he passed there was some relief for me that the struggle was over, but it also put life in perspective and made me think about just how much we can take for granted, like having a job, having a partner, having a child. These are all things my brother was never able to achieve because his mental illness prevented that. And so it was a relief – it felt like he was being set free finally, and I wanted to celebrate that in a beautiful way. I think [the song] ‘Zeppelin’s Playing’ achieves that.
You mentioned being an independent artist. The calibre of independent productions in Australian music is extraordinarily high. It’s interesting to contemplate that if you did have a record label and there was that deadline and there were certain expectations, what sort of music would come out. But as you said, you can work on your own timetable – and you can choose your own producer, so how did you come to choose Matt Fell?
It’s a great story, actually, because it was always my greatest dream to be able to record my own material. I really didn’t know where to start back in 2009 when I was my conceiving my debut EP. I happened to be a big fan of Rick Price’s music – I saw him as an Australian, very authentic singer-songwriter. I went to lots of his shows and saw him perform, so I thought, Why not? Let’s contact Rick and see if he’s available. I guess I don’t let things hold me back in that way – what’s the worst thing that could happen? They could say no. But he put me onto Matt Fell because he’s living in Nashville and he said, ‘Unfortunately I’m not in the country to be able to do it but I can put you onto this guy who’s making some great records.’ So I contacted Matt and I lived in Helensburgh, which is in the northern Illawarra [NSW], and it’s sort of a sleepy little coalmining town nestled on the southern fringe of the Royal National Park, and Matt travelled all the way out one night and came and met me, and I made him a cheese platter and we sat there and talked about the album. I was humbled that somebody cared enough to come all the way to see me and talk to me about my album. And it remains a very special memory, because since then his career – he’s just absolutely blossomed. But after Matt produced Tide I just was blown away – it exceeded all my expectations. So when you have such a wonderful experience, you don’t want it to end, do you? You’re, like, I reckon I could probably do this again with enough effort and focus, determination. So I did, in 2010, with Doors and Windows, and again Matt took me on that journey. For this last album I had considered Shane Nicholson for production and it just turned out that Shane was extremely busy with lots of work that year, and I was sitting there thinking, Matt –Shane – Matt – Shane. I wanted them both and I thought, Why can’t I have both? So I got Matt to produce and then Shane came and played acoustically on every track, and then he lent his beautiful vocals to two of my tracks, which is just like a bucket list thing for me.
And you also have Glen Hannah playing, and he’s another great producer. The three of them pretty much could divvy up the entire country music industry these days.
[Laughs] That’s exactly right. But the quality doesn’t come cheaply, and as an independent artist it requires a lot of effort. People say to me, ‘How come it’s been so long since your last album?’ and without being cynical it’s hard to explain to people what goes into resourcing a project like that and to see it through to where it is now, launched and promoted. It’s a substantial investment.
Of time and energy, and also of money. That’s that saying about the three sides of the triangle: fast, cheap and good. You can have any two at once but not all three.
[Laughs] That’s right. And I guess because I’ve been spoilt and had the quality of production on my albums previously, I can’t go back. I just want it to be as good as it can be.
I read in your bio that you work as a family therapist – has that ever had an impact on your creativity, either negatively or positively?
No, none [laughs]. It’s part of the fabric of who I am – I’m a songwriter and I’m a family therapist, and the two go quite nicely together, because one is a fantastic way of learning about and supporting oneself, through the work I do with others, and then I get to express that in a creative way through my music. So it’s all the same person, just different parts.

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