Written by: Dave Cantrell
Having emerged in 1986 from the antipodean post-punk fallout milieu alongside the likes of the Triffids and Go-Betweens, having had a monster indie hit a year later (“Blue Suburban Skies” backed with a legendary cover of “Bizarre Love Triangle” which you’ve heard whether you know it or not), then signed to the Sarah Records imprint in 1990, you can bet Even As We Speak know a thing or two (or several dozen) about songwriting, about survival, about the sigh-filled stumble and dance into middle age. All of which is on full display in both the ravishingly melancholy, stunningly monochromatic “Leaves” video (from new album Adelphi) and the wide-ranging interview between EAWS members Mary and Matt and the shoot’s director Matias Bolla and cinematographer Bonnie Elliott. “Leaves”, as would be expected from a song that begins with the wistfully keening sigh of an accordion and a first line that goes “There was a time, a time before the fall,” is richly infused with that inevitable ache that comes with the territory. This, though, can come as no surprise since, as mentioned earlier, Even As We Speak know their way around a song. So, have a watch or two (or several dozen) and bask in its starkly vibrant poignancy while soaking up the context – there’s a bit of it – in the conversation below. [find Adelphi on the Shelflife label here]
When we just wandered off through the leaves and the shadows
Matt and Mary of Even As We Speak discuss the process of making a videoclip for the song Leaves (off their new album Adelphi) with Matias Bolla (director) and Bonnie Elliott (cinematographer).
Thank you also to Darrin Baker (colourist); Danielle Payne (First AC); Madison Heinze (2nd AC/wrangler); Max Gersbach (gaffer); Kamila De Mata (hair & make up); Almond Cafarella (runner)
Bonnie: what do you both feel seeing the clip finished? Is it what you imagined at the beginning of the process?
Mary: not at the beginning for me. I had originally thought of filming me doing some dodgy trapeze act– and it seemed to fit in with the album which is about middle age. I mean that is partially why I took up trapeze last year – so I could make this clip. But then you and Matias came along and made it beautiful. I was originally going to just shoot it myself!
Bonnie: I remember! And I was like – what are you doing? Trapeze? And then Mary told me how she and Manar (Mary’s daughter) had been learning together and I was like – oh maybe Manar needs to be in it. But I’m not a music video director, so Nick (Meyers) my partner suggested Matias, because he knew he made lots of music videos. And I had the idea of the back-stage mirror area – but then Matias turned it into the more beautiful sad love story that it is – well sort of, we don’t quite know what is going on with Jim and Mary in the clip (laughter).
Mary: So, Matt, in terms of representing a song that you wrote, are you happy with it?
Matt: Oh yes, I think it is a perfect match. The song and video go together so well. I couldn’t think of anything better.
Mary: I remember when I was choreographing the static trapeze routine I made to perform in Leaves, my trapeze teacher Erin asked me what the song was about and I said, “Well I think it is about lost love – but I don’t know”. I often don’t know exactly what an EAWS song I am singing is about. I just get a feeling from the song. I sometimes make my own interpretations of the songs – and I sometimes wonder – is this about me or ……
Matias: A similar thing happened when we came up with the concept for the clip. I made a little document and gave you a few options and we all sort of gravitated to this story line that we all felt connected to the song.
Matt: I think it’s good because it the clip captures the conflicts in relationships when you get to middle age. It’s not as clear as it is when you are young, when everything is fantastic and romantic. So, I think it captures that sort of conflict in love that you experience when you get older.
Bonnie: It occurred to me before we shot it…. when Matias and I had just done a reccie at Sydney Trapeze school – I thought “It’s weird isn’t it? Being in a band is like being in the circus. You have to keep putting on the show and sing these songs over and over again, that you have sung many times, and still try and find something in that moment that is beautiful, so that you communicate that. But you have to keep doing it over and over and there’s that…there’s some sort of fatigue that possibly sets in as if you have been in the circus for a long time. But then you still find the joy of it, each time you do it.” I think there is a nice melancholy to Leaves.
Matt: I think melancholy is a good word for this song – and the clip captures that really well.
Bonnie: Your daughter Manar is in the clip Mary. Has she seen it?
Mary: Yes, she saw it. Manar doesn’t like to watch herself on video, but she actually was actually quite chuffed with it. She looks amazing. And it was so nice to have those 3 ages of womanhood –teenager, Erin as young woman, and me.
But I’ve got to say the clowns…I love those clowns. They are the best. I love the shots of Anita in particular.
Why an album about middle age?
Bonnie: So, Matt, why did you want to write an album about middle age?
Matt: Well it was initially just to stick it to everyone in a way – because it’s a subject no one wants to hear about. Middle is just boring apparently. So, I thought I’d write an album about that – just cause, well we are a bit contrary as band. We just like to do the opposite. But it was interesting as a writing experience, what was drawn out in the process. Because what I thought would be a fairly straight forward writing project ended up being quite harrowing in a lot of ways. It became quite personal, which I didn’t really expect. And I think you can see that in Leaves. It’s very, very personal. And it dredges up a few things that you wouldn’t expect to be there in middle age. There’s a lot of regret and there’s a lot of melancholy. But, there’s also lots of moments of light shining through. So, I think it’s a good experience. And I think the marriage of that concept to the video clip is perfect because it really captures that sort of aging. You’ve got the young people and they are so fresh and full of energy and you see even Manar being there – you see the stages of life very clearly.
Bonnie: How old are you kids Matt?
Matt: One is 14 and the other is 16
Bonnie: So, what do your kids think about you being on tour. Do they thinks it’s lame that you are still making music, or are they supportive?
Matt: At my home, everyone is a bit ambivalent about it. It’s not particularly interesting to them. So, it’s kind of my project. And I just sort of hide myself away under the house in my home studio and they don’t really know what is going on (laughs).
Bonnie: Mary, Manar was up dancing at your recent show.
Mary: Yes – that was lovely, But I think it’s the same for me in that it’s my thing and Manar and my husband aren’t that invested in it. But I don’t have a studio under the house. I record demos etc in the living room – and we have a very small house with only one living space – so if I’m doing anything it’s right in their face and I’m like “can you both please be quiet.” So, they see it and they are supportive. And it’s fine to go off on tour or if I spend a weekend recording. When we did Indietracks, it was so much fun and a such a big crowd and Manar was up the front – I even asked her if she wanted to get up and sing with me. It would have been the highlight of my life to date at that age. But at the end of our holiday I asked her what her favourite part was – and Manar was like “well it wasn’t Indietracks”
(Manar yells in background – I did not say that – I said: ‘Is it bad if I don’t say Indietracks’.)
Mary: Stonehenge was more interesting for her, I think. But Manar listens to totally different music – Kendrick Lamar. But she does know all the lyrics to EAWS songs. And sings along in the car.
Bonnie: So, your fans in England. The ones who have been part of the resurgence of EAWS, are they your age? What is the demographic?
Mary: Well when you are at gigs, they all seem to be our age. But it was interesting at Indietracks, because kids are welcome along and there are activities for kids. So, people were there with kids our kids age. And some kids were into it – and one young person, Belle, painted ‘EAWS’ beautifully on a stone for me. But then you see some other teens walking sullenly around behind their parents looking mopey. But there are definitely younger fans and every now and then I get a bit of fan mail from young people. Like a 19-year-old in Israel telling me I am a goddess. That was very weird. When you look at say our Facebook demographics for example there are a few 18 – 34-year olds (16%). About 15% 35-44-year olds. And then the rest 45 and over.
Bonnie: I remember seeing Nick Cave on his Skeleton Tree tour and there were these teens in the bathroom, and they were really into it – and one of them said “Oh my parents got married to The Ship Song”. And was like – isn’t that amazing. I feel really old now! But it was quite nice actually because we were all there…some artists manage to transcend many generations. Like I remember hating Bob Dylan with a passion because my mum played him relentlessly through my childhood. And then at some point I suddenly liked Bob Dylan – now I love him. What did your parents listen to Matias?
Matias: Very Latino. Just Latin music. A lot of English music I found myself. Unless they were really big bands. Like my dad liked Queen. Like those kinds of bands made it to Chile and we listened to those but more often than not it was Salsa or Cuban. Like Buena Vista Social Club.
Matt: It’s great music
Matias: Yes – I love it. Now my music taste is just my own, but I definitely still listen to a lot of Latin music.
Representing middle age
Bonnie: So, Mary… you told me about this guy who wrote awful things on Facebook about how you look in the video Rob made for the song “Someone”. Is he someone who is an angry middle-aged person – why do you think he wrote that?
Mary: I have noticed on social media there are a lot of angry people out there and they just want to pick a fight. It was interesting. He was always pompous as I remember. He just had this idea that I was once young and beautiful, and I should still look the same in video clips 35 years later. And that he could have made me look that way if we only had let him make the clip. He said some pretty awful things about my looks. It didn’t hurt my feelings – but it annoyed me that he felt he could say those things in a public forum…in any forum…but that he thought it was so acceptable that he could post it on our FB page and be taken seriously. And it annoyed me that despite all the talk around #metoo very few people challenged him. Quite a few girlfriends posted to talk about how much they loved the clip and the song, and by ignoring him we all hoped to show him we weren’t going to give him a voice. But he kept going on and on – I look fucking awful, haggard…and like a faded heroin hag. And that I am an ugly troll inside and out!!!! Beth Arzy gave him a serve. And my son did too, which made me very proud. But the really silly thing was that he conceded that the song was very good – what the band had done musically was fine. But that song is a bout middle age – so he clearly hadn’t listened because why would I want to look like I am twenty in a song where I am singing “The meals on wheels will find me with the remote control in my hand”?
Bonnie: So, he is an arbiter of taste – of what it good.
Mary: Well how a woman should look in a videoclip anyway. It’s hard to know what to say in those situations. The experts say ignore trolls. But I don’t want the narrative to be set by these sorts of people. And yet, they are so clever they twist whatever you post so it fits their narrative.
Bonnie: It’s interesting the whole idea that if I had made that clip, I’d have made you look young and beautiful. It’s like, well, is that even interesting at this point? Like you’ve made an album about middle age as you say, and you know, I think you look really beautiful in the clip we made, but it doesn’t look like we were trying to make you look 20 and then not achieving it. Rather, what’s what is interesting about it is that you are the age you are. It’s like imagine if we saw, Wings Of Desire and we saw all those actors who were in it now and what would they look like. We are so conditioned…I’ve had to film male and female actors and there is a narrative in film that we have to really look after the women and make them look nice – that’s the job of the cinematographer. And especially if they are older women. But quite frankly I find I need to do the same with men and everyone…not just the older women. So, it’s about trying to make people look good as they are ‘right now’. And I love that there are actors like Frances McDormand and Meryl Streep who say “No, I’m not buying into this idea of what I should look like cause I’m older.”
Mary: I wasn’t hurt by what that guy said…but thinking about it, it took a bit of the joy out of my experience of making the clip, having to actually confront his comments. I mean you see what is happening all over the world and people are so brave – so it’s silly to say it is brave to put yourself up on a screen looking as you are – but it does cause a certain trepidation. I mean you could just do a videoclip where you don’t show yourself at all.
Matias: Yes, and I think there is something brave in the concept of this new video for Leaves as well, which is you doing trapeze, which is so impressive. Like I remember when you did the first take, I was like, “How do you do that? I can’t do that”. And also – it’s not all about beauty. We’ve got Anita, Rob and Julian in clown makeup. It’s about emotion, which I think is coming through rather than this glossy world.
Matt: There is so much narcissism in popular culture and it is important to challenge that. Particularly in the music industry which is just so ageist. If a band is getting on, they pretty much flag it at the beginning of every interview. “They’ve been around a while but they’re still doing it!” Like older people don’t make music? But also, the notion that you either have to look like mutton dressed up as lamb or go off on some oldies circuit. So, I think important to challenge that and say, “Look we are middle aged. Live with it.” And look we can still do creative stuff on our own terms and we are not going to fade off into the background – or repeat ourselves endlessly. Because I think we are artists more than anything, and artists shouldn’t look at themselves and say, “Oh look, I’m 30, it’s time to stop!”
Bonnie: Well painters and film makers don’t have to. It seems a bit rough that musicians should have to! Especially with bands, I always think, “That looks like so much fun up there.” And sometimes I feel it, when I am on set doing handheld with an actor and we are very much in the moment, and it seems a bit like, “Is this what it feels like to play music?” Like when you are in each other’s energy field. But when you are watching a band and they are having a good time you think, “That must be the most fun thing you could do creatively.” So, I am always a bit jealous because I am not musical. But why should the Rolling Stones stop playing together – they are having good time and they are making music people want to listen to. So why should they stop because they are a bit craggy? It’s stupid.
Matt: Certainly the prejudice of popular culture and music in particular…if you put that ageism into any other context and said, “Look, she’s a woman and yet she’s still making music!” or, “He’s Indigenous, but he is still making music”, it’s kind of outrageous, but that is what they do with age. They highlight the age as some sort of obstacle you have overcome. Which is ageism!
Mary: In the Leaves videoclip, especially with the clowns, you can see us as the dysfunctional family we kind of are as a band. We have been together a really long time. And we fight and we make up and then we do it all again. In 1993 we spent almost a year travelling around the UK in a small van hardly talking to each other – and we all lived together in the same house. And the only fun time was that hour on stage! A lot of the rest of it was awful. But we got through all of that, and Matt still writes these amazing songs and Rob and Anita create the rhyme and rhythm, and Julian weaves his beautiful magic around it.
Matt: And, of course, the singing is beautiful (general laughter).
Bonnie: Has your voice changed at all Mary do you think?
Mary: I don’t think my voice has changed much at all.
Matt: I think Mary’s voice is at its best. It’s got more depth and warmth to it than when we were younger. So, I think it’s another thing that age and experience gives you. It gives you more mastery over your artform.
Mary: But I also think the recording methods we have these days make it less scary because you know you can keep redoing it and it’s not expensive tape that you are using up. That used to be a huge pressure on me, when I couldn’t hit high notes especially. I’ve had lots of tears in studios. Even recently. Because now there are different pressures. As a vocal performer I would like to have a pure vocal take – no tuning. I don’t mind if there are imperfections. In the old days we would do a guide vocal at the beginning of recording and over the course of recording all the other instruments you would hear the way your voice sounded (repeatedly – ad nauseum), and I would make mental notes on how to do things differently when the time came to record the final vocal. I could rehearse the parts I was not getting right in the guide vocal. Because you don’t often hear what you aren’t achieving when just singing along to yourself. So then, by the time it comes to record the final vocal, you had learned how to sing it the way you wanted to sing it.
These days though, with digital – I guess because in the studio the band and engineer don’t want to hear your bum notes ad nauseum while they record drums, bass guitar etc – your guide vocal might get tuned. And then a lot of that learning is lost, because you go home and listen to a corrected vocal. So that is one thing I find very frustrating as a vocalist now.
Matt: Well, what I like is the perfect imperfection…that’s the phrase I’ve adopted.
Mary: Matias, I think that compared to us you are quite young – and I think you have really been able to understand what it is we wanted to portray in this video.
Matias: Well I think it just came through in the song – to be honest. Just from first impressions. Like in the first original pitch document that I created, it was quite easy. Also. the instrumentation. Just the accordion sound immediately drew me into the image of circus, and with the pre-existing idea of the trapeze as well really helped. And it was finding the story that threaded those two elements together and I think just listening to the lyrics it was quite simple to find what the song was about or what the story to be told was.
Mary: I don’t think that is so simple ….
Bonnie: Well Matias is a very sensitive fellow J. It’s an interesting multigenerational collaboration. But it’s funny because making music videos is only something you have the energy to do when you are young, because there is no money in it. Back in the 80s people had huge budgets & people made money out of it apparently. Now it’s like very small budgets – and you’ve made a few of them but you are not making a living out of it. You are doing it for other reasons.
Matias: For me it’s a way to stay creative. Because you can work on other people’s projects a lot – or get stuck on your own projects but nothing really happens for a while like when you’re stuck in development. So, music videos are a way to keep working on the craft. And in this case, it was also a chance to work with you Bonnie, and with the band. So, there are always ways to refine your craft. Which is nice.
Bonnie: And I just did it so I could get Manar into a clip (laughs). I thought this was a great moment to create a time capsule of your family life Mary J. And we should mention Jim Woff, who was in the video. Jim is also a musician (Crow) that has been in the same scene as you.
Mary: He is part of our lives. Matt & I used to hang out with him in the 80s.
Matias: I remember Jim had just arrived on set and he got straight into character and started asking me about his motivations and we discussed the back story between Mary’s character and his. He really was able to do that really well…which is not easy.
Bonnie: And we didn’t know he could act so well. I mean we’d known he’d done the one man show at MONA. He did go to quite a soulful place in the Leaves clip, in that last shot of him as he backs away from the curtain. I find that very touching.
Bonnie: And it’s funny too, the John Samaha (one of the clowns in Leaves videoclip) connection. I had thought about John when we came to thinking about the clowns for the clip because I was thinking about who are the more colourful characters I have come across in my time. John is someone you can’t forget let’s face it! And then we find out you went to school with him Mary! I couldn’t believe it.
Mary: And that I had been in another videoclip with him. Day After Day by Sidewinder. I think he has been in a lot of clips. I do love that shot of him in Leaves, with the bead of sweat running down his face.
Bonnie: Let’s not forget Nick as the ringmaster.
Mary: Nick was amazing – I didn’t know he could act either. Such a showman. Multitalented.
Mary: And Bonnie, I just wanted to mention your choice of people to work with on shoots.
Bonnie: I try to have at least 50/50 men/women on my crews – and sometimes there are more women. Doing videoclips like this can offer experience to less experienced crew which is nice. I try to be conscious about it because nothing will change in our industry if we don’t think consciously about who is on set. I am working on a campaign for the Australian Cinematographers Society – it’s called #whoisinyourcrew. It’s to encourage people to think about who is in their crew – not just women but broadening it out. Filmsets can be fairly white, male domains in historical terms and changing that is something I want to encourage everyone to do.