It's true that I spend the vast majority of my time listening to trashy pop records but there is another side to me. I love soul, country and the occasional indie pop queen/singer-songwriter. Shelley Harland probably falls into that latter category but only by default. Her music mixes a variety of genres from Carpenters-esque 70s pop to languid alt-country. I hear lashings of Bic Runga and Beth Orton with a bit of Aimee Mann thrown in for good measure. Usually that concoction would have me running for the hills in horror but Shelley's debut is one of my favourite albums of the year. "Red Leaf" is a little dark, occasionally depressing but always strikingly beautiful and effortlessly melodic. It's the kind of album that is best played in the early hours of the morning, when you can soak up every word and tiny nuance of the sparse yet intricate production. "Red Leaf" probably won't push Pink from the top of the charts but it deserves to be discovered and treasured. I couldn't wait to ask Shelley about the album and her previous career as a private investigator!
Shelley, I've been referring to you as a local girl on the blog but you're actually English and got your big break in New York. How did you end up in Australia?
I had been living in New York for a while and felt like I had soaked up all the madness of it - I wanted to experience something completely different and had never lived by the ocean. James and I had never been to Sydney - so we looked at the map and decided Bondi sounded nice. We shipped our studio off and landed here.
Did the move have a big impact on your sound? There's an organic quality to "Red Leaf" that I find quintessentially Australian.
Yes - i didn't realise until half way in, but there was a LOT more space in my songs, less clutter, more raw and exposed. Something I really like because I feel people can experience the honesty of the song more.
The album is spectacular - so intimate and personal. How does it feel now that it's finally released? Are you relieved or nervous about how it will be received?
It's a wonderful feeling to have the finished album in my hands. It's had it's own journey from the studio in my apartment to David Skeet's studio, Tim Powles studio for drums, over to UK for Chris Sheldon to mix and then Abbey Road for mastering..... I'm excited to get it out to people and hear their reaction.
You worked with some amazing people on the album. How did David Skeet and Tim Powles become involved?
Someone introduced me to David shortly after I arrived in Sydney and we hit it off - he's English and a bit mad and we both liked tea and biscuits - so we were off to a good start! David was in a band with Tim years ago called The Venetians - they've always been friends and Tim was happy to get stuck in on the record.
Marina & The Diamonds recently lamented that too much value is placed on singles - to the point where good albums are almost a dying art. Do you agree?
I do agree. It's a shame because albums are sort of the soundtrack to your life. I can look back on some albums and they immediately stir up an emotion or feeling that was relevant to that time - like little memory triggers. I love to own a whole album and feel the artwork and read the lyrics, I'm a big fan of vinyl too. Hopefully people will get bored with the one hit wonders and go in search for more in the treasure chests that are out there.
I felt like someone had broken into my room and read my diary the first time I heard “Wonder”. I can identify with lyrics a little too much. Was the song written about anyone in particular?
That song seems to just resonate with people.... David had actually been over at my house that day and was discussing an ex girlfriend of his, wondering what had happened to her, he had tried to track her down but couldn't find her. I have a constant feeling of nostalgia, having lived in so many places I'm always wondering about people, friends, people I went to school with - did their lives turn out to be what they wanted them to be? It's on my mind a lot. After David left that day the lyrics just spilled out me...
“Friday” is one of the catchiest songs on the album. It reminds me of The Carpenters. Are you a fan? The video (above) is amazing!
I love the Carpenters! The video was so much fun to make - I had a great time. Dale, the main ice skater was the best, he'd never done any acting before but he was a pro. James also wrote the main video treatment idea so it was exciting watching it come to life!
"Clouds Disappear" is so romantic. Are you a bit of a softie at heart?
I'm a total softy at heart - too much actually. This is about James. I was sitting on a bus on my way home from work one night and I was worrying about bills and rent and feeling a little miserable. Then towards the end of the trip I started picking myself up, remembering how lucky I was to have such a wonderful person in my life.... when I got off the bus James was waiting in the rain holding an umbrella so I didn't get wet! So I got home and wrote a little song all about it.
My favourite song on the album is “Panic To Control”. I interpret it as a kind of mantra about persevering in the face of disaster and doggedly following your dreams. What's it really about?
Good interpretation! It really is about not giving into fear - but to just look it in the eye and fight for your dreams. I've had a few anxieties in life, things that I could have given in to and retreated a little - we all have fears and sometimes they can suck away your quality of life. This is about being a soldier and marching into battle for your heart.
On “Sorry” you sing “I travelled overseas and changed the way I look but the mirror tells me every day that I’m a crook”. It sounds pretty autobiographical. Who did you piss off in the States?!
Actually this is loosely based on my time working in a Private Investigators office in New York. Watching people out to get each other because they had affairs etc. The dark side of it all and how I imagine you would walk through life feeling like a criminal. It's much easier on your mind and your pocket to just say you're sorry.
Were you really a private investigator in NY? What kind of cases did you take? I’m fascinated!
Yes, it's completely true! I started as a secretary then began doing surveillance. It was crazy! My boss was the best! We did all sorts of cases but as you can guess most were marital. You can check my old boss out here.
The title track is so poetic. It’s hard to believe you had no formal musical training. How did you hone your craft?
It was just something that came very naturally to me. Like...riding a bike. Once you get it, you get it! That's how it felt for me - and now I can't imagine a life without it. Music is how I breathe through life.
Before “Red Leaf” you were probably best known for collaborating with dance artists like Delerium and Ferry Corsten. I absolutely loved your forays into electronica. Have you considered compiling those songs onto an album and will you return to that genre in the future?
A lot of my electronic music is available online now and I definitely approach music with the freedom to create whatever I feel like. I also love to collaborate so I can pretty much guarantee lots of music in lots of genres in the future.
Thanks for your time. I really hope the album takes off.
"Red Leaf" is in stores now. Check out the album's lead single "Wonder" below. The video is like a walking tour through Sydney! It's weird but kind of cool to see the Circular Quay steps and city markets in a video.