Words by Neil Boland
Photography by Indya Connley
These days, a songwriter who also performs his or her own songs is not so much engaging in a dying art, but is residing in a less-visible space in the current sphere of popular music. The hits of today seem to appear from nowhere, carried by a glossy vehicle of fashion and faux PR, with absolutely no hint of who penned them.
But despite how dismal it may look, millions of people will continue to discover the craft of artists in classic and contemporary worlds, from Bob Dylan to James Bay, from Carole King to Lorde, for decades to come. They might even pick up a guitar and sing. And it’s evolving artists like that who carry the craft with thoughtfulness and gig-gained stage chops.
Melbourne singer-songwriter Liz Stringer started where most do — cranking out the tunes socially for a hobby. Years later, she now maintains a tireless performing schedule sustained ever since she found her feet. Today, she has carved her own groove in the Australian music scene as an established storyteller-deluxe.
The knack of holding an audience captive with a song’s story is something that Stringer has been almost inadvertently incubating via osmosis since her early life. No matter the art, it’s the communication of it that matters. In Stringer’s case, having an arts-driven family hasn’t hurt at all.
“My Dad’s a retired music teacher and a really good musician. My sister’s a music teacher now and my brother’s done a lot of theatre and singing — he sang at St Paul’s Cathedral for years when he was little. And my Mum was an English and literature teacher, so there’s lots of writers and musicians on both sides.”
When looking back for the dominant influential genre on her writing, Stringer’s hindsight is clear. “It’s probably folk. Dad loves Irish folk music, particularly. But there were a lot of influences that were not contemporary around the house. There was a lot of classical and a lot of choral music. My family’s actually agnostic, but Dad kind of grew up in the Methodist church, so there were a lot of old hymns and beautiful music like that.”
So what does an agnostic gain from the music of the church? Lyrically, Stringer’s gospel seems to be more about imperfect characters of our time, not toga-clad born-again believers of ancient times.
“I think I learned a sense of melody from it. It’s quite emotional, lyrical music. It still now really affects me when I listen to that sort of stuff. So yeah, it had a very deep influence, I’d say.”
When Stringer first started to put words to chords, her inspirations were from a wide-view musical lens, on top of the usual songwriter suspects.
“Having a couple of Beach Boys records and a couple of Beatles records that pretty much everyone had in the seventies was a lot of it. You know, John Denver, etcetera…that, and the more earnest folk sort of stuff. But then when I started playing guitar, friends of mine were playing Hendrix records, Led Zeppelin. And Jeff Buckley was kind of huge when I started play guitar, too, so early to mid-nineties kind of stuff, when Nirvana were really big.
“But I played piano first. I sort of, taught myself a few chords. And then I started playing guitar when I was about fifteen. I used to write songs on piano. Just little things, so never really full-formed songs.”
Despite the musical climate of the nineties, Stringer was no wagon-hopper.
“I never wrote songs in the Nirvana vein necessarily, but I really loved, like, Alice in Chains and those sort of bands,” says Stringer. The impact of the more song-orientated heavy rock groups of the early nineties was noted by Stringer, despite not exclusively dipping into that well for her ideas. “Those Unplugged albums were massive, you know?”
During this interview, Nirvana’s Unplugged cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” fills the air in the Brunswick pub’s beer garden. Right on cue…
Since her first album release in 2006, Liz Stringer’s lyrical imagery has placed listeners firmly into other people’s shoes, with stories of all aspects of life — average Joe experiences that anyone can relate to. Not one to shoe-gaze Stringer finds themes outside of herself, beautifully blurring the lines between first person and third person narration, perception and interpretation.
“These days I write mostly from another person’s perspective. But the songs are not always necessarily literal representations of someone else. I take on another voice to tell a story if I need to. So it’s like first person but these days, it’s very rarely my stuff in the song. Although, having said that, recently the lyrics have come a little bit more from my own experience. But even if it is my stuff – and I don’t know whether it’s because I feel exposed or not – I like to disguise it as being about someone else.”
Assuming character roles to tell a story also helps listeners relate to it.
“The sort of music that I play is under a broad, kind of folk umbrella. It’s story-based; you’re talking about shared human experience. And I find it’s less accessible if you’re going, ‘me, me, me, me, me…’I can put it on the table so other people can approach it their own way.”
Stringer doesn’t entirely write-off her own experiences as good lyric fodder, but she likes to keep her options as wide open as possible.
“I don’t think the confessional style is a bad way to write, but I naturally don’t go there so much. A lot of my stuff is other people’s stuff.”
Occasionally Stringer will feel like she’s skirting the perimeter of privacy for a chosen subject, but she doesn’t let it deter her. Sometimes all it takes is a simple conversation with the person, for a blessing to go ahead and tell their story. It’s apparent that her subjects are close to her and have faith that the level of being too literal is kept on a short rein.
“A couple of times I’ve asked permission to write about someone. But most of the time, many listeners naturally assume that you’re writing about yourself anyway. They’ll even say, ‘I didn’t know you were born in Brisbane!’ or, ‘I didn’t know you had eight kids!’”
While often a difficult thing to achieve Stringer cites a stricter self-imposed standard developed after early experiences with a more ‘stream of consciousness’ writing style.
Editing has become a good friend.
“I draft a lot more now,” says Stringer.
“In some ways my early stuff was a lot more fluid, probably because I wasn’t self-conscious about it or something. But there are a couple of songs from my first album where I’m like, ‘Grrrr, that’s almost a really good song, but if had just drafted a couple of the lines it would have been way better.’ Now, I’m really mindful of trying to really tighten things up.”
The napkin-scrawled folklore of how many songs came to be in a matter of minutes is a classic point of reference for many a muso and fan conversation. And these lyrics have inspired many to write in a similar way, almost becoming textbook lessons in what works. But lyric writing can borrow many things from the literary world too. Stringer makes her stories come alive by the use of one writing tool that triggers the imagination of the listener in a way that creates an almost personally customised experience while hearing them.
“I now try to use language in an interesting way, and try to use it to its full potential. Trying to say something like, ‘I love you’ or something that’s equally quite as arbitrary is a challenge. So I like to come at it from different angles by saying its ‘like this’ or ‘like that’, just to make it feel less like it’s been said a million times.”
With metaphors in a songwriter’s bag of tricks one can enrich an otherwise standard sentiment in a fresh way. Stringer’s passion for words is obvious in her music.
“I love language and there’s always almost without exception a better way of saying things. And what I love about song writing is that while there is only a limited amount of words, each one of those words can matter. Not to suggest that I’ve mastered that at all, but I’m way more mindful of it now. It’s more of a craft now than it used to be for me — from being just a form of expression to learning to work on it a bit harder, too.”
With techniques, art can often benefit from a balanced use of them. Before a song’s lyrics go down an almost un-interpretable road of abstract obscureness, Stringer knows that using metaphor usually works better when surrounded by simplicity. You should also know when it’s time to just say what you mean.
“Not everything can be a metaphor,” says Stringer.
“It’s more about lines supporting lines. It’s funny — I’m trying to finish this song at the moment, and there’s two really, really good metaphors that are kind of similar, and they’re in the same verse. I can’t use them both, because they’re going to cancel each other out. Strangely enough I can’t sort of seem to use the discarded metaphor again in another song. I’m thinking, ‘this is the one time that you can do this, so make the right decision!’”
Reading deeper into Stringer’s lyrical leanings brings on a realisation for her. Perhaps this revelation can be traced back to her early exposure to Biblical themes? Again, it’s up to her listeners to interpret it their own way, but one can’t help notice a baptismal thread, no matter how thinly traced.
“People have quite rightly pointed out that I use a lot of water metaphors. You know, oceans and rivers and rain. I wasn’t sure whether I should feel paranoid by an observation like that [laughs]. But then I thought, ‘that’s true’.”
There are differing environments in which songwriters find the headspace to create. Often, you’ll hear stories of song writing being the perfect lonely hotel room pastime. On the other hand, some prefer the peace and stability of time spent at home. Despite frequent shows around the country Liz Stringer is a Melbourne homebody at heart who rarely writes what she sees there and then on the road, preferring to process experiences more before getting the notepad out.
So Stringer doesn’t beat herself up over not having a time-based quota of creative output met. It happens when it happens.
“I don’t generally have a lot of downtime. But if do I just wanna sleep, or watch some inane bullshit on YouTube or iTunes. And the downtime is not often ‘alone’ time. It’s only when I’ve got a room to myself and a few hours.
“I think my relationship with writing has changed since I started doing music full time. And I think that in some ways I don’t ever want to consciously tell myself, ‘I think you should write a song. It’s been a while,’ you know? Although, sometimes I feel like I need to do that because I’ve been playing guitar all week instead of writing. But I feel like a need has been met, so I don’t sit down and write so much.”
Lyrically, a lot can be said of the fruits of a bit of travelling. It gives Stringer a glimpse into people’s lives, no matter where they lived, and the common experiences are universal.
“I might be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve written about somewhere that I haven’t been. You’ve gotta have some sort of authority, I guess. Even having been somewhere only once — it still helps you write with more authenticity, even if it isn’t your story. So I think that’s what touring does. As opposed to writing on the road, I fill up the ‘banks’ on the road and write later.”
So what does Liz Stringer think of how far she’s progressed as a composer? Despite the completeness of songs such as those found on her most recent studio album Warm in the Darkness and her Live at the Yarra compilation, she observes her own work through humbly objective eyes.
“If anything — it’s become harder. I realise that the more you know there’s a lot more you don’t know. It’s still just self-expression, but now I have higher expectations of what I think’s a good song and what I want to put out for people to hear.”