Interview: Missy Lancaster

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Missy Lancaster recently released the single ‘Forget‘, which in some ways marks the end of an intense period of introduction to the music industry and also marks the start of her next phase, with her new album to be released early in 2018. The single might be said to also mark another change for Missy: her emergence from several years of living with anorexia nervosa and her determination to embrace the life she has created. Missy kindly agreed to speak about her experiences over the past few years, and it was easy for me to be impressed by this remarkable young woman.

When did your relationship with music start?
I was introduced to music when I was about three [years old], and I can remember being four and five and singing all the Shania Twain songs. It probably wasn’t until I was about thirteen – I can remember seeing The McClymonts and watching them and thinking, That’s so cool, I really want to do that. I begged my mum for a guitar and I remember her saying to me, ‘You’re never going to play it. I know if I get one you’re never going to use it.’ And I think it was just, No, Mum, I’m going to prove a point to you – I’m going to do this. Every day after school I played and played my guitar, and my fingers used to bleed daily because I’d be playing it so much. That was when I started, and started writing songs, and I just kind of fell in love with music. And I suppose it was my escape during my high school years.
What are some of the best things that music has done for you?
That’s a hard question … I think now when I’m going through something – if I’m having a tough time, or if I’m having a good time, I have a different outlook now. I think, Cool, I can write a song about that. I write songs about my life and things that are happening to me because I think people are going to connect with it on a deeper level. Music has so much power – you listen to a song and it can make you feel any kind of emotion. So I think that’s the greatest thing about it.
It sounds like you started writing songs in your early teens –  did you find at that age that you censored yourself? Did you think, This doesn’t sound cool, or This isn’t how songs are meant to sound? Or did you always feel a connection with being able to write songs?
I always felt a connection with it, but I suppose when you’re young and naïve you don’t know. I would be trying to write songs like Taylor Swift. And I suppose now as I’m getting a bit older I think, Okay, somebody’s already written that[laughs]. So you to try to write something original, and if you write things about your life and tell your story, people are going to connect with it much more rather than just trying to copy someone else.
But it’s hard, isn’t it, to weed out those influences and find that authentic voice? I think sometimes it’s hard to find an authentic singing voice as much as it’s hard finding an authentic writing voice.
Yes – and I think for me, I’ve grown up with country music being my main influence, but in saying that I’ve listened to so much pop music. All my friends were listening to Black Eyed Peas and Fergie, and Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls, and there I was listening to Kasey Chambers and The McClymonts. But I think if you can take an element from each genre and put it into what you do, I think it kind of shines through. And I think great artists are able to tap into lots of different genres.
And also that idea of finding your authentic voice – reading about your illness [Missy had anorexia nervosa for five years], that’s a chronic illness and a debilitating illness. I think it must be hard to retain a sense of self through that, let alone try to create art out of that.
Yes. Yes. I’ve only started writing about it recently and I’ve only come out about it recently because I didn’t want to write about it from a ‘poor me, I’m so sad’ kind of perspective. I wanted to write about it in an empowering way. When I was fifteen, sixteen, there was no one that I could look up to and say, ‘They kind of get me’ because no one was talking about mental illness when I was that age. So I think I’m in a headspace where I’m able to sing about it, talk about it in an empowering way and if I can help someone else who might be going through that, that’s the greatest gift of all. But, yes, it was hard and I wasn’t sure how I would go about it. I just wanted to wait until the inspiration came and I thought, Yep, I’m going to do this. `
Was there a sense of that work pulling you through? Not necessarily pulling you through into the future, because that sounds a bit cheesy, but more the idea that you had work to do. Clearly you had output in your early teens – how did that work of being a songwriter and being a musician give you some respite from what was going on but also a direction to head in?
The funny thing is, for me, that when I was really sick I actually stopped music altogether. I stopped singing, I stopped my gigs, I stopped singing lessons. I was just in and out of hospital all the time. I missed two terms of school. So I wasn’t in any state to be writing songs, because I was so sick and the treatment I was doing was so heavy. But I got to a stage where I was going in and out of the hospital and I was noticing … I kind of had a spiritual awakening in the midst of it and I was noticing that when I was going back to the hospital and spending periods of time there, it was making me worse. Then when I was away from that environment I was feeling better about myself. I think it was just going into the hospital I knew that I would have to find out my weight so a week before I would be making sure that I weighed less than I did the previous time. I think it’s when you get to age twenty that you don’t have to be admitted into a hospital because it’s considered self-harm – under the age of twenty they have to admit you – but then I got a choice. So when I was about twenty I thought, I’m going to take another approach to this. I started meditating and doing things like that, and really living every day like it was my last day. And that changed everything for me. Then once I changed my mindset, that was when my songwriting and everything started happening properly for me. I went to Nashvillle and then I ended up coming back and signing a record deal, and all of these crazy things started happening. So it was a huge turnaround from what I was having the year before.
That idea of living every day as if it’s your last: it’s quite a big, deep, almost heavy realisation to have at such a young age. It’s amazing that you had it but did you feel the weight of that?
It really did turn my life around and I’m a big believer in ‘everything happens for a reason’. I just believe that if I can turn all that experience into my songs and my stories, and help someone that is going through that, that’s the greatest thing and that’s what I want to achieve.
At the time you were meditating and doing those other practices – when you realised that hospital wasn’t quite the place for you – I’m guessing there was a point at which you started to trust yourself, trust your own instinct about what was good for you, and that’s something that can stand you in very good stead as an artist. Is that what happened – that you started to believe that you knew what was good for you?
Exactly. And I’m a big believer in energy attracts energy, and I think I was just getting good at knowing how to cope with it – having coping methods. Just because they have a treatment that they give to every single patient, it might work with some but it might not work for other people. So I was able to get to a place where I thought, I am able to see clearly what is happening now. If I go back down that path, I know I’m just going to end up in hospital. And the thing is with eating disorders, they have a higher death rate than suicide. But for some reason society chooses to ignore that – I don’t know why. But I think I just decided, you know what, I’ve only got one shot at life and I’m a survivor and I’m proud of that. So if I can give everything I’ve got and try to inspire someone else to sing and do that, that would be awesome.
I wonder if that statistic isn’t as well known because it happens mostly to young women, or women in general. Sometimes the reporting around it has been, ‘It’s just this whim, they’ve just decided to not eat’ and it’s not taken seriously for that reason – but, of course, it’s extremely serious.
Yes. People still don’t understand the illness and you can’t expect people to understand it, but it is a mental illness and it’s not as simple as saying, ‘I’m going to eat now.’ What actually happens is that your organs start to shut down, everything that your body doesn’t need any more starts to shut down. So it’ll go, ‘Start shutting down parts of your brain that we no longer need, the most important thing is to keep the heart pumping’. So it actually stops sending messages from your brain to your stomach to remind you to eat, so you stop feeling that hunger because that part of your body has been switched off. So it is really interesting.
And interesting also that you can look at it almost as an outsider now and talk about it in those terms. Five years may sound like a long time but that illness can last for decades.
Yes. And that’s the thing: it is very, very easy to slip back into it, and especially being in the music industry and being in the spotlight, you have to be very careful that you don’t slip back into old habits. But I think that I am in a good enough headspace where I’m able to shut it out.
Are you still meditating?
All the time. Every day. It’s my thing.
How long do you meditate for?
I like to meditate before I go to bed, so probably about half an hour. But in saying that, sometimes I’ll just go down to the beach and I’ll just sit there and listen. It’s not always fully going into a meditative state, but just doing things that you enjoy and that help you relax.
It’s great that you say that because it shows that meditation can take many forms. It’s what works for you, not necessarily sitting in a room with your legs crossed.
And so many people say, ‘I can’t meditate, I can’t meditate’, but I reckon it’s a personal thing.
I think music is one of the best forms of meditation. Practising – because you have to be so involved with that instrument, and if you’re singing you’ve got to practise your singing. Quite often you’re so present in that moment that it’s a form of meditation.
Yes, and I think music is such a great way to express yourself and get things off your chest … There was one night when I was playing at a rodeo in outback Queensland and I was feeling really not good, and I thought, If I can just use all the energy I have and go out on stage and have fun, hopefully that will help. And I can remember going out and there were about 4000 people there and they lifted me up on such a high level. And it just shows how people can connect through music.
Also if you’re taking that attitude – that you have to bring that energy to it – the audience can sense that. If you’re flat, they sense that and then you don’t get anything back, but if you can find some way to summon that energy, that sends a signal.
I try to think when I go out there, This isn’t about me. This is about connecting with other people.Because you don’t know what other people are going through. And I find after my gigs that people will come up to me and say, ‘My parents have just died’ or ‘This has just happened to me and your music has really helped me through that and brought me so much happiness tonight’. And that’s just the coolest thing. So you really just have to give it everything you’ve got.
The country music audience loves to connect with its artists and will remain connected via whatever means: music, social media. It is a genre of music in which you have a great chance of being that role model you mentioned earlier, because there will be people who are willing to talk to you. By you starting that conversation with people, which is what you’re doing. That’s really good work for you to do – and I don’t mean that to sound patronising, I really think it’s an extraordinary thing to do.
And I really feel such a deep connection to country music. These people get me. And I’ve always felt that ever since I was young. It’s really cool to be a part of the country music community… The people are so loyal. It’s really awesome.
You’ve achieved a lot in the past couple of years, apart from becoming well. You’ve had an EP out, you’ve signed with Sony, you were a runner-up in Star Maker. Have you surprised yourself with all of that?
One hundred per cent. I honestly had no idea. And that’s the thing: I’m lucky to be alive. It’s such an awesome achievement and I actually look at it and think, Wow, this is really cool. So I think if I can keep kicking goals and doing things like that … It’s really awesome but I was actually reading an old newspaper article today and it was from five years ago – it was a Facebook memory that came up – and I had written, ‘One day I hope to travel to Nashville and one day I hope to do this and that’, and everything that I had listed I have ticked off. That was a nice little reminder to go, ‘Cool – I’m doing pretty well.’
You are doing very well, and the song’s great too. So I will now ask about the song, ‘Forget’ – that was done with Josh Kerr, a producer in Nashville. How did that connection come about?
I didn’t know Josh and we followed each other on Instagram, and we ended up hooking up a writing session together. I’m such a fan of what he does and I was really nervous going into the session. I knew that I had to go in with a good idea, and I had this melody and these words floating around in my head for a while and I wasn’t sure what it was. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write and who I was going to write it with. So I thought`, I’m going to take that idea to Josh. And we wrote the song in about half an hour, and he did up the demo of it that day, and the demo was really good. I remember saying to my manager, ‘Do you reckon we could get him to produce this track, because that would be really awesome?’ So I ended up asking him and he ended up agreeing to produce it, and he’s producing some more tracks on my album, which is super cool. He’s just such a talented songwriter, producer, and just a really cool guy, so it’s awesome to have him on board.
So is the album done?
Yes! It’s finished. I’m just waiting now. [Laughs] It sucks! But it is really exciting because it represents a chunk of my life – growing up and overcoming things that are really hard. Being thrown into the music industry as well – I wasn’t intending on getting a record deal, it just kind of happened really organically. I’m just excited about writing an album that I really feel is 100 per cent me and reflects my story.

 

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