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BEYOND THE CLICHÉ OF WOMEN AS THE MUSE

Natalie D-Napoleon
Natalie D-Napoleon

Fremantle-based singer-songwriter and award-winning poet, Natalie D-Napoleon is set to launch her new album, You Wanted To Be The Sea But Instead You Were The Shore, at the Duke of George in East Fremantle on Saturday, 7 November.

The effect is an album that has the warmth and reverence of the place of worship in which it was recorded. 

The album recently debuted on the AIR Independent Album Chart at #5 and needless to say D-Napoleon is thrilled with how it’s resonating with people.

You Wanted To Be The Sea But Instead You Were The Shore was recorded in California just prior to D-Napoleon’s permanent return to Australia late last year.  Having previously fronted WAM Award winning Perth band, Bloom, and alt-county forerunners, Flavour of the Month, when she went solo D-Napoleon spent over a decade living and performing in the United States.

A handful of American musical icons joined Natalie’s musical crusade. Kenny Edwards (who was Linda Ronstadt’s long-time sidekick and founder of the Stone Poneys) toured and recorded with Natalie as did Doug Pettibone (who backed Lucinda Williams before joining John Mayer’s band). David Piltch (kd lang collaborator and producer) produced one of Natalie’s albums while folk icon Victoria Williams was a long-time collaborator, as was Jayhawks founder, Mark Olson.

Speaking about writing, recording and performing in the US, D-Napoleon said, “America is a lot more open place that most Australians realise. I found the music scene there less competitive and the folks I played with were open and generous as players and bandmates. Playing places like Pappy and Harriet’s out in the Mojave Desert was always a trip. It’s an old Western movie set in the high desert near Joshua Tree. On any given night you could be playing to a room full of marines, bikers, hippies, survivalists, artists, famous actors or musicians. I loved the way everyone got along and were there to dig the vibe of the place and the music. And it’s always fun to get up on stage with Victoria Williams who plays out there every Sunday night.

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“Then there’s SXSW out in Austin, Texas which was a whirlwind, but it was fun to play with fellow Australians like Henry Wagons and The Stems and then go to a show in the evening to catch a set by my American friend Parry Gripp from Nerfherder who played his solo songs with a rawkus marching band! It’s great to see a city living and breathing music the way Austin does.

“Audiences are really respectful in the US and house concert audiences were the best. I played a house concert with Mark Olson and the audience listened in to every note we played. They have a great and long tradition of folk music in the States – I mean Dylan is American – it’s a whole different level of regard to experience.”

Viewed against this backdrop, D-Napoleon’s new album makes perfect sense.  Inspired by the traditions of American folk and country music, D-Napoleon recorded You Wanted To Be The Sea But Instead You Were The Shore with a single microphone in a hundred-year-old chapel nestled in the hills of her adopted hometown of Santa Barbara, California.

Given D-Napoleon’s journey to recording this album, it would be reasonable to expect to find something special in the music.  Speaking about the album and the recording process, D-Napoleon said, “I wanted to do something different with this album as I’d spent over 20 years labouring over music in studios, overdubbing late into the night and playing to click tracks. So, Jim Connolly (co-producer) and I cooked up this plan to record the album with one mic in a 100-year-old chapel. I was inspired by The Cowboy Junkies’, The Trinity Sessions, and Neil Finn’s Out of Silence, both recorded live. We wanted to capture the joy and magic of a band playing live in a room. In the end we used half of the live takes from the recording with one mic and for the other half of the tracks I recorded a vocal over the beds in a studio and we added a sprinkling of instrumental and backing vocal overdubs.”

Recording in Santa Barbara, California

The effect is an album that has the warmth and reverence of the place of worship in which it was recorded.  There’s an intimacy about the songs on You Wanted To Be The Sea But Instead You Were The Shore that makes you feel like it’s just you sitting in the room, cross-legged in front of D-Napoleon and her band, engrossed in the music.  Listening to this album is a very personal experience that reaches the tendrils of your soul.

Expanding on the feeling of the album, D-Napoleon said, “Listeners have commented that the album sounds ‘timeless’ and ‘different’. I think it’s all that beautiful wooden chapel room reverb.”

In part, D-Napoleon is right, but there’s something more going on here than just the acoustics of the room.  Speaking about her song writing, D-Napoleon said, “Thematically I’ve been writing personal songs in the singer-songwriter vein for so long I thought it was time to try something different. With this album I didn’t want to write about myself but tell stories about women’s lives that don’t get told. Songs about domestic abuse, miscarriage, how women can be ‘hard’ and not ‘soft’, and timeless folk songs. I wanted to work beyond the cliches of women as the muse, as an object in popular song, and start telling real stories that reveal the complexities of women and our lives.”

Is it possible that, in attempting to move away from telling stories about herself, D-Napoleon has created a cycle of songs that is yet more deeply personal and, in doing so, captured in her lyrics the some of the essence of people and times past and present?  In ‘How To Break A Spell’, D-Napoleon sings, Everybody has a tale to tell / And who am I / And who am I / To break this spell?  Who, indeed?  This is the art of the song writer/bard/storyteller, in telling their own stories, they somehow reflect our own.

The songs on You Wanted To Be The Sea But Instead You Were The Shore are D-Napoleon at the height of her powers as a weaver of spells, planting enough in the minds of her listeners to let them create their own insight from her songs, but not so much that there is any sense of telling rather than showing.  Wrapped in simple arrangements that reflect the recording process and sitting neatly in the folk/Americana pocket without any sense of constraint or cliché, this album showcases an artist who set herself a task and then went and exceeded all of her own expectations.  As a consequence, whether she exceeds your expectations with this album is immaterial, but we’re betting that’s exactly what D-Napoleon will do. 

Perhaps, as D-Napoleon sings on ‘Second Time Around, Everything is better / The second time around?

Natalie D-Napoleon launches You Wanted To Be The Sea But Instead You Were The Shore at The Duke Of George in East Fremantle on Saturday 7 November.  Event details here.

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