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Ella Hooper talks gender inequality and Triple J

Dan Webb
Ella Hooper is one of Australia’s most prominent female artists. She shot to fame as a teenager in the 90s as the lead singer of award-winning outfit Killing Heidi and has since carved out a successful career as a radio presenter and TV personality. She released her first solo single in 2012 and has just released a new single ahead of a “mini-album” in the new year.

You’ve picked five songs to accompany this article. Would you like to say anything about your choices?

[powerkit_row cols_nr=”2″][powerkit_col size=”7″]Damien Jurado – Cloudy Shoes
Damien Jurado is probably one of the artists on there that I’m a bit newer to. I’d seen his name around for years and years and years on all of these playlists that I liked and recommended by other artists that I loved and I was like ‘who is this Damien Jurado guy? I bet he’s amazing’. And then he is. It turns out like I heard the song – I must have heard it somewhere, at a friend’s house or whatever and then I finally ended up downloading all of his back catalogue and have just been in love with it ever since. I think he’s got a song on that TV show that everyone’s been loving and watching, talking about, about the cult, called Wild Wild Country. It’s on Netflix or something. Anyway, I haven’t seen that but people are like ‘oh yeah, his song might be the theme song for that show’.
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Gena Rose Bruce – Coming Down
Gena Rose Bruce is an amazing new artist. She’s actually not that new, she’s had a couple of EPs out before and singles out before but she’s killing it with her new stuff. And she’s also my friend and I’ve been sort of championing her for years now and it’s great to see her just killing it. Everyone’s catching on, finally.

The Band – Ophelia
The Band, I just grew up with and they’re my favourite band. I rewatched The Last Waltz for like the bazillionth time the other night and was reminded of how insanely good The Band are.

Ladyhawke – Paris Is Burning
Ladyhawke is just something that I keep coming back to year after year, you know, season after season. Just a great song, just a great album. That first Ladyhawke album – I think it’s her first, is just such a killer. All killer no filler, great production. And for me, as a woman who likes to make alternative rock music, there aren’t that many of us, pop-rock female artists that aren’t you know, they’re not straight pop and they’re not straight rock, they kind of crossover… they have that real singability but still you would call them kind of alternative or something. Anyway, yeah I just really relate to Ladyhawke. I think she’s awesome.

Lucinda Williams – Car On A Gravel Road
Lucinda is one of my favourite artists, her songs are just so beautifully written. She keeps on keeping on. I love artists that are really consistent and that continue releasing music into their middle age and stuff. And I think that’s a really hot topic right now, is female artists who are over 30. It’s really interesting. It can get really hard, you know, they still are releasing fantastic music, they still want to tour, and of course in the States – Lucinda Williams doesn’t really have a problem because she’s a massive artist in the States and stuff and she’s really respected and has had such a body of work. But on the other hand, she should be bigger, you know. I think you can go and see Bruce Springsteen, your Bob Dylans, and you know, they’re massive artists for sure. And they will be into their 60s and 70s. But when a woman is into her 60s, and let alone 70s, I mean I can’t even think of one who is touring in her 70s like Bob Dylan is or will be, it’s just interesting, you know? A bit of the old constant conundrum with a life in music, and in how unfortunately innately sexist the industry has always been and now we’re realising it and naming it and locating it and talking about it, which I think is really important. It’s a shame to have to keep talking about it, but I think we’re really realising that if we don’t talk about it, it just goes under the radar and it really affects how broadly we listen and what kind of influences we’re pulling from, and of course it affects the career of the artists who fit into that dead zone, you know. And I just think it’s just something on my mind. But that’s not why I picked her, I picked her cos she’s awesome. She rocks harder than dudes half her age.

There was just a massive blind spot within the industry about recognising female artists, making pathways for female artists to be recognised and to be celebrated.

In 2001 you became the first woman to receive APRA’s Songwriter of the Year Award. Why do you feel it took 10 years from the award’s inception for a female artist to be recognised?
I don’t bloody know, it’s pretty crazy. I mean, it’s an absolute honour, but yeah that really shocked me when they said ‘I don’t think we’ve had a woman win this before’. And then thankfully after me, plenty have won it. So that must have been the changing of the guard or at least a realising that there was a bit of a missing link there. Missy Higgins won it I think not too many years after, maybe two years after, one year after. But the fact that like maybe Chrissy Amphlett or people like that hadn’t won one before, and your Deb Conways and your Kate Ceberanos – some artists of course are amazing performers but might perhaps not be writers… But yeah, look, when I heard that, all those years and years and years ago I was shocked. I was like ‘what has been going on here?’. And of course it’s something we’re still addressing. What was going on there was just a massive blind spot within the industry about recognising female artists, making pathways for female artists to be recognised and to be celebrated.

What more should media organisations such as ourselves be doing to close the gap on gender inequality?
Well I think, some people disagree with this, that if you start making quotas and meeting certain quotas you’ll get a lot of crap coming through. But I just think if we at least aim for quotas you look a little harder and find that there’s not crap at all. There’s so many brilliant female bands, brilliant female writers, brilliant female frontwomen, brilliant female composers. They just don’t get as much coverage. So they may be initially harder to find. But I just don’t think that’s correct, you know. I think quotas are not bad idea. They should just become the norm, and then women will also feel like they’re gonna have much more chance of getting on these things, they’ll apply – whether it’s applying for a grant, or putting yourself forward for a festival, or a festival contacting you, we need to feel like it’s likely to happen, or no one can be arsed. No one likes yelling into a void, going ‘what’s the point, what’s the point of trying to advance my career or take things further when there aren’t the opportunities for me’. So I think we do need to balance the books and at least go for equal numbers and names on lineups and at gigs. And I’m not militant about that, I don’t believe in being crazy militant about it or as I said, letting shit bands through just because they’re female. I’m really not into that. But there is no need cos there’s just so many frickin’ awesome female acts. So that’s just not going to happen if you are not lazy.

I understand you decided to go solo after a deep and meaningful conversation with Stevie Nicks. Can you give us any further insight into that conversation?
Well it was just pretty bloody amazing to be talking to her in the first place (laughs). It was pretty wild. It was like ‘is this really happening? Am I having career advice from one of my heroes? Yes I am! Awesome!’. I think it was more what I took away from where she was at, you know, not so much directions that she gave me or things to think about. But it was me taking in her in all her glory, in all the different things she’s done with her career that was risky that she pulled off, like joining Fleetwood Mac in the first place was risky. From a band which had her name in it, you know, from Buckingham Nicks, to being completely absorbed by Fleetwood Mac – which doesn’t, you know, the title of that band doesn’t reflect her at all and she ends up becoming the star of that band anyway. To then leaving and going solo to create her own brand and go back to her name, to playing with Tom Petty and all those cool collaborations, Don Henley, doing those songs that she did on the side as Stevie Nicks, like “Leather And Lace” and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”. Those were the things I was thinking about – if I want to twist and bend and move like that, I might have to be a solo artist to do it.

I know for a fact Triple J won’t play you if you’re unsigned…

Quite often at music conferences, gatekeepers to the industry, radio personalities and the like, will say that all you need to do is “write a good song” in order to achieve success and receive airplay. What specific elements of songwriting, in your opinion, constitutes a good song?
That is such a great question! No one has ever asked me that question in that sort of way, and I tell ya, (laughs) I’ve done a few interviews in this year alone, let alone the past 20 years. The first part of your question, I don’t know if I even agree with that, ‘just focus on songs, write a good song’. Like dude, I have released some very good songs that got completely ignored that are like easily better – technically better written songs, better singing, better production than anything that like say Killing Heidi did. But Killing Heidi had the luck and the mystery of being a first time artist, we were super young, we were kooky. All those other factors that do come into it, it’s not just about having a bloody good song. That’s a very easy answer from someone who probably has never taken a shit hot song to radio and had it ignored, as so many of my friends have. Like there are so many brilliant artists here in Melbourne alone that have written songs that for – you know, if we’re judging on songs, they should be fucking hits! They should be like mega hits and they should be buying houses off them. But that is not the only factor at play. I know for a fact Triple J won’t play you if you’re unsigned, for a start. There’s millions of great unsigned bands who are unsigned by their own, you know, willingly unsigned cos they don’t want to sign up to – or they’re waiting for the right deal or something or they’re just at that stage in their career. And they’re like ‘oh look, we’d really like to play this but we can’t because you don’t have a team’. That’s not about the song. So yeah, I think that when I hear that on panels and stuff like you mentioned, I do have to kind of roll my eyes a little bit and go ‘no, that’s not true’.

I think what makes a great song is connection. Does it form a connection with its listener, does it make the listener feel something, learn something, want to do something.

But the second part of your question, what makes a good song, yes. I’m all about songwriting, I’m all about writing good songs. I think people need to realise that it is the key ingredient and it should be the key ingredient. Unfortunately it’s just not a silver bullet to success. But it still is, should be the thing you’re striving for, 100%. Strive to write great songs. I think what makes a great song is connection. Does it form a connection with its listener, does it make the listener feel something, learn something, want to do something. Does it activate them in some way? For me it’s all about activating emotion or you know, does it make me feel pumped up and want to pump my fists in the air, does it make me want to cry and curl up into a ball? It’s really about the connection and the action, driving to the action. And the way you do that in my humble opinion is like, well, there’s a million different ways to do that. The way I like to do that is by sharing genuinely, sharing something from myself that’s not exactly just a carbon copy of what somebody else shares. It’s funny how if you get very specific on your own story and share something really, really super personal that you think no one could possibly relate to, that’s when you get the biggest reaction. That’s when people go ‘oh I thought it was only me that had that weird paranoia about this one weird thing, like shit, I can’t believe she’s got into my brain and she’s writing my life’. It’s like, go deep and go personal. And you know, lots of people say that you can absolutely take on a character and still have a really emotional reaction and that’s true too. So there’s millions of ways to do it, but I like to go deep, go personal, go specific and then it’s amazing how many people feel that that touches their own story somehow as well. And make it hooky (laughs). I’m a pop musician, I like hooks, I like choruses that get me where I’m going. I like pretty traditional stuff, so I’m not kind of going to go on some jazz odyssey and you know, reinvent the wheel. I like stuff that’s classic yet feels authentic.

There’s a growing number of musicians and key industry figures who privately acknowledge that 54 year old Richard Kingsmill has overstayed his welcome as head of (Australian youth radio network) Triple J. There’s very clearly a culture of fear and suppression of dissenting voices – many artists are afraid to speak out publicly, for fear of retaliation. Are you prepared to weigh in on the matter?
Well I feel like I already have (laughs). I don’t have an axe to grind, but I know it is a serious concern of the music community. Definitely it’s not wrong to say it’s concerning and it’s not wrong to say it’s affecting people. Again, especially women over 30, there is no – correct me if I’m wrong, someone can get the numbers out but I don’t hear any – oh then they go, ‘but Amy Shark, Amy Shark is 32′. It’s like, yes, and? How many men over 30 have you got there, there’s millions. So look, I think it’s a real thing. I don’t have an axe to grind because honestly that’s probably just not my market anymore anyway (laughs). I think I probably haven’t been a typically Triple J artist in a long time. Cos what I hear when I listen to that station is – it’s not the stuff I’m into anyway. Like it’s very producer-y, soft, it’s almost like easy listening for teens. It’s not really my cup of tea. I like stuff that’s pretty out there. Maybe this is a sign of me getting old but I do feel like I remember a time when it played the stuff that was ‘out there’ and I find it very, very safe these days. Very, very vanilla, very, very safe.

I think (Triple J) used to push our ears and push our listening, push our tastes along culturally. And I don’t feel like it does that anymore.

Well why do you feel that a non-commercial, taxpayer funded radio station feels the need to chase ratings, in that case?
I don’t know! Honestly that’s another good question. Stuffed if I know. That’s another thing I miss about it, I think it used to push our ears and push our listening, push our tastes along culturally. And I don’t feel like it does that anymore. Maybe it’s by virtue of the internet changing things so much in the musical landscape, maybe it’s social media… I mean, I really am a bit out of touch. I’ve never been someone who is super duper early adopter or really gets the internet or Spotify or any of that stuff and I know that the youth of today are all over that shit. So there’s a lot I don’t understand and don’t want to speak to too much like I’m an authority on this stuff cos I really am the first to stay I don’t understand it (laughs) I’m a bit old school. I like what I like, I find it somehow and then I buy it and then I listen to it… But I think it’s probably got to do with the echo chamber effect of giving people what they think they want rather than giving them things that could really expand their music taste. And I reckon that’s a Gen Y, I reckon that’s a Millenial issue of the echo chamber effect of Facebook and stuff. We all said we already like these things, so have more of this thing (laughs).

Until recently you served as a board member of Creative State, an organisation which advises the Victorian state government on concerns regarding the local music scene. What are some of the biggest current concerns?
Well I just have to state that I actually have had to leave that board because I’m too busy. But I did love my time there. I’m still on another board but I’m like ‘I’ve gotta cut down’ (laughs), ‘can’t make it to all of these meetings’. But when I was there, the main things are making sure that Melbourne doesn’t suffer the same fate as Sydney in our live music culture. And we’re very, very lucky. We’ve got a thriving live music culture, I mean, you know, even in dollars and cents terms. It brings in more money than sport I think, and you know how huge that industry is. But we have more venues operating more nights than anywhere in the world. More than New York, more than Tokyo, more than Paris, more than LA, it’s Melbourne. Melbourne has the most gigs per week per night with like legitimate bands playing and attendance and it’s just incredible. So we really are a world leader in live music and its accessibility and its affordability and its health… but you just need to look at Sydney to see how fragile that is. You start pumping up prices, you start making people having to have security and demonising live music culture and allowing people to build and buy up our inner city venues and build apartments right on top of them, and then we’re just in the shit. It only takes a few of those crucial venues to fall to change the vibe of an area. And it’s a tenuous thing. So even though we’re in a good state in Melbourne, we need to protect it and we need to be vigilant about it. So we’re very lucky that organisations like SLAM exist and Music Victoria is really onto it as well. But other concerns, I don’t know. I think they’re looking at granting too. Granting’s a bit of an interesting one. Some people say that needs a bit of an overhaul, the way we fund and look at our grants for new music, live music, who gets them, how they’re awarded. Again, I’m not an authority on that but I think there’s stuff to be unpacked there as well to make sure we’re helping along artists that are really going to enrich the music scene and not just paying for yet another opera or yet another ballet or yet another classical piece, which is, would you believe it mostly funded by the government. That stuff doesn’t actually make money. Whereas rock ‘n’ roll does add money back into the economy rather than suck it.

You’ve just released a new single recently, “To The Bone”. Would it be correct to suspect you have a new album on the way?
Yes, I think so. Look I think it might be an EP, a long EP like a mini-album. Because things are moving fast and there’s lots of things I want to try but I don’t want to be too confusing as an artist, stylistically I mean, I kind of jump around a lot. So I feel like this new style – evolution, I shouldn’t say change cos I feel like it’s an evolution of where I was last. It’s going to see me through maybe a longish EP, a mini-album. But don’t quote me on that. It could still be an album. It depends how quickly I can record and how many days I can get in the studio between now and the end of the year. It’s a timing issue and a money issue and yeah. So I’ve got the songs, I just need to set aside the time and the money to get it all down, get it all pressed, printed, recorded and get it out there. I do have about three, four songs in the can right now. So the impatient part of me is just wanting to probably get it made into an EP and get it out soon.

If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
Woah, that’s tricky. I mean I’m pretty big on the Chrissys. Chrissy Hynde or Chrissy Amphlett would be amazing to work with, to do a bit of a duet or something. Obviously Chrissy Amphlett has passed away so that’s a long shot (laughs). But there’s just something about – like I’m really into classic female rock singers. Even Pat Benatar, you know, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, who was that? Bonnie Tyler I think. Maybe whoever was writing and producing all those big, wiry 80s femme rock hits. I’ll put that person on my list and we can collaborate and come up with one for me.

Update (4/10/18): Ella’s manager, Chris Robinson refutes Ella’s claim that Triple J don’t play unsigned artists. We have reached out to multiple Triple J spokespeople today and they have denied our requests for comment.