Picture by Paige Clark
In that space between pop and experimental, between composition and improvisation, between concrete and abstract, Caroline Kennedy makes her music and her visual art.
There are wonders to explore here, she says, but it’s about marshalling the “genesis moment”.
CAROLINE Kennedy will tell you that calling her record, No Language, an improvised album is correct, as it emerged spontaneously around a single microphone with simpatico musicians, but also not quite right when you consider the layer of history which underpinned the recording.
Maybe it’s better to think of that as a truth pitched up somewhere between those two “facts”, which seems appropriate enough for these long, spooling out songs made with her longtime partner and collaborator, Ian Wadley, and Helen Johnstone from Melbourne’s experimental The Garbage And The Flowers.
Originally released as a cassette by Cincinnati label Students Of Decay, subsequently reissued on vinyl, but still little known in Australia beyond Kennedy’s Melbourne circle of art rock and experimental pop, No Language is rough at the edges (with “off-stage” noises, machinery manipulations and the sounds of bodies in action all audible), but delicately beautiful at its core, existing in in a grey, hazy area that sometimes feels like a dream’s tangible but yet ungraspable zone.
This album by Kennedy’s most recent project, Caroline No, is informed by a near 30-year career which included successful ventures in The Plums, The Tulips and Deadstar, and now sees the singer and songwriter in varying combinations of musicians, such as the Dirty Three’s Mick Turner who features on the next Caroline No album.
As with the lineups, Caroline No’s music has become about flexibility and permanent impermanence, and, yes, a kind of improvisation based on trust in the moment.
“I think the people I played with, Ian and Helen, didn’t feel like they were improvising in the sense that as soon as I settled on patterns of chords, very simple chords, and started singing in the way that they were quite used to, to them it wasn’t a really strong experience of improvisation as people would understand it,” says Kennedy.
“But it was entirely spontaneously made up by all of us and for me that meant creating imaginary song structures on the spot, lyrics on the spot, melodies on the spot.”
That didn’t come out of nowhere of course, with Kennedy drawing on her long experience as a writer, and more latterly an academic who devised and teaches a course on the craft of songwriting, and simultaneously a self-declared lover of pop music who was a fan of Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz album and who fell for Frank Ocean’s Blonde “with a deep passion”.
All that has bred confidence in the “feat of trusting intuition, knowledge and practice” on the basis that when you are in what she calls “the genesis moment” it is effectively improvisation.
“I’m not going to lie, it was a moment I felt I had been working towards for a very long time in the sense that I was feeling very much like I could do anything in the moment,” says Kennedy of No Language. “It wasn’t an arrogant feeling; it was just a feeling of ease, which is something I had been working hard for, for a long time. I thought that in my past I had been so ill at ease so often and this was not like that.”
How had she been ill-at-ease previously?
“I was ill-at-ease in Deadstar [the band she formed with former members of Crowded House and Hunters & Collectors in 1995]. I loved it, I was really proud of the songs that we wrote but I often felt very uncomfortable about the direction of the sounds. I felt pressured and ill at ease in the commercial environment I was in.” she says.
“I just didn’t cope really, with good reason. At the time I thought I didn’t cope because there was something wrong with me, but now, I am older and I think I didn’t cope because it was not a suitable environment for someone like me.”
In her concurrent artistic explorations as a painter and sculptor, Kennedy has similarly sought environments where external impositions of structure are no longer an issue.
Her art, with some of its abstract, or less formalised, elements, seems to connect with the philosophical underpinnings of her improvisational approach to creating music. That’s particularly so in that sense of shapes not being fixed across either creative outlet.
“I barely see them as different practices. In fact, I’ve just delivered a PhD thesis and a show about this,” says Kennedy.
“It’s interesting that the people I play music with also do other art as well: Ian is a photographer and sometime painter; Helen writes; and Mick is a painter as well. It’s the way people practice and my intentions for music and visual art are quite similar.”
Kennedy explains that for about six years now she has been academically exploring the limits of conventional forms such as painting and songwriting, recognising that “even when people are being quite radical, they do eventually sound quite conventional I think”.
Untitled, by Caroline Kennedy McCracken
“I’m really interested in how you can be radical within the bones of those conventions. I like the fact that these are historical. I like that people were singing songs and making marks on a surface a long, long time ago.”
There’s something to be said for having a fixed past or structure to bounce off, react to, or fight against. Without them what do you break free from?
“For me, having a very deep exploration of the conventional forms and the rules that apply to it, is a way to describe a future area of practice. I don’t imagine that I have to stick to songwriting or painting for the rest of my life, or that I have to stick to the conventions of them.
“It is not an accident that the songs on No Language are long: when you start to explore conventions in that way and look at what the boundaries of the form are, you start to push out of the boundaries.”