Elk Bell, AKA Tenille Elkins, has just released her second album, Republica d’fantAsia. She took time for a chat with ATS earlier this week.
It’s been six years since the release of your debut album, Superfragilistic. With that in mind what did you want to convey on Republica d’fantAsia?
Gosh yes, it's so long, too long. I'm a write-a-holic, this album was written before the launch of the first. I have the next two-to-three albums written so I need to find a much faster way of recording and releasing. The only thing I was really certain of was wanting the production to be big as it suited the songs. The first album was very stripped back, recorded over three days in a friend's house in Sydney. I think the next album will be fairly sparse, but we'll see what comes out in pre-production.
Were the songs written in various clutches of time over the period between the two, or in a certain space of time? Are you compelled you to write or is it a songwriter’s discipline?
I write all the time. As in, all. the. time. In the car, shower, bed, even when I'm talking to people a melody will sneak in and I'll have to run off and find a quiet place to record the idea. I’m disciplined about recording the ideas for fear of losing them which has haunted me in the past. Only thing, all my devices are full! I've had to actively not write, at least not pick up an instrument with an open mind to writing so I could just focus on a collection of songs. Sometimes I wonder if it's dangerous to actively stop it, for fear of the blessing drying up, as that would be horrendous. I don't know what I'd do with myself. I do see it as my blessing, even if it's just for me, I'll write songs until the day I die, it's what keeps me ticking. I can't imagine sitting down or looking for people to try and write songs, not sure I’d do it if it was difficult…
What themes do you feel you dwell within the most?
Most of my songs tend to be themed around love, loss and contemplating life. Nothing too out of the box there. I sing what falls spontaneously out of my head and then build on that and it always seems to revolve around those themes. I may in future try to choose another topic but I guess for now, while it flows I'll go with it.
If you were to listen to Superfragilistic and Republica d’fantAsia one after the other, what does it tell of the journey you’ve travelled between the two and how far you’ve come?
This is an interesting one to contemplate! I guess Super was written several years before its release and likewise this one. I actually don't think that the songwriting has changed that significantly, I feel that my style was defined so early and over so many years that it's my natural voice and everything will fall somewhere in the ballpark. However, what I find interesting with this album is that I feel 'six years ago Tenille' wrote some songs for 'six years later Tenille'. I wrote these songs prior to meeting the love of my life. Due to different life goals we separated almost a year ago which has been the hardest year of my life. It made listening to some songs and therefore finishing the album very, very difficult but I needed to release it so that I can move on to the next project in order to feel like I'm actually alive.
What was you musical upbringing like? Was music always in the house?
There was always a piano in the house. It was a beautiful old walnut piano brought over on a bought from Sri Lanka when my grandparents came to Australia with my mum, who was 16 at the time and her brother, around 12. My mum was a piano teacher however she can no longer/has no desire to play at all. She never wrote but I remember when I was little her playing songs from the radio by ear. I remember listening to her playing The Entertainer by Scott Joplin and I thought her a miracle maker, I was in total awe. She gave me lessons and I remember being so happy to play through scales and crappy little songs to get to the end game. My sister just wanted to play Scott Joplin off the bat, her musical passion didn't last long (laughs)! I would practice for ages and then sit and pounce on my dad when he came home from work, dragging him by the hand to the piano to listen to my crappy little three-note masterpiece! Poor dad, he was so patient. Hope he gets more out if tomorrow night!
My only downfall was being too shy, I used to hide behind the couch to record my little songs in the tape recorder at five-years-old. It took me about 20 years to venture to a stage. I certainly wasn't a natural born performer, that's definitely something I had to force upon myself. I wish we still had that old piano, when I was in Year 8 I remember my folks saying we'd have to swap it if I wanted to progress with my classical training. I'm so grateful for that training, even though it made me quite rigid and unable to write/improvise, that came to me after not touching the piano for 10 years after a bout of writing on guitar.
Your set at the launch will be hearing-impaired friendly with an interpreter from the WA Deaf Society. That’s a lovely, inclusionary thing to do, but for you as a songwriter what’s it like having your songs interpreted as such as seeing that directed towards the audience?
One of my friends, Nic Martino, is a wonderful songwriter and is also learning sign language and works with the hearing-impaired community. We got chatting and she explained the vast array of people who use sign language due to the different levels of hearing impairment. She was going to join me at Nannup Music Festival a couple of years ago however it didn't work out. Another friend, Steve Hensby, invited me to play at his show recently where he had an interpreter and it was so great to see people out at a show, experiencing the live music who would otherwise be very excluded. I've never done this before for my set so I'm yet to experience it but it's been wonderful working with Christy from the WA Deaf Society to get it happening. I had to send her my lyrics, recordings and setlist so she could prepare. It would be great if this could become standard however it's quite cost prohibitive for regular gigs. I'm hoping that perhaps something might come if it, perhaps a trade between musicians sharing their skills with those who could interpret. Let's see!
With the album out, what are your plans and hopes for the future looking into 2018?
Well, I didn't get half the things done for my launch as I'd liked/planned. Like I said earlier, it's been a very hard year for me. It will be wonderful to get it out though, a release in so many ways. I see my new year starting on October 1. With any luck I'll be able to record and release another album next year but that will depend on finances and time which always seems to set things back. But you have to do it, no matter how long it takes. If anyone's reading this who has a project of passion on hold and can't see the light, just tackle it bit by bit… one day you'll get there.
Elk Bell will launch Republica d’fantAsia on Friday, September 29, at the Fly By Night Club. Hugh Jennings also launches his new album, Hound, with an opening set by the Belle Ends. Full details at - www.facebook.com/events/1911652385770722