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Rachael Dadd, singer-songwriter and musician

By way of a longish introduction to my conversation with Rachael Dadd, I’m trying something different and weaving my own peregrination around our meeting…

I have been asked several times why I am running this series.

Just like in fairy tales, when the question was raised for the third time, I had to listen for an answer. Originally, it was because I never see these questions addressed head-on in interviews. When they are, it tends to be incidentally, like hitting upon a gooey caramel centre in a chocolate, whereas, given the choice, I will always go straight for the sticky bit in the middle, the nitty-gritty of how things are done, how art, beauty, connection and all those tacky words with bigger meanings fit into the humdrum, eat your vegetables part of life. But also, because I struggle with these same questions every day – or rather, every night, as I slide under the blankets and sigh again at another day of only skirting the surface of creativity. 

And then maybe again because I’ve always liked fairy tales and treasure hunts, following trails of cookie crumb tunes, words, pictures to ever-expanding ripples of fellowship. Pots of gold under rainbows, bluebells in hidden glades, or for a milli-metro across a sea of heads and coats, the twinkling of an eye over something funny.

Each fractal glimpse leads to the next, until hopefully, the conversations will form a loud enough chorus of individual, yet universal truths. I am also discovering that each encounter adds a glinting pebble to my own journey, at turns illuminating or smoothing out points on the map.

But back to Rachael Dadd… she was the third person to ask. I have to admit that hearing my questions echoed back with genuine curiosity and respect put me on the spot a bit. Oh right… I did set out to lead the creative life, too, didn’t I! From a more intimate perspective, it was wonderful to hear and see, beautiful babe in arms, how Rachael is integrating being a mother with her calling as an artist, swimming with the currents of parenthood rather than against them.

I came across Balloon a few years ago; it was late spring and its sincerity and lightness perfectly matched how the sun caught on flowering brambles. Though my invitation to play a summer gig was postponed, Rachael’s music stuck with me, and so I wasn’t at all surprised when Kate mentioned their friendship and suggested that she’d be a good person to chat with. 

Rachael’s music has been described as “Bold art folk… accomplished fusion of words, acoustic strumming and wild percussive textures” (UNCUT) and her latest album, We Resonate, captures the perfect blend of intimacy and playfulness that makes a successful collaboration. As someone from a multicultural background, I love how the album crosses genres and fuses together rhythms and instruments from many lands. “I Am Your Home” even layers her crystalline singing with the prepared piano, leading from 3.00 to the most sweeping, velvety conclusion I’ve heard in a long time. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

 

live-2-thumb-200x200 - dan king

Photo: Dan King

 

Rachael, can you introduce what you do – how are you an artist, a creative person? 

I play music, that’s my first art form. I did a degree in textile art, so I make textiles as well, when I get the time, which hasn’t been so for the last few years.

 How did your longing for creative expression first manifest?

When I first started to play my own instruments – I was given a keyboard for my seventh birthday, I think… Never having had a piano lesson, just playing with it without any rules, that was probably when I first started to write little tunes, not singing – that came later. I loved music; I played the recorder and sang songs at school, but I didn’t start to properly create it until I had my keyboard.

After that, it was piano, and when we got a piano, before I had a teacher or anything, I was always finding little chord patterns and I started to get really excited about different chords together. Then I started to sing and make songs…

So far, do you enjoy the world that you have created? Does it contain an overarching theme or question?

Not throughout all of it; I think it’s been years long, but per album, there’s a theme. For my last album, the theme was collaboration and making things with other people, becoming a family, becoming a mother… collaboration and togetherness. The themes prior to that were more like exploring the world on my own.

 Does your creative path match your highest intention; does it correspond to what you’re aiming for, generally?

My last album did. Before becoming a mother, I spent so much time on my music. But I wasn’t a perfectionist, because I like little moments of improvisation and mistakes, making changes right up until you record something. In terms of thinking about my art and my music, I spent so much time on it that I was really pleased with my last album.

Now, I have snatches of time to write songs, and it’s a very different set of rules for me and my music now [laughs]. I can’t set the bar really high, because it would put me off doing it at all. I just want to make sure I continue, and that’s an achievement, I think! I just want to continue… [Laughs] If I just continue through these years, then give it a lot more of my focus again in a few years…

What is your relationship to balance in your work? Is it something you’d like to achieve between your creative work and your home life?

It’s a bit out of my hands [laughs], because the children are so little… It doesn’t feel balanced because I hardly get my time at all. I think for parents whose careers can afford childcare, it’s a different matter, and you can maybe achieve a bit more balance that way. But we’ve never really been able to afford childcare, so together, my husband and I look after the children. We’re both self-employed, so it’s a sort of chaos, really! [Laughs] A happy chaos!

Do you rest upon certain personal rhythms, rituals, or environments when you’re in a creative mode, or do you take things in stride…?

Not really, I get inspiration and run with it, which is what’s so hard about being a parent and being somebody who wants to make music or art. You can’t necessarily seize those moments of inspiration. I’ll have them when I’m playing with my sons or I’m out and about, and I haven’t got my guitar, so I can’t pick up my guitar and play for hours. It’s all about finding methods to record those little moments of inspiration and try and save them for a moment where I can sit down and write.

You’re being creative just in finding the moment, in having to do things differently, in a way…

I guess! [Laughs] It’s always changing, as well. I’ve actually had some evenings recently. My sons have just started going to sleep at a normal-ish hour, rather than staying up ‘til eleven, so I’ve had some song-writing time recently to myself, which has been really, really good.

Another way to make creativity happen for sure is to work with other people, because you stick to a time that you say you’re going to rehearse, you have a joint goal with somebody else, and they egg you along… I’m writing an album with a guy [Will Newsome] on kora, and we’re called The Hand. We had a day of recording yesterday – the momentum that that has is good, because we’re doing it together and I make sure I prioritize it as much as I can.

Concentrated bursts…

Yeah, concentrated bursts! It’s still a bit slow, but it is happening.

How do family, relationships, other career choices, or obligations all fit into the picture of leading an artist’s life? Amongst the following words, do you use any of these ways to mesh it all together: compartmentalize – ignore – sublimate – integrate – transcend…?

Since becoming a mother, my husband and I, both of us, together, started to do children’s concerts. Both of our music suits a family-style concert anyway, and then we have added elements that children enjoy, like props to give out to them, and costumes. My husband’s music [Ichi] is really fun, it’s like performance art, and children really love it.

How do other people fit into your creative/inner world?

Amongst my own family, my husband fully understands, because we met as touring musicians in Japan, and we both have the same idea of doing music and being parents at the same time. We couldn’t live without music, so that’s good. He understands me. My mum is really supportive of my music. She isn’t a musician, but she gives me lots of feedback on my new album; she listens to it, and I really like that. My dad hardly says a word about it [laughs], which I find quite strange… I’m not really sure why, because he likes music… but he’s really supportive in many other ways. Most of my friends, I’ve met through music, so I’ve got lots of people in my life who fully understand, they have the same kind of life. Some of them are parents.

I work with my sister; she’s an animator, and she’s making a 30-minute long animation for my show, so that’s one way to develop my work with the help of others while I’m so busy.

Do you ever get stuck and if you do, what helps you push through?

Things like this project with my sister, actually. Collaboration has been at the forefront of my musical output, I suppose. We Resonate, my last album, lots of friends made that with me, and my sister made the artwork… The joy I get from collaborating with people gives it momentum, so if I feel stuck, I just try and get a new project with a friend, or my sister, and then it happens – slowly, but it happens!

How does playfulness fit into your creative process?

I guess maybe playfulness is enjoying something, and not setting yourself rules… To come up with a new song, or a musical idea, or experiment on an instrument until I find a pattern of notes or chords that make me feel an emotion… I guess that’s play, it’s how adults play.

I play music with my children, we do sort of theatrical music with my son who’s three, and he’s starting imaginative play – we bring music into our imaginative play. It’s dissonant and really percussive… That feels really playful. It doesn’t directly feed my music, it’s separate, but maybe it will feed my doing music with children. I do the children’s concerts, and I like the idea of doing free improvisation with children, where there are no rules.

It’s nice to teach theory and how to become skilled at an instrument, but I think most importantly, it’s best without rules. Get them to love it and express themselves through it, and then they’ll want to teach themselves instruments. Which is how I came to play, really, and pretty much taught myself guitar and piano…

If you didn’t perform in concerts, would you miss that, would you still find a way to be creative?

A massive part of it is the live performance, but I played music way before I ever did live performances. People play music just for themselves, at home… It’s really therapeutic. But for me, now, music is intrinsically linked with communication, so I can’t really imagine doing it without playing it for somebody.

Joseph Campbell wrote, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.” Do you agree with this? If so, how do you “follow your bliss”? Is it something you pursue through your art?

I do feel like that [laughs], but it’s not simple, to follow your bliss! [Laughs] But then, what is simple? It’s like the path of least resistance, even if there still is resistance, because we’re doing it with children. There are still a lot of elements to it which aren’t blissful, like writing lots and lots of email, or the business side. I don’t think I’m very good at that. But it’s easier for me to do this, because I have the drive for it, than go and get a job doing something else that I’m not passionate about.

Where do you turn for solace – does it include your creative work?

Yes – music, nature.

Music seems like an essential element in your work, that last video, Strike Our Scythes

Ah, Leigh Woods – those woods are close, they’re walking distance, so especially since it’s winter, I’m making myself go there as much as possible. Otherwise you just stay in, you don’t get light, or air, so I’ve been walking with the buggy and the children through the woods.

What are the place of longing and completeness in your work?

Completeness – I think I got a sense of that when we finished We Resonate, and I actually do tend to get that sense when I finish an album.

But then there’s longing… there’s always unexplored territory. There are many different things I’d like to explore, different types of singing and vocalization I want to explore. I really want to become much better at music technology, because I feel like I’m a bit stumped in my lack of confidence there. I could do so much more, because I love recording by myself, yet my methods in recording are so basic… I usually make my demos at home, so I get to layer up vocals and instruments, percussion, and then try to translate that into a good recording in a studio.

What is your relationship to giving and receiving?

In music, being able to play with somebody else… I’m thinking about The Hand, actually, because we recorded yesterday. We write together, and it’s quite rare to be able to write from scratch with somebody; there’s a lot of giving and receiving. It’s like having a conversation, being really open to each other’s ideas. No one’s in charge, and we just play things over and over until they morph and change and become something without either of us directing it. Within that process, there’s lots and lots of giving and receiving, listening and responding. It’s quite a special thing. It’s quite hard to do that with people, but I’m lucky I’ve found someone I can do that with.

The music is something neither one of us would write, it’s really free. Structure-wise, it kind of goes off, it doesn’t have a set kind of ABC pattern, or anything like that. Most of the songs tend to go on their own adventure… It’s a really interesting process. Neither of us have a sense of ownership of the music. The music is its own thing, it feels special like that.

What is your closest experience to simply being, or to a state of connection?

It will be a musical one! Either during a rehearsal or writing the song, or performing the song, being totally in the moment of it. No worries… Playing music in nature is really special. I don’t do that enough at all these days. I used to do that much more – taking my instruments to the woods, either on my own, or with The Hand, having a practise outside, or just in the garden. Then you feel connected to the world – there’s a connection to something greater.

What is your gift – how do you most enjoy being remembered?

[Laughs] That’s an interesting question! Well, through some of the things I’ve said in my songs. You’re sort of saying, what good qualities about yourself you want people to think of… We’re quite modest in our culture.

What good qualities do you recognize within yourself?

I’ve done quite a lot of looking after people, so that could be known and appreciated [laughs]. The motherly qualities, actually – I just think mothers are amazing.  I wrote a song for my mother when I was 23, and I listened to that the other day. I finally really appreciated her. I think it takes a child to leave home to appreciate what their mothers do. I felt like I had finally properly left home, and wrote this song about my mum. And now becoming a mum, I fully appreciate her in a whole new light.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

The Hand album, because I just got this song recorded yesterday. I could play it for you. Having recorded a The Hand song gets me excited about recording my next album, whenever that will be.

Would you like to add anything…?

I’ll just play you the song, do you want to hear it?

 

I’d also like to say that making music when you’re a parent, a mother, is tricky, but I think it’s so important, because you have so many new things to communicate, important things… You have this nurturing spirit and more mothers should share their art forms with the world, because the world needs more nurturing spirit.

* * *

 

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This interview by Gabrielle Sedita is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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