Hunter Valley singer-songwriter Lianna Rose recently released a wonderful new album, Travellers, which features a variety of musical styles within the country umbrella: some upbeat, some more contemplative. Recently I had the pleasure of speaking to Lianna about the album and her creative process.
I really love the album. There are so many highs and lows emotionally on it, in a good way – there’s a real palette of things. Did it feel like that for you writing and recording it?
Thank you for your compliment, I appreciate that. And that’s how I wanted it to be – I wanted it to be a journey. And Travellers is about a spiritual journey through a lot of grief. There’s a lot of positives in there too. It’s a very personal record, actually.
I know the song ‘Travellers’ came particularly out of grief. Did that inform the writing of the rest of the record too?
Not necessarily, no. I think that I was pretty well halfway through the record before that song appeared. But I must admit, once that song appeared that was it – that was the direction it was pointing and it had to go there.
You obviously have a varied background in terms of musical styles – you can obviously draw on a lot of experience and influences, not just in how you sing but also the way the songs are written. When you write a song, do you start off with the music and the musical style that you’re looking for, or with the lyrics?
A bit of both. It’s swings and roundabouts. I can be driving along and I’ll have a song idea come to me and I’ll literally pull the car over and write that down. Or I’ll have a melody and I’ll record that in the car as I’m driving. But the joy for me is always once that instrument’s in my hands and I jam with myself, you know? If I’ve got a little riff that comes along. And then the lyrics comes afterwards, once I’ve got the riff happening.
With your voice the way it is – it’s such a strong instrument in and of itself – I’m surprised that you’ll go to another instrument to write on as opposed to just singing it out.
[laughs] Being a musician is a big part of what I do, so the guitar’s really important to me and the piano as well. But this particular album’s all been based around the guitar riff. I’ve been experimenting with resonators and amplified guitars and electric guitars, so I’m continually evolving in that department. I’m loving it.
So you obviously really love playing guitar as well.
I’ve been offered a few times over the years just to be a singer, to front a band, and I baulk at it every time because it’s so important for me to have that guitar in my hand. I don’t think I can express myself unless I have that guitar with me, vocally as well.
You were a back-up singer for a while, which must have seemed a bit strange considering you have such a front-of-band voice. Did you miss your guitar when you were singing back-up?
I did. I enjoyed the journey for what it was. It was an amazing experience and obviously working with the incredible artists that they were it was a really great education in how the older style of rock groups were formed. So I really learned to express and use that vocal way more than I had done before. But it was a bit intimidating standing there on stage with nothing in front of me [laughs]. I felt exposed. But I did really enjoy it. Working with the other vocalists as well and creating harmonies, that’s another beautiful experience again.
When you perform your songs live, do you prefer having a band around you?
I do. For many years I’ve created a living out of being a solo acoustic artist, but in saying that my preference is always to have a band, especially a band that really understands the songs and they’ll understand lyrically. And whenever I appoint new musos to come on the journey with me, I’m always stressing that we really need dynamic – we need to either make people cry or laugh, and we need to do that with the instruments as well. So it takes them a little while but once they see the audience response they say, ‘Oh, is that what you’re talking about?’ [laughs]
Particularly if you have anything to do with country music, that relationship with the audience is so important. There’s so much for artists that comes from the audience – not just the emotion but also sometimes even story ideas.
Absolutely. Country music’s always been relatable. Rock music is too and I love nothing more than bopping out to a good rock song, but there’s a lot of times I’ve listened to really good rock songs and I still, to this day, have no idea what the lyric is. But a country song, it’s integral – it’s the absolute pivotal point of the whole song, that lyric. So to me it’s telling stories and hopefully people can feel like they’re not alone while they’re going through something. That’s what country music does for me.
I read that you listened to country music when you were quite young, so has that always been where you thought you were headed musically?
Yes, I did the whole typical grew up young on the farm, I thought I was Loretta Lynn – I could have sworn I was the coalminer’s daughter! [Laughs] We were quite poor back then in the ’70s. But in saying that I thought I could have a family very young and travel around Australia, and of I went with my first husband. We were having babies and travelling through the Outback. And then the realisation hit me that that was just a movie [laughs]. It’s too hard to balance that in the modern world. So unfortunately I found out the hard way that that good old country music story is not always the best way to live.
It possibly is if you’re on a different continent, but I think travelling around Australia in particular is really hard.
Literally just five minutes prior to your call I was looking at a map of Australia and saying, ‘Where am I going to go now?’ Because I love the Outback more than anything and I really want to get back out there again, but I’m just weighing up, Oh yeah – there’s like five hours between that town, oh my god. [Laughs] So it’s a bit of a journey I’m just about to embark on.
So this is for you to take the album on tour?
Yes, hence the name [Travellers]. And I am an empty nester now as a parent so I really need to get out there and meet people, and literally take in as much of this life as I can because what I realised as I get older is that it’s going very fast. Losing people in my life has made me really appreciate every single day of it.
There’s a couple of things that have just come out of what you’ve said that I’d like to ask about. The first is going back to taking your kids on the road when they were quite young and you were young as well. That suggests that you are willing to pursue a dream, and certainly you’ve pursued the dream of music and that’s come off, but it’s a big dream to pursue a dream like that – a lot of people will think about it and talk about it but they won’t actually do it. So do you feel like you’ve really got the conviction of following your dreams?
Yes, absolutely. I have two daughters and I was always at them throughout their lives growing up, ‘If you have a dream or a vision, just go for it’, because that’s all we’ve got at the end of the day. If you’re just on the treadmill and generating something for somebody else’s dream, it doesn’t really fulfil you. Music fulfils me, and I don’t know how I fell into it – it was around me as a child but I feel so blessed by it and blessed by the gift, so to speak. I have to pursue this. And that’s where the song ‘Where the Post’ came from, because I got trapped singing a lot of cover songs for everybody else and then I realised, That’s not my dream. My dream is to be a songwriter first and foremost. And that’s what this album is about. You have to live your truth – you’ve got to be true to yourself otherwise the rest of it doesn’t work properly.
The other thing I was going to ask was about your children. When I was reading in your bio that you’d had children in the ’90s, I looked at your video and thought, Was she twelve when she had these children? So obviously, as you said, you’re now an empty nester and they’re grown up so you probably were about twelve. I’m wondering if any of them are musicians?
[Laughs] Well, thank you, but there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in those videos. I appreciate the lighting very much these days. But I was a young mum and like I said I had this little dream and hit the road very young and had children. But unfortunately both my daughters, they have the most incredible voices on them but they have said, ‘Mum, we just want a stable job, we want to stay home, we like being home’ [laughs]. They don’t want to pursue anything in a music career.
Except if they’ve got great voices maybe you can persuade them to join you on stage every now and again.
Look, that has happened in the last few years. My eldest daughter, Roxy, she’s an incredible little singer – she stops people in their tracks. And I know that if she wanted to, that gift is there for her as well. But at this moment she’s going through her growth period and she’s working out who she is as a young woman, so I’m just sitting back waiting to see if she comes back to it.
You’ve been an independent artist through your last couple of albums and I was wondering how much of your time – considering also that you’ve raised a family – is taken up with business and how much with creativity.
Unfortunately, especially of late with the release of the album, is leaning probably 80% towards business – maybe 85% - and less on the creativity. That does mess with me a bit. However, I went and studied for twelve months last year, doing a business course, just to get my head around the whole business side of life. That is something that’s not my strong point so I really wanted to investigate further and see how I can improve upon that. So I’ve been applying those lessons learnt and I am finding this journey a little easier now and I’m looking forward, in a few months’ time, to getting back to being creative again.
So when it came to the writing of the songs on this album, how do you manage your time? Do you find that if the muse calls you – for lack of a better term – you have to stop whatever you’re doing? You talked what happens if you’re in the car and you get an idea. But to follow up that idea, do you put aside everything else and sit down or do you have to schedule your creative time?
A bit of both. It is a bit of scheduling. My husband’s a musician as well and we have to share some space, so we’ve actually set up a little schedule and I have the music room for two days a week and so on. But, look, in saying that, that creative effort – without a word of a lie, at four o’clock this morning this song came into my head. I’ve asked to write for a younger artist in the country scene, so I went to bed with her on my mind and then sure enough, four o’clock this morning – bang – this song comes to me, so I was up at 4 a.m. writing this down. I try to be organised and scheduled, but when that energy hits you, you’ve just got to move with it. It comes at any point in time. So that makes me a little hectic, I must admit. I’m certainly not organised as much as I’d like to be!
It also suggests that you trust your songwriting instinct really powerfully, that it will get you out of bed and get you to write the song.
Oh, look, if it wasn’t for my songwriting … Like I said, it is a gift. I did suffer – as I’m sure a lot of people have – depression years and anxiety years, and I’m still learning every day how to cope with some everyday issues that can really bring you down. But I must admit that songwriting drives me. It gets me out of bed. It gets me motivated to be a better performer, a better person, so I’m so thankful for that.
I mentioned at the top about the emotions at the album. The first song, ‘Willy Wagtail’, is a very upbeat, jaunty song, and the tempos on some of the songs are that rockabilly, more driving rhythm, and then you have your ballads, some of which sound like your heart’s breaking on them, and therefore for the listener it sounds like heartbreak as well. How hard is that to summon in the studio and hard is it to sing it, if you have to do take after take?
I’ve never had [singing] lessons – I go into the song and I become a character in a movie that plays in my head. I really feel it, and sometimes those tears do actually appear, and I think that’s the only way to be honest. And when I’m in there and I am re-recording or overdubbing, it doesn’t take long to snap into it – I suppose it’s almost like an acting role and you become that character. I’ve never really had an issue with that. I’m not sure if that’s a gift, or what it is, but it just comes naturally.
Travellers is out now.