Melbourne singer-songwriter Alanna Eileen appeared on the latest volume of our Beautiful Songwriting series (Volume 4), her moving and lyrically elegant debut record, Absence (Jan 2015), establishing a stark yet majestic style with a reflective, mournful and supremely well realised ambience. A Lonely Ghost Burning caught up with Alanna to discuss nerves, melancholy artistic tendencies and the affects of introversion on her creative output and live performances.
I’m probably most fascinated by human relationships, simply because I find them confusing. I’m quite a shy person and quite introverted, so I often find it difficult to understand people.
Alanna: Since I was about twenty. Up until that point, I was just experimenting and didn’t share it with anyone.
Alanna: I guess, just to be really devoted to whatever kind of art you’re making; sharing it, living it and breathing it.
Alanna: I started when I was sixteen. I was given a guitar, and I think from that point I knew I wanted to write songs, but didn’t feel like I could; I was very critical of what I did. So, it did take me quite a few years before I was confident enough that I could actually do it. I think I’m always quite nervous, because I can be very critical of my own work, but at the same time, I like that it took me a while to develop and that I’m still developing what I do.
Alanna: I tend to write in bouts, so I’ll go perhaps two to three weeks without writing, and then I’ll write maybe three or four songs in one or two days. So, I kind of have lulls and then creative periods, and during a lull, I’ll be reading or working on visual art or poetry, and then songwriting will become my focus again and I’ll write very quickly and quite a lot.
Alanna: It still feels quite frequent, but it is definitely very unstructured, which sort of works with my personality, but at the same time, I think I would like it to be more crafted and more predictable, so hopefully that’s something that I can develop.
Alanna: I think being disciplined and setting aside a time to say, “I’m going to work on songs now and see what happens”, would probably be the best way.
Alanna: Not really – I feel like it’s something I have an option to do, but because I balance making visual art and poetry, and because I also do write quite a lot of songs when I write, it just hasn’t been a pressing issue.
Alanna: They seem to exist very independently, and I can’t do both at once. So, if I’m working on art, I find it very hard to focus on music, so they are quite separate. Writing definitely crosses over, just because of the songwriting, but visual art and music do seem very separate.
Alanna: There might be themes in my writing and in my art that overlap, but it’s not very apparent to me if there are; I haven’t really thought about it.
Alanna: I think the greatest obstacle to creativity, for me, is being critical of myself and self-doubt, which can definitely be quite debilitating. It’s a constant struggle to think that what I’m doing is worth doing and worth being shared, so that’s probably the greatest issue.
Alanna: Well, it’s debilitating to the creative process, because if you can’t suspend your criticism of what you’re doing, it’s definitely an impediment to actually doing it. So, it can destroy you creatively – for me, at least – if I don’t find a way to halt that way of thinking enough to produce the work and feel comfortable with it.
Alanna: I think, just practicing not being judgemental and, also, if I receive positive feedback then that builds my confidence a little, and I think the more I share and the more I stop worrying about what people think of it, the easier it becomes.
Alanna: Well, lyrically, I really love when songs focus on minute details and when they’re very visual and descriptive but in a way that’s quite minimal. I would love to be able to be able to do more of that; just focussing on seemingly mundane aspects of life, but also with the bigger picture. I really enjoy that when I hear it in other people’s work, and I like trying to do that as well.
Alanna: I seem to not be in any mood when I’m actually writing; it’s almost like it transcends any specific emotion, because I become so absorbed by what I’m doing that the song itself takes over and I don’t really feel like I’m happy or sad, but then, when I have finished writing, I usually feel really good and it’s usually quite a happy time.
Alanna: Yes, I think so, and I tend to prefer slower, sad songs, maybe because they have more silence in them… I do tend to gravitate towards sad music.
Alanna: I do, and it’s important to me in music, definitely.
Alanna: I can’t think of anything, specifically, that motivates me to write, except that I’ve always been drawn to being musical. I come from a musical family and I’ve always sung, so it just feels like it’s something that’s a part of me. I’d feel very impoverished if I didn’t have music; if I only had visual art or poetry. I think I’d still be creating, but I would feel lessened by not having music; I just feel drawn to doing it.
Alanna: It’s probably just my taste, I think, and I might just have a slightly melancholy disposition, perhaps. At the same time, I think it just speaks the most to me, and it’s mostly what I listen to so it’s probably just what I’m inspired by.
Alanna: I would like to… I guess I’m so immersed in that kind of music that I feel like some of my songs, to me, sound quite happy, but to other people, still sound rather slow and sad. So, it’s probably something I could work on; I wouldn’t like to just write music that is one specific mood.
Alanna: I tend to not want to daydream too much, simply because I have a tendency to be able to get very distracted by it. I’d rather be creating, and I feel like daydreaming maybe promotes longing for something and just makes you feel sad, but I also think you can be very creative with it and it can be a good thing too.
Alanna: I think, probably visualising beautiful places, thinking about nature and thinking about art, music, people and life. Just everything, basically, that could possibly inspire a person.
Alanna: [laughs] I think that’s probably from the photographers that I was working with on those specific shots; it was simply the style in which they work. I love photography and I love working with photographers, and I think in the future, maybe, I would work with others who didn’t incorporate so much of that element.
Alanna: I love what they do [the photographers from past shoots] and I didn’t think it was a bad thing, but I think anything that’s experimental; I’d possibly like to do more natural photography, maybe without so much of a gothic element.
Alanna: I’m probably most fascinated by human relationships, simply because I find them confusing. I’m quite a shy person and quite introverted, so I often find it difficult to understand people. I guess they’re a source of fascination for me, and that comes into my writing as well.
Alanna: Yeah, that makes sense. I think, with my music, I’m constantly trying to transcend myself and maybe escape myself. So, I’m delving into these observations, but they’re still distant from my personality, and I kind of like that and I guess there’s safety in it. I haven’t really thought about whether the introversion is a protective thing; it’s just how I am and how I perceive the world, so I’m not sure about that.
Alanna: When it comes to live performing, it has been a very big barrier, but I’m finding that with increased experience, I’m getting a lot better at communicating my music in a live setting. It gets easier with time, and I think the more you do, the easier it gets.
Alanna: It’s possible that in the same way it limits my experience in life, it could limit my writing, simply because it’s coming from a limited place. I guess, I don’t have any other perspective to work from because I am that way, so if I was more extroverted maybe my writing would be different or more passionate, but I don’t have the ability to go beyond myself enough at this stage to know how it would change.
Alanna: My more recent songs… I guess, visually, they all kind of remind me of the city streets in which I walk around during the day; where I live and the colour of the sky in this particular part of the world. Just the things that have inspired them – normal everyday things are what come to mind.
Alanna: I think I’m more inspired by non-musical sources than I am by musical ones. I really like reading, so literature – writers like Hermann Hesse and Fernando Pessoa. Even watching contemporary dancing is really inspiring. Looking at really great photography, visual art and just life experiences are all really inspiring for me.
Alanna: Photography is one that really inspires me – just looking at really great photographer’s work, and also baroque paintings, like Rembrandt and things like that.
Alanna: [laughs] That’s okay. Initially, it was the typical artists that most people refer to, like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and artists like that. Then, as I grew older, it was more modern songwriters like Bill Callahan, Joanna Newsom and, these days, it just changes from week to week. I listen to instrumental music, both classical and modern, and experimental and electronic things. All of it inspires me a lot.
Alanna: When I’m writing, I tend to only listen to music that’s very dissimilar to what I do myself, because otherwise I fall into very critical thinking, and it’s easier to keep what I do more original if I limit what I’m listening to when I’m writing.
Alanna: I think I’d rather it didn’t define me as a person so much, simply because I tend to use music as more of a way of transcending my personality than bolstering it. I know that I do worry about how much I’m creating and what it says about me, but I think that the music probably suffers for that because then I’m just trying to use it as a tool for myself, whereas I just want it to exist because music is a lot bigger than me; I’m just a person. I probably use it to define myself, but I don’t necessarily want to. [laughs]
Alanna: [laughs] So, I seem happier now, or in the press shots?
Alanna: Oh, yeah – definitely! [laughs]
Alanna: I think I just have some fairly melancholy imagery happening. It’s not necessarily intentional; it’s just how things are at the moment. Hopefully it will change, as I’m not generally a despairing person. [laughs]
Alanna: [laughs] I think that’s a self-conscious reflex. I don’t tend to smile; I get quite nervous in front of the camera, so it’s probably just that. [laughs]
Alanna: Yeah, I think my live performance is quite intense in the sense that, if everyone’s being very quiet and I’m singing about quite personal things – especially in my more recent songs – it can probably feel a bit overly melancholy, but people tend to respond to it in a good way, so hopefully it’s not too bad a thing. [laughs]
Alanna: I’ve found that’s becoming more the case, the more I play, and it’s so much better to be playing in an environment that suits your style of music and where people are attentive; it really has made things so much easier for me – to play live in settings that are actually in accordance with what I do. I played for a long time in noisy bars, and it just made me even more timid about playing live, so it’s been such a big help.
Alanna: Yeah, I’ve done it so many times. Even when I was a teenager, I played in a duo with my father in a lot of Irish pubs and things, and it was so noisy; it kind of made me dislike playing live, so the change in venues and in audience has made it so much better for me.
Alanna: I started doing that when I was sixteen, and I would mostly just sing traditional Irish songs – my Dad’s Irish. It was okay; it felt like a completely different thing when I started playing solo, just because I was up there on my own with just a guitar – I didn’t have anyone with me – so it didn’t really prepare me. It probably gave me a false sense of security, because when you get up there on your own, it’s a very different feeling.
Alanna: I feel like it represents a fairly specific period in my life, and there are probably a lot of things I would change, mostly about the vocal, but I’m happy with it. I’ve got a lot of new songs and I’m more focussed on them now, but I feel glad that I made that EP.
Alanna: I think it could have been a little more natural, but I got very nervous being in the studio, which I don’t think would be an issue now that I’m feeling more confident. But yeah, just a more natural vocal might have been better, but I’m quite happy with it.
Alanna: I guess, the main thing that scares me is the promotional aspect of it, and because music is something that has been so precious to me for such a long time, I sometimes feel that worrying about how it will be received and how I should work to share it, might surpass or takeover from the actual art of it and that it won’t be the pure thing that it was initially. So, I think what scares me is not being able to find a balance between sharing it and creating it.
Alanna: I’m really looking forward to the next release, simply because it will be an album, so it will be showcasing a wider variety of songs. Some of them are older and some of them are new, and I think what I’m most looking forward to is representing the songs in the best way possible and learning from what I did with Absence.
Alanna: I think I’ll feel really happy to just have communicated these songs, because they feel like the best thing that I’ve done for myself. I think I’ll just feel really fulfilled to have them out there and, to know that I’ve accomplished them, for lack of a better word, will make me feel really good.
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