THERE’S A BIT OF HISTORY behind Alannah Russack. The good kind.
A big slice of it would be devoted to The Hummingbirds, a proper guitars/tunes/bass/tunes/drums/tunes band for whom Russack wrote, sang, guitar-ed and generally pleased, alongside Robyn St Clare and Simon Holmes in the ancient times of the late ‘80s and ‘90s.
(You can detect their influence on pretty much any Australian guitar pop band for the past 25 years without too much effort. You can also just enjoy the tunes.)
She released her first solo album in 2014, a tasty, almost intimate affair called Lesser Mysteries Of Love, and occasional gigs, but there’s also been art and mentoring, family and business, and generally living in the real world that squeezes out time for indulgences. Indulgences like a music career.
Yet Russack’s kept writing, kept recording, and today releases on streaming services Movement, her third single of the year – like sometimes earthy southern USA, sometimes breezy Sydney pop aeroplanes, each of them is subtly different, each of them a gem – with the prospect of an album in spring.
Only slightly provocatively posed, what’s the reward, what’s the value in doing this for her?
“I must say I am someone who loves the whole process of writing,” Russack says. “I’m one of those people who sometimes overnight gets ideas and writes them down or wakes up with something in my head and sings it into the phone. I love the demands of getting songs down and really getting intricate sometimes in a studio setting. I love that.
“It’s the challenge of it too I suppose. The whole recording and getting music out there, especially for me these days, is quite a challenge. A challenge I like to meet.”
A challenge making art when Philistines have ruled the country for most of the past 25 years, the bottom fell out of the recording industry, and plagues arose to smite the wickedly creative, or at least their rickety business plans for playing live? Get outta here.
“It’s a challenge because I’m really busy trying to run a business, raise a kid with a whole heap of natural disasters in the last couple of years. It’s a push to even get to the studio sometimes, geographically.
Natural disasters is not some artistic hyperbole. Russack and family live north of Sydney on the Hawkesbury which has flooded three times in the past year, and was threatened with bushfires the year before that. It’s an idyllic corner of the state. It’s also now a magnet for even more biblical events.
“We actually lost our house last year, and our business too. Our house went half under and our business [her husband is a metalwork artist] went completely under. We hadn’t quite moved everything out from the flood before,” she sighs. “It’s just been a real mess, for so many people.”
Instead of asking why keep making music, when rays of light are so rare these days, we might be better off asking why wouldn’t you?
“I was thinking about it this morning and thinking I don’t really care how long it takes me to make music. I want it to be authentic and not a pressure. I don’t want to put pressure on myself because there’s been enough pressure around me the last couple of years,” says Russack. “It’s just amazing to keep going from all of that and keep a creative drive. I don’t have the luxury of somebody else paying for it, but I have the luxury of doing it in my time and working on them until I’m happy.”
The icing on the cake is that in the midst of all this world-turning-to-shite, Russack is writing some of the best songs of her career. And from out of, or in spite of, this chaos those songs are not afraid to go raw and personal. None more so than Movement, which is laced with pain and empathy and hopelessness too, in the face of suffering and imminent death.
“It was my genuine feeling for someone who I love dearly, who died from Motor Neurone Disease,” she says. “It was a slow demise, though quite long for Motor Neurone actually. She was my guardian when I lived in Canberra to go to school for years 11 and 12, and also my sister stayed with this beautiful family. Her name is Helen and she was this beautiful, vibrant, gorgeous, intelligent drama teacher at the school.
“After one of the times of seeing her, when it had progressed a great deal, the lyrics came out, the feelings came out. But it actually took a long time to write that song because I felt so strongly about her and the grief and just how unfair it seemed. But it was also me trying to work out how I felt and why I even had any right to feel anything about myself.”
In Movement, that internal struggle incorporating wondering how you would feel in that situation – would you blame someone, would you be angry, could you be stoic? – and crazy thoughts of wishing you could swap with them, even for just one day, comes with this kicker: “There I go again/I’m back to talkin’ about myself.”
Ooft! Almost all of us have been there in some way, and would feel the brutal truth of that self-administered punchline, and Russack doesn’t hide. “I don’t want there to be any doubt. I want to write about true feelings,” she says.
“I was struggling with that feeling of I have no right to feel anything, but you do: you are devastated as well. But then you don’t want them to know that you are devastated and you’re thinking hang on, you’re not the one with that situation.”
And yet, musically, Movement is rich with energy and joy. If it wasn’t such an empty cliché you might even say life affirming, and catchy-as.
“The music, I wanted it to sound almost celebratory. Of her life, and her amazing energy … that she was such an amazing mentor for my sister and I.”
Russack pauses, and then adds quietly: “I spent a fair bit of time on that song, I gotta say, because I didn’t want to be throwing that feeling away.”