Women We Love: Ella Hooper
Posted by hannahcolman on November 9, 2008
In 1996, thirteen year old Ella Hooper and her fifteen year old brother Jesse played their first acoustic gig at the Violet Town Arts Festival. Five years down the track, the siblings were multiple ARIA award winners, and APRA songwriters of the year. Thanks to a timely Unearthing (by Triple J), a deceptively simple first single (the spectacularly catchy ‘Weir’) and a heap of hard work recording and touring; their band Killing Heidi won legions of fans across the country.
Killing Heidi’s debut album ‘Reflector’ went to number one on the Australian charts and in 2000 the band took out a tidy four ARIA awards. Things got a little hairy when Ella had to have an operation to remove the nodules that had boorishly decided to inhabit her throat, but thankfully she recovered in time to receive the APRA Songwriter of the Year award in 2001 (with Jesse).
These days, Ella and Jesse front The Verses, a six piece band whose sound represents a return to the siblings’ roots in acoustic-based tunes. Country girl (she grew up in rural Victoria’s Violet Town, population 1460) turned city slicker, Ella hasn’t forgotten where she started out – this becomes apparent when listening to the fabulously soulful sounds of her latest project. She took some time out from rehearsals to chat to The Dawn Chorus about making music and keeping it real in an image-obsessed world.
The Dawn Chorus: Do you see yourself as a role model for girls looking to get into music?
Ella Hooper: I guess through sheer force of time spent in the industry I get that role or title or what have you of role model… but I don’t know if I always act appropriately to deserve it… I do get quite a bit of MySpace correspondence on that topic – girls saying that I am why they started singing or started a band, and it always surprises and touches me. I’m so honoured to have had an influence and hopefully contributed a positive example. I do think we need [positive female role models in the industry], I certainly had many female artists that I looked to as a young ‘un for inspiration.
TDC: How do you feel about the pressure on women, especially those in the entertainment industry, to look a certain way?
EH: I think the pressure on women now is intense. I look at some of the gossip and fashion magazines around at the minute and cannot believe how degrading and judgmental and generally freaky they’re getting! To me it’s creating a climate of seriously unhealthy body image, depression and anxiety in both the sensitive young and the long-term, worn-down older readers. And worse still, we’re starting to see it all as ‘normal’. Like, “that’s just how it is when you’re famous.” I don’t think we should be so concerned with these famous people on the glossy pages, but more so think about what the obsession with them is doing to us. Botox, lipo, boob jobs… plastic surgery in general is becoming so alarmingly commonplace, and yes, I think it starts with women in the media who buckle first and set a bad example, normalising it, even making it appear to be another ‘luxury’ to aim for. I think if we’re not careful and things don’t change we’re going to create a physical and mental health crisis for the next generation of young women.
TDC: Have you had any experiences where the media has portrayed you in a less than flattering light?
EH: I think I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard – I haven’t encountered too much scrutiny. But I’ve also chosen my media carefully. If it doesn’t have to do with music, or an issue I care about, I don’t do it, generally. I never talk to men’s magazines let alone do shoots for them, as I’m just really uncomfortable with that world. Lots of the mainstream media doesn’t sit well with me, really, so I just try to avoid it! If I had always gone to every opening or premiere and used ‘celebrity’ a bit more then I’m sure I’d have had a harder time.
TDC: Do you think growing up in the country has changed the way you think about yourself as a woman in the public spotlight, or the way you might judge others in the entertainment industry?
EH: Growing up in the country seems to have been a plus actually. I’ve got a strong sense of self, and my character was formed with not many people around, not too many opinions. Maybe it’s odd that I am so comfortable in the spotlight, and in the hustle bustle. I just don’t care too much at the end of the day. I can take it or leave it. I really try not to judge myself by media reactions to what I do or what the cool set say, I know it can be quite hard going for people who do care and feel the need to keep up appearances, maintaining their ‘cool’. Too tiring for lazy me! I try not to judge anyone else in the industry, and try to be supportive rather than competitive. But I do think I have a lucky charm in my upbringing which was just so casual and fun, I know whatever happens I can trade it all in for just as much of a good time in the bush!
TDC: Growing up, what bands did you listen to?
EH: Pre-Triple J, it was a blend of amazingly good music like The Band, Dylan, Neil Young, The Pogues, Pink Floyd, Richard Thompson, The Beatles and Nick Cave. Post-Triple J, I feasted on Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Hole, P.J. Harvey, Liz Phair and some good punk like Propagandhi.
TDC: Which female artists inspire you most (past and present)?
EH: I love the ones that had their own thing going on, from Billie Holiday, Emmy-Lou Harris, Tracey Chapman and Joni Mitchell; to P.J., Tori Amos, Erykah Badu, MIA, Feist and Joanna Newsom. Gillian Welch is a huge inspiration. All these ladies are quality musicians; it’s their total uniqueness that I love.
TDC: There are plenty of female solo artists on the charts, but not all that many bands with girls fronting them. Why do you think this is? Are girls less likely to step up or is it difficult to find an audience?
EH: I’m really not sure why… Could it be that still there are less girls learning band type instruments, like guitar and bass, therefore lessening the chance of them writing songs and becoming band leaders? I would love to think that they’re getting better and better at stepping up, but maybe they just don’t have the ‘chops’ yet… I don’t think it’s a lack of audience… It’s still exciting to find a girl rocking out in a band isn’t it? People dig it. Where are all the new Chrissies (Amphletts, Hyndes…)?!
TDC: Do you have any advice for girls who are thinking of getting behind the microphone?
EH: Make it unique! Try and find your own voice, and not your idols’. So many bands and singers are just paying tribute, but that doesn’t seem to make for a very long ride career wise and can be limiting, so try and cook up something fresh! From your own hearts and minds! And just get into it. I think there’s nothing better than watching/hearing a muso who’s totally lost in it, digging it. So let go. Self help book anyone? Ha!
TDC: When you and Jesse began creating The Verses, did it feel like starting again, in a way? In terms of re-creating your style and finding a new fan base?
EH: Yeah, it definitely did feel like starting again, and starting from scratch! Which I love. No mission statements, no record company wishes to grant, no actual plan at all. So it was extremely freeing, I think, for me; as a person and a songwriter. I don’t think we set out to specifically recreate our sound, it always feels more gradual and natural when you are still inside the process of the change, but now as I look back over the past year and a half spent putting the band together I can see how much we have changed and how distinctly different this new thing is. It’s very exciting actually! In terms of fan base, it’s hard for me to tell how much the old influences the new, at this stage we’ve got some “old schoolers”, as in old KH fans whose support is amazing and we greatly appreciate it, and some new faces are popping up regularly too… everyone’s welcome!
TDC: Back in the Killing Heidi days, it was you and three guys. There must have been some serious testosterone on tour and in the studio… how did you find it?
EH: Honestly, it was extremely fun but also pretty crappy at times. I think I learnt to subvert a lot of normal female reactions to things, which is maybe not ideal. I’m a pretty outspoken girl, but many a time I just gave up on trying to bridge that communication gap between me and the boys, as it was often quite a jump, which made for some lonely times. I’m incredibly close to Jess now, but in Killing Heidi it was harder to connect and get along… but that’s also probably due to my age at the time too.
TDC: And now, you and Mads (who plays keys in The Verses) are still outnumbered by boys… how does that effect the dynamic of the band?
EH: This band is poles apart, and that’s one of the reasons I’m loving it so much. Mads is awesome. Not only is she an incredible musician she is an amazing person too, and quite out there which is such a blessing as I’m no longer the only ‘space cadet’ in the band, in fact there’s a few of us now… they make me and my eccentricities look normal, it’s great! We, boys included, do yoga, go shopping, cook soup for each other, counsel on romance matters, it is just so cool. The feminine energy is strong in this band! (I sound like Obi-Wan Kenobi!) And it makes for an awesome and super creative dynamic where anyone can express themselves… do I sound over the moon? I am!
TDC: And finally, Ella, what’s happening with The Verses right now?
EH: Well, the band has embarked on another Tuesday night residency at the Toff In Town, this is our second residency there, so we’re pretty darn happy about that. Hopefully the warm weather will help to bring people out of their homes on a Tuesday, which can be tricky, but the last run was pretty successful, with the Toff extending the dates from six weeks to nine, and we’re hoping to have the same luck again! We’re currently in negotiation re: some very exciting deals for the band, but I can’t say too much about that yet… If it all goes to plan, we could be making our debut album in January, possibly with an amazingly talented producer that we’re dying to work with! And we’ve been chosen to be part of this great ‘shoot the cover’ competition for City Mag Weekly, where three bands – The Verses, Little Red and British India – get a professional photo shoot where the concept has been chosen by the winner of the comp, and they get to come and help style the shoot. That should be a hoot! Some of the concepts have been quite funny! So things are busy! And on top of that we rehearse like crazy, as we want to be as good as Fleetwood Mac some day. Seriously.