Yeah. I mean that’s a beautiful proposition, that the creative process is present in so many more parts of our lives than we would imagine.
There’s a fantastic book that I’ve leant on for years. It’s called, Mademoiselle: Conversations with Nadia Boulanger. Nadia Boulanger was the composition teacher of the 20th Century. She taught Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Philip Glass and a lot of the great Hollywood composers. They came from far and wide because she was the yoda of the western composing tradition. This book has so many insights into the creative process and a life in pursuit of the flight that we have in music. She talks about awareness, and it’s being in the moment, of course. And she says, “I remember a cherry I had. It was about 30 years ago. I will never forget that cherry. It was so sweet and succulent and it just washed over me.” Then she talks about the attention to detail of the gardener across the street from her apartment in Paris – the artistry in this woman’s daily oeuvre, caring for the plants and having that connection with the soil. Her idea is that when you are connected with that creative energy that is in everything, it doesn’t matter what the discipline. It’s about being fully present to the moment.
And also as a listener, especially seeing a live show when you’re forced to be fully present to the art, it brings you into a deeper place of connection. I mean, that’s the reason why we’re doing this whole issue I would say, music as an antidote to our hyper-stimulated, busy lives – to our short attention spans and fast-paced, reactive ways of communicating. I wonder if it’s a certain kind of music that has this effect? Or is it all music?
My grandmother used to say, “What is life without music?” But she also would get cross at me when I would practice my, like, avant-garde works. She’d say, “Monique, music should be a sweet sound.” It is a matter of taste – the music that is going to help us find that flow of being in the moment and feeling a release from the tyranny of time. We don’t want to be aware of time. We want to forget time, to feel timeless. That’s when we are buzzing with the insects and thrumming and alive. We all want to feel, like Joseph Campbell said, the rapture of being alive. But for my grandma that was not Miriam Hyde, which is what I was vibing at the time. This big booming crashing piece. No, no. Much disapproval. But I loved it. It made me feel alive. It’s a personal thing.
Yes! I was just calling back to our choir days actually. I remember when we’d have our choir sessions together how elated I felt after them. This really light feeling, and buzzing. I think it’s an effect of being in the moment, that rapturous feeling of aliveness as you say. Is that something you get every time you’re making music?
Yeah, as long as I’m all in and not just pushing down notes. I mean, singing is another level again. It’s so physical. It’s got the breath, you’re getting a workout in a way as well. And you’re circulating oxygen, constantly taking in great gulps of air and refreshing the oxygen in the body. Also you are melding sound vibration with the others you’re singing with. So that’s like next level flight and connection. And you’re all vibrating together, which I think is tremendously exciting for us because we are humans that thrive in togetherness. So that’s a special experience in and of itself. Daniel Levitin has done fascinating research on how singing has been a vital ingredient in survival and evolution. Then there’s just that good feeling of playing music with others. There’s nothing else quite like it. It’s fun to sit around a table with friends and drink wine and have a meal. But playing music together is another kind of communion that to me is just magical. During lockdown I said to myself that I was relieved to not have to go out and gig all the time, it was nice to stay home. But as soon as it lifted, boy was I out there on every stage like a seagull to a hot chip. It actually is a high. Fun to do.
So I’m keen to know a bit more about your family and your story to becoming a musician. You mentioned your grandmother was musical or loved music?
Yeah she loved music. She always had a piano. She grew up in Wagga and her parents ran the pub there. There was a piano in the pub and a piano at their house. And she taught herself. She would play the songs of the day. Both my parents played piano but neither had the opportunity to study it and put it front and centre. In high school, I played drums, bass, the harp, the saxophone, bands, orchestra, choirs. I took it for granted that it was a big part of my life. I studied law after high school but after two years I realised, Oh hold on, there’s not a lot of music going on and this feels really dry and arid as a life. The plan was to be a human rights lawyer. I said, “Oh well I’ll just put the law on hold. I’ll go off and do some music for a while so I can juice myself up. Then I’ll go back to the law and feel happier.” Never did get back to that law degree. I started out more in the classical world, then I moved into jazz, roots, blues. Then when I was 26 I got a Fulbright scholarship to move to New York and study. So I lived in New York on and off over a 10-year period.
I want to know about those years! The New York years.
First thing I did was get a job at the Village Vanguard waiting tables because it was expensive to pay the door fee there and sit. No student could afford to go and hear all the players that I was there to hear. So that was my cunning plan. I worked there for a year and got to hear most of my heroes as they moved through. Tommy Flanagan, Clark Terry, Carla Bley, Bill Frisell, Maria Schneider. It was a beautiful education in what I loved and in what I didn’t love. I moved there with this far-flung culture cringey belief that anything American was good because it was famous and I’d heard about it. So that got deconstructed. When you’re waiting tables you really get in touch with how the music feels in your body all night for six nights a week. That was really powerful.
So the bubble was popped?
Yeah absolutely. It was like, “Oh, I really hate that shit. I’m not going to listen to that again!” Or, “Yes.” One big yes was Tommy Flanagan who played in Ella Fitzgerald’s band, a masterful bebop piano player and beautiful melodicist. Working the room when he was playing was like tiptoeing through a field of tulips. Everyone was happy and upbeat. Then there was this more modern serious young insect who played the week after Tommy and exuded a colder, starker feeling. More complexity, more darkness. Less tips. New York was an education in life. It’s fantastic if you can do that in your twenties – go away and find yourself somewhere else without your history and your family and all the people who’ve known you being close. A chance to just be that adventurer with a swag on your back heading out into the world.
Incredible. So in terms of refining your personal musical style, you mentioned you started off learning classical. Then started to explore jazz and roots. Did you land somewhere specific? Or are you constantly evolving as an artist and the genres you dabble in?
It’s definitely an ever-moving feast. I’m very greedy with my musical tastes. I want everything. So I’ve got a few irons in the fire. TIDES represents my contemporary classical alter ego. Then I’ve got a band called Monique and The Dopamine, which is my inner New Orleans jazz gangster. We do Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Lil’ Hardin, Bessie Smith. I write songs in various genres and there are a couple of singer-songwriter albums – more pop/roots – in the works. I also really enjoy just being part of someone else’s band.