Photo: Rachel Claire
In every artist lies a fan.
For Tanaya Harper - well-known for fronting Bells Rapids and now making headway as a solo artist - an opportunity to tip her hat to an early influence came early this week on RTRFM’s ‘Breakfast With Caitlin’ show’s Slightly Odway segment, when she performed a version of Little Birdy’s 2003 debut single, Relapse. It was a lovingly delivered and fitting tribute.
“Thanks,” Harper says with some modesty. “It's a super hard song. It's on my vocal break point, so I did my best and hope I did it justice!”
Justice was indeed served by Harper, who even at a young age in the mid-‘90s grew up on a staple diet of rock and pop songwriting.
“When I was young, like around the age of 4, I was a really hyper kid who woke around 5am every day,” she recalls. “So Mum taught me how to make Weet-Bix and turn on the TV which was already set to RAGE.
“So I grew up listening to the contemporary pop music of the ‘90s; No Doubt, TLC, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, even Prodigy (laughs) - actually, Prodigy in particular... I loved that video clip to Breathe. Weird kid.”
This, says Harper, is where her fascination with songs and how they are made began.
“They were expertly-crafted pop songs with distinct sections, so I absorbed it,” the singer/songwriter explains. “If you spend time with anything that much every single day you'll probably end up doing that thing yourself. Delta Goodrem though, she was my ultimate idol.”
While not ostensibly raised in a musical family, it was seemingly a very musical household. Harper’s mother always had the above-mentioned RAGE favourites playing in the house, along with the likes of The Offspring, Something For Kate, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Silverchair, Paul Kelly and Garbage. It was what you’d call good, contemporary grounding.
“I have a very cool Mum,” Harper declares. “However, I've never once heard her sing. It's pretty strange, really, I didn't grow up around anyone who sang or played an instrument. My Dad is a beautiful singer, but he's always lived overseas so it wasn't like he was there singing each day, thereby rubbing off on me. Whenever he visited he would play the albums of Burt Bacharach and The Beatles while we drove around town.
“I guess that's why pop music was so important to me as a kid - like they were friends I didn't have in real life? Who knows? The chicken or the egg?”
The chicken and the egg, it would seem, plus everyone who’s heard Harper’s songs over the last several years. It takes some persistence and patience to get there though…
“Well, I didn't write songs for a long time because when I was about 11 years old I was given the classical guitar and taught how to play My Heart Will Go On from Titanic. I really didn't like that way of performing, so I figured writing with an instrument wasn't for me. I tried piano on and off, but that too has never been my instrumental calling. Piano just stresses me out because my brain freezes between chords.
“Writing came about around Year 12 and the year following when I went to WAAPA. You're required to demonstrate songwriting skills, so my first attempts were very embarrassing - please never resurface - though I managed to pass. Then a few years out of WAAPA I started my first ever band called Canker Blossom with Axel Carrington (NEW TALK), where, essentially, I wrote some folky/pop tunes and he played whatever he liked over the top. It was weird because I'm not even sure he liked the songs (laughs). I'll have to ask him, but I loved getting together with him to make something.
“Then I stopped - again – then a few years later gave electro-pop a go, gave up - again - then at the beginning of 2016, after listening to Malibu (Hole) and Rid Of Me (PJ Harvey) on repeat for months, I bought a disgusting, second-hand, ludicrously heavy white Floyd Rose Stratocaster and finally committed.
“From that came Bells Rapids, and then I continued on the solo path. Now I'm a part of Ghost Care as well. I'm very happy with my songwriting these days and just want to keep going with it and continue improving and exploring.”
Across genres and instruments, bands or solo, one thing remains resolutely true for Harper - you learn more about songwriting the more that you do it.
“Absolutely. I'll never complete or perform a song I find boring, so I'm always trying to keep myself interested in what I've come up with. If it sounds cliché - in my own personal opinion of what that means or sounds like - then I'll abandon it immediately. You marry your music so you'd better like it.
“In order to keep interested I try really hard to find or create new chords I haven't used before. That can mean that sometimes it takes a fair while to write a new song, but I'm okay with that, I don't think putting pressure on yourself to write new songs all the time is very fair to your creative self.”
What have you learnt that has made you better at it?
“Don't think too hard, and don't write for anybody but yourself. The moment you start to wonder, 'will people like this?' you're doomed. Or at least I am. That isn't why I write. I write because I need to, because it's my therapy. Bringing an ego into that is just damaging to the soul. I know that sounds bleak, but that's how I see it.”
During her RTRFM interview Harper talked of going with a mood and simply allowing chords to ring and somehow induce a word or a turn of phrase. Songwriting, despite lessons earnt, continues to be a mystical process.
“Totally,” she affirms. “When you hear a song that resonates with you on a very deep, emotional level, yet you have no idea why, I think that's evidence behind the idea of the mystical properties of music. This is a pretty hard topic to articulate because it's kind of spiritual and I don't fully understand it, but I do believe in the soul, and I believe it communicates. For some people through painting, others photography, whatever it is. Music is just one example - it comes from nowhere, out of thin air - so too does a painting, an image that has never existed before.”
Harper first became more widely-known as the singer/guitarist for Bells Rapids, a band that also featured Stella Donnelly, who has since focussed on a rising solo career, bassist Sara McPherson (NEW TALK) and drummer, Talya Valenti (Bolt Gun). Even with solo pursuits and other collaborations, however, Bells Rapids is still a going concern.
“We actually had our first jam in almost a year the other night and wrote a whole song!” Harper reveals. “Currently, we're dealing with the mixes of four tracks we did with Dave Parkin (Blackbird Sound Studio). Plans around releases have changed and are a little vague at the moment, but that's okay. We love the material we have and just can't wait to release it. At least a single, maybe around the end of the year. No promises.”
Right now, however, there’s Harper’s debut solo EP, Some Kinds. For a musician used to being in the responsibility-shared embrace of a band scenario, embarking on a solo endeavour seems to be either a big decision or a comfortable next step. For Harper it was…
“A big decision, because I hadn't done it before, so that's already a daunting next step. There's so many factors that cluttered my mind, like: ‘how many songs?’, ‘which ones?’, ‘should someone else play on them?’, ‘should I get a band together first”’, ‘album versus EP?’
“The whole concept of the EP changed so many times. Rookie move number one was that I thought it would only take a few months to complete. People weren't lying when they spoke of how long it actually takes to write/record/release. I could go on for days regarding this, but basically, I am so happy with this end product, and I am eternally grateful to Lee Hannah of Healthy Tapes for releasing it. It's been such a wonderful process working with him, as well as having recorded with Nick McKenzie, receiving mixing/mastering from Broderick Madden-Scott (Tunafish Recording Company) and having Stella write her perfect lead lines.”
Donnelly does indeed play the lilting yet compelling lead lines on Some Kinds and often joins Harper onstage. It looks to be a beautiful bond of friendship in music…
“Our musical compatibility is completely uncanny” Harper says. “I don't know how she does it. I play something, then she adds to it and boom… it feels whole. I am so damn happy for Stell and very proud of her. She did the hard, hard yards playing gigs for years. She over-worked herself and put up with a lot of shit, now it's all paying off. She's following her destiny.
“Sharing the stage with Stell feels very intense because we've both gone through a lot together and watched each other grow and evolve throughout the years. I can't speak for her obviously (laughs), but there's a very strong bond of care and respect.”
The lead song on the EP, Graceless, has really struck a chord with listeners since it first attained some airplay a month ago. Commencing with a short, phased harmony part (that to these ears is reminiscent of the treatment given to the Because intro on The Beatles’ 2006 Love mash-up album for Cirque du Soleil) it evokes sadness, darkness and comfort, with an uplift, perhaps harking back to Little Birdy’s Relapse.
“It's truly bizarre,” Harper notes. “I really didn't expect it to receive so much love. It's a very simple song, but maybe that's part of the reason? Like the other songs on Some Kinds, it came from a very dark place. I only ever write when I'm feeling very foggy, or depressed or anxious, so the message of the song and what I'm trying to communicate must be what has struck a chord with listeners.
“I'm very open about having bipolar because it totally shapes my music. So if a song that talks about that experience gets heard and liked by a lot of people then my only hope is that perhaps I've helped, even just a little bit, to break down the social stigma of mental illness, allowing for honest conversations and a greater public awareness.”
The songs on the EP do indeed address some very personal issues and struggles. Harper finds catharsis working through them in a creative manner such as this.
“Music is the only creative form that I find 'easy',” she notes. “Meaning, I am scared of paintbrushes. I quiver because I'm so sure I'm absolutely terrible at it. I'm also terrible at acting, skateboarding, soccer and maths. But I'm not afraid of music.
“I sing when I feel down, or lost or scared. So yes, it's very cathartic and my only way of truly expressing myself. It's a direct pathway for me to understand what's really going on in my mind. Talking something out usually isn't enough for me. A feeling, or a mental state, or a mood is a being in itself that feels 'dealt with' for lack of a better term, once it's completed. Like, I look at it and see it for what it is, and appreciate it whilst never judging it because now it's a song that I identify with.”
It’s an effective if not altogether brave way of finding light through the dark. Even so, sharing those feelings through song is not without its challenges.
“It can be really scary,” Harper says. “If I write about my relationship with my partner, the anxieties or insecurities I might be feeling, then I'm scared it could hurt him. If I talk about anything remotely suicidal then I'm scared I'll just scare people off. But the beauty is that that's what an audience is drawn to. We've all got an artist who sang something we would never dare say out loud ourselves who then became almost holy to us because we feel we can relate to them, that we're less alone.
“Kurt Cobain is who I instantly think of, not just for myself, but for so many people. These people who are honest are not just our childhood idols, but also the musicians all around us in the local scene. We're all a support network for each other and appreciate the honesty in each other's songs.”
As for the future, any new release or step forward is a moment to begin again. As such, there’s lots to do.
“I'm really excited to see how the EP goes following on from Graceless,” Harper says. “None of the other songs are as pop-oriented, at least in my opinion, so that will be interesting to observe. Other than that, I actually have another EP's worth of songs, but I'm going to sit on them whilst I slowly get a backing band together. I really want a band because I feel a little self-conscious about how sparse just me-and-guitar is. I'd love to be able to shred and make the songs more interesting, but I'm just not capable of that solo.
“A not too distant future goal would be to tour around Australia, or at least support someone I really respect.”
Tanaya Harper’s Some Kinds EP launches at Rhubarb Records on June 24 and July 1 have sold out. Head to www.facebook.com/tanayaharpermusic for further news and gig updates.