Graham Reid | | 8 min read
Sitting in a Kingsland cafe just a few minutes walk from where she's been flatting for the past few years, singer-songwriter Lydia Cole is a charming and guileless combination of candour, caution and confidence.
You get the impression that, even at 29, she is assured about where she is in life but also still feeling her way. And fair enough: she is putting a tour together (dates below), has a new album Lay of the Land out on February 17 and then a big move overseas on the horizon . . . and she is doing it all herself because she hasn't had management for some time.
“Management is like a relationship,” she laughs. “It's better to have no one than the wrong person.”
So it's all down to her and yet some 45 minutes in when the conversation has turned to having a social media presence – obligatory for musicians – she is hesitant.
We've spoken about her enormously successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015 which raised $10,000 in just five days and has underwritten Lay of the Land, but she says she struggled with going out and asking for assistance.
It just didn't seem . . .
“My management had always funded things but when I left them I didn't have choice,” she says. “I realised that I had to humble myself and needed people to come to the party.
“One reason I've never been keen on social media is that it doesn't look good that you kind of need help. People mainly want to put stuff up like, 'I'm looking good in the mirror today' or ''I'm knocking it out the park' or 'Look at my cool band practice'.
“There's a balance and I struggle with it, I never want to annoy people and be in their faces, but as a consumer of other people's music I need reminding [of them]. But people do need reminding . . . “
And after a five year absence since her debut album Me & Moon, Cole has had to push herself to reconnect with her loyal audience.
“When I wasn't producing anything I was really adamant about not trying to stay in people's faces if I wasn't actually doing anything. I want people to think that when they see something from Lydia Cole that she is doing something, like the announcement of a song or a tour.
“I don't want to scramble for people's attention. Of course I want the music to speak for itself. But that's a hard thing because there's so much that needs to happen for the songs to reach people.
“I promote myself to get people to the show because that moment, the performing, is the point of it all.”
An hour or so before we met she had sent out the briefest of tweets saying the interviews were beginning again. It could hardly have been a more modest message, so it seems fair to ask if she endures or enjoys the process talking about herself and her work with strangers. There is a long and thoughtful pause – not the last she will make as she considers some questions carefully.
“It should be a good opportunity to talk and share ideas and get information out there, but at the same time I have a tendency to freak out. When I get nervous my true self is somewhere down here [she gestures low down] and in pressure situations I find hard to let my true self come out.”
Yet she also believes in open communication, even in these forced situations because “in an interview you can share ideas, it's a collaboration, both of your worlds get bigger because of it. If someone is too cool to say, 'Hi' then I think, 'It's your loss', but it's also my loss too, and that's a shame.”
She talks about meeting Diana Krall when she opened for the American jazz singer many years ago. Krall had left a vase of roses for her and had drawn a heart and written, 'Lydia, thanks so much for opening for me'. Cole notes Krall didn't have to do that and then she was invited to meet her in her dressing room. Krall could not have been more polite and asked if Cole had a CD available. At the time all she had was her debut EP but she went off to get it and when she brought it back Krall asked how much it was.
“I was like, 'Are you serious!' That taught me so much, that no matter how big you get you can still treat someone like a person, that was such a powerful thing.
“I've known others who were way more important in their own mind than she was.”
She laughs about having been on Jesse Mulligan's RadioNZ show over the Christmas period and – although the performance of her song Dream went well – when she listened back to the interview she realised she's missed some cues he'd given her.
When she speaks about things like that her self-effacement is apparent and an innate honesty shines through. She doesn't have much time for facades: “I'm at a point now where I want people to see me for what I am, I don't want to dress up or change my body . . . I did care what people thought, and I would not be so outspoken, I would retreat instead”.
These days she's very comfortable in being exactly who she is as person and a singer-songwriter, which comes through on Lay of the Land.
And that album is the reason for this conversation, and her departure for Berlin in April, a city she's never been to. In fact she's only ever been to Australia, to Toowoomba of all places. She was taken there by . . .?
“Love . . . young, ill-informed but unhealthy love,” she laughs.
She knows a small group of supportive people in Berlin, some expats like artist Timothy Armstrong who did the stop-motion video for Telepathise and, when she gets a chance to think about it, she is enthusiastic.
A new city offers her the chance to be a new Lydia Cole, not a great overhaul of her personality but “it'll change me and I'm excited about that”.
The move has been long thought about.
“I think it was mid 2015, just before the Kickstarter and I'd got rid of my management and I had no ties here. I was in my late 20s and I thought if I'm gonna go it's got to be now, I have no kids, no partner, none of that, and a career I could take anywhere.
“But then I thought, 'What am I going to play when I go?' I didn't want to play my old songs although they would be new to them . . . but I'm on this journey for myself so want to take me as I am. So I decided to stay for another year and do another album so I had something new in my backpack to take.”
She says knowing she was leaving didn't change the way she wrote for what became Lay of the Land (“I didn't go, 'Right I need three downbeat songs', it was just what happened and what I feel I'm about”) but did know, “I'll do my best with this album, then I'm off”.
Lay of the Land does see a subtle shift in her writing and the sonic palette that longtime friend and producer Nic Manders offers her. The songs remain intensely personal and sometimes her chord progressions are elegantly simple (“Simplicity is my friend”) but on a song like Time is A Healer – a title she thinks she borrowed from the late Eva Cassidy – Manders also provides a bed of backwards guitars which lifts it to another dimension.
“I think I wrote that maybe a month after I moved into my flat in Kingsland. Before that I'd been living with my Mum and Dad on the North Shore, so that was a nice shift for me. I woke up one Sunday morning and my flatmate through the thin walls was strumming an acoustic guitar, and it was such a cool way to wake up, just chilling out with music.
“That was the catalyst. I'm thinking through the lyrics now …
“I'd been single for probably six months and I was realising that I'm not ready to meet someone great. Before that point of being single I'd gone quite quickly from relationship to relationship. I don't think I did that on purpose, but this time I knew I needed to be single for a while. And that time was really my friend, and I needed more of it.”
She credits Manders' spontaneity and willingness to let her try songs out with creating the texture of the album.
“I wrote that one on nylon guitar, just in C with no capo, it's really simple. There are a few songs on the album which just are what they are, there's a message but I'm trying not to be out there, like with different time signatures and difficult chords.
“I've come to peace with knowing that's not what I'm about: I'm about sentiment, the lyrics, honesty . . .
“More and more as I get older I'm learning to tie the different areas of my life together.
“Time is A Healer [on the album] is so far from me on the nylon guitar on a Sunday morning, but me being in a moment where I know, 'This is where I'm at. I'm not where I need to be, but it's coming and that's cool'. I'm at peace about it.”
She laughs about the use of the triangle on the song: “I loved that triangle, I loved that, it might be super cheesy but I loved it. So it's a funny push and pull between us, and then just being, 'Well I like it and that's all that matters'. I'm glad we pushed it the other way.”
A song like Sober is revealing in other ways – she admits she was uncertain if she wanted someone like her Dad, or even Manders whom she respects, to hear it – because it deals with aspects of her real life she hadn't spoken about with them.
“Yeah, all the details like the bar and sitting on the lawn are all as it happened. It is about two separate people but within the same period of my life, it's me saying that I didn't like what I am when I drink.
“I did feel very exposed . . . taking it to Nic I was nervous. It's written and I'm proud of it but he is someone I look up to and I want him to think I'm a good person,” she says slightly self-consciously.
“Even with the band for the live video I would giggle before I sang the first line because it was a very confronting song.”
So after this short tour she is packing her bags, for how long she doesn't know.
“There's no return date, I just know to give a place a good go I need to be there 18 months-plus and go through different stages. Most people who go don't really come back, unless there's a funeral or something.
“Everybody I know over there loves it and there is a network of creative people doing visual art . .. why would I stay here once I found that out?
“I feel ready now. I'll be stoked to be in a cycle city too. I'm still only had learner drivers' license, and people say I've got to grow up [and get a full license], but I never wanted to. Now I accept that because I love walking and getting to see things in the land and the neighbourhood. That inspires me. So I'm happy I'm moving somewhere I can do that.”
And so there is Lydia Cole, a Silver Scroll nominee in 2012 and last year, still cautious but much more confident in herself these days.
“One thing I've learned in life,” she says, “ is knowing that everyone's making it up as they go along.”
LYDIA COLE TOUR DATES
please note the Auckland show at the Vic has sold out. A new date at the Wine Cellar on March 2 has just been added. New Zealand dates have Cole with her band.