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Ali Barter Interviews Land Of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell

Ali Barter sits down with Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell to chat vocal stresses, Japanese music and being a “crumbling mess”.

Ali Barter sits down with Land of Talk's Elizabeth Powell to chat vocal stresses, Japanese music and being a "crumbling mess".

It’s not often I get the chance to have a conversation with an artist who I obsess over. And I am not ashamed to say that I obsess over Land Of Talk, AKA Elizabeth Powell. I first heard her music in 2010 when a friend sent me the video for “Some Are Lakes”. I loved it immediately. Clanging, bell-like lead guitar lines soar over warm and crunchy chords. The melody still makes me shrug my shoulders up to one ear, like the notes are digging into my ribs. I’ve always loved the ‘in-between’ notes of chords, and Land Of Talk songs are full of them.

It’s been six years since Land Of Talk last released a record, and after chatting with Powell, the time ‘in-between’ LPs makes sense; as does the sound and message of Life After Youth. Take a long drive for your first listen. Life After Youth is lush and uplifting. It gets more beautiful with every listen.

Ali Barter: I love your new record and I never ever say this to people but I’m a huge fan. I was obsessed with your record Some Are Lakes.
Elizabeth Powell: What? That’s crazy!

AB: Like in 2007 I listened to it a million times.

EP: That’s amazing, thank you.

AB: I read that after that record and after Cloak And Cipher you had nodules or a polyp on your vocal chords and had to stop singing?

EP: Yeah I had a haemorrhagic vocal polyp on one of the vocal chords and I had to stop singing and speaking for six weeks and then do rehabilitative vocal therapy, speech therapy and vocal hygiene. That definitely made me reset things and made me reassess not only singing but everything because of stress. Have you ever had any vocal things because your voice is like fucking velvet. It’s so beautiful.

AB: Well, it’s crazy because when I was listening to your records heaps in 2013 it was the first time I was recording an album, and the last week of recording I was supposed to do all my vocals and my voice packed up and I wasn’t allowed to sing for a year.

EP: What?!

AB: So it was the same thing and I couldn’t finish that record.

EP: Noooooo.

AB: And that record ended up turning into little bastardised EP versions of itself – but I had the same thing and it was so… Now looking back on it for me it was really traumatic.

EP: Totally traumatic.

AB: I wasn’t sure if I was going to sound the same or if I was going to sing or… I felt like my whole trajectory had stopped.

EP: Exactly. You become almost scared of your own voice, which was the one thing that was guiding you through your life. You’re scared of the one tool that was healing you and the one thing that helped you connect with other people. It’s really scary. It’s got to be more common than we think because we all must – working in the industry and getting pushed once you catch a little bit of heat and people just want you to – I’m sure you’ve just been pushed into the industry tract and like you said even just recording and people not really being aware that you can’t make somebody sing for eight hours a day or that be in a dry studio with everybody else smoking.

AB: Yes!

EP: And I mean I smoked too. You know, I still need to smoke! I’m still a fucking artist! We’re poets, we’re writers.

AB: Human beings.

EP: Exactly! We’re addicts! We’re not just performers. We don’t just walk out on the stage and sing like songbirds. So that was the other thing too – it was just kind of like yeah, there was a lot of lessons that I learned. Tonnes of self-preservation, and it sounds like you learned them too because obviously you’re completely healed and you sound amazing.

AB: It used to really upset me but now I’m just like, “Do you know what? This is my voice, it’s a part of my body, it’s got the scars of my life and whatever mistakes I’ve made and the things I’m going through every day.”

EP: Fuck yeah, right?! And I know I still have raspiness in certain areas. Sometimes our weaknesses are our strengths.

AB: Well the raspiness and fragility of your voice is what I love the most and what I’ve always loved about your music because I’ve listened to your records for so long – I know that sounds weird but I really have.

EP: That just sounds awesome because it’s like, “What?!” Mind blow! Holy, holy…

AB: You really got into Japanese music and I wanted to ask how you incorporated it into your songs? Because I felt like “Inner Lover” has quite a meditative, droney kind of quality to it.

EP: My drummer and friend Andrew Barr, who ended up playing drums on Some Are Lakes and Cloak And Cipher, after my dad suffered a stroke, Andrew recommended this Oki Tonkori record because I think he was listening to it at the time and he was really highlighting its meditative qualities. It’s just really rhythmically playful – it almost sounds like my idea of a bouncing ball and these polyrhythms and the instrument only has four strings and it just has this lightness and this levity and my dad loved it and that just sort of ended up being part of his playlist that I then interpreted as being the “healing” playlist. I think that “Inner Lover” is both inspired by that with that warbling “woo-wo-woo-wooo”. That was me clumsily trying to play midi keyboards, but just on my actual laptop, and trying to input it and play it directly into garage band really poorly and it ended up sounding more interesting than it was meant to.

But the actual production and me really slowing it down to that slow BPM – I think it’s like 90 or 80 I forget – that was inspired by this producer Anna Wise who I just happened upon. She collaborates with Kendrick Lamar and she has this song called “Precious Possession” and I guarantee that you’ll love it. She’s an amazing producer and this is her solo record and I bought it immediately and then “Inner Lover” kind of came out from that and from Oki Tonkori and, you know how it is, you just collect these inspirations and they all kind of amalgamate and then you’re also usually all singing about some dream you had or some weird thing you overheard and it’s all kind of a mush pot.

AB: I’ve also read that in the gap between records you stopped listening to music and you stopped writing music. I really identified with that, like you had to take some time out. Because music can be so painful – there’s so much of yourself wrapped up in it and it can be so soul destroying and so beautiful at the same time. Were there any songs in particular that brought you back? I know for me, I have these core songs that I come back to and I wanted to know if you had any songs that made you go, “Fuck I want to write again” or “I’m ready to do this again”?
EP: Yeah totally – Kurt Vile’s “In My Baby’s Arms” just… forget about it! I’d never heard Kurt Vile, and I was online and I saw a video of Kurt Vile performing “Runner Ups” and then boom – bought all his records right away. So that song definitely. And then in terms of wanting to make a comeback, in terms of an artist or an old song that I had just discovered – and I wish it was easy to find and I challenge anyone to find it – Mahalia Jackson doing a live performance at some Church of “Closer”. But the CD was just a bootleg and since then it’s disappeared. But that song made me want to sing again and made me want to find my voice again. The there’s a John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison song, “I Cover The Waterfront”, that song just makes me feel whole again. Those are a lot of centring songs.

And Anais Mitchell. There’s a song “Willie Of Winsbury” that she does – you would sound amazing singing it actually – ooh, if we ever play a show live, if I could ever come to Australia or you come here, that’s such a beautiful duet just for the harmonies alone. All those songs just made me want to make music again.

AB: You also worked with another amazing singer/songwriter, Sharon Van Etten, what was that like? I want to know because I have done collaborations with male band members and male producers, then I did some song writing stuff with an American girl, a couple of years ago, and I just loved the feeling. I don’t know if gender or working with men or women feels any different to you? 

EP: Absolutely. It has to, right? I’ve never really written with anyone, but Sharon I whole heartedly opened up to her and she listened. First she listened to the music for a couple of months and then she came by the studio and she listened and we caught up because it had been forever. And she just listened and was asking about certain parts of the songs and what maybe I wanted to have to stay at that level or maybe get deeper to the roots. Because I have a really good habit of obfuscating. I prefer to live in the abstract. I prefer to live in the dual overdrive pedal on my guitar. I seem to like to distort things or I’m not ready to be super clear, also that’s not my style. But with Sharon she made me want to be clearer because I felt that this is so important. Like I’m coming back. I didn’t mean for it to be a comeback record, I just thought I was taking a hiatus that went on for a little too long. So Sharon was perfect. She was just the perfect person to be able to express all that stuff to. I think a lot of it did have to do with, from my point of view, because she was a woman because I needed that. It was really important. On some kind of personal level and on so many other levels.

AB: There is something that happens, I definitely have had special moments with women artists and because all the boys in my band are male and my husband is my producer, and the majority of people I work with are males, I’ve had a couple of moments with a songwriter and also writing a song with a songwriter rather than a producer, it was like a conversation and you could really open up about lyrics instead of – “that’s your bit, you’re doing your bit and I’m doing my bit.” It was really nice. It sounds like that’s what happened with you guys.

EP: Also it’s just experience too. When you’re in a room with a bunch of guys, there’s not a shared experience there in maybe that one aspect that needs to be. So maybe it’s just a kind of shared, lived experience and I feel like when we write and happen to be women writing and I write sometimes about what makes me angry or if I’ve been hurt or assaulted, I’ll write about that and that’s not genderless, that is kind of feminist writing and you feel empowered when you are in a room with other women and that’s just irrefutable and I need to stop feeling apologetic about being excited about that.

AB: You’ve had some stop-start points in your career, your voice packed up for a bit, and then your dad had a stroke and you’ve had some line-up changes. Do you view the trajectory of your career as stop-start-y? Or is it just something that you’re doing? 

EP: Yeah, it’s just life that’s happening. It’s weird to have people describe what I’m doing. Most people don’t have articles written about how their career is doing. It’s like, that’s what life is like and the more fascination that people have with line-up changes and stops and starts, it’s like “Well what’s your normal?” Now I realise, “Oh that’s actually what life is.” Like, it’s never what you thought it was going to be and then you adapt and you’re the better for it and that’s kind of the point.

AB: Like if you had have just put this out I would have been, “Oh, it’s a few extra years, now here’s another record,” without knowing the backstory. But the good thing knowing the backstory as an artist, is to see that it can be done in different ways. Like reading about your voice and maybe taking some time out and that you had this period that you didn’t enjoy or it was difficult to make music, just validates or makes me feel better because fuck, I’ve had that and then I felt bad about that. I felt really bad about stuff.

EP: Yeah I did too! Totally! Which is why I really wanted to really be honest in the bio and every interview too. You do have to give up yourself and I think that’s also the kind of music that we do. I feel like you do it too. People rely on us to be honest in all of our conversations.

AB: Maybe that’s something with age?

EP: Yes, it has to be.

AB: Because I’ve been spending time with younger musicians and they have a lot more bravado and I look at them and I’m like, “Oh Jesus I am a crumbling mess inside and it’s like nothing touches you,” but I know that probably deep down inside them they’re fucking petrified as well.

EP: Right?! You have to rely on the gooey gore of the pathetic humans. Like we’re all just so gooey and just know that and then act accordingly. Stoicism is the goal but it seems so far away.

Ali Barter is touring Australia throughout August, September and October, details here. Land of Talk’s Life After Youth is out now.