Howling At The Moon Above The Little Desert

Artist on Artist interview between Esther Rivers (Little Desert-vocals) and Katie Scott (Howl At The Moon-vocals/guitar)

ER: So, darling woman … I can’t even really remember how we met, just that we kind of whirlwind crashed into each other’s lives and were really digging what the other was doing. (Perhaps your memory is better than mine?) You graciously sang with me at a concert early into our friendship … and we’ve shared the stage once or twice; though I think Howl At The Moon may have been around longer than Little Desert.

Has your experience with the band changed much along the way?

KS: I think maybe you and I met via a mutual friend, as is the way in Melbourne! I think it was probably Rebecca Young. She knows who has the magic. I’m pretty sure we would’ve met and then the inevitable “Esther’s awesome!” would have been passed on to Bex, who would have arranged some sort of casual hang and then BAM! Here we are. Kindred spirits.

HATM is eight years deep in making our own unlikely brand of melancholic, angry, hopeful, haunted rock n roll. When I started it, I’d been in Melbourne about 6 months. We were initially called Misère (I have a quiet obsession with card games). I’d moved from Auckland partly because I just couldn’t find my place. Not pop enough for pop. Not punk enough for punk, not rock enough for rock ‘n’ roll (which I have thankfully learned is complete BS). Melbourne immediately stepped up and provided me with a community unlike any other I had experienced. An outpouring of songs followed and we got our shit together and started jamming.

My experience has been that when I was in my early twenties, things just spewed out, almost unstoppably. I wrote about sex and death and growing up in thinly veiled metaphors. Now that I’m older and I’ve made up my own mind about a lot of important things, songs come less frequently but I am still utterly compelled to write, to create and now, more than then, I want the songs to pierce through people’s hearts and make ‘em think about what’s going on the world. But the most important thing is making someone feel something. It’s what I want when I listen to music. I wanna be shaken awake. Before, I needed to let it out for my own good. Exorcise the demons, so to speak.

How long ago did LD start? You have such a powerful presence, especially on stage… is there anything you draw on to take you to that level?

ER: Yeah, I mean I think a massive part of why we were drawn to each other was because of the work we are both doing. There are many great women doing fierce work, and it’s important that we’re prominent and standing strong in that space. It’s funny, I actually didn’t know I could sing like I do until I developed with Little Desert (in other bands, I just used to drink a lot and pretend I was Diana Ross) and I think part of me goes there so maybe other women can go, ‘fuck yeah, I can do whatever the fuck I want on stage’ too. I mean, I dunno, I have always had a pretty strong sense of justice, I have always wanted to challenge shit, I fully support the voice of women and I hope I am a strong one in that. I think that all comes out when I sing. But singing is such a primal thing for me; it was really a natural development. I am lucky enough to have a band that lets me give them these songs and develop them with me in a way that relays the feeling behind it; the story. And fuck yeah, I sing to scare people! I don’t care if it’s ugly. I like when it’s ugly. I think ugly can also be so beautiful, or at the very least interesting. I have always, since the first time I was on stage, put on my make-up and whatever beforehand as a kind of battle-ready ritual. I read years later that Vali Myers did the same kind of thing! She called it her war paint.

I had a sound guy once tell me to ‘have confidence in my voice’ — do you ever get shit like that in the industry?

KS: I used to get stuff like that a lot more than I do now. Sometimes I wonder if I have just become numb to it, because when I’m confronted with someone trying to tell me how to do something that is SO INNATELY ME – something I have been doing for nearly two decades – I tend to just think to myself “go fuck yourself, buddy” and don’t honour it with a response. I asked for reverb because I want reverb, not because I’m trying to cover my arse. I know what I want! And if I wanted your advice I would’ve asked. I used to encounter what I perceive to be sexist attitudes mostly in instrument retailers. I guess because I don’t go in there to try out a guitar by shredding like every other fucker in the shop, I mustn’t know what I want? I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I WANT. That doesn’t happen much anymore. I know a lot of women out there have experienced that particular dumbfuckery.

That being said, I am extremely hopeful and optimistic that this is changing. Gender equality and diversity is an open conversation now, especially in creative fields. But there will always be some arsehole that thinks that having an encyclopaedic knowledge of guitars and amps means they can choose one for me. Fuck that. Again, I’m okay with asking for help – if I want it.

Good god though – there are so many fucking amazing women in this town making music and art and writing. And, as I allude back to my point about being pretty hopeful that things are changing, I think the presence of women is more strongly felt and greater acknowledged as being crucial with each passing year. As it should be.

When I arrived in Australia, there were three women in particular that made it really easy to see that Melbourne was the right place for me. Celeste Potter of Ouch! My Face was one of the first people I connected with. And Ali Edmonds and Megan Sheehy who were both in Little Athletics at the time, but have done a bazillion other things. I’d never met such women! I was smitten with all of them and pretty happy they were keen to let me into their worlds.

I have a lot to learn, but I love that. I will always be hungry for knowledge. I’ve become much better at guitar after accepting offers to play guitar for other people and just get in there and give lead a go, rather than rhythm. It broke open my mind and made me believe I could actually do it. I’m a bit of a classicist when it comes to my sound. Bit of reverb sometimes, and a Hotcake which is my favourite pedal. I think everyone in my band has one. You can get a really great spectrum of sound. It gets me the crunch and clang that I desire. If it’s not a song for clean tone, then I like it to be on the abrasive side of things.

Are there any people that have been key to helping your growth in music? Any power-enablers – in the best sense?

ER: I was pretty young when I started Little Desert. I was lucky to have supportive people playing with me that gave me the platform I needed to gain confidence and just go for broke. I look back now on some of the things I did, and it’s hilarious. I had this vocal effects box that was like a karaoke machine. It was so bright – sound techs hated it. But I didn’t give a fuck, like you said, I knew what I wanted! And who cares if I got it wrong? I hate to think that anyone doesn’t do something they really want to, or really love, just because they think it might not work or be good or they might be judged. I now enjoy very few effects on my vocals anyway. I like the rawness. And I sold that box to a friend who actually uses it in their shed for karaoke parties!
I have a singing teacher who is one of my best friends and who has been my mentor now for many years. She is an angel, a total inspiration. I wouldn’t be who I am without her, she has touched a lot of lives, she’s just a very special person. I know we were supposed to meet. People often quote famous people who inspire their music, but my inspirations are always pretty local. My friends Mimi Blampiéd (Ransome Brothers), Jenny Branagan (NUN), Jules Ferrari (Songs/ Black Ryder), Bonnie Mercer – in fact all the women in my band inspire me. They’re incredible.

What about you Katie? Who has inspired your music, work and journey?

KS: I’m as much inspired by writers and artists as I am by other musicians and folk in the industry I reckon. The everywoman comparison of PJ Harvey comes up a lot and while I don’t think we come close to sounding like her, she is incredibly inspiring to me. The way that each album she has released – especially in the last ten years – has explored totally new themes and sounds is something I will strive to do, though I think I’m still finding my voice there and feel that maybe it’s something I need to do alone, rather than with a band.

I love classical music and film scores… especially film scores. The way that that kind of music can affect the entire mood of the visual centrepiece is striking to me. As far as fiction goes, I adore Kafka, Richard Brautigan, Anais Nin and T. S. Eliot. Eliot’s epic poem ‘The Wasteland’ is something I’ll always treasure. I have my dad to thank for my love of poetry. Words are really, really important to me – even though they’re not the be all and end all when it comes to songwriting.

I like this balancing act though – I read a while ago this article about ‘psychological androgyny’ being essential to the creative mind. I think that that is fascinating in the context of feminism in the arts. I certainly believe it has merit. And I think it’s something I possess. My favourite writers (and PJ is definitely an example here), write from the perspectives of both men and women – some from the perspective of non-human beings. This concept definitely applies to more than gendered writing though. Do you think it is important to embrace that sort of fluidity in writing? Do you ever write with that in mind? More to the point, do you identify with that concept? The article really struck a chord with me. 

ER: Yeah totally. Good article. I’m all over gender stereotypes like a rash. We should always be asking questions, asking ‘why?’ when society tells us to do or be or say something. So many people don’t ask why. You can still like it, still do it, but at least question its purpose so you know you are doing it for your own reasons and not somebody else’s. In fact I’m against all stereotypes! I really hate how women so often get compared to a small group of more commercial artists – if you’re not PJ Harvey, you’re Karen O. I got compared to Florence Welch once coz I had red hair and a vibrato. It’s ridiculous. Why do we need to be compared all the time?

Some of those article ideas I consider to be quite standard, but perhaps I forget too easily that the creative hub in Melbourne is a minority. The concepts in the article are based around the general fear of men being feminine and women being assertive. It’s much more complex though, and women often feel fear and the need to be likeable in order to be respected, which is a consequence of so many years under patriarchal rule. We are hopefully having conversations around this with the idea that people’s minds are open. I think this is the most important thing. People will feel more confident to write and express themselves if we are in the understanding that this is all conversation, it is all learning. What we say and think can always change, so long as education and conversation can improve our knowledge. We need to have the courage to be wrong.

Sexism isn’t always spitting in people’s faces or telling them they can’t vote. Discrimination can be very hidden, difficult to assess, and difficult to understand it is happening in the moments that it is. It is traditionally steeped in our history and our subconscious. People need to understand that often their behaviour is damaging when they consider it to be the norm. We have to consciously become more and more aware of the existence of misogyny and gender phobias, and of the problems that are still currently very real. The more we speak, and the more we speak up, the more these archaic values and biases can be identified and hopefully eradicated.
It can be highly frustrating, to try to know how to create change. It can be terrifying to stand up for yourself and others. I know I shake every time I do it – and I do it more than most. But silence is violence. It infuriates me that so many women (and people) feel scared or alone in this, because they are afraid to speak out. My passion in rectifying this abuse is rife. I’ve certainly been both respected and ostracised for having a voice. It can be tough.

I agree wholeheartedly about writing influences! I am a massive film buff, I draw a lot on film scores and opera and orchestral style. But the words always come first for me, they always have. I love Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Yeats and Rumi. I love Didion, Nin, and Collette.

(‘Round as Moons

the mirrored plates
reflecting the rooms
in a widening haze
of spokes and dust’!)

Tell me some of your favourite lyrics from some of your favourite songs.

KS: Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’ – when I first read it, I read it aloud to myself and the way the lines form and fall is devastatingly good. Particularly the Vth part – ‘What The Thunder Said’. After that it starts sort of disintegrating and is broken up by guttural sounds and the whole poem is rife with mythological references. I love that sort of shit. I do. Ever since I was a child I adored being read to.

Richard Brautigan is still one of my favourites too… for his economy and plain speaking. It’s very human stuff. And really, really funny. I used to hide a lot more jokes in my songs… things that I thought/think are pretty hilarious, but that no one else would probably get. Brautigan was my inspiration there, as was Bob Dylan and, to a point, Kerouac.

Like this one:

“Fuck Me Like Fried Potatoes”

Fuck me like fried potatoes
on the most beautifully hungry
morning of my God-damn life.

It’s a trifle! But sometimes that is exactly how I feel.

I love Anais Nin, too. I think she is incredible. I love her absolute dedication to her journal. I wish I had that. Before I found Nin, I had really no conception of what erotic literature could be. I was a bit of a rube in that respect. It rocked my world. ‘Little Birds’ floored me with its darkness. Then I read ‘Henry and June’ and it shook me to my core. The questions that their story (read from both sides now, too) threw at me in terms of love and fidelity made me feel like the ground had broken beneath me and I was falling and falling for months afterwards. Good works should do that. They should break you. Break your brain. Ache your heart.

And really, that is at the core of what I want to do as a songwriter.

I think after I’d read H&J I wrote ‘I Just Want To Hold Your Hand’ (see below) which to this day is probably everyone’s most favourite Howl at the Moon song. I felt so mean writing it, but I was in my mid twenties and was in a dark place and needed to push it out of my heart. Despite being in a really solid, loving relationship I found myself thinking about what it would be like if I was in love with someone else. I felt so lost about it. I’d never questioned that compass before and it really screwed with my head. I couldn’t read Miller or Nin for a couple of years afterwards. HOW GOOD IS THAT? It was that impactful. Why bother with anything else? If I am halfway through a book and still thinking ‘there’s no challenge being laid down here’ I am not afraid to put it down forever. Why waste your time?

If hope is a rope
I can tie myself on to
I’ll wrap it around
‘Til the ground comes to meet me

My feet have been kickin’
My arms have been quakin’
While I try hard to shake
The mistakes I’ve been makin’

Deep down I know I’m steady as a beam
Leveled on the horizon, on the horizon

But you’re fixed on calling me
A romantic fantasist
With a blood-thirst and a lust-hunger
That’s so hard to be beaten

Well, I’ll drink from that cup
And I’ll drink with my eyes too
Then I’ll turn around and pray
And try to displease you

Well, I’ve wanted the touch of another
And I won’t deny it
But so have you
Yet neither will try it

Because the rivers of home run in our veins
And we don’t cope well with the promise of pain
We’ve everything to lose and nothing to gain
By flooding the valley with a cheaper refrain

Though all might recall
The sound of that song
Much easier than
The one that we’re playin’

Though all of these stones
They may hang ‘round our necks dear
They are often replaced
By much happier messes

We’ll stumble along
In our suits and our dresses
And eat and drink and pray
That the blue sky will bless us

And I will hold your hand
I just want to hold your hand

Do you have a process? Also, have there been any pivotal works that have turned your world upside down? Any pivotal moments, even?

ER: I think there’s a secret moment that writers and musicians feel; the part of making music that only the artist really knows about, the part they experience away from the audience. When you work with particular people or when something comes together as you imagined in your head, you just have that grinning moment when it comes to life. I believe that’s why we do it, for those moments of beauty. It’s creation from thin air. It’s magic. Then you get to share it around.

I heard this great Martha Graham quote recently that says basically our only obligation is to let the work come through us. The rest — how it is perceived — is not for us, not up to us, not ours. We only need to keep our channel open to let it come through.

I always kinda thought that I just one day wrote a song and that was the beginning of my musical career. But when I look back, I have really been doing it forever. I watched films and would pause them to tape or find out what songs were playing. My first CD was a soundtrack. I love all of James Horner’s work; I had the Braveheart soundtrack and thrashed it! I listened to a lot of mountain music – my mum always says she hears Celtic references in my songs, which I find really interesting. But I always had that attachment to cinematic music that, in retrospect, was the basis of my experimentation with sound and song.

Seeing as we have written THOUSANDS of words we should probably wrap this up. If there was one artist you could have this kind of conversation with, who would it be?

My favourite band in Australia by probably a million miles (and like many I know) is the Drones. I’ve always said, when this question comes up, that I would love to inside Gareth Liddiard’s head. I think he is one of the finest songwriters I’ve ever known. He’d probably hate to sit down with anyone and take them through whatever processes he might have. I think it would be contrary to his very being and would be irksome, but it doesn’t stop me wondering. I don’t seek to emulate him in any way – or anyone for that matter. I like things a bit raw… for them to remain in their natural state. However, there are styles and genres where editing is required. Like early Scott Walker – I love that old croony stuff of his; like ‘The Amorous Humphrey Plugg’. I can’t imagine that song without the great deal of arrangement that would have been required to make it what it is.

Tell me yours now that I’ve told you mine! Also, thanks a bunch for asking me to do this. It’s been cool!

It has! Thank you! I’m sad this little (large?) convo is over, but now we can get cracking on that cocktail session we always talk about and just keep this chat going for ever and ever … we can be 95 with our guitars, playing them with a spoon or something coz our fingers won’t work anymore.
Shit. That is such a big question. Why did I ask you that? I would have to say … Chrissy Amphlett (back from the dead). I’d want it to be a face-to-face talk though. I wanna feel that heat.