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CALL THIS PETTY IF YOU WANT, but I want to take issue with something Leah Senior said late last year in Texas. Asked on Austin radio if she were a flavour what flavour would she be, her first answer was guava but then she corrected it. “You know actually maybe that’s not realistic. Maybe I’d be Weetbix, kind of bland but wholesome.”

Right now I’m not sure which is more offensive as someone who enjoys her work, guava, that meh tropical fruit, or some kind of bland/wholesome mulchy bit of grain. Senior laughs at my offence, but begins backtracking.

“Look, that was towards the end of the tour with King Gizzard [And The Lizard Wizard] and I was completely exhausted,” she says, skating over the fact that someone who is described by her own press releases as a “folk diviner [who] silences audiences with vivid lyricism and a voice that soars with a disarmingly honest Sandy Denny-like clarity” is a frequent touring companion and occasional collaborator with the world’s premier psych/metal/microtonal/groove/whatever takes their fancy but it’s definitely not traditional folk, band of madmen.

“By that interview I think the Weetbix call was probably a reflection on the state of mind I was in at the time.”

Thankfully her current state is chilled, and not just because she is in the Victorian seaside town of Anglesea, this house her new home and home studio, chosen because “it’s one of the towns that’s still bushy and it doesn’t feel like a suburb”. A suburb like Melbourne’s much less picturesque Preston, where her previous record was made.

As quietly as she might sing, and as introspective as she may seem on casual acquaintance, Senior is not bland. Nor is she trying to be wholesome. Take for example the opening lines of Where Am I Now?, a song on her new album, The Music That I Make. “I led you on to thinkin’ I was sweet/‘Cause I sing so high and clean/But I’m selfish as a cat and hungry as the sea/And I cling to my own time like a child up a tree”.

This is someone prepared to be open and unapologetic about her strengths and weaknesses, her ambitions and selfishness as an artist.It made me think of how one of the rule-breaking things Joni Mitchell did 50 or more years ago was to speak openly of her artistic ambition and the selfishness that comes with it, what we have always expected and rewarded in men but thought shocking in women, un-ladylike.

For all Mitchell’s breaking of ground, and decades of increasingly forceful, centred and fearless artists, we haven’t shaken that idea completely so even now it feels bracing to hear it sung by Senior. Was she trying to make a point?

“Only in the sense that it’s true,” she says. “I think with this album I had been struggling to write anything meaningful and I just got to the point where I was like, ‘just say what you mean, come on, just be direct’. But I agree with you and I take issue with how that’s not allowed for women. I was just reading Ninth Street Women [by Mary Gabriel] which is all about the abstract expressionist women in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s and it’s the same deal.

“It was so cool to read about them because a lot of them were so fierce and so selfish and so, yeah, running so hard against the grain, and I’ve always found that really inspiring. And I can relate to it. I can be quite a dominating, well I am very fierce with my time because I do value it and being able to make [my art] is the most important thing to me. And I’m very uncompromising with that.”

It’s interesting because the words we both have chosen to use, like selfish. Society-wide we would, almost as a default with a male artist, say focused or driven. Which is what she is doing, which is what she is.

At the same time, with songs like the title track, Springtime Studio and The Fig, it’s fair to say Senior has a distinct ambivalence about her chosen career: the mechanics, the process after creation she must go through, and the people around it. Can that be resolved or does she just accept ‘fixing’ is beyond her and it has to be managed?

“I think you can’t resolve it. I think there’s always things about the practice that are probably going to be impure and coming from a place that I disagree with. But the bad comes with the good, or it’s necessary,” Senior says. “Some things about my relationship to my own creativity are probably pretty unhealthy, in that I’m too wrapped up in, my self-esteem is too wrapped up in what I make and I care about what people think.

“But then it’s balanced out by the joy that comes with making, the release.”

Four albums in – which is a pretty decent career at any stage, but certainly at the moment feels almost veteran-level – has given her enough time to work out if this is something she can do, to decide whether it’s rewarding. Not financially so much as the satisfaction accompanying it that Senior wouldn’t want to live without, despite what she has to do to make it possible. How difficult or easy was it to come to that understanding?

“I don’t think I’ve ever, since I chose to follow this kind of path, wavered. It definitely can be difficult but I feel like my resolve strengthens over time,” she says. “I’m probably more dedicated than I’ve ever been – to the process, not necessarily having a music career. For me the reward is really in the writing process, so I’ll always do that, and I will always be releasing music. I’m going to try touring the next little while, we’ve got lots of shows coming up and that’s exciting, but that’s always secondary and I don’t know if I’ll always do that.

“But I am so committed to creativity, art practice in general. I could never do anything else.”

It’s not surprising then to hear that music is not the only artistic outlet for Senior. She paints – “I wouldn’t call myself a painter but I definitely love it” – and writes poetry and prose. But I’m curious why, irrespective of the quality – because who is judging her on it? – she wouldn’t call herself a painter if she practices the form and derives value from it.

“The quality does matter to me,” she insists, firmly. “I find it so frustrating: I love it but I hate it. I care way too much about the quality of it. I think it’s just that I don’t have as devoted practice to painting; it’s a little more sporadic. With songwriting and playing music and practising music, I have a real practice.”

The writing on The Music That I Make is so lean, so clear, suggesting Senior understands what she does, how she does it, and why she does it. It feels like a mature record, like someone who has the years behind them and a sense of themselves in front of them.

“This definitely feels like the most honest album that I’ve made,” she admits. “It’s hard to say when it’s yourself but I feel like I have more of a solid sense of myself, both lyrically and musically.”

At the risk of overplaying the Joni reference points here, another side of her brilliance was that while she could identify in detail and pick apart lovers and others around her – see, for example, the almost immediate understanding for a listener of the personality and pathology of the male protagonist in Coyote – she was just as capable of baring her less appealing traits. This is something that Senior seems comfortable doing now too. Or if not comfortable, prepared to wade into it.

“I think to an extent, but it’s still a narrative. I started writing the songs during lockdown and I went through a huge Joni phase. I’ve always loved her but I went so deep into the world and was feeling that there was this music around me when nobody was really revealing anything,” says Senior. “I felt that if I was going to add to the noise in the world we live in it would feel wrong if I wasn’t revealing as much as I could, saying something.

“I think it’s important to try and say something about your shortcomings and your faults, obviously, otherwise you’re not giving the whole story.”

Yeah, sure, except not everyone is able to do that, and even fewer would want to. Particularly when you consider that what Senior is doing is not painting these shortcomings as reasons to be down on herself, but rather a clear-eyed examination of what makes up this person in all her facets.

“I think for me it’s about trying to explore the tension,” she says. “All of those revelations come from this grey area: it’s not self-pity, it’s as much myself trying to figure out my complexities in the writing and trying to weigh up the good and the bad, in that middle ground.”

No guava. No worries.

The Music That I Make is out on August 18 through Poison City Records


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