“I’ve never given childbirth, but it’s (making her solo album) the closest thing I’ve felt to birthing something that was completely my own. And it was a very difficult, difficult birth. I didn’t have any drugs (laughs), and it really hurt.”
After winning a Triple J competition in 1996 at just 13 years old, Ella Hooper, the front girl of Killing Heidi, became an Australian rock pop sensation. And having won four ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association Music) awards in 2000, along with Aussie golden groups such as Crowded House, Silverchair, and Jet, Killing Heidi are forever etched in Australian music history. Now, eight years since the band split up, and after an ongoing collaboration with her brother, Jesse, I caught up with Hooper to talk about the wisdom that comes with turning 30, female empowerment, and her first ever solo album, In Tongues.
I don’t think many people can boast of beginning their career at 13 years of age. How do you think that shaped you into the adult you are today?
I started my career at 13 and I’m now 31. So just flip it. I’m the inverse of that now. I think it’s given me some real gifts and real insights. Because I started so young, I’ve already been on ‘the wheel of fortune’ so many times; had some really really good times and had some really, really hard times. So because I’ve already experienced quite a few ups and downs, I am now really accepting that my career and life are always gonna be like that. So, I think it’s given me a pretty good outlook on not freaking out when things don’t work because there’s always another chance and always another way to skin the cat.
What was it like ‘coming of age’ in the spotlight?
It definitely had its pros and cons. Its a bit odd when people see your awkward growing pains and your pimply face and your greasy hair and your bad fashion choices that never go away, thanks to Google images. But in another way, that’s also made me resilient and accept who I am—yes that was me wearing the bright green lycra at the The Big Day Out (famous Aussie music festival). It gives you a bit of healthy detachment, like, yeah, that’s just what 15 year-olds do. You know, honestly, I don’t know any other way so it’s hard to know what it would have been like growing up not in the spotlight. And there’s this strange thing—I sort of always suspected it was going to be that way, and so when we did get quite successful and had a lot of attention, I stepped into it not fighting it. It just felt natural. And I know that’s a weird thing to say ‘cause it’s quite an unnatural thing,to be famous, but I feel like I was like, yep, I know what to do with this! Maybe it was from a past life. Maybe it was due to having such great parents. I think I coped pretty well compared to many of my contemporaries.
You seemed to have had a very strong sense of your own image when you were very young (at a time when most of us are clueless). Was that in fact the case? And if so, why do you think that was?
I think singers and performers in particular have a pretty good front. But I think I wanted to be good role model and not get too caught up in trying to hide my teenage bumps and lumps and crooked teeth. So I think people were like, “whoa, she’s so confident, she’s so at ease with who she is.” But again, I think I had this odd, readymade awareness that it was important that I don’t conform to all of those beauty standards and pressures from record companies to straighten up; straighten the hair, straighten the teeth, straighten everything! I thought, no, let’s not straighten everything!! ‘Cause it’s really important to have another option out there. Even though at times, I did feel shy about having crooked teeth or having a few extra rolls around the middle.
How do you think your music and you as a musician have evolved since then?
Lots, lots, lots! I think I’ve been on a real growth spurt in the last three years but I have had some stagnated periods when I’ve gone, oh, you know, my songwriting’s really not going anywhere; I’m sort of writing the same thing… I wasn’t impressing myself, put it that way. But over the last three years, I felt like I’ve been back in the swing of it a bit more, and making In Tongues with Jan (Jan Skubiszewski, producer) was a real turning point, and hugely inspiring to change my habits, mix up my genres, and work with someone new, and that just made me feel completely inspired again. So I’m still running with that now. I’m writing everyday.
How did you work through that period of stagnation and where did the inspiration for In Tongues come from?
I had to confront some things that had outstayed their welcome. And even though they were things that were once really fantastic, like my working relationship with my brother (Jesse)—whom I adore—I needed a change and I needed to sort of not work with him just to see what I could do in a different setting. So changing up that relationship was really confronting for me. And since that was my main point of stagnation—I was stuck in that work format—I spoke to a couple of friends who were psychologists—because I’m a big believer in asking people for help—and they talked me through it for about a month, and then talked to my brother about it eventually. And of course, it was nowhere near as dramatic as I’d built it up to be. He went, alright then, good luck. (Laughs.) And then within a week or two, he was the one driving me to the studio and saying, yeah, Jan’s a fantastic choice. And so rather than my fear of letting him down, it was actually the opposite—it sort of set us both free.
I’m really interested in womanhood and women who valiantly embrace the acquired wisdom that comes with getting older (rather than those who grasp onto youth). How has turning 30 been for you?
I would not go backwards if you paid me! I think the ‘turning 30,’ the phrase , and the supposed weight of that number, it was a concern only in my insecure ‘industry’ mentally. I thought, oh shit, pop singers aren’t meant to turn 30; they’re not allowed to go over 27, at which stage they should probably die if they want to be immortalized (laughs). The rockstar death age is 27. So yeah, 30 was a bit scary until the day finally came. And it’s been absolutely brilliant ever since. I’m finding I’m sharing this with so many women who, after they turn 30, are free and feel a whole new sense of empowerment. It’s that late 20’s squeeze. It’s so brutal on the psyche. You know, where should I be? What am I about? And of course, having kids and getting married and all that stuff. I have a relatively young mum, and so I thought that life would be very, very different at 30 when I was a kid, so readjusting my head to that, you know… I don’t even have a boyfriend now—my relationship broke up last year—so I’m single and 31, but I’m making music and I’m really happy. I found that I didn’t need those things at all to be happy.
Ad it’s really not fair to compare ourselves to our mothers because, generationally speaking, we’re just so different.
I agree, life was so different for them. We didn’t grow up in the 60’s or 70’s, we’re in a different era. Yes, our lives are a lot less locked down than our mums’, but I can honestly say that I have had my life changed many times and it will probably change again and again. And so the blessing of not being locked down is that we can be open to change and go, “hey Viva, hey Ella, would you like to go overseas tomorrow?”
Would you ever get botox or ‘work’ done, and what do you think about that whole image culture?
Hmmm… It’s tricky, I don’t really have a stance. I guess my stance is that it’s up to the individual. I guess I got my teeth straightened and I do like to, you know, look nice, because we’re a little bit vein (giggles). I’m a staunch feminist but knowing where modern culture is going—we’re in a very physical era—I wouldn’t want to lose any young feminists at the cost of sounding too anti-botox. I don’t think it’s a road to fulfilment or the best way to feel good about yourself because inside out is probably better than outside in. But I don’t have a heady stance on it because I feel like I just want to support women first and foremost.
What does the idea of feminism mean to you and how, if at all, has gender inequality (or equality) affected your life?
Feminism has definitely been a constant companion. Ideas around feminism and ideas around my industry being heavily male dominated. Lots of the top dogs are old, white men, and it’s not looking like it’s changing. I find it very disheartening, I find it very frustrating, and I’d love to somehow do something about it in my lifetime. Or start contributing to doing something about it. Because it’s like, who knows music better than women? We are some of the best music makers and the most passionate music lovers, and the industry (record companies and labels) doesn’t represent us. I’d love to see that shift; that is the people who sign artists and run labels are women.
Given the rapid changes in the music industry, how does an artist remain current?
Being friends with the internet (laughs). Which took me a long time. I was a bit late to the party—as you know, I don’t even know how to Skype! But I think an artist can stay in touch by being empowered by social media, hugely. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, online magazines (like SheRa Mag!)—I really think that’s the way of the future.
Who’s your idol?
Vali Myers and Mirka Mora—local Melbourne artists who lived these vivacious, bright lives and have encountered all sorts of adversity. I also love PJ Harvey. I think the fact that she’s making her best music at 42 is just so fucking inspiring. Oh, and on a younger scale, I’ve been obsessed with Rookie Mag and Tavi Gevinson. I’ve been following her since she was 12. She is amazing. I don’t know what she is drinking or smoking but she is not normal.
If you could be anything in the world, other than a musician/singer/songwriter, what would it be?
A visual artist.
Why is Melbourne such an awesome place to visit?
It’s an inviting scene. It’s well known as an art city, but it’s unlike many art cities that can be a bit cliquey and hard to connect with real people. I find Melbourne to be not very ‘sceney.’ Classy but not cliquey.
What’s the silliest thing you’ve done all year?
I just spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds) getting my dark brown hair slowly died blonde. Really nice, balayage, Bridget Bardot, classy. And then I went swimming in the pool and it’s now bright green.
The awesomest thing?
Released an album! I’ve never given childbirth, but it’s the closest thing I’ve felt to birthing something that was completely my own. And it was a very, very, difficult birth. I didn’t have any drugs (laughs), and it really hurt. But now it’s done and I’m really happy.
What’s that daggy track or band you listen to when cleaning your house but would never admit to?
Daphne and Celeste, Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child—the really early stuff.
Ella Hooper’s album In Tongues is out now and available on iTunes.