Tanya Ransom is a singer-songwriter from Broome, WA/ Djugun/Yawuru Country who has gathered fans around the country for her perceptive, impressive songs and her way of delivering them in such a way that it feels like she’s singing just to you. Ransom’s most recent release is the EP Breakdown to Breakthrough, from which she has already released the singles ‘Armour’ and ‘Cyclone’.
Ransom started playing guitar when she was 19 and singing followed soon after.
‘I found myself around friends that were musicians and so I’d like to sing,’ she says. ‘I mostly would like pick up little percussion. I played percussion and drums as well. I’d like to drum and sing and, but it really wasn’t until I started playing guitar that I started singing as well.’
When asked if the guitar unlocked something in her or she thought that since she had a guitar she should use it to play songs, she laughs and says, ‘It’s hard to think back to what I might’ve been thinking at that moment. ‘It’s been a little while now. Maybe it was a bit of both. Without knowing it I probably had that creative expression within myself because I liked doing other creative things and I found out “this is something that I really love doing”. And back then when I might have just had my first mobile phone, I didn’t have a computer or internet, I’d listen to music that I enjoyed and then I’d think, I’ll just write a song, because that’s what you do … Mostly once my friend taught me my first three or four chords I probably then went and sat down and wrote five songs with the same chords.’
Ransom clearly had the impetus to create as soon as she had the tools to do so. She says that it likely ‘helped to be around a few of my friends that I ended up playing in my first band width. I later think about it and go, Wow, they were very patient and it was very kind of them to not tell me that I was shit, to encourage me … Perhaps they could see that this was something that I liked and maybe I had potential at and encourage that.’
That support Ransom had early in her musical career is something she, in turn, gives to others. She has done some mentoring for APRA – two years ago, as part of their Women in Music mentorship program, she mentored two women in Broome for their first single releases.
‘And then one of them asked me to keep essentially mentoring, supporting her through her first EP release, which has just come out,’ Ransom says. ‘Then I ran a full weekend workshop as well in Broome this year for Kimberley women musicians. On the flip side of that, I received my own mentor. I’m being mentored at the moment by Georgia Mooney. It’s really nice … Over the weekend [just before this interiew] the young girl Rosie I was mentoring, I think we caught up three times over the weekend and one of those was to jam and I accompanied her on one of her songs in her showcase. And then it’s just giving advice and she’s starting out, so you’ve been there at one point in time. She’s in her early twenties doing this music industry course at TAFE and that’s how I started when I was in my early twenties and thought, Oh, I like music. And somebody said, “There’s this awesome course at Broome TAFE, this music course.” And I did that after I’d only played guitar for about a year. Then that just made me think, This is what I’m going to do.’
That drive to learn is still with Ransom, who says that during lockdown last year she studied the Berklee College of Music online lyric writing course, which was, she says, ‘amazing. I use a lot of techniques by this guy called Pat Pattison. He’s American, he’s written these really incredible books – people like Gillian Welch use his writing techniques. There’s a lot of sense-bound writing and object writing exercises. It really helps you gain more tools for your songwriting.
‘So when I was doing that course I was spending four hours a day, Monday to Friday, doing that. It was online. And then one morning a week had our live Zoom class. And because it was in the States I had to wake up at 6.00 a.m. And I’m not a morning person. I like to stay up a little bit later and not wake up before the sun,’ she says, laughing.
‘But to be on I’ve got to make my coffee and be in the Zoom class at 6.30 a.m. and be alert. It’s seven o’clock at night for them. They’ve had a whole day of brain function. Because it was just focused on lyrics I was getting a lot of lyrical content that then I would come up you with a melody and then maybe sit at the guitar.
‘The last couple of years I’ve been looking after a friend’s very nice weighted keys, like a piano, and I can only play very basic but it’s enough that it’s really nice just to change it up and see how I write differently if I sit at a different instrument. So I’ve been enjoying writing some songs on piano. But then I’m kind of stuck [as I’m] not at a point where I want to then perform with the piano. It’s then probably finding other friends to collaborate with and getting them to play piano while I play guitar.’
Ransom believes that the best way to improve songwriting is to learn something new.
‘This young girl I was mentoring this year said, “How do I make a good song great?” I used to find that a difficult question as well, but then I realised, well, just constantly upskill, because you’re only going to get better. When I listen to my first recordings, some of the songs are like, Oh geez, what was I thinking? But I know that’s good to acknowledge that – Don’t think that’s very good, and now I really like what I’m doing. [And] the older you get the more life experience you have, you’re going to write about different things.’
Ransom has also been part of the I Heart Songwriting Club for almost seven years.
‘It’s an online songwriting club where you’re put into a group of roughly 10 people,’ she explains, ‘and once a week you’re given a theme and a guideline to write by. Every Thursday morning we’re given the email that has the task for the week and you allocate one hour to write a song based on that theme. I record mostly with my voice memos on my phone, because it’s either guitar and vocal or piano and vocal. You upload it to your group with lyrics and anything you want to share about that process. Sometimes you might just come up with a chorus or a verse or half a song, but sometimes you come up with a whole song. On this new EP four of the five songs came out of songwriting exercises from that club.
‘The one that didn’t was “Cyclone”. And that one was based on a conversation that I’d had with a friend about a little kind of … cyclonic relationship thing that went on with her and another friend. And it was hearing her part of the story and then hearing his part of the story … I sing that song in the first person, but it’s taking two other people’s stories and even a bit of my own in a way, and then creating one story around that. I could have sung that in a different narrative, but what served that song the best to me was singing it in first person.
Of one the other songs on the EP Ransom says, ‘”It’s Not Easy to Let Go” came in all these different pieces. Where it started was a few friends having dinner together. They’d driven up to Broome and [one friend] said, “I arrived with the easterly”, and I said, “Oh, that’s a good lyric.” She’s an amazing songwriter, but she said, “Tanya, you can have it.” And I wrote it in my notes.
‘I think it must’ve been the following week I sat down to do my I Heart songwriting task and the theme was X. So I looked up X words and got X-ray. So then I went and did an object writing task. And I liked her line “I arrived with the easterly” – which ended up changing to “She floated on in with the easterly/ X-ray of light piercing her eyes”. They’re the opening two lines. Then within that exercise I think I got two verses within the hour, but it was something that once I started writing it, the story started coming to me rather than already having a story in my head of “I’m going to write a song about this topic”. That song ended up being about breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma. Which is a heavy topic, sung in a little story of somebody leaving where they’re from to try to let go and process and heal and acknowledge that actually some of these things I hold onto aren’t mine and they might be my mother’s or my grandmother’s and from their experiences and traumas.’
Ransom has a very expressive singing voice, conveying meaning that enhances the lyrics. In ‘Armour’, for example, it sounds as though she is tired of carrying the armour at the start of the song, but as it goes on she starts to sound like a warrior. When asked if she spends time essentially working up a character before she begins recording a song, Rasom says, ‘I guess I think about in particular songs how I want to express it and also how a song you want a song to build as well … Most of my recordings I’ve done with my friend Dave Mann. “Armour” and “Cyclone” were entirely recorded just Dave and I in his studio together. Then when I received the Nannup Music Festival Director’s Award that gifted me three days at Hopping Mouse Studio in Freo. So I thought, great, I’ll do most of it in the Freo studio – so we did drums, bass guitar and all my vocals there. And then I brought that down to Margaret River, to Dave’s studio and we added his lead guitar parts and some other atmospheric guitar and organ and pedal steel, and his harmonies. He’s an amazing vocalist and he always pushes me vocally. I think I can get really comfortable where I sit and then he says, “I reckon you could really push and belt that bit out.” So now when I’m working on songs and I want to have that more expressive power I tell myself, “Just channel your inner Dave Mann. I’ve just got to channel Dave. What would Dave do? How would Dave sing this?”‘
Aside from recording in Fremantle and Margaret River, Ransom is no stranger to the south-west of her home state as she is often on the road. Living in Broome has been no impediment to the development of her career, she says, ‘because that’s the choice I’ve made. I’ve lived in Broome for most of 21 years. I did a two-year stint in Melbourne halfway through that, but [Broome is] my home. And the south-west of WA has become like my second home. If I want more people to hear my music and come to gigs I have to tour outside outside of Broome.
‘In saying that, I’ve had some amazing opportunities in Broome because it’s a small, remote town and because there are incredible musicians that want to come to Broome and play shows. I’ve done supports for artists and I don’t think I would have had those opportunities had I been in a city with hundreds of thousands of other musicians. And I really love touring … So for me it just makes sense.
‘I’m a musician, that’s the career I’ve chosen and that’s what makes me happy. So in order for me to be successful in that, touring is what I need to do and I need to divide my time between Broome and touring. And that’s where it’s easy to just pack everything into my car, drive, play shows along the way. I go mostly between Perth and Margaret River and I tour as far as Esperance as well. Before COVID I would just fly over east and do shows that way. I have done two full tours driving, two laps of the country, and that’s exhausting.’
Western Australia is, as we all know, closed to most of the rest of Australia until March next year, so it will be a while before Ransom can make it back to the eastern states. But that’s the beauty of these modern times: talent can travel via video and streaming, and all of us can enjoy Ransom’s music until she is able to join us in person again.