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UNBREAKABLE

Alexis Naylor
Alexis Naylor

Alexis Naylor is currently in Alice Springs. In any other year, that would be unremarkable, travel is what we do, especially in Australia. Even less so for Naylor, as she is a musician and is touring to support her 2020 album, Pages From A Past Life. But 2021 is no ordinary year.

Pages From A Past Life is a slow burn-sensation of an album that rises from the ashes of the Naylor’s trauma, the ‘past life’ from the title.

Having cancelled a 50-date national tour in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Naylor set out on what was planned to be a replacement journey earlier this year, beginning travelling up and down the length of the West Coast of Australia from her current home base in Perth, in her camper van and home, VanNessa. This was before new COVID outbreaks locked down Victoria and New South Wales for long periods and other states intermittently. Did that stop her? No.

Heading into the Northern Territory, VanNessa broke down in Pine Creek and Naylor had to get a car to make it to Darwin in time for her scheduled dates. Then, just as she was heading to Katherine to be reunited with VanNessa and continue her journey, Naylor was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery.

Shows in New South Wales and Queensland got cancelled, which is why Naylor is now in Alice Springs trying to pick up some alternative dates, having travelled there via dates in South Australia, and, in her words, “Networking, jamming and writing with musicians.”

Though she couldn’t tour, Naylor still released Pages From A Past Life in 2020, an album that is as autobiographical as it is universal in its themes of love, heartbreak and the trauma of being in the orbit of someone who doesn’t love you but still wants to possess you.

“The tour got cancelled last year so we went ahead and released it anyway,” Naylor said, “and, sure some people engage with you online and have private messages and conversations, but it’s definitely hard to tell whether it lands until you’re out performing it and connecting with people in person. For me, anyway, it’s hard to know whether it’s hitting a chord with people.”

Pages From A Past Life is a slow burn-sensation of an album that rises from the ashes of the Naylor’s trauma, the ‘past life’ from the title. Around 99.9 per cent of contemporary songs are about relationships in one way or another, so choosing to overtly write and record a whole album of relationship songs is a bold move for an artist who wants to separate themselves from the pack. Even bolder when you’re not writing silly love songs, because you can be forgiven schmaltz when you’re happy, but hardly ever when you’re sad.

The songs on Pages From A Past Life are stunning in their simplicity, resting on piano mainly and Naylor’s voice, which was built for this music. If you had to make comparisons, this album is for people who like Adele, but while that gives potential listeners something of a feel for what Naylor is doing, one of the best things about this album is its originality. The songs and their arrangements may be simple but there’s enough packed into each one to reward the return listener, enough deft touches and quirky U-turns to make Pages From A Past Life a staple in anyone’s collection.

The album opens with ‘Get Out Of The Rain’, an innocuous seven seconds of the sound of heavy rain that ends with a male voice speaking the title with a sarcastic urgency that strongly suggests the words, ‘You idiot’ were left out of the final mix of this song. Yes, innocuous sounding, until you listen to the rest of the record. It’s one of three such interludes that have spoken words with naïve-sounding intent that could mean something quite different, quite cloying.

Ever the optimist, even now, Naylor is still hopeful that she’ll be able to make it to Victoria for scheduled shows in what once was her home state.

“Part of this tour, I’ll be heading back home, where a big chunk of my life, my ex and so much of what that album is about sits in Victoria. I’m a bit trepidatious of how that’s going to be for me and whether or not my old community will be supportive of that.”

Track 7 on Pages From A Past Life, ‘Stealing Moments’, is a song made for a movie soundtrack. This is Naylor slipping into the world of the visual with the immediacy of her lyrics and the power of her arrangements. This song introduces complexity into Naylor’s treatise on the strangling death of a relationship, as she sings, Crowd watches on, introducing us to the community that she’s not sure will be supportive of her music.

Intervene! But we hardly ever do, do we?

At least, now that she is out on the road, Naylor has been able to see first-hand the impact her music is having on people.

“Not that I ever doubted humanity,” Naylor said, underplaying everything that she poured into her album, “but everyone is so bloody kind. Especially being in the van, everyone is so happy to chat and wants to talk about the van and wants to give me a shower if I need one. There so interested in being part of the journey. It’s a nice refreshing circle back to how great humanity is.

“Those have been really lovely. The subject matter of the album is fairly heavy, but surprisingly people are really receptive. There’s been a lot of open dialogue and conversations, men and women who wanted to talk about things.”

If I were talking to Naylor post gig, the first song I’d want to bring up is ‘Casualty’, because, when I listen to the album, this is around about the moment my heart starts to tear from its strings and break as Naylor sings, I am a casualty in your inability / What was the point. Interestingly, perhaps not unsurprisingly, this song speaks to at least two sides of my own experience. The refrain, Did you love, did you love, is almost light hearted. That’s what makes it so heavy, without ever being turgid.

“There’s a lot of people who have been through trauma and grief,” Naylor said, talking about the experiences that led to her writing the songs on Pages From A Past Life. “Everyone’s just connected in their own way. it’s been really nice to be able to be available to have those conversations with people in person. Having space and time to be able to do that after shows has been really great. People have been so open to share and have been really vulnerable as well, which is so kind for them to let me into their lives as well.”

Speaking to Naylor about the album and the tour I was moved to ask whether she’d chosen to make the tour one long road trip to give herself some time for reflection. It was a question that seemed to surprise Naylor, give her pause for thought, and she started by talking about the logistics of touring in COVID times and not wanting to have to go through cancelling flights as borders closed and reopened, how being literally on the road was a practical solution to all that.

Then, Naylor said, “I’ve had a fair share of driving days so far where I’ve been triggered by a place or a thought or a memory and I’ve had to pull over and have a bit of a cry and then compose myself and get back on the road.

“It’s never easy sitting in uncomfortable for most of us, sitting in a motion. It’s easy to say it’s fine and to push it down and distract ourselves, but I know from my own personal experience that that doesn’t work long term.”

In this you can see Naylor’s unbreakable spirit. Break downs, border closures and surgery are nothing compared to the emotional pain and trauma caused by an abusive relationship. That’s what brings about the creation of songs like ‘B.R.W.D.’, which has accents of the ancients, drawing you into another world with slightly out of kilter strings that are tuned to wide open spaces, misted valleys and magic. It’s a song that has escape in its mind’s eye as Naylor sings, She drunk the honey wine, evoking the insight that comes with altered consciousness.

It’s also what led to the creation of ‘Diamond’, which is right about when the piano melodies on Pages From A Past Life begin to burrow under my skin and have a visceral impact on my lachrymal ducts. Driven by a gentle drum beat and Naylor’s beautifully layered vocals, this one breaks me up every time I listen.

As is typical of artists of her insight and power, Naylor underplays the grandeur of what she’s achieved on Pages From A Past Life, saying, “This is a super personal big chunk of life and different relationships and partnerships, grief and disappointment, and happy moments as well. It’s inevitable that it was going to bring up some stuff.”

Hmm, yes, ‘stuff’, let’s call it that.

One thing that keeps Pages From A Past Life from the sin of banality is Naylor’s ability to tell her truth with clearsighted simplicity.

“The fundamental thing for me is, is it true,” Naylor said, “is it authentic? Every decision I’ve made is that, it just had to keep coming back to that. If the reason I was doing it was not to serve not just myself, but somebody else… Like this whole exercise, even this album, yeah sure it came from my own heartache, but if we don’t allow music or art to be a vehicle for us to have hard conversations with the people in our lives, what are the vehicles do we have. Most people find those conversations difficult but perhaps music and art can bridge the divide.

You start it for yourself and then once it’s out there it definitely does have a life of its own. This song started out from my own trauma and pain and trying to understand how this happened to me, but they don’t mean to need to mean that to others who listen to it.”

Alexis Naylor, somewhere in Australia…

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