Lisa Mitchell at the Black Bear Lodge in 2015. Photo courtesy of ©Bec Taylor Photography.
I am here today to talk about the very talented Lisa Mitchell. Last week she released her new album Warriors and I have to say it’s amazing! It is probably her bravest album yet. In short, I can honestly say that she is, to many of us a breath of fresh air, an inspiration to an array of upcoming artists and an advocate of Australia’s local music scene.
In ten years, since she burst onto the scene, she has managed to grow and spread her wings as an artist, in a dog eat dog world that is the Australian music industry. Interestingly, her fan base has remained loyal to her in that time because what you see is what you get with Lisa Mitchell. She is approachable, sincere and giving of her time. With her heart sewn on her sleeve, her music is a reflection of herself and something that we can all relate to. Love, loss, relationships and spiritualism are themes that are littered throughout her music.
With this article written with a wider audience in mind, particularly my American readership, which are at large unaware of the quiet brilliance of Lisa Mitchell (Most of my closest American friends easily reel off names like Iggy Azalea, Goyte and Nick Cave), I will briefly fill you in about how a young girl from the country aspired to be singer songwriter before delving deeper into her music.
I wont pretend to know how a country kid feels growing up, say compared to a city kid, but it’s probably fair to say that all youth share similar experiences and feelings. Those years in particular around fifteen or sixteen are turbulent and defining. We are caught in a place where our hopes and dreams are still often a little out of reach. We all also at times daydream about who we want to be and Lisa Mitchell was no different. I’m not sure whether she set out to be one of the biggest pop stars in the world, but she definitely set out to become an artist in her own right. Inspired by Missy Higgins early in her teens, she later found herself idolizing the likes of Sarah Blasko and Clare Bowditch. Her strengths, of course, lay in folk music, which she often thanks her father for introducing that side of music to her. With her influences, many and varied, from Bob Dylan to Patti Smith, it is easy to hear those influences in her music today, especially her abilities as a songwriter and storyteller.
“Come lay down in the water/ We’re all sons and daughters/ Rest your head on the altar/ Oh, come lay down in the water….” – Pirouette (Lisa Mitchell)
Mitchell has always said that she was a happy kid growing up in Albury, New South Wales. Though the English-born Australian’s age of innocence in some respect came to an end in 2006 at the age of sixteen. Her days of performing in local cafes and small events was blissfully interrupted by the Australian Idol roadshow. As an aspiring songwriter Lisa auditioned and blew the panel of judges out of the water. Soon after, she was off to Sydney, performing in front of a studio audience and nationally a television audience.
In the 2006 edition of Australian Idol, Mitchell finished sixth and arguably left the show somewhat bemused by her experience. It’s not to say she was not thankful for the experience, it definitely opened her eyes to a bigger world. Though she has always said that she felt uncomfortable with the structure of the show and that she had come to realise that much of the spectacle that is the entertainment industry was not for her.
Upon exiting Australian Idol, Mitchell managed to preserve some semblance of herself, including her dignity. In the next few years, leading to her breakthrough Wonder album, she steadied herself and fought tirelessly for her own vision, despite the fact that the making of her first two EP’s Said One To The Other (2007) and Welcome To The Afternoon (2008) was tough going.
The amazing thing about my relationship with Mitchell (so to speak) is that I am filled with gratitude that I don’t have to refer to her as that artist from Australian Idol. I was oblivious to the whole Idol phenomenon, and its reincarnations nowadays, as The Voice and The X Factor. The idea of judging music in a sideshow circus doesn’t sit well with me. To me, she is simply just someone who came along musically into my world at the right time and filled my head with melodies that were unusual, definitely not mainstream or the alterative music scene I was used to. I was once a young person who idolized bands like Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. Grunge, punk, 80’s pop and classic rock was also something that flowed through my veins. Indie pop or folk rock, on the other hand, was something new to me. Therefore, you can imagine my surprise how much I liked Mitchell’s debut album Wonder (2009). Her soft girly vocals hit an accord with me, but more than that it was the maturity of her lyrics that held me captivated. It was almost a complete departure to everything I was listening to at the time.
“The mushroom man loved the raven so, and deep inside his heart grew thing called hope/ One Sunday night the raven was weak/ He didn’t wake up and the mushroom man weeped/ Cause his planet to leak….” – The Story of The Raven and The Mushroom Man (Lisa Mitchell)
In 2007, Mitchell teamed up with some very talented songwriters, before moving to London to continue work on her debut album Wonder. Eventually she came home in 2008 a little disappointed with its result. Being young and headstrong, she re-recorded it (with Evermore’s Dann Hume) to her liking, adamant about doing it her way. The result was simply breathtaking, quirky and undeniably clever.
From beginning to end, as baffling as it is beautiful, the album covers a playful journey through many moods and tempos. For instances, So Jealous is one of many guitar-driven songs on the album, but by far my favourite, because of its country blues feel. Musical standouts, of course, include indie pop songs Oh! Hark! and Sidekick (which is quite whimsical with its opening line, “I called out across the sea, Normality! Can you hear me?”). Neopolitan Dreams also stands out with its hypnotic acoustic arrangement, while Clean White Love tells us of love that it too good to be true. However, the whole album, for me, rests in the shadow of two songs, Love Letter and Valium, which are both piano driven numbers. They are so raw and personal that they feel like a confession. Love Letter, in particular, on a personal level, evokes feelings of old friends and lost love.
Critically, the album was well received in Australia and Britain, due to Mitchell’s tireless touring commitments. Unfortunately, she was left feeling physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of it. (On a positive note, Wonder earned Mitchell five ARIA nominations.) Lacking inspiration and motivation to dig deep into her female psyche, she discovered a self-help book by American author Julia Cameron called The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path To Higher Creativity (1992), which helped her harness her creative self again. It in turn inspired her to produce her biggest album yet Bless This Mess (2012).
“I let go/ Feels like Death row/ And time/ All I’ve got is time…” – Bless This Mess (Lisa Mitchell)
Lisa Mitchell commented recently that her songwriting process is really random and that in some ways she has no control over it. She moves with her mood or waits to be inspired or touched by something. She adds that once she finds that inspiration, “I love to make a little monument for it, which is often a song.”
One of the biggest monuments (songs) and arrangements on Bless This Mess is So Much To Say, a massive big band orchestra number, which shows how prepared or willing Mitchell is to go to places musically that are unchartered to her. Talking about unchartered waters, themes of existentialism, spirituality and love are now also creeping into her music and are thrust forward on tracks such as Providence, Spiritus and The Present. The Present is also surprising sprinkled with Eastern sounds, which only helps to remind me of the George Harrison’s influence on later Beatles music. Another great song that happens to be overtly Beatlesque is the quirky The Story Of The Raven And The Mushroom Man.
With so many beautiful elements of storytelling and ballads throughout the album, I can’t help but feel that Mitchell is often singing personally to me. You often feel you are really involved in a conversation with her. On a personal note, three songs speak volumes to me. They are Walk With Me, Bless This Mess and You Pretty Thing, which arrives very late on the album, arguably something of an homage to New York City.
The acclaimed follow-up to Wonder is everything I thought it would be. Though I have to admit I don’t know why the title track Bless This Mess, as a single didn’t do as well, as anticipated (in terms of chart success). It is rousing and uplifting, and I like to think a slap in the face of Australian Idol judges, who thought that her distinct vocals (suited for folk music) couldn’t change gears or transcend into different genres. It is an outstanding track on which Mitchell shows us that she can actually really pull off performing pop rock!
“I think your love is making me nervous/ The way your eyes holding in backstage/ I’ll find my way from the old road, but I don’t know when/ I think I’m beginning to care.…” – The Boys (Lisa Mitchell)
There was an obvious natural break between Bless This Mess (2012) and her latest album Warriors (2016), where Mitchell took some time away on what she calls her gap year in Europe. After taking time out to travel and even taking hip hop dance classes, Lisa eventually returned to the studio to write and record Warriors. For this album, Mitchell looked into her rearview mirror for inspiration. Mitchell, known for finding inspiration usually in things around her, turned her quest inwards to rediscover her fifteen year old self. The result is brutally honest, raw and quite experimental.
Though, it is probably fair to point out, that the spirit of experimentation started as early a 2013, but definitely in 2014, where songs like The Boys, Warriors and I Remember Love popped up. Synthesisers, electronic beats and gritty bass sounds would largely replace Mitchell’s signature sounds of piano and acoustic guitars. In and around that period Mitchell also recorded and released Wah Ha, which has been said to be her moody “Argh, fuck it!’ song. Interestingly, Mitchell was invited in late 2014 to Los Angeles, where she made her US radio performance premiere. In the studio, with her long time collaborator, Tim Harvey, she nervously wooed KCRW’s host Jason Bentley with some of her new experimental sounds and songs.
“Smoke stories, light and crystal vomit/ Stardust singing out like comets/ Do you feel the sun at night/ Do you see the stars in my eyes….” – Wah Ha (Lisa Mitchell)
I have mentioned in a round about way that this new version of Mitchell and her songs are unashamedly personal. To help her achieve this and the sounds that she was looking for, she recorded warriors with American producer Eric J Dubowsky. He brought to the table his unique synth-pop edge. The fact that both Mitchell and Eric J loved 90’s pop made the collaboration enjoyable.
Early reviews of the album are very positive and it appears Mitchell has delivered in spades. Her music on this album is like a dream, a dream to enrich us about a world that is both real and fictional. The songs Warhol, Josephine and Love, Death X stands as a rousing example of what I am trying to get at.
With Mitchell’s steadfast ability to write from personal experience, the opening track The Boys inspiration, comes from spending a day with a group of male friends. One of their fathers had just passed away and the bond they all shared became the underlying theme for the song. While the title track Warriors is similar in sentiment and is Mitchell’s attempt to remember what it was like to be fifteen again. In the opening verse, Mitchell recalls a vivid memory of hearing Straight Lines by Silverchair for the first time on the bus, echoing those feelings of longing for youth.
There is so much more to like about Warriors and its nice to see Mitchell doesn’t completely abandon her piano and acoustic guitar making What is Love and Where You Are beautiful tributes to love and our planet. Musical standouts are So Wild and I Remember Love, but then again I keep hearing What is Love, an old school mash-up of 1990’s Jewel and 1970’s Joni Mitchell. Finally, I can’t seem to get away from Love, Death X. For this particular track, Mitchell became inspired upon finishing reading the novel The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak.
“I’ve got your wallet and a noose around my neck/ I made these orders venom deep in the hay day/ But it’s a matter for a weakling infant/ Warhol I need you here…” – Warhol (Lisa Mitchell)
How interesting it is that after nearly ten years since her Australian Idol debut, Lisa Mitchell (26) amazingly has still ‘so much to say’! With three studio albums under her belt, the versatility and quality of her work cannot be faulted. Naturally, there will always be those people who lack faith in her. But I think its safe to say that even her knockers or skeptics are all coming around to appreciate the talented Ms. Mitchell. The next obvious question beckons, where to from here? Personal, I would love to ask her that question myself! I also wonder whether she has any views on world politics, climate change or further insight into the human condition. Furthermore, despite modest success in Australia and Europe, I wonder where she has any plans to break into America? Maybe she might decide to channel a new Joni Mitchell vibe there or scale to the heights of Helen Reddy and write a song of female empowerment? Maybe one day she might answer these questions for me. We’ll see.