'The Creature You Are' / Prickle
In a music city as congested with talent as Melbourne, it’s often hard to avoid flavour of the moment portioning of punk or neo-soul. Prickle, a Melbourne-based jazz quintet headed by songwriter and vocalist Emily Wilson, are refreshing in the way they combine their non-musical influences to their swirling pot of jazz-fusion and pop. The group describe their music broadly as modern-jazz with Kate Bush style vocals- listening to ‘Creep in the Door’ tends to conjure the unpredictable psychedelia of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, with abstract, intuitive harmony. Even the name “Prickle” is more cerebral than most, stemming from Wilson’s approach to music in general, refusing to resort to facetious statements.
“I thought Prickle was quite a crisp name, it’s quite short and simple. It’s versatile. I really like the image of a prickle, it looks very beautiful. I always hope that my thoughts are distinct too. There’s always an intention to what I’m doing. I’ve always got a clear image of what I’m doing,” Wilson explains over an echo-ridden phone line.
Prickle were organised by Wilson within her Jazz Improvisation course at the Victorian College of the Arts, and all five members, Wilson thinks, are Melbourne born and bred. The genesis of their oblique, subconscious brand of jazz however came from outside the realm of urbanity.
“I was collaborating with a pianist. We were heading over to Bali do the music for a jazz festival over there called the Ubud Village Jazz Festival. We were arranging music and I’m a songwriter, but I’d never really expressed myself in a jazz forum before. I thought it would be great to get a jazz group together when we get back and do a show or something,” Wilson says.
“I went up for a holiday in Byron [Bay] for a week last summer and just took a guitar with me. I was sitting on this verandah, along the main street. I just took the guitar out there for fifteen minutes every night and detuned it, put on my phone and recorded 15 minute voice memos. It was like this subconscious thing where I was playing melodies that resonated with me mainly, and also playing shapes that I wasn’t sure of and so that the sound would jump out at me and I would react to it melodically in an interesting way.”
The resulting project has been a success, with the band now on the eve of launching their debut E.P The Creature That You Are at Bar Open this Sunday 25th November, fit with seaweed drapes, underwater costumes and plenty of visual art. Verve spoke to Wilson about the record’s aquatic theme, subconscious songwriting and theatrical influences. The following is excerpts, transcribed and edited for readability.
Josh: You’ve said that the melodies kind of ebb and flow like water; was that something you came across doing those voice memos to yourself?
Em: The bustling city, is not very, it often isn’t very good for my songwriting. I went away to this place that was very calm and I think that came across in the writing- the creativity flowed more. I was by the sea and it was a holiday, away from school. The water represented the calm.
Josh: And you were writing about water’s flow in your lyrics too?
Em: Yes, totally.
Josh: What inspires you to write about water, apart from the serenity?
Em: There’s an element of unknown in the water, in its depths. The ebb and flow of the water. Particularly, waves. I guess though, I am quite visual. I like the fictional element of water. A lot of the songs have characters in them, to sort of describe what I’m trying to get across. I like to make suggestions to other things when I’m writing rather than just spell them out. There’s a mermaid in one of them, which sort of represents an understanding one’s identity. A mermaid, I’m not sure how it’s normally regarded in writing, but I just interpreted it, it sometimes wants to be in the land and sometimes wants to be in the sea. So it’s kind of coming to terms with, maybe it’s trying to place where it is at. There’s a sea-baby floating around in another one, and that’s probably a reference to a phase of my life where I go into these floating states and disconnect from reality. It’s exciting to have a theme and build kooky narratives around it.
Josh: As the primary songwriter, how does the band interpret the framework of your songs?
Em: I’ll give them a bunch of demos and charts. They’ll always say that they’re really cooked because, I’ll just go “oh could you play like a E#11flat9” or some really long chord and they’ll just be like “that’s so...yeah, what is that?” (laughs). May as well play all open strings because that’s basically what that chord is! It’s actually a really lovely process- I’ll write the set for them and then it actually does take so long to develop it.
Josh: Is the writing process very considered or do you let improvisation take hold?
Em: No, I will write really ornate sheet music, five page things with writing all over it. I’ll have a vibe in mind but I think the more information you can give people, even with aesthetic stuff, if you’ve got a really clear vision, it is really helpful. It can also create an amount of energy and then I find with the guys I’m playing with who are very established players, they’ve got some really great creativity and thoughts to contribute, it will change from what I’ve set. If I didn’t give a lot of information then had a group forum, it wouldn’t spring as easy.
Josh: You describe your sound as modern-jazz with Kate Bush style vocals- I heard a lot of Bitches Brew era-Miles Davis- what are your group touchstones?
Em: We sorta don’t talk about this a lot. I mean, Anthony [Farrugia], the guitarist, and I really love Pat Martino, who is a jazz guitarist we listen to a lot. I think Bitches Brew is a really good reference point. I’m just trying to be to as intuitive as I can with this project. If I was to say yeah this is the sound, I can’t actually pinpoint it. I guess a lot of people can say that about their own projects but I’m not exactly sure. Definitely for me, I really love drama, people like Kate Bush and David Bowie are really close to my heart. The tunes that I’m coming up with in those melodies, has got drama to it, as if I’m in a theatre or on a stage. It’s sort of theatrical (laughs).
Josh: I feel like perhaps the performance/visual art aspect also inspires Prickle.
Em: I just love the emotion. I really love their creativity and arrangements and things. I’m not sure why I really like them, I just gravitate to that….David Bowie’s Station to Station is incredible, that voice is what I’ve been inspired by. It’s this weird thing where we’ve been studying jazz music but I love my 80s music. It’s quite jazz-y at the moment but I don’t know if it’ll stay that way.
Josh: So even though that’s what you study, you’re open to moving into whatever contemporary form fits your songwriting?
Em: Totally. It just has to be really loose, open and creative. That sounds so wanky, but yeah. I guess the jazz thing is incredible because it offers so much. You’re learning...in a way this record is a document of the stuff that I’ve learnt and how I’ve interpreted it in the last year. There’s so much harmony you can take, the nature of improvising- I think I thought it’d be good to have a project to embody that and explore it a bit more. I think ultimately, I really love artists….even in popular music or older popular music, where they’re using an idea but their ears and their thoughts are so sophisticated for whatever reason- it could be intuitive or they’ve analysed a lot of music- they react and adapt in a way that’s so tasteful, they know their style. They’re moving and being flexible. I guess that’s what I’m looking for in jazz- to develop my ears and be...if you have a melody, you don’t want to just sing it straight. You want to sorta sing on the hits, and then change the placement of it or something really subtle. Little things like that, I think jazz gives you the ability to do.
Josh: Are your live shows strict renditions of your tunes?
Em: We play with the flavour of the night. We have a picture of the songs and how they go but sometimes I’ll randomly sing something in the middle of the verse and everyone will respond, so everyone has to listen to each other so that flows. We can sort of improvise on stage but we have such a tight framework that it isn’t too loose.
Josh: Tell me about the sessions for The Creature That You Are. Where did you guys record it?
Em: We recorded it at Brian Brown studios [at VCA]. It worked really well for us as all of our equipment is there and it’s a really amazing studio and the uni has put a lot of funding into it. We tracked down a sound engineer we liked and we went in there...we recorded it in an afternoon actually. We basically got all the instrumental parts down then I think we did two vocal parts, and then I had to redo two of them. It’s all live recording and the vocals are pretty untouched too.
Josh: Was that a product of time restraint or did you all kind of want to play and record live?
Em: We’ve all had experience single-tracking before and we’ve found it can be a bit soul-draining. We thought, let’s just practise the heck out of the stuff, so it’s second nature and we can go in and bang. Except my voice got a bit tired, fourth hour in my voice got a bit eugh, cause you’re giving it your all.
Josh: What have you got planned off the back of this E.P?
Em: It would be good to gig a bit more over the summer. We’ll let this launch sort of happen and then see. I’m sort of planning to make a series of visuals/video to go with every song, so I will release them in the weeks after. Then we would like to play some more gigs over the summer, but the main focus would be to develop the next sound.
Josh: Will you develop those visuals yourself or have you got people in mind you’d like to work on this with?
Em: I have a little bit of a media background, so I’ll fiddle with stuff myself. I’ve also got a community of people who are quite artistic so I’ll bounce ideas off them. I’ve got this idea that I would like ambient videos that tell a bit of a story for each one. Sort of that homemade kind of video vibe. My sister is a great source of inspiration for me because she’s really artistic. She’s a visual artist and a florist. She does all the art for me, and the main thing. We’re making little cassette tapes for the launch and we’ll make little stickers for them and she’ll make all the outfits. She’s incredible. There will be a projection and maybe some live art, seaweed decorations. It’s going to be a really prolific week of creating things. I’ve just been in bed writing music.
Words by Josh Martin