First Movements with Music
Thinking back to a time when I was without creative skills, knowledge, confidence and history, I lacked the language needed to write words and feelings down in the way I wanted. I had limited formal training in piano but even though I loved the instrument, the lessons made me feel completely apathetic – I always left feeling flat. The lead-up to every lesson filled me with anxiety as I couldn’t understand the need to recite perfectly pages and pages of someone else’s music. I wanted to play it in my own way. Or even better – to play my own ideas in my own way.
Now, I am still learning and I have a lot to learn. But then, I had no life experience to speak of. I was a teenager – brash, unashamed yet scared of the outside world. I spent every lunch hour at school upstairs near the music department, convincing a teacher to let me use a small (almost a closet) room with a little window and black concrete floor about 2 metres square. I would spend hours trying to create sounds, feelings, anything that was a creative expression. I wouldn’t get frustrated by my inabilities, only more determined to explore. I was so deeply shy it almost hurt to try anything. But the yearning to do something completely overrode these feelings and pushed through them like magic.
I found the challenge of art class too much, even though I craved to be the master of it – the teacher’s sentiments about technical prowess echoing that of my rigid piano lessons. At 16, I had no attention span for anything apart from the unexplainable, the elusive and the ephemeral. I wanted to know everything and I knew nothing. I wanted to learn through blind exploration. I had no time for formal training. Even though the movements of those endless sessions culminated in no body of work to speak of, my memories of this time relate that tiny room as essential to my current state.
I can’t think my way out of that room. It enabled me to dream and envision a different future to those around me. Although physically it resembled some kind of cell, it enacted a private universe, a first movement with music. The creation of a creative world that snowballed out of that room.
A state girls’ school in Western Sydney without many facilities equipped us with not much more than a few acoustic guitars, occasionally missing a string or two. We made do with what we had, trying desperately to make something new, or even to replicate heroes of the past, standing over us as intimidating spectres. Why even try when there was such a rich legacy before us? We were new, young, bubbling with energy and bored with books and exams and the pressure of ‘making a future’ for ourselves in the traditional sense. Being asked ‘what are you going to do’ was the only time I thought, because otherwise it was simply organic. I want to make things. Different things – modes, expressions, ideas, acts. I couldn’t think on a grander scale. I couldn’t understand why elders and other peers would think differently. I couldn’t see a bigger picture. All I could see was what was inside my head and heart and in front of me. Strange desires. No interest in boys of any sort, just interested in simple, pure expression. Small movements. Baby steps.
Music seemed to be the simplest way I could execute these ideas for the time being and I tried to play whatever I could, whenever I could. It was rough, primal, and it was exciting. I endlessly tried to replicate the energy I saw executed in bands such as Free Kitten, Royal Trux and The Fall. Until I heard music like this, I was just too intimidated. But over time I realised there was a rich life of music out there beyond what I could imagine. And it was female. And it was completely intuitive. It was always there, just so slightly hidden behind the magazine covers and records in stores. All we had to do was seek it out.
Brix Smith played guitar just the way I wanted to. She was tough, but unmistakably feminine. She commanded attention through her instrument, which is exactly what I wanted to do. I was so glad there was a woman singing like Kim Gordon. I didn’t have a beautiful voice. I couldn’t sing properly either way. Even if I did, I wanted to sing low, husky, and simply. I recognised a beauty in monotones, in whispers and screeches that I first heard played out by her alone. I hadn’t heard Nico yet, but if I had, at that stage, her echoes would have filled me with possibility and the conviction yes, there was no right way to do anything. There was a myriad different ways to perform and to be a woman and there was beauty in revealing your insecurities and showing that you were slightly damaged, scared, shy or afraid. It was all about fostering the right kind of confidence.
Free Kitten’s Sentimental Education personified all of these feelings. There was no fixed way to sing, play or perform. From now I was free. I just had to find like minds.
I spent hours in my bedroom, printing out music and teaching it to myself in my own way – . trying to recognise my own style. My bed slowly began to resemble a destroyed office – covered in sheet after sheet of tabbed music. I would crawl to bed exhausted, and sleep amid a rubble of tab, the scrolls continuing on like a crazed manuscript, spilling out the door. Amongst them would be scrawled, nonsensical attempts at lyrics. I slowly realised that I needed time to express complex ideas. For now, a more intuitive path was needed. And in this instance I had to simply learn with others, and learn through others.
I needed to find someone like me. I didn’t know where to look because I didn’t know anyone. I looked to the internet, which at this stage was almost new. I responded to an ad I saw online. I was so shocked that the respondent replied, exclaiming that she too was a girl, and was the same age. I had added mine as some kind of disclaimer like youth and femininity was some kind of detriment. I was so excited, as I knew instantly from her response she had been looking for exactly the same thing. Backgrounds, personalities didn’t matter. I knew she was filled with the same feelings as me, and she wasn’t ignoring it, she was acting on it.
When I met Catherine, my sentiments were confirmed. She was exactly like me. And we needed each other to learn with each other. We had no physical prowess, or command of any instruments. We began writing music immediately with Jack who I’d met just previously, and who also shocked me in many ways than one. These kids weren’t normal. They were weird. They had strange desires. They wanted to be different, and they didn’t care about what anyone thought. Nothing was going to stand in their way.
We quickly wrote songs. They were about anything and everything. They didn’t mean anything or meant everything. There were no parameters, and there was no measure as our slates were all clean. Was it good? We didn’t care. “Good” wasn’t ever on the agenda. “Good” didn’t matter. What mattered was we had made the choice to create. We were learning in public and in witness to each other. I can’t imagine any other teenage life. Our personal world was more special than anything because we had created it for ourselves. We gave each other confidence because we were all like each other. We were determined to make a strange sound – to scream, to yelp, to move and to be heard.
My movements since then have been varied and my languages have changed over time. Life experience – emotions such as desire, heartbreak, loneliness and longing have afforded me a wealth of material to write the kind of music I always wanted to – music that holds meaning to me. However, a fundamental part of the music that lies within me was forged during this time. The essence of play, of companionship, and the act of discovery.