Interview: Ella Hooper keeps it human

ella hooper

Ella Hooper is a busy woman. She’s a team captain on the recently relaunched, acclaimed television show Spicks & Specks, a host on 2Day FM’s weekly Australian Top 20 and is currently touring to support her new single, Low High.

Low High is taken from Hooper’s forthcoming album, In Tongues. She says the title refers to “being taken over by unseen forces outside your control – everything from obsession to PMS”. While the Australian’s previous work in Killing Heidi and The Verses was predominantly written with her brother, Jesse, for In Tongues she turned to producer Jan Skubiszewski.

“Jan comes to music in a less traditional way than I do, having more of a hip-hop and dance production background,” says Hooper. “It was great – vital, in fact – to shake that up. For example, Low High came about from the beat on up. Then the vocal melody, then the music, which is something I’d never tried before.”

The result, I suggest, is off-kilter retro R&B noir. Hooper laughs and agrees that she’s got the market cornered when it comes to that niche genre. “Off-kilter was definitely on my mind. I wanted to broaden my horizons to encompass all the other kooky shit that I love, like Lykke Li and Harry Belafonte and Erykah Badu! I definitely have my influences, broad as they are, and artists and genres that I’m into at the time of recording find their way into my sound. I always hope I regurgitate them in a way that has enough originality and uniqueness for them to be almost unrecognisable.”

Although the album will mark Hooper’s solo debut, she’s spent half her life as a performing muso. As Killing Heidi’s frontwoman, she’s had singles and albums topping the ARIA charts. As one half of The Verses, she’s had quieter commercial but notable critical success. She’s seen a lot of changes in that time.

“I feel the playing field has been evened out,” she says. “If you’re talented and motivated you can make a record very easily. It’s so accessible now. However, that can also be a negative, as it creates a lot of ‘noise’ having so many releases and bands and blogs flying around. I worry that the sheer volume of it might make it harder for the true incredible talents to cut though.”

ella hooperHooper has proven herself a supporter of young talent, spending several years involved in Telstra’s Road to Discovery music mentorship program. “I love its integrity and its scope. It’s incredible at uncovering far-flung talent, and I know how it can feel being a muso in an isolated region, like you’re never going to get a break.” (Hooper grew up in the quiet Violet Town in rural Victoria). “Instead, we bring the break to them. I love that. I’ve made some life long friends through the program too.” Previous winner Gena Rose Bruce will be opening the shows on the tour.

The upcoming tour is a double-header with another young songwriter, with Sydney band Jack Colwell and the Owls launching their Far From View single. “Jack and I met through our gorgeous mutual friend, designer Hayley Smith of Serpent and the Swan, and we hit it off instantly. We were at Homebake and we got up to do much mischief that day. I think we both wanted to play gigs together ASAP. We love lots of the same stuff and wanted to create an evening for people to enjoy his new music and mine. I’m a big fan of young Jack, his music and him as a person. He’s so into what he’s doing. Everything is done with much integrity, enthusiasm and flourish, and I cannot wait to see him play.”

Hooper’s live set-up is an unusual one. She describes it as “stripped-back electric”: guitar, keys, junkyard percussion, but no drummer. “I had a full rock band behind me for a while but I felt it was time to refine it into a powerful yet still revealing and delicate show, where you can really hear every word. We’re making sure we keep it human, a little risky and intense. There are three-part harmonies to boot – my band can really sing! It’s heaven.”

Ella Hooper performs at Sydney’s Vanguard on Saturday 29 March and at Melbourne’s Northcote Social Club on Friday 4 April. Find tickets here. Or catch her on Spicks and Specs on Wednesdays on ABC at 8.30pm (Australian broadcast only).

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Interview by Liam Casey