Words by Neil Boland
Photography by Bonnie Hansen
Ella Hooper is an ever-evolving entity. Her musical trip has taken her from chart-topping pop rock success as a teenager to what she is today — a loved and respected part of the Australian music industry with lots to share about what it is to be a singer songwriter, and more recently, a band leader.
With the ARIA Award-winning Killing Heidi on an indefinite ‘hiatus’ since 2006, Hooper has managed to show that the best thing you can do to survive an ever-changing industry is to continue to be yourself and do what you like.
She has learned to keep her passion alive her own way, which as a consequence, has led her to become an in-demand and endearing presence in the fabric of Australian media through television, radio and live performance.
Hailing from country Victoria, she was part of a seemingly inseparable music creation duo with her brother, guitarist Jesse Hooper. But Killing Heidi was just the beginning. To keep consistent with the old writers’ adage, ‘write what you know’, Hooper has reincarnated herself a few times almost as a different songwriter with each new project.
On Killing Heidi’s Reflector — recorded when she was aged between 14 and 15 — Hooper did write what she knew about, with a band sound that culminated a whole bunch of musical influences from the 1990s.
“I was happy with the songs that I did write. I didn’t try to write epic love songs — I hadn’t even been in love, you know? I hadn’t even had a boyfriend when I was writing a lot of that stuff. So the subject matter was about the age of the crush. But a crush is different to love, so I kept it about school and schoolyard politics, and teen angst with about how out of control of your life you feel, because you’re not yet in control of your life.”
The Hooper siblings’ upbringing was a big influence on them, too. The 90s aside, music from many decades of American song craft was always present in the Violet Town household, thanks to their parents’ record collection.
“I’d always listened to classic singer-songwriter stuff like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison…just beautiful, beautiful music. The classic stuff was always from Mum and Dad, and Jesse, being two years older, and having all of his guy friends, I really wanted to keep up with the Joneses, and hang with the boys.”
Jesse and the boys had a bit of a thing for the heavier side, too. And Ella was paying attention.
“So I listened to everything from Sepultura to Helmet. I really loved heavy rock, so I went back and learnt my rock history with KISS and AC/DC as well. I used to love Garbage and Veruca Salt and Riot Girrl bands, too. And then into my teens it was Smashing Pumpkins. I think Billy Corgan was the best pop/rock songwriter going around. But at the same time I always liked more esoteric and more female-based music like Frente and Tori Amos. I used to call Killing Heidi “grunge-folk”.”
In newer projects since 2006, Hooper has explored vastly different territories in song creation. Ella and Jesse re-dubbed their partnership The Verses in 2009 and put together a different band with a vision to create an Americana-inspired set of songs. The album Seasons is full of rich and warm countrified pop tunes, that steeply tip a hat to the classic singer songwriters of the 1970s.
After this, the grunge pop rock of Killing Heidi seemed done. For Killing Heidi’s style,
Jesse Hooper was quoted as saying he’d “already scratched that itch.”
And Ella agreed.
“Oh, totally. As I said, I felt I was a bit burnt out on pop. And I was particularly burnt out on rock. But pop, to me, means something that’s really listenable.”
The new era brought in a deeper and longer history of song craft influence to the table. It was back to Mum and Dad’s records. And a new sound instrumentation-wise was on the cards.
“We fell in love with that era of music and made a record that was influenced by it production-wise, too. I just didn’t want any big clashy wall of guitars, so we got into everything from Fleetwood Mac to America and The Eagles…I just love the way that music speaks of the past, and has a sense of history to it. I love it. And then we ended up getting to support Fleetwood Mac. It’s almost like we manifested that opportunity. I mean, frankly I didn’t know they were still together let alone touring!”
Like any musician, whether they admit it or not, there is a certain amount of perfectionist in them. The pursuit of this new sound came with a learning curve for Hooper and any aspiring musician wanting to sound a certain way on record. While the album’s content is warm on the heart, the production is slick and crystal clear.
“It’s actually one of my criticisms of it,” says Hooper.
“It’s a bit easy listening. We got the producer Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Richard Thompson, Pearl Jam) and I was a fan of his early albums. I was like, ‘Oh my God, Mitchell Froom!’, referencing the stuff he did in the 80s and 90s, but I should have listened to the stuff he’d done more recently, which is a lot smoother, more contemporary. I mean, I’m proud of The Verses record, but to my ears, it’s a bit smooth.”
The Verses project also manifested other opportunities for Hooper. Her adaptability with song writing led to her long-running association with the Telstra Road to Discovery, a program for new and aspiring young musicians, as a mentor, host and MC.
“I was asked to come along to sing one song as a guest at The Basement in Sydney with one of their artists who really liked The Verses record, and from there I said, ‘Hey this program looks amazing. It actually looks really genuine.’ And I hadn’t heard much about it, but I could see what they were doing was really good. The opportunities they were giving these guys were the right opportunities, not just some bullcrap just to look good in the industry. It’s genuine. And so I’ve been working with them for about four years now. My role in it has grown more and more and I really love it.”
With all of this running in the background, Hooper has still had the time to think about the next thing. And the next thing after that. Her most recent release, In Tongues, is almost a musical summary of her career so far. The album was also the first real solo record she had done, having written an entire record without collaborating with brother Jesse. The music is ultra-fresh, as Hooper blends her inspirations seamlessly into something of her own.
Hooper’s songwriting process is still simple: alone with an acoustic guitar or a piano. Even with the wall of electronica on In Tongues, studio tricks and layered parts are always the icing on the simple guitar song cake.
“I always write on acoustic guitar. But I wanted to find a bit of that rawness that I felt was missing with The Verses, and always missing with Killing Heidi, being very polished. I wanted to find the grit of bands like The Kills, and electronic acts with a bit of a darkness to them like The Knife, or Portishead or Massive Attack.”
On paper, these ingredients would have a listener expecting to hear something very derivative of the 90s, but the end result is very now. It can take time for a musician as a listener to process influences for the benefit of their work, and Hooper is no exception.
“It’s just that it takes longer for me. I don’t like to reference recent things. I like to reference things that I have gone deep into and come out the other side. I think if you reference contemporary things all the time, you run the risk of sounding like everyone else and blanding out. I don’t sound like Massive Attack and I don’t sound like Tricky. So when people say they didn’t really hear that in the recording, I say, ‘Good! I want it to sound like me.’”
The road to releasing In Tongues wasn’t exactly a smooth one. But the challenges were both an inspiration and hindrance to its release in late 2014. The album staggered out over a one year period, with the gradual release of two singles, which acted as a catalyst for a crowd funding campaign for the album. During this time, there was a relationship breakup going on, which while creating stress, brought some lyrical inspiration in.
While the crowd funding was essentially a success, it can be difficult for an artist to come up with the goods once so many people have put their faith and money where their mouth is. A longing for getting it right had Hooper running back and forth to the Smith St studio to make sure the final product was right.
Hooper says to budding recording artists, “Don’t do what I’ve done. Do exactly the opposite of what I’ve done with In Tongues. The way we released it was not intentional. It was a tricky situation with my commitments and a few things happened with the recording process itself. We had to go back to the studio several times to fix things. I learnt so much.”
A life-long musical hero was also inspiration for the record: PJ Harvey. The influence is apparent, but again, not lumbering around as a mere impersonation.
“She’s probably my absolute favourite, number one artist. She wasn’t consciously on my list of sounds I wanted to emulate, but the eeriness she’s been conveying in the last five, ten years, has been from being a powerful wise woman. In esoteric literature, they’d call her a crone, powerfully intelligent, like a female wise man. I feel like PJ Harvey is just kicking arse as a crone. She’s better than she’s ever been.”
Again, not afraid to wear her heroes on her sleeve, Hooper looked also to Harvey for lyrical inspiration.
“Lyrically, she’s very powerful and very poetic. I’m a very big fan of poetry and writing, so as I get older I’m trying to push my writing maybe away from the knee-jerk reaction style where it used to be, ‘I’m so pissed off, so I’m just gonna write this song about how I feel’ and make it more like actual writing.”
For a songwriter who has been at it for a while, it took some time for Hooper to recognise her own progress. But an artist can often just ‘know it’, when an apparent shift in standards raises its head.
“I think the first time I really felt like my writing had taken a bit of a jump was maybe with ‘Winter’, on The Verses album. I wrote it alone on acoustic guitar, and I showed it to Jesse and he said, ‘Damn, El, that’s really good!’ And I felt like it was a step forward for me, and I was proud of it. Now I’m always trying to find those moments. I’m always writing, and I’m always thinking every good song is the last good song I’ll ever write.”
Immunity from writers’ block is not a thing for Hooper either, despite real repeated success with the acoustic guitar and pencil. But true to the cliche, some of the best ideas can come with the least amount of effort.
“You’ve gotta live. I wait for real experiences or real moments of beauty. I think some people have the ability to be craftsmen, where they’ll sit in a room with a piano or guitar and craft a song like crafting a chunk of wood, but some of the songs that I’ve written that have affected other people the most have just fallen out, because you’re not getting in the way of the song. You’re doing something sort of simple and true.”
Hooper has also embraced simplicity when trying to write good lyrics — especially lyrics that are easy to sing.
“It’s about flow. I think it’s gotta feel natural. One of my pet peeves is lyrics that feel clunky, because of the phonetics. You’ve got to forego even a great, clever word if it just sounds shit. You just go with the simpler word that sounds good. It’s a song, it’s meant to be nice on the ear.”
On In Tongues, ‘Everything Was a Sign’, a song inspired by a relationship breakup, is a particular standout for the craft getting along with the art.
“That was like another ‘Winter’ moment. I wasn’t sure if it was going to fit onto In Tongues, but I followed it anyway. I see it as a backwards love song, like one of those movies where the story is told backwards. You’re seeing things come undone, and then going back to the beautiful bit at the start. With fate, I do get signs, positive and negative. It kind of sums up the whole album, really.”
With the studio door still swinging from the December 2014 release of In Tongues, Ella Hooper is already planning the next release. Or two.
Recently, on Hooper’s Facebook page, she has already announced the beginnings of writing sessions and a hint that she’s already got material on the boil.
“I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s basically going to be in two parts, allowing myself two subject matters. Maybe in two separate EPs or packaged together as a pair, I’m not sure. It’s kind of me saying goodbye to the In Tongues era, so one part could very well be me paying my respects to it, and the other part could likely be future, future, future.”
So how does a songwriter write in future tense? It could be, in Hooper’s case, seeing things in a new light that creates imaginings.
“I’m a pretty good fantasist. I spent a lot of time thinking about what could be. I’m also sentimental about the future, if that makes sense? I’ve found my power in the last couple of years, and I didn’t express it on In Tongues. Now I don’t have the distraction of trying to fix things outside of my music, I’ve realised now that, whoa, I grew up! I’m a woman now, and I dig it, I really dig it. I’ll be talking about those beautiful surprises that manifest when you’re on the right track.”
And the track leads to Violet Town, back to the folks’ place, where it all began. Away from the shouts and tram-dinging of the Collingwood recording session atmosphere, Hooper is certain about the environment change having a possible effect on the upcoming release’s atmosphere.
“We’ve got a beautiful space at my Mum’s house that we can write and record in. It’s full of positive energy. It’s somewhere where people will walk in and are struck by the good vibes. That’s the mood and energy that I want. Not like – although it’s where my head was at the time – the craziness of Smith St.”
Forever humble, Hooper is quick to point out, despite her musical growth, to be anywhere near perfect with having one true method for writing music.
“I don’t really have any methods. I have a friend who just attended a Pat Pattison songwriting course and he was raving about it and I was feeling like a bit of a fraud, because here I am, an award-winning songwriter of fifteen years, and I didn’t know what he was talking about, haha.”
Now, with mentoring other songwriters, along with the breathing space afforded by emotional hindsight, Ella Hooper is again ready for another learning curve which her fans will gladly tag along for the ride. She’s quietly affirmative about what she’s learnt from her experiences.
“There’s craft and there’s inspiration and you learn what works. Everyone can agree on things that don’t feel or sound right. I’m in a position now where I can help other people with this. It could be as simple as changing a ‘you’, ‘me’, or an ‘I’.
“That’s why I love music. There’s so much to try.”
Keep up to date with all things Ella via https://twitter.com/ella_hooper