An Interview with Melbourne Folk local, Anna Cordell
Holly Bodeker-Smith | On 19, Jun 2015
Melbournian Folk singer Anna Cordell is three weeks into a month-long residency at the Grace Darling Hotel. The Creative Issue speaks to her about nostalgia, not being a storyteller, and her family tree.
Anna Cordell felt compelled to make music from a young age. She grew up on the Mornington Peninsula with her grandparents, spending most of her time wandering freely across their vast block of land. She reflects on this period with an eager delicacy; recalling the introspective, meditative state of mind that she drifted in throughout her childhood.
Over coffee, Annaâ€™s contagious sense of ease captures me; it is clear that she has encountered a solace seldom experienced by city folk. She recalls to me how she fit perfectly in the background throughout her school years. She played keyboard, piano and guitar, though never took centre stage. At 22, while she was still pursuing an Undergraduate degree in music, she gave her passion up altogether to have her first daughter.
Over the last ten years Cordell has spent most of her time raising her four girls, and pursuing a successful career in fashion. Though it seems fashion was bound to slip from her agenda at some point, she says it never felt so natural to her as music did.
She recently returned to the Melbourne folk scene with her debut song, Iâ€™ll Wait Here, and a refreshed sense of purpose.
Iâ€™ll Wait Here teeters between a number of themes: rampant, unpredictable love, and the yearning child in all of us. Though perhaps more than anything, it is an expression of Cordellâ€™s return to her most persistent passion. The drive that she thought she had lost altogether has returned with a steadfast urgency. It manifests in a pressing nostalgia that demands equal parts of attention and expression. With her tender,Â yet modulated vocals, Cordell makes her long-awaited debut in the spotlight.
TCI: So, how was last night?
Anna Cordell: It was great! We had a pretty much full room, which was cool. I was a bitÂ worried in week one, I thought maybe all of my friends would come to that one andÂ then the rest of the shows would be dead. But Iâ€™m actually getting quite a few strangers showingÂ up to my gigs now, which has been awesome!
TCI: Whatâ€™s it like doing a gig for you now?
Anna Cordell: It’s still a bit terrifying. Iâ€™ve been gigging around Melbourne for a couple of years now. I did itÂ when I was younger, and then I just quit cold turkey. I didnâ€™t cope with itÂ when I was younger. I got really nervous, I was so much more self conscious. I was far more concerned with how I was coming across. Whereas, itâ€™s easier now because I actually just give less of a shit (she laughs). Iâ€™m really just at the pointÂ where, my motivation for doing it is that I just want to do it. Itâ€™s not like I want to beÂ a musician to be on the front page of a magazine. Having been away from it for soÂ long, I had to reassess what I really loved about it.
TCI: Did you always think that you would return to it?
Anna Cordell: No. I felt like it was something that I had, and that Iâ€™d just lost. That was because I had played music so consistently up until I had my first child, and then IÂ stopped so suddenly. I thought Iâ€™d lost my skill, that it was all over and I wouldnâ€™tÂ be able to do it again. I definitely had a real sense of loss for that. I worked in fashionÂ for about eight years, and that kept me creatively busy. But it wasnâ€™t quite the same.Â I have always loved clothes but it didnâ€™t feel as much like me.
TCI: It must have been pretty crazy coming back and receiving such a good reception,Â did you expect that?
Anna Cordell: I definitely knew that I had much better material, that my songs were a lot better.Â But I didnâ€™t know if anyone would be interested in that. I felt more confident in myself.Â The positive response to that was a total surprise, however.
TCI: How do you, for lack of a better word, justify your commitment to music?
Anna Cordell: Thatâ€™s kind of the biggest struggle. While I am at a stage in my life where I just donâ€™tÂ care because itâ€™s what I want to do, I also have all of these responsibilities. I haveÂ four kids, weâ€™re living on a single-income, my husbandâ€™s a carpenter. So two things IÂ do now are raise my kids and music; two things that make no money. So in a societyÂ where we value things for their financial incentive, itâ€™s really hard to see value inÂ what you do, if youâ€™re not getting any of that financial reward from it. But withÂ music, I find its purpose in really trying to find meaning in my songs. That drives meÂ to give my songs a purpose, to really dig a bit deeper and give them a real point.
TCI: What are you trying to write about? When you sit down to write, are you drawingÂ directly from human experience, or does it just come out?
Anna Cordell: I never really thought of myself as a folk singer, but thatâ€™s where I seemed to have fitÂ in. Although, most folk songwriters are storytellers, so Iâ€™ve tried really hard to doÂ that kind of writing. But I just canâ€™t do it. Music for me is much more of a meditativeÂ and reflective process. Itâ€™s how I reflect on life and try to sort things out in my ownÂ head. Sometimes that might be observing someone, but it usually comes from thatÂ place of searching.
Do you think that your childhood has inspired your writing quite a lot?
Anna Cordell: Yes, absolutely. My grandparents brought me up, in a very spiritual and religiousÂ household. And now my childhood feels quite detached, I never realised how rareÂ that kind of experience was. I was an only child, pretty much brought up by myÂ grandparents on a bush block property. I spent a lot of time just wandering around.Â And I mustâ€™ve done a lot of meditating in that, just naturally. Then I went away fromÂ that, I got caught up in the mess of life and went into that kind of escapism, theÂ workaholic, OCD kind of thing. And I escaped from the sort of meditative state that IÂ was in throughout my childhood. And I eventually got to a point where I felt myÂ inner child going, â€œIâ€™m still here! Give me some attention!â€ (She laughs).
TCI: Do you go back home very often? Surely that must have an impact on your songwriting?
Anna Cordell: Well that house doesnâ€™t exist anymore. I grew up on theÂ Peninsula and my whole family has left there now. But I definitely have a lot ofÂ nostalgia going on. The music is the thing that has always been there, so I guessÂ thatâ€™s how I go home, in a way.
TCI: Did you have a musical family?
Anna Cordell: My Grandmother was a concert pianist, until the day she got married, and then sheÂ never touched it again. And her sister was an incredible violinist. But she quit for theÂ day she entered the convent. Iâ€™ve got all of these family members, especiallyÂ women, who were beautiful musicians. It was the kind of music that they would playÂ and it would just make you want to cry because it was so beautiful. And they all gave it up cold turkey. My auntÂ who was a cellist, she gave that up too. She once told me that sheÂ used to visit our great-aunt who was the Nun. This was really close to when she wasÂ dying, and she said that her only regret in life was giving up the violin. So that hasÂ always sort of been my drive as well. It makes me not able to give up. Every time I getÂ tempted to give up I just remind myself of that, and tell myself to keep going.
TCI: I guess that almost is what justifies it, do you almost feel like you have to do it?
Anna Cordell: Yeah, definitely! Because I think that anyone who has that creative urge, theyÂ actually do have to do it. Otherwise you just get seriously depressed. If you squash it,Â itâ€™s squashing who you are and it doesnâ€™t work at all.
TCI: Do you remember when you realised that you wanted to be a musician?Â
Anna Cordell: Primary school (she laughs). I was always obsessed with music but I was reallyÂ undisciplined. I tried to do the classical thing; I did classical piano in school. But I wasÂ quite lazy, so it didnâ€™t really happen. And at the schools that I went to, all of the girlsÂ who were musical were pop singers. So I was always just playing instruments in theÂ background, sitting back and thinking (she whispers) â€œI really wanna sing!â€ (sheÂ laughs).
Finally, third year of uni I started singing lessons, partly as therapy and it was such a good experience. Actually, that was probably the moment. I hadÂ this beautiful, giant man for a teacher who used to be an international opera singer. Â He just had so much presence. I would go in there, and my voice wouldnâ€™t beÂ right and he would say, â€œYouâ€™re depressed today.â€ Heâ€™d know everything about meÂ just from the way that I was singing. He drew me out and got me comfortable withÂ singing. So from there it was like, â€œI can do it.â€ He gave me the ability to actuallyÂ express myself. So that was probably the most exciting moment. I think withÂ anything, you need that one person, a teacher, or a mentor, who has faith in you.Â That can make a huge difference. It didnâ€™t happen to me until I was about 20.
TCI: Amazing! Have you spoken to him since you started again?
Anna Cordell: No, he lives in Sydney now. I did one year of university in Sydney. And heÂ actually got really cranky at me. He wanted me to go and study opera at uni. IÂ applied and I got in and everything. And then, my boyfriend was back in Melbourne,Â so I really wanted to stay in Melbourne. And he got really cranky and kind of didnâ€™tÂ want to talk to me anymore (she laughs). He was a very dramatic, kind-of, operaÂ man. (she laughs). But Iâ€™m definitely going to send him my EP when itâ€™s done.
TCI: Do you have a routine where you sit down to write?Â
Anna Cordell: I do kind of rely a bit on that inspiration moment. But these days they getÂ interrupted a lot. I wrote one of my favourite songs when I was watching my kids inÂ the bath. Because I used to just sit down and play guitar while they played in theÂ bath. Now Iâ€™ll get bits and pieces of ideas. And I love my iPhone, because Iâ€™ll quickly record it and then sit down and stick the little bits together later. ThoughÂ lately, the lyrics have been really hard work. Iâ€™ve had a couple where it just all comesÂ out. But Iâ€™m accepting now that you have to work really hard on lyrics, you donâ€™t justÂ wait for the inspiration. You wait for the initial inspiration, for the general idea.
At the moment Iâ€™m trying to practice writing poetry, which is a really hard thing to doÂ because Iâ€™ve never done it before. And Iâ€™ve started reading some poetry, EmilyÂ Dickinson and Rupert Brooke. I havenâ€™t found the right modern ones yet; I’d like to because IÂ find a lot of the classics too flowery. I grew up in a house where there was no book written past 1950. So I know nothing about modern literature. And I kind of go into a bookshopÂ now where itâ€™s all modern stuff and Iâ€™ve got this little voice in my head going, â€œitâ€™s allÂ crap! Itâ€™s all rubbish! The classics!â€ (she laughs.) I really want to hone my skills in poetry. Iâ€™m just not a storyteller, poetry is more myÂ thing. The rhythm of it comes naturally to me, and I love the fact that it goes soÂ beautifully with music. I think really, poetry compared to 100 years ago when it wasÂ in the newspaper every week, it has worked its way into singer-songwriter now.
TCI: I loved the video clip for Iâ€™ll Wait Here; the concept behind it really intrigued me.Â But Iâ€™m curious; because it does tell a story, and you tell me youâ€™re not aÂ storyteller?
Anna Cordell: Maybe visually I can do it, but I feel like I canâ€™t tell the story with words. That song was originally about a friend, whom I could tell wasÂ going to leave her partner. She kept breaking up with him and he was just waiting patiently. It was reminding me of my relationship with my now husband. InÂ our early days I was like that, buggering off all the time and he was just always there.Â So thatâ€™s where the concept for the song came from. But after singing it for a while,Â and once I started thinking about a video for it, it changed meanings.Â It became more of a spiritual idea. Itâ€™s like: this Iâ€™ll Wait person, is your betterÂ self. Within that, there is the idea that weâ€™ve all got a greater self that we are calledÂ to be. And itâ€™s always there, no matter how far off the rails you go. So itÂ was kind of cool how even just for me, the song totally changed meanings. Then itÂ reminded me of this vague thing of Jesus saying to be as children. AndÂ now that Iâ€™ve got kids I thought, “well what is it about kids?” Cause kids have tantrumsÂ all the time (she laughs). Then I thought, no it means that theÂ child is who you really are, that is your true self. So thatâ€™s where the kids came into itÂ in that video. That symbolism of that baptism; of starting again and being able toÂ have a fresh start, and being in touch again with that childhood.
TCI: Can you give us a hint of what to expect from you in the future?
Anna Cordell: I’m getting so close to having the EP finished. I’ve been recording it with Dave Manton who is a brilliant producer, he’s really managed to get the best out of me, and he records so beautifully.Â I’m launching that with the band; Sarina walter (violin), James (bass/ Dobro guitar) Jesse Martin (cello)Â In Melbourne at little and Olver on Sat 29th of August.Â I’m currently looking at other spots to launch as well. I’d say Sydney will happen, but I’ll have to negotiate with my family about how far we can take it! (My youngest is only 3 so I’m a little limited with touring at this point)
We’ll be hopping into the folk festival circuit later in the year, and still gigging around Melbourne and it’s outskirts.
There’s another video in the works now, and there will be more to come I’d say, I love the format so much.
I just hope I can do enough with this EP to be able to keep making music!
Anna’s month-long residency at The Grace DarlingÂ is running from 7:30pm every Thursday in June. Entry is $7.
Photography by Sarah Enticknap