Interview: Bec Lavelle

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artwork-440x440Australian singer-songwriter Bec Lavelle found fame and fans when she became the voice of hit TV series McLeod’s Daughters (now streaming on Stan, for those who didn’t see it on the Nine Network during its long life). She has since released solo albums, and spent several years living in Germany. Over the past few months she’s been releasing outstanding singles, working towards the release of her new album, IV, on 28 August. She also collaborated with four other artists on the recent single ‘Nervous Girls’, and last month released the single ‘I’m Happier’.

Lavelle’s musical life started early  when, for her third birthday, her parents took her to her first ballet lesson.

‘I guess you can call it that,’ she says. ‘As much ballet as a three year old can handle! I actually cried when they attempted to take me home … Then through all of my schooling I was constantly in gospel choir and chamber choir and those types of things. I just loved it. I loved music. It’s really been in my life since the very beginning.’

It wasn’t school choir that set Lavelle’s heart on wanting to become a singer, though.

‘The reason I became a singer and wanted to do what I saw him do was John Farnham,’ she says. ‘This is going to show you my age, but in 1989 I was nine years old and down here in the Gold Coast at Seagulls, they used to have a football stadium and my parents – I don’t know how they did it, but we had three girls between the ages of nine and five, and they stood with us three rows back for about six hours waiting for Southern Sons and John Farnham to come on the stage. And my dad had me on his shoulders and Jack Jones winked at me. I thought that was just the bee’s knees. Whatever he’s doing to me right now, I want to give people that feeling. And it was infectious.

‘So that’s what I wanted to do. With my dancing, it was five, six, seven days a week. I was going to be a dancer. It was going to be dancing. I was classically trained and I got to the audition for the Australian Ballet and I was two centimetres too tall. It’s pretty brutal. Too short, at least you could shove stuff in your shoes, but it’s hard to take a few centimetres off without hunching over. So that was a bit heartbreaking.’

But Lavelle didn’t give up. ‘At school I’d been in the back row of all the choirs and really enjoyed them, and in Year 12 my music teacher said, “You’re going to sing the solo on this song.” And of all the songs it was “Joyful, Joyful” from [the movie] Sister Act. What a banger of a tune! I’d been at home singing it with my sisters, I knew every word. Because it was for a recital, the entire school was there, 3000, 4000 people. And I just loved it. I absolutely loved it. And he could see something in me, obviously. It was really lovely to have that sort of support and encouragement from someone that I respected so much for what he did.

‘And so from there I thought, Oh, forget the dancing. I’m singing now. With dancing as well, by 25 you’re kind of old news and almost to retire due to injury. And I knew that singing would have a little bit more of a shelf life if you’re any good. So here I am at 40 still going. I’m pretty blessed, actually. It was a good decision.’

The discipline of all those years of ballet also stood Lavelle in good stead for her singing, given that there is practice and drills in both.

‘The stuff you see on stage is just the cream on top to get to that point,’ Lavelle agrees. ‘The point of being able to just do that and make it look simple or easy or fun, there’s an incredibly large amount of work behind the scenes to get to that. And you’re absolutely right. Because it is discpline. You work for yourself, there’s no one making you do it. If you don’t do it for yourself, then it just doesn’t happen.

‘You don’t go to work as a singer. Work is 24/7. You’re up doing emails at midnight. You’re in the studio on your Sunday writing music with a German friend at three o’clock in the morning via Skype. It’s relentless. But at the same time, every time I’ve tried to give it up, I come back to it again because I miss it. So it’s in your blood, I think. It’s not just a saying, I think it’s literally a part of you and I’m not trying to do anything else. So I’m pretty screwed if I don’t stick with it, you know! I don’t have a law degree just hanging around … I’ve been doing this since [I was] three, went to high school and did it, and went to tertiary education and did a performing arts certificate and it’s just been everything I’ve ever done. So it had to work. I put that pressure on myself of “this is all you are capable of doing, so do it well”.’

After leaving school Lavelle auditioned for acting school NIDA in Sydney but didn’t get in. At the same time she went to Brent Street School of performing arts in Sydney and did a full-time Certificate IV in Performing Arts, ‘which I thought it was a joke,’ she says. ‘I didn’t think that you actually could get a Certificate IV for doing singing, dancing, and loving what you did. It was awesome.

‘So officially, legally, I’ve got a Certificate IV in Performing Arts because I ran around and sang and danced and tapped and acted for a year. Out of Brent Street I went and did a year’s travelling around Australia, would you believe as Rat in the Hat with the Bananas in Pyjamas stage show – one of the greatest pieces of work I’ve ever done. But it’s just suit work so no one heard me sing and no one could see me dance, it was just this big Rat in the Hat suit that I did for 12 months. And coming off of the back of Bananas, I was invited to audition for this television show called McLeod’s Daughters, as a 19 year old. And that’s bringing us to where we are today.’

McLeod’s was and remains a beautiful anomaly in terms of how music is created for TV series: the show’s creator, Posie Graeme-Evans, wrote songs to suit the storyline and these were recorded by Lavelle. Not even the TV series Nashville married story and song so closely.

McLeod’s was so individual in the sense that Posie was not only creatively involved with the production of the show,’ says Lavelle, ‘but she could foresee what was coming up: “Oh, here’s a pub scene. We need a rockier song here.” “Claire is going to fall over a cliff here so we need ‘My Heart is Like a River’ to kick in here.” And they wrote it specifically for the scenes that you saw.

‘And this is the next individual amazing thing about McLeod’s that not many people realise. I was contracted to Channel Nine. So basically they called me and I dropped everything. And within an hour, I’m in a studio. So they sent the rushes up from Adelaide, [they’d] written the songs in the meantime, and then I’m standing in the studio. So what you hear on the albums and on the soundtracks, I’ve visually seen the footage of what they’ve acted and sung along to it. So if you can imagine the man I loved, Alex, is under the tree, Stevie’s beside him, and I’ve had to watch it and then sing. So I think it took me 10 takes just to get started before bawling my eyes out. Really, it threw me – ‘you cannot be telling me that he’s going to die under the tree’. Not to mention the confidentiality clause of not being able to tell anyone. But it just brought something through me as a singer to be able to see what I was going to be singing along to. They weren’t just, ‘Oh, they’re in a pub with this bit”, or, “Oh, he’s broken her heart”. I’m literally looking at them doing it and singing it as I’m watching it happen. So it’s another very rare part of television these days to have that kind of set-up.

‘And it was a very quick turnaround. I’ve got the phone call, I’m in a studio an hour later and in 30 minutes the song is wrapped up, done, to the studios in Channel Nine. There was never any longer than honestly about an hour or so per track. I’d never heard [the track] before. I would go into the studio. He’d play it for me. He goes like this – “la la la la la” – I sang it, added harmonies. Bang. It was the greatest schooling of my entire life. If someone said to me, “What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned?” it’s to be able to come into a studio, learn a song, sing it, finish it, and have it wrapped up in an hour. I’m so blessed to have learnt from Chris Harriott because he was just a guru. He went through Bananas, he went through Hi-Five and he went through McLeod’s. He was just a pro.’

Of course, for Lavelle to be able to connect with the material and record the song so quickly, she had to come to it with a really open mind and open heart as to what was going to happen.

‘I think it actually helped because I was so green,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know how it was meant to go … I didn’t know anything different, being a 19-year-old kid who’s just finished a performing arts gig. I’d never even been in a studio and put on a set of headphones. My audition for McLeod’s: they called me in and I sang three songs. It was the first time I’d stood in a studio. I put the headphones on. The only thing I was praying was “don’t look like an idiot”. And Chris, god love him, he’s saying through the headphones, “Can you hear yourself? Are your levels okay?” And I’m thinking, Levels? It’s on. Volume’s happening. ‘Yeah, it’s great in here. I can hear myself.’

‘So from day one it was just learn it, sing it, feel it, develop it. And that’s the only thing I knew. Now a lot of people comment and say, “Oh, Bec, you wrapped that up so quickly.” Or, “Can we do harmonies on this track?” and I get it back to them in half an hour. And they’re saying, “Are you joking?” and I say, “Well, I just don’t know any different.” That’s how I function because it’s the brilliance of how I was taught at that young age. And it’s just such a blessing.’

Of course, this also means that Lavelle has kept up the discipline she learnt during her time with the show – and there is now talk of a McLeod’s movie.

‘I really did sit there for two seconds the other day and think, Wow, it’s been 20 years since I started singing for the show,’ says Lavelle. ‘Anywhere along that way, I could have stopped, career change, or had children or just not be singing anymore. And here I am, weeks out from releasing my fourth individual solo album. And it just really hit me for two seconds. I thought, Okay, I’m having a proud moment. Twenty years and I’m still doing it. So I don’t know whether it’s called crazy or whether it’s just damn luck, but I feel really blessed. I’m not a millionaire by any means at all. I’m broke as hell because I lost my job in COVID, but at the same time that drive is still in me to keep giving it a crack anyway.’

Part of the reason, no doubt, for Lavelle’s longevity is that she remains fascinated by what’s out there to do, musically speaking. She is not trying to recreate one sound with each album – and for the new album she has a new collaborator, Andrei Vesa.

‘We met 2014 through The Voice,’ says Lavelle. ‘We were both on The Voice in Germany. And he came third, he smashed it. He was very smart. He was only 18 at the time, but he was given a lot of prize money, third place, and he invested in a studio. So Andre is almost literally half my age. He’s now 23, 24. But the sound that we created with these new tracks with his youth, I guess you could call it, and his vibe of new music and my country-esque slash folky kind of sound, which has come together, it’s still me but it’s brought me into a 2020 kind of sound and a direction that I’m loving.

‘I’m not set in my ways where I’m saying, “Oh, it’s not me”, or “I can’t do that”, but we just tried stuff and it was so fun to experiment. And that’s where we’ve gotten to with this new album. So the new sound a lot of people have said, “It’s still you, but it’s different you. But it’s still recognisable.”

The album was originally scheduled for release in November, ‘and then COVID hit,’ says Lavelle. ‘And we really were … not bored, twiddling our thumbs, but there were a lot of us, like my mixer and masterer, he’s in Brazil, the musos were in Germany and Nashville, and I’m here. And my manager and I said, “Let’s just do it. Why don’t we use this time now to do it?” So it’s been great to wrap it up and I’m so excited to bring it out in a couple of weeks for everyone. With the single drop – I know a lot of people say, ‘I’m just waiting for the album.’ But the single drop [of ‘I’m Happier’] to me was that over the last six months, a lot of people are struggling financially, and to buy a whole album sometimes is a lot for people. Whereas if you drop a single for $1.69, most people can afford that and can enjoy your music at the same time. So I just was going from a perspective that I just want always my music to be available to anyone and not be exclusively just for the people who can drop 20, 30 bucks on an album.’

Lavelle says she still loves CDs  herself and there will be a limited edition CD release of IV.

‘There’s going to be a limited edition sort of bag and autograph card and everything wrapped up into a nice little packet. So they’ll be available through my website for preorder. They’ll be individually signed. I love streaming because it’s just immediate, but I love that idea that you can still have something to hold.’

Lavelle’s appearance on The Voice in Germany came about because she lived there for eight years – something that was not entirely planned.

‘In 2008 or so McLeod’s was at its peak,’ she says, ‘and I went on a holiday to London to visit my sister. While I was there this German record label contacted me. They’re called Edel Records and they’re based in Hamburg in Germany. They said they’d seen that I was in London and would like to invite me over to Hamburg for lunch. I said, “Are you joking? You’re going to fly me to Hamburg for lunch?” And they said, “Yes, we’d like to meet you.” At the time they were the only record label outside of Sony Music Australia to release the soundtracks of McLeod’s, they went and pushed for the opportunity to do so …

‘So I went across, had lunch with them and they were the reason that I started writing my own music, because they said, “Have you got any of your own material? We’re releasing the McLeod’s soundtracks, we’re very interested. They’re selling through the roof. Have you got your own stuff that we can release?” And I had been writing for a long time, but it wasn’t until I got home that I said, “Let’s get into a studio, let’s do an album, if these people are going to release it.” So it was funny that my debut album was actually available in Europe before it was even available in Australia.

Then I came home, I was here for a few years and I just thought, Okay, I’m going to pack up a suitcase and a guitar. I had about 300 bucks to my name after I bought the ticket. Obviously the Edel Records people were in Hamburg, so if anything terrible happens I know where the office is, I can go in and ask them. And I turned up in Hamburg thinking, Okay, I can get 90 days here visa free just to check it out, see how it goes. Within the first week I had my first gig, I just walked into a pub where we were having dinner and told them who I was. And they said, “Next week – done. Friday. It’s yours.” And from there eight years later, I still was there and I loved it. It was an amazing time and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.,But I think it takes a lot of travelling to realise just how amazing Australia is and how lucky we are.

‘So I’ve been back home now 18 months. I’m just so happy and so happy to be here, particularly during COVID. I just couldn’t imagine experiencing that right now in Europe. They’ve really had a shocker over time over there. So I’m very, very happy to be home. A lot of people have asked me, “How’s COVID treating you?” And I’ve said, “Look, it makes me feel guilty, but I’m actually thriving.” I’m loving it, because there’s time with family. The album’s finished and wrapped up. I’ve been writing new stuff. I’ve been just enjoying not doing a single thing. And I’m just making the most of it. Because I know once live music hits the scene again, we’ll be all back out six, seven nights a week and we’ll be looking at each other saying, “When’s the next holiday?” So I’m enjoying it from that perspective and not taking it for granted.’

While Lavelle has been writing songs for years, though, she says, ‘I remember Paul Kelly being interviewed not too long ago and someone said, “The singer-songwriter Paul Kelly”, and he said, “Oh, that title – I still have trouble calling myself a songwriter”, and that’s Paul Kelly! I just know that I love doing it. It doesn’t always come easy. So usually when I’m my happiest I suck at songwriting and I don’t do it for six months. It’s when you’re at your most miserable that you can write 10 albums’ worth of songs. And they are relatable. We’ve all had our hearts broken. So I’ve never forced it. I’m not this kind of person who says, “Today I’m going into the studio and I want to write songs”, except with this last songwriting with Andrei.

‘I lived hours from him in Germany and he’d been asking for years, since The Voice, “Come on down, let’s just do some stuff in the studio.” And I have had the very lovely opportunity to write with a lot of people, here and in Nashville and Europe, and I’ve always felt a little bit timid, a bit shy – Oh, this idea, they’re going to laugh, it’s a bit stupid. But knowing Andrei as well as I did, we just went in and day one, we came out with a song and I thought, Okay, that’s weird. Wrapped up, finished produced by the end of night, midnight, 1 a.m. I said, “That was amazing. And he said, “Yeah, it’s a great song.” I said, “What are we doing tomorrow?” He said, “Let’s do it again.” So after seven days we came out with eight tracks and that was November of the year before last.

‘So the songwriting in the early stages, I’d been writing in journals and diaries and all that kind of stuff. I got together with teams of people that I was comfortable with, who I knew and they knew me. So it wasn’t really walking into a cold room. It was the second album actually that I went to Nashville and my manager and I, we had set it up that there were people over there that I had never met in my life. And you’re in a studio in a room and you’re paying money for that space. That pressure was, I need to get something out of this. I can’t walk out of the studio without a song. And it doesn’t always happen. I personally can’t force it. Because I know when I am on top of the moment or when it does hit me, that’s when it just flows out and we’ll get something happening. So I’ve never really ever felt like, Oh my god, I have to get something out today. And that’s why, I suppose this is the first album in four years. I’ve never felt the pressure of being an independent artist. There’s no one behind you saying, “You need to release something now, please, because we need to make some money off you.”‘

Talking to Lavelle, it becomes clear that she is able to successfully get out of her own way: to open herself up to the creative opportunities that come to her, and from her, and not sabotage them. Part of that process, perhaps, is knowing that since the McLeod’s days she’s had an audience out there and she’s communicating with them.

‘I think that’s a good point,’ she says, ‘because even the first album of my own music, there was a little bit of pressure to think with the McLeod’s audience – who have known my voice so well with the show – would I actually be able to pull them with me in my own direction? Because if you’re bringing out some experimental pop funk synth album, you might lose them. The only thing I went into first album with was the idea that if it was along the same rough lines of singer-songwriter, honest lyrics, simple and yet a band sort of sound, they’d probably come with me, and I’ve been very blessed – they have all come with me along the way and they’ve all been very interested in my new music as well. Obviously McLeod’s is still number one. I get fan mail daily, still to this day – “This song played when my father passed away” or “This song was my bridal waltz”, and these major moments in people’s lives and you think, Holy hell, I’m a part of these moments. There’s a huge amount of … I wouldn’t say pressure, but it’s just so lovely to feel that that music has touched them for different parts of their lives that they’ve included it in that.’ ,

No doubt one of the reasons why fans connect so deeply to Lavelle’s music is that there is so much emotion in her singing, whatever the song is. Clearly she has the ability to connect to the song and that, in turn, creates the rich experience for the audience.

‘I guess through my life I’ve just had so many lovely highs,’ she says, ‘and so many shitty, shitty lows that obviously once I get a vibe of the song, there’s a connection straightaway. If I go too deep into past thoughts or memories, there are tears flying and those kinds of things because it just does relate. I’ve got a Spotify sort of playlist that is just for when I want to cry. Music for me, I can’t go a few hours without putting something on, but there’s no doubt that I love to get involved with it and the emotional and the deep sort of level.

‘But from the McLeod’s perspective, it was music that I just took to one part of my life to relate to it, because the song was already written, and with my songs, unless it was the Andrei sessions, I’ve never really sat down to say, “Okay, this has to be this song for this next album.” I just write constantly. I have a backlog at the moment of 200 songs that I’ve never used, that never made an album. But if you continually write, you never have that pressure of having to say, “I need three more songs before this album can come out”. It’s more of a blessing to have that opportunity to have the variety of songs. On this album there’s two tracks that I wrote 10 years ago. They weren’t right before now. And yet they’ve come around and I’ve got that ready now. That’s perfect as it is. So it’s just nice to have that pressure off, to be able to be creative and express yourself without having to think it’s for a number or it’s for money. It really just comes naturally. And like I said, I can go six months with not writing a damn thing because I’m just happy or I’m occupied or preoccupied or lazy. So I think that’s been the beauty of it. It just comes out of me when I am feeling it and that’s why it connects so well, I guess. I hope.’

There is no doubt about the strength of Lavelle’s connection with listeners – the proof is there in everything she has released and will, no doubt, be there in force on IV.

Bec Lavelle’s new album, IV, will be released on 28 August through Red Rebel Music. Preorder CDs/links at www.beclavelle.com.au