Melbourne singer-songwriter Gretta Ziller releases consistently impressive music, whether on her own – as with her EP Hell’s Half Acre and album Queen of Boomtown – or in collaboration, in the 2019 single ‘Second Hand’ with Andrew Swift.
Ziller has a distinctive, powerful voice which started to form early – ‘My mum used to tell a story that I could whistle before I could talk,’ she says. ‘So creating vocal sounds, creating song, has always been something that I have done. There’s never been a day where I have thought I’m going to stop singing … I don’t view singing as a thing that I do, which sounds really strange, because singing is something that’s a part of me, like my arm. I have always sung, I have always used my voice in some vocal format.’
With a background in opera and bagpipes, among other things, she was, she says, ‘just one of those kids growing up – I gravitated towards the music department rather than the sports department.’
However, it’s songwriting that she is most passionate about.
‘I love writing and that process. But being able to perform that live is also really cool and to see people connect with your songs is pretty special. They often start off as a thought or a little scratch in your music room or bedroom or wherever you write and to see them come to life is really cool.’
Ziller’s latest single is ‘Unlikely Believer’. When asked at which point she realised she was an unlikely believer, Ziller says, ‘It’s definitely while I was writing the song. It started off as a sad one and then I got into it and I thought, Gretta, you need to look on the bright side. There are so many things in your life that you’re grateful for and happy for. That’s where it turned.’
The result is a hopeful song which, she says, ‘is what I hoped to create. It is about life. Although there are really hard times and heartbreaks in life, it is generally pretty good.’
The song was written two years ago, even though it sounds like it was written for the moment we’re in right now. Ziller is a prolific songwriter, and says she records her ideas as she goes.
‘I have little scratch tapes of the idea, the first draft, a chorus – it depends on how I write the song. I can go back and listen to each version and iteration of the song before I do the demo for my producer, then we redo the song.’
Ziller is clearly not afraid to edit her own work. ‘I like to stew on things,’ she says. ‘I will often write a song and over the next week or so that’s always in the back of my mind, tweaking it and thinking, Is that line right? Should I do this? Should I do that? Should I say something else? It’s always sitting there and I’m working on it.’
That discipline of assessing her own work, and being ruthless with it, was partly influenced, she says, by the fact that while growing up ‘I did a lot of vocal competitions and workshops and stuff, and you’re always being criticised. You can either take it as an offence or you can say, “This is someone’s opinion – do I think they’re right?” I’ve always taken the latter approach and that applies to my songwriting. Some songs I write are good, some songs I write are terrible, and I shouldn’t be offended by either of those.
‘I’m never going to be the best songwriter. I’d just rather have the best songs I can have for that project. I don’t need to be the best … Some people want to be the best – they have to be the best. Like the Usain Bolts of the world. As a songwriter you want to earn your place.’
She says she remembers the first song she wrote and it was ‘atrocious!’
‘Thank the lord, I have changed!’ she says, laughing. ‘I started writing while I was at university, in my early 20s, and it was something that I hadn’t ever really considered myself to be, a songwriter. But I always enjoyed poetry and creative writing school. Somebody encouraged me to write a song and I thought, I’ll give that a go. And I did and it was woeful.’
For her new album, due in 2021, Ziller says the writing process was a little different to Queen of Boomtown, where I literally put 50 or 60 songs, bits of songs and ideas into a folder for my producer and he went through it and said, “No, no, no, yes, no no, yes”. And the ones he said yes to I finished.
‘We did a couple more co-writes together this time. So it was more of a collaborative process with him this time. It was fun to do that, to be a little bit more carefree with the standard of what I sent him,’ she says with a laugh.
‘One of the songs on the album I actually didn’t send to him at all. I was at his studio up in Mullumbimby – this gorgeous little place on top of a hill, and it’s a shipping container and he’s got all his bits and pieces around. He stepped out of the room – I think to make us a cup of tea, because we’re hard-core rock ’n’ roll musos – and I just sat down at the piano and was just fiddling around with something that I had written, but didn’t have a chorus or anything. He snuck back and was listening to it and said, “That – is that finished? It needs to be on the album.” I said, ‘Aaah, yes, it’s three-quarters finished. I could another verse or something.” So I wrote another verse. It’s the only piano solo song on the album. It’s four verses and that’s all it is. So it was a very different process.’
When Ziller writes she says she doesn’t have a genre in mind for the song. ‘I have a feel in mind,’ she says. ‘Or something pops into my head and I think, I could just do it like that. Most of the time I think, I want to write a song that sounds a little bit like Rag’n’Bone Man – I’m a big fan of his stuff. Or sometimes a little bit more pop oriented. It’s really just a mental challenge to see if I can write something that’s not in my standard sound.’
She often writes on the piano ‘because I am really bad at it and it allows me to be a bit more creative. It’s not my instrument of choice but I don’t play the piano on the album. I’m very lucky that Paul, my producer, is a beautiful pianist.’
The new album will be released by ABC Music, to whom Ziller has recently signed.
‘Signing with ABC is really exciting,’ she says. ‘I am broadening my genre horizons and I think ABC can really help me with that. I don’t fit into the country music mould and I wanted to see where else I can reach out to with this album. I’m excited to be doing that with ABC.’
While Ziller can’t tour in support of ‘Unlikely Believer’, she did fit in a caravan park tour with Andrew Swift, travelling from Melbourne to Newcastle, NSW, earlier this year, and it ‘was a lot of fun. It was really cool to be able to go out and play to people who generally see country music as a C word. The amount of people came up to me and Andrew after the show and said, “I don’t like country music but I like your stuff.”
‘That’s like saying, “I don’t like rock because I don’t like one band”,’ she says, laughing. ‘You can’t say that to them but it is nice to be able to say, “Country music is a very, very large umbrella. Andrew fits in one little pocket and I fit in a very different little pocket but we still consider ourselves – Andrew more so – but as an Americana artist I consider myself to have a dash of country in what I do.’
While the exact format of the 2021 Tamworth Country Music Festival is still to be determined, Ziller is making plans for it. In the meantime, when asked what music fans can do to support Australian artists, she says, ‘Buy their merch and donate and pay for tickets online. Even if you can’t do that, streaming our music regularly really helps. Not necessarily financially but other things that help at the back of music. If you have a playlist of Aussie artists, pop that on as often as you can.’
With some Facebook lives behind her, she’s planning to continue with this format. It’s a chance for existing fans and newcomers to discover not only her outstanding abilities but also the guitar stand that her father made years ago and which ‘I absolutely love … I’m happy to be showing that off’.
While her fans wait impatiently for a new album, the wait is a chance for those who are new to Ziller’s music to catch up on her previous releases and discover why she’s such a rich addition to the ABC Music stable. And maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to see her play live again in the months ahead.