Inside The Mythology Of Lisa Mitchell
Whether you know him as the founder of Western philosophy or as one of the righteous historical dudes scooped up by Bill & Ted on their excellent adventure, there’s merit to be found in the wisdom of Socrates. A favoured subject of both Plato and Xenophon, the quintessential Greek figure left us with a simple yet powerful dictum that has echoed through the ages: “The unexamined life is not worth living”. It’s a notion that has rung especially true for singer-songwriter Lisa Mitchell. While the School Certificate saw her peers fretting over superlative adverbs and committing the quadratic formula to memory, Mitchell’s angelic vocals were being broadcast into the living rooms of nearly two million Australians by way of a reality talent show. A bright-eyed 16-year-old, she was plucked from the halcyon days of her youth; perhaps it’s why, at 26, she’s so intensely drawn to holding a magnifying glass up to her past in order to study what it means to be Lisa Mitchell. By her own admission, she was one of the kids from the country “keeping it real in the suburbs”; she’d roam the rugged Australian landscapes of rural New South Wales, from the banks of the sprawling Murray River to her own personal hideaway: a secret bushland shack adorned with relics from the ‘60s counterculture movement. In 1970 folk singer Joni Mitchell, a lifelong heroine of Mitchell’s, likened the passing of time to a carousel – “we can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came” – and however indirectly, this mantra likely set Mitchell on her creative path almost half a century later. Over freshly brewed pots of lemon-infused tea, the singer reflects on how she pieced together the jigsaw puzzle of her own existence to craft her shimmering new pop album, Warriors.
It has been four years between albums for you. What made now the right time to come back?
It’s a bit of a combination of things. The way I write is very much spur-of-the-moment and opportunistic. I don’t really sit down and try and write songs; I only write about things that really move me. Life is life and that doesn’t happen all the time, so that’s why it can take me a while to get to the point where I’m showing songs to the people I work with. That whole process then inevitably takes a long time as well, but it doesn’t feel like it’s been too long for me.
Why did you settle on the title Warriors?
When I looked at the songs together, I realised there was a lot of nostalgia in them. I was looking back to my childhood with curiosity, thinking about living in the country and what that meant for me as a young person and how I interacted with the outside world. In the song ‘Warriors’, there’s a line in it where it says, “I heard the radio magic coming down like a lifeline”, and it’s about being on a bus and hearing a song for the first time. For me, that was ‘Straight Lines’ by Silverchair. When I was writing the song, I was just thinking about how stations like triple j are such lifesavers for all the country kids. Of course you have the massive Top 10 stations, but there’s not a lot of diversity there. The chorus is then a little bit tongue-in-cheek, ‘cause it says “keeping it real in the suburbs”, but it’s really talking about the ‘clan’ reaction that people tend to have in the country. Often if you’ve grown up out of a major city, it’s inevitable that you’ll leave that upbringing, and that’s massive for a young person. They’re leaving their hometown and their family – everything they know – and they’re going to the big city. It really breeds a lot of independence.
When did you first leave Albury?
When I was 18. I had finished school mid-Year 11, I just decided I wanted to do music and my parents luckily were really, really supportive. I love Albury, but it was a bit like, “Get me out of here!” I just wanted to go to the city, so I drove my little car down to South Melbourne and lived there for a while, and then I lived in London for six months. That sent me on my new career trajectory and it was my own unique thing; I’d broken off from the pack from school.
Do you find you look back on the place more fondly now that you’ve been away for so long?
I’ve always had a real love for the land around there. You’ve got the beautiful Murray River going right through it. At one point the river was right at the bottom of our property, and if I was having a bad day, I used to love just running down to the river to hang out. Rivers hold a lot of sentimental value for me. They’re so massive and slow and calming. I think when you’re younger you kind of have a better understanding of the fact that we’re sharing this life with many, many, many other species. When we’re so in society we get a little bit self-important. I’ve recently been moving further into other ways of learning, like plant medicine for example, ayahuasca. What does the plant kingdom have to say to humans? A lot. [laughs]
Have you ever tried ayahuasca [A South American brew used in cleansing rituals to reach altered states of consciousness]?
I sat a ceremony and that was very much a pivotal moment in my life. The shaman that was in my ceremony was Peruvian, and it was definitely the hardest work I’ve ever had to do in my life. But it was so incredible, it opened my mind to realising this arrogance I think humans have and it’s just fear-based, but the idea that we are the wisest. Sure, humans are incredible, but plants have been here for so long… It was really, really special.
What questions were you asking yourself while writing Warriors?
A lot of it did stem from this fascination with my childhood, and I challenged myself to follow my curiosities and keep going, asking questions like, why am I here? What happened in my family? What happened in my upbringing? How did my environment affect me and give me the strength that I have? For me – and I realise this is totally subjective depending on your upbringing – I’m really interested in that age where you’re still so safe within your family unit. You’re basically a young woman; you’ve got that real self will about you and you’re beginning to question your parents. You’re really starting to go further into your own weird, niche life that’s often branching away from your own family. That age is fascinating to me.
What was going on in your life while you were writing?
I guess I’d call it a healing time where I was just trying to find my voice again as an artist, and as an individual as well. I’m pretty existential anyway, but I definitely did a lot of exploring, and I leant right into what it means to be a woman. I was doing a lot of women’s groups in Melbourne with my friends, and I really explored that deeper space with women, which is so fascinating. It’s very topical at the moment, what it means to be a woman and how far the balance has come back in terms of women in the workplace and how we’re represented in politics, but we still have so far to go. It’s not a negative, angry thing – it’s not man hating. Women are so present in the everyday world, why are we not represented more in the media? Why are women not in certain roles? I’m reading Tara Moss’s new book, Speaking Out, and she’s not getting angry, she’s showing it using statistics and simply asking: Where are the women? Why don’t they speak out more?
What would you say is the mythology of Lisa Mitchell?
I like that idea of my own mythology because I think everyone has it, their own weird path that they can’t really explain to anyone else. So much of it is about following my curiosity and that word curiosity comes up all the time at the moment. It just leads me continually to the edge, and I know that I’m at the edge when the people around me start questioning me. That’s when I’m like, “Ahh, I’m in the right place”. It’s so weird, but I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I think at this point in my life I’m not really doing it for validation, maybe I was when I was younger, but now I would rather be working as a barista and having an awesome life growing my own vegetables – which I will do at some point – and I’d rather be doing that than making art that I didn’t care about and that wasn’t actually a conversation with the world. I get so much out of it when people are honest and raw in their art and their lives, so I try and be brave and give back what I can.
What moments from your childhood stand out for you?
The town, the bush around it… it’s a really special place, and it’s such a normal place. We lived on a few different properties but for most of my primary school days we lived in town, so my sister and I used to walk to school every day along the same street. I remember making a book once that was drawings of each house on the way to school – the one with the white husky dog, the one with the big magnolia tree… Albury also had a youth cafe that was run by people trying to promote young people doing music and art, so I used to go down there and play a lot when I was 12 or 13. I had another friend, Katherine Green, and we were both obsessed with Celtic folk, so we would win the busking competitions and we used to love doing that and going to folk festivals. There were a couple of good venues, but I would always go to Melbourne any chance I got.
What do you miss about it?
The land. A lot of my curiosity of the natural world has definitely come from being a kid and getting so much out of being in the bush. Playing and doing treasure hunts, using rocks to make pigments… You have a real respect for it as well. I remember having a favourite tree at the bottom of our property in Albury, and when we left I went down and hung out with it and said goodbye. It had this beautiful big hollow in it, and it was just standing alone right on a creek. I actually drew it for my Year 11 art project.
What did your bedroom look like growing up?
This wasn’t my bedroom, but it kind of was in a lot of ways. Near our house when we lived on a property in my teenage years, I made this shack out of wood with my dad, my sister, and one of my best friends. It was the clubhouse for my friends and I, and we had a sneaky little trap door where we’d hide grog from our parents. It was decorated with all of my ‘60s and ‘70s-inspired posters, like ‘Make love, not war’. I was such a hippie. I was obsessed with flower child culture and I was so inspired by that time in history. Coming out of the rigid ‘50s and then that liberation. I think creatively it’s such a beautiful symbol, just this blossoming of expression and this animalistic sexuality. You had psychedelics and plant medicine opening up people’s minds, souls and bodies. Our clubhouse was just covered in that stuff; it was like our little dreaming shack.
A decade on from Australian Idol, how do you look back on that experience?
I definitely have no regrets; I think for me, I was in Year 10 at school, and it meant that I wasn’t at school [laughs]. Being in a country town, sure, I had a lot of creative options, but at 16, to be surrounded by so many people who were seriously doing music and pursuing their art, it was pretty influential to see that it was possible. We’re so influenced by who we’re hanging out with, who our parents’ friends are, what the subliminal kind of trajectory of our lives is according to what school we went to… The biggest thing that I’m so glad for my 16-year-old self is that she got this realisation that there are so many people out there, and anything is possible. It sounds kind of weird, but I’m proud of myself for having the balls to do that.
You’ve embraced dancing more in recent years too. What brought that on?
I think I noticed I had a sense of fear around my body. I wanted to feel more embodied and more okay with my sexuality, and I think a lot of classes that I do, for example dancehall, it’s derived from Jamaica, it’s using your full body and it’s really sexual. I think I was just craving to feel more confident in my body, especially being a performer. If I’m at a dance class or if I’m just dancing at home, it’s a similar feeling of being aware of your body language. It keeps me thinking in a theatrical or storytelling kind of way. It’s really fun and so different to the world that I’m usually in, which is always thinking and learning about things. With dancing you can’t think about it, it’s just your body; it feels like it’s a different part of your brain.