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Vera Blue – From The Heart

By Madeleine Gray on August 30, 2017 in People

Celia Pavey AKA Vera Blue, wearing EWOL; photographed by Jeremy Greive

Having grown up in country New South Wales, Celia Pavey moved to the big smoke to pursue a career in music. She got her first big break in 2013 on The Voice, placing third, and has since gone on to reinvent herself as electronic superstar-in-waiting Vera Blue. With her recently released debut album, Perennial, lighting up the charts, The Beast was lucky enough to sit down with the Waverley resident during the month and fire a few questions her way…

Where are you originally from?
I’m originally from a little country town called Forbes, out near Orange. Forbes is beautiful. It’s where I grew up. It’s where my parents still live, and my grandparents, my sister, and my uncle. I love it.

Where are you living now?
I’m living in Waverley, right near Bondi Junction. It’s a really good spot.

What annoys you about the Eastern Suburbs?
There’s not much that annoys me, really. It’s beautiful, and so close to the ocean. There are shops, and everyone’s chill. A lot of my family lives here, which is a bonus. Maybe the only thing that would be a negative is that it’s so far from my immediate family. If I had to come up with something else, I’d have to really think about it. I love living in the Eastern Suburbs.

Do you have any favourite haunts in the East?
Yeah, I love Ruby’s Diner. It’s my favourite spot; I had brunch there this morning. It’s a place where I like to take everyone that I know. When I hang out with someone I’m like, “I want to take you to Ruby’s Diner.” I’ve also found a new spot called Bare Naked Bowls in Bronte, and I really, really love their acai bowls.

Plus, Coogee is actually where all of my mum’s siblings live. I love going to Coogee. I generally go to Coogee Café and Coogee Pavilion.

And I just love the ocean. There’s something really calming about it; just being there. A lot of nature around here is really nice. I went down to Centennial Parklands for a walk the other day and I was just so blown away by it. I hadn’t actually been for a proper walk down there, and it was amazing.

Growing up in Forbes, how did your parents influence your musical tastes? I heard your dad is a big Kasey Chambers fan…
Yeah, Dad’s a big Kasey Chambers fan. Growing up in the country had a big influence on the organic energy of the music, and I grew up playing the violin. That was the first instrument that I learnt, and my mum played the organ in church. All of our family would go to church on a Sunday and sing together. Church music is very organic – real organ, guitar, all that kind of stuff.

Also, Dad is a horticulturalist and owned a nursery. At his nursery he used to play a lot of Celtic music. If Mum was busy we’d go there on a weekend, and Dad would play his Celtic music, Irish music, where it was all about whistles and violins and all those beautiful sounds. I think that might have had an influence as well.

My pop loved guitar, and he loved old folk songs. He loved jazz music as well. I’m not a big jazz fan, but we listened to a lot of folk stuff together. Mum loves Simon and Garfunkel, and all those artists from back in the 1960s and 70s. I love all that calming story-telling music, which is just really dreamy.

Did you enter school talent quests and showcases in your formative years?
Yeah, definitely. Every week we’d have a school assembly where we’d have a performance from one of the students playing an instrument. When I was 15 or 16 I started teaching myself guitar. I was listening to Taylor Swift, Angus and Julia Stone. I discovered Joni Mitchell through Angus and Julia Stone. That’s where the ball started rolling with the song-writing stuff. I think when I was 16 I started writing my own songs, and I wrote my very first song called ‘Candle in the Night’. I had one of those ‘this is it’ moments when I was performing at a high school event and people were really getting into it. It was really nice to be able to perform songs that I’d written at such a young age at school, and my sister and I would sing together at eisteddfods in Forbes, and some over in Orange and Bathurst, and places like that. That was really special.

You rose to prominence in 2013, taking third place on television talent show, The Voice; what prompted you to enter the competition?
As I said, I was writing songs from the age of 16, and then I was just doing music as a hobby. I knew I really loved it and I thought, “This feels like my thing.” But in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but think about how hard it would be. After school I had other things that I liked doing, like sports, and hairdressing. Then I realised music was my thing, and my parents were really passionate about what I did, and it sounds really clichéd, but they let me follow my dreams.

I moved to Sydney when I was 17 going on 18 and went to the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) in Surry Hills. I was young for my year in high school; I was the one who wasn’t 18 when it all finished. At AIM I was in a course where it was very much performance oriented. I felt like I knew who I was. I was a little folkish singer writing my folks songs, but I wanted to just go for something, so The Voice was just the perfect opportunity.

I was told by a lot of friends, “Just try something; don’t be afraid.” One day I just went for it. I just logged onto their website and I actually tried to do it a few times. You have to send a video of yourself singing and you have to fill out a form, and the Internet was so bad where I was living, it just wouldn’t work. I was literally going to give up, and then one day it went through. From there I got into the first round, then I got into the next round, and then got into the live auditions. It was just amazing. I loved it.

Knowing what you know now, would you do the whole thing over again? Would you tell your 18-year-old self to go on The Voice?

Oh yeah, one hundred per cent. I think people have the power to know what’s best for them in their own way. I would hesitate to make that call for others, but that was what felt right for me at the time.

It was a really good stepping stone to where I am now, and the time after The Voice gave me so much. I explored different music, listened to different sounds, and it really opened up my eyes to electronic music, and then I fell in love with electronic music and wanted to blend it with who I was, as an artist already, which was a folk artist.

The sounds and genres that you’re traversing right now are very different to those with which we first came to associate with you on The Voice; how did you come to electronic music?
I was a little bit narrow minded, and loved just folk music. I thought of myself as the next Joni Mitchell. I mean I always loved Beyonce, and artists like Rihanna, and whoever was big at the time in the pop scene, but I never focussed on it too much. And then I discovered Alt J, and I was like, “What. Is. This?” Then I discovered FKA Twigs, Banks, and artists that were using electronic music in a really emotional way, rather than it just being a throbbing dance beat. I thought to myself, “I love this; it’s making me feel more than an acoustic song makes me feel.”

There’s something about electronic music, and beat and synths, which draws so much more emotional energy to a song. I went into a writing camp called the Native Tongue Writing Camp, and I met Andy Mack, who is now my producer, and also singer/ songwriter Gossling, and I was a big fan of hers. We weren’t actually going to be working together, but then I got into a session with Andy and it was just the most perfect match. I said to him, “I’ve written this chorus, it’s a song called ‘Fingertips’, and I just really love electronic music, but I don’t know how to produce myself.” He was like, “Well that’s what I’m here for; let’s experiment.”

So we just wrote it as a folk song, completely finished the song, and then we just went hell for leather with production, and really drew a lot of emotions through sounds, like tapping things, and really thick angsty stuff. I met Andy’s younger brother, Tom, who is my co-writer, and we’re like a little team. They work with a sound engineer called Jackson, who is young as well, and we all just work really closely together. I see them as Vera Blue as well. Vera Blue is all of us, not just myself.

So how would you describe the Vera Blue project? It’s not an alter ego like Sasha Fierce, and it’s not a band, so what is it?
I see myself as representing the project, but we are a collective. We started the sound, we started the songs from scratch, we just really experimented. I feel like we created our own little vibe. And when I work with them it’s really like I’m able to open up to them and express my emotions. We’ve made something totally written off real things that are happening, and it’s stuff that you normally wouldn’t really share with other people.

While you were creating your new record, Perennial, you were out of the spotlight living an ‘ordinary’ life, working in a pharmacy, hanging out with friends; how was it balancing this crazy, cathartic, experimental music experience you were having with the normality of a day job?

Over the past couple of years while working on the record I was working in a pharmacy because obviously I wasn’t touring yet. I was also coming out of a relationship, so I just needed to do something else with my time. It was a very emotional phase and period of my life, where I was discovering myself. I was repairing the whole time and I was going through different things, meeting new people, and discovering new things, and that came through on the album. But it’s not a break-up album; it’s a self-discovery album.

It’s interesting that you make that distinction, because Lorde was quick to make it, too, about her new album Melodrama. I feel like that distinction evidences a kind of feminist shift in how female musicians are reclaiming and subverting sexist album tropes. It’s not a girl whining over her ex, it’s a girl learning to be alone, and to thrive; is that a shift you’ve noticed, or consciously participated in?
Yeah, and I think it’s a shift that a lot of people are going through. I think a lot of people hear an album and just go, “Oh, it’s got love songs,” and it’s automatically a break-up album. I don’t know whether any album is really a break-up album. It’s always about what someone’s been through to overcome it as well. The album is really about learning to be okay with being vulnerable, too. That’s something that I think a lot of people, especially women, don’t like to recognise in themselves. It’s okay to wear your heart on your sleeve.

There is also harnessing that vulnerability and turning it into a ‘f**k off’ kind of empowerment song. There are two songs on the album that stick out for me in that regard, ‘Lady Powers’ and ‘Regular Touch’; can you tell us about them?
It’s actually ‘Regular Touch’ that I love talking about right now, because it was written in the very early stages of Perennial, where I’d just come out of a relationship, and I felt like I really couldn’t break free from the chains of feeling sad and in pain. It’s funny, in that song the person that I was singing about is kind of who I am now. I feel so content, I feel so happy on my own. When I wrote the song I wanted to feel that I didn’t need that attention or affection to feel complete, or to feel loved. And now I’m there. So it’s crazy that we’re just releasing that song now because I’m connecting to it more than ever, even more so that when we wrote it.

‘Lady Powers’ was really fun, we wrote that quite recently actually. I was going through a period where I was feeling a little disrespected as a woman. It wasn’t so much an industry thing. It was more the relationship thing, and feeling like I was being thrown around, or having to change for someone to meet their requirements. And no one should ever change for anyone else to make them happy. ‘Lady Powers’ was written from realising that you shouldn’t have to use your body to be respected as a woman.

When Tom and I started writing that I think I said the phrase ‘lady powers’ in a conversation we were having and he was like, “Huh, what’d you say?” And, I was like “lady powers”, referring to my body, and he was like, “Let’s start writing a song!” He just started writing on the guitar, and we were having a conversation and he was like, “I’m pretty sure this is the worst song we’ve ever written or the best song we’ve ever written.”

You were saying that ‘lady powers’ aren’t necessarily about using your body, but clearly aesthetic is an important part of the Vera Blue project. How does your visual aesthetic complement and strengthen the music?
I feel like with the folky stuff, there’s always gonna be that organic vibe, just being who you are, just normal, natural hair, whatever. But then with the electronic thing, I feel like it had such an energy – it’s colourful, high fashion, angsty. There’s just so much you can do with certain sounds, and then with the visuals as well.

You’re currently touring and performing all the songs live from your new album, which must be a very different experience; Is it cathartic, painful, both, or neither?
It’s a bit of both, I guess, because I think there’s something really special about the word ‘perennial’. The whole concept of the album is that I’m always going to be living within this album. I’m always going to be remembering moments from past relationships, and looking back on them and realising that maybe they haven’t mended, and things are just going around and around.

When I perform the songs live I’m totally in the song; I’m not thinking about anything else. It’s something that just happens, and I’m in that moment of the song, and almost reliving what I’m thinking about, or feeling. It’s really special to be able to connect with people in that way, because we’re not alone, and I’m not alone. Everyone’s feeling these things and it’s just totally normal.

Is the Australian music scene a good place to be?
It’s super exciting. I love Australian music. I love being in the Australian industry. I was just at Splendour in the Grass and the energy back stage, and the energy out in the audience as well, was something else. I was lucky enough to spend some time relaxing, watching the music just like a normal festivalgoer, and it was just awesome. I feel like the music industry is just super fun too. I’m really good friends with a lot of people, and lots of women especially, like Montaigne for example. There are just so many amazing people that I’ve connected with.

Do you have any role models, inside or outside of the industry?
My mum. She’s a really big inspiration of mine. She’s a very strong woman; a very positive and passionate woman. I really look up to Joni Mitchell as an artist, and as a person. I’ve never met her, and it’s okay if I don’t, but I love my idea of who she is now. My sister and my friends are role models, too.

In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Celia Pavey/Vera Blue in ten years time?
I don’t know. I’m one of those people who is in my head, not in the future. I very much take things day by day. I guess I would love to just be touring. Maybe it would be cool to have a family, but music will always be something that I’m going to be doing, whether I’m writing songs for other people, or I’m still touring as Vera Blue. I love everything about it.

Vera Blue’s debut album, Perennial, is out now…