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The Creative Issue – News for Creatives | November 27, 2020

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An Interview with Melbourne Folk local, Anna Cordell

An Interview with Melbourne Folk local, Anna Cordell

| 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, Anna’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, I’ll Wait Here, and a refreshed sense of purpose.

I’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 Cordell’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, 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 bit worried in week one, I thought maybe all of my friends would come to that one and then the rest of the shows would be dead. But I’m actually getting quite a few strangers showing up to my gigs now, which has been awesome!

TCI: What’s it like doing a gig for you now?

Anna Cordell: It’s still a bit terrifying. I’ve been gigging around Melbourne for a couple of years now. I did it when I was younger, and then I just quit cold turkey. I didn’t cope with it 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, it’s easier now because I actually just give less of a shit (she laughs). I’m really just at the point where, my motivation for doing it is that I just want to do it. It’s not like I want to be a musician to be on the front page of a magazine. Having been away from it for so 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 I’d just lost. That was because I had played music so consistently up until I had my first child, and then I stopped so suddenly. I thought I’d lost my skill, that it was all over and I wouldn’t be able to do it again. I definitely had a real sense of loss for that. I worked in fashion for about eight years, and that kept me creatively busy. But it wasn’t quite the same. I have always loved clothes but it didn’t feel as much like me.

TCI: It must have been pretty crazy coming back and receiving such a good reception, did you expect that?

Anna Cordell: I definitely knew that I had much better material, that my songs were a lot better. But I didn’t know if anyone would be interested in that. I felt more confident in myself. 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: That’s kind of the biggest struggle. While I am at a stage in my life where I just don’t care because it’s what I want to do, I also have all of these responsibilities. I have four kids, we’re living on a single-income, my husband’s a carpenter. So two things I do now are raise my kids and music; two things that make no money. So in a society where we value things for their financial incentive, it’s really hard to see value in what you do, if you’re not getting any of that financial reward from it. But with music, I find its purpose in really trying to find meaning in my songs. That drives me 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 drawing directly from human experience, or does it just come out?

Anna Cordell: I never really thought of myself as a folk singer, but that’s where I seemed to have fit in. Although, most folk songwriters are storytellers, so I’ve tried really hard to do that kind of writing. But I just can’t do it. Music for me is much more of a meditative and reflective process. It’s how I reflect on life and try to sort things out in my own head. Sometimes that might be observing someone, but it usually comes from that 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 religious household. And now my childhood feels quite detached, I never realised how rare that kind of experience was. I was an only child, pretty much brought up by my grandparents on a bush block property. I spent a lot of time just wandering around. And I must’ve done a lot of meditating in that, just naturally. Then I went away from that, I got caught up in the mess of life and went into that kind of escapism, the workaholic, OCD kind of thing. And I escaped from the sort of meditative state that I was in throughout my childhood. And I eventually got to a point where I felt my inner child going, “I’m still here! Give me some attention!” (She laughs).

TCI: Do you go back home very often? Surely that must have an impact on your songwriting?

Anna Cordell: Well that house doesn’t exist anymore. I grew up on the Peninsula and my whole family has left there now. But I definitely have a lot of nostalgia going on. The music is the thing that has always been there, so I guess that’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 she never touched it again. And her sister was an incredible violinist. But she quit for the day she entered the convent. I’ve got all of these family members, especially women, who were beautiful musicians. It was the kind of music that they would play and it would just make you want to cry because it was so beautiful. And they all gave it up cold turkey. My aunt who was a cellist, she gave that up too. She once told me that she used to visit our great-aunt who was the Nun. This was really close to when she was dying, and she said that her only regret in life was giving up the violin. So that has always sort of been my drive as well. It makes me not able to give up. Every time I get 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, they actually do have to do it. Otherwise you just get seriously depressed. If you squash it, it’s squashing who you are and it doesn’t work at all.

TCI: Do you remember when you realised that you wanted to be a musician? 

Anna Cordell: Primary school (she laughs). I was always obsessed with music but I was really undisciplined. I tried to do the classical thing; I did classical piano in school. But I was quite lazy, so it didn’t really happen. And at the schools that I went to, all of the girls who were musical were pop singers. So I was always just playing instruments in the background, sitting back and thinking (she whispers) “I really wanna sing!” (she 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 had this beautiful, giant man for a teacher who used to be an international opera singer.  He just had so much presence. I would go in there, and my voice wouldn’t be right and he would say, “You’re depressed today.” He’d know everything about me just from the way that I was singing. He drew me out and got me comfortable with singing. So from there it was like, “I can do it.” He gave me the ability to actually express myself. So that was probably the most exciting moment. I think with anything, you need that one person, a teacher, or a mentor, who has faith in you. That can make a huge difference. It didn’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 he actually got really cranky at me. He wanted me to go and study opera at uni. I applied and I got in and everything. And then, my boyfriend was back in Melbourne, so I really wanted to stay in Melbourne. And he got really cranky and kind of didn’t want to talk to me anymore (she laughs). He was a very dramatic, kind-of, opera man. (she laughs). But I’m definitely going to send him my EP when it’s done.

TCI: Do you have a routine where you sit down to write? 

Anna Cordell: I do kind of rely a bit on that inspiration moment. But these days they get interrupted a lot. I wrote one of my favourite songs when I was watching my kids in the bath. Because I used to just sit down and play guitar while they played in the bath. Now I’ll get bits and pieces of ideas. And I love my iPhone, because I’ll quickly record it and then sit down and stick the little bits together later. Though lately, the lyrics have been really hard work. I’ve had a couple where it just all comes out. But I’m accepting now that you have to work really hard on lyrics, you don’t just wait for the inspiration. You wait for the initial inspiration, for the general idea.

At the moment I’m trying to practice writing poetry, which is a really hard thing to do because I’ve never done it before. And I’ve started reading some poetry, Emily Dickinson and Rupert Brooke. I haven’t found the right modern ones yet; I’d like to because I 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 bookshop now where it’s all modern stuff and I’ve got this little voice in my head going, “it’s all crap! It’s all rubbish! The classics!” (she laughs.) I really want to hone my skills in poetry. I’m just not a storyteller, poetry is more my thing. The rhythm of it comes naturally to me, and I love the fact that it goes so beautifully with music. I think really, poetry compared to 100 years ago when it was in the newspaper every week, it has worked its way into singer-songwriter now.

TCI: I loved the video clip for I’ll Wait Here; the concept behind it really intrigued me. But I’m curious; because it does tell a story, and you tell me you’re not a storyteller?

Anna Cordell: Maybe visually I can do it, but I feel like I can’t tell the story with words. That song was originally about a friend, whom I could tell was 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. In our early days I was like that, buggering off all the time and he was just always there. So that’s where the concept for the song came from. But after singing it for a while, and once I started thinking about a video for it, it changed meanings. It became more of a spiritual idea. It’s like: this I’ll Wait person, is your better self. Within that, there is the idea that we’ve all got a greater self that we are called to be. And it’s always there, no matter how far off the rails you go. So it was kind of cool how even just for me, the song totally changed meanings. Then it reminded me of this vague thing of Jesus saying to be as children. And now that I’ve got kids I thought, “well what is it about kids?” Cause kids have tantrums all the time (she laughs). Then I thought, no it means that the child is who you really are, that is your true self. So that’s where the kids came into it in that video. That symbolism of that baptism; of starting again and being able to 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. I’m launching that with the band; Sarina walter (violin), James (bass/ Dobro guitar) Jesse Martin (cello) In Melbourne at little and Olver on Sat 29th of August. 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 Darling is running from 7:30pm every Thursday in June. Entry is $7.

Photography by Sarah Enticknap