Shout Sister Shout: Andrea Keller (IWD 2021)
Approx. 7 minute read
Back in the old timey year of 1941, Sister Rosetta Tharpe sang the words “Shout Sister Shout, Tell the whole world what it’s all about”. She was an incredible artist whose unique rompin’, stompin’ gospel style, mixed with her unbound guitar virtuosity, influenced countless unforgettable big name rock ‘n rollers and jazz heads that followed in her wake. She was, sadly, lost to the annals of music history due to unfortunate, unfair and uneducated societal attitudes toward race, age and gender.
Taking inspiration from the words that Sister Rosetta Tharpe hollered in the mid-20th century, I want to tell the whole world about my sisters. These are the women who I have come to know and admire through their art; by playing their sonic sensations on my Jammin’ show, hearing tales of their incredible craft from my fellow music aficionados, or, in some instances, having the privilege to work directly with them and learn from them during creative development sessions in my work at Musica Viva.
March is a special month because on the 8th day, we celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD). To celebrate this notable occasion, I’ve challenged myself to interview as many women working in Australian jazz, improvised and world music as I can. I shall tell a piece of their story, acknowledging their contribution to their chosen art form and to the vibrancy and success of the music industry. All this month, I will be sharing their insights on their creative process, upcoming projects, experience of the music industry and advice for aspiring musicians in my series of interviews, Shout Sister Shout. And with that, I give you my first interviewee, Andrea Keller.
Andrea is an improvising pianist and composer based in Melbourne and is passionate about preserving the performance and creation of contemporary jazz and improvised music. Here’s what Andrea has to say:
Sonia de Freitas: Hi Andrea, how are you and where does our interview find you today?
Andrea Keller: I’m doing well, thanks, Sonia. I’m here at my home in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.
SdF: Can you tell me about your journey in music? When did you know that you were going to make music your career?
AK: I’ve always wanted to be a musician, since I can remember, there’s never been anything else that I wanted to pursue and dedicate my life to. I started piano lessons at around 7. I bugged my parents for a very long time to learn piano before they agreed. I have memories of being at my first ever music lesson, it was a group lesson, and I was SO excited and completely rapt. I continued with piano lessons, participating in Eisteddfods in Sydney and doing AMEB exams. I also picked up flute and saxophone in primary school. Then I went to the Sydney Conservatorium High School for 6 years. It was there that I discovered jazz (as a teenager) and started composing regularly. In my senior years of high school, I had the distinct realisation that I wasn’t interested in pursuing classical music as a career and that rather, I was drawn to the more creative aspects of music making, such as composition and improvisation. This was solidified when I moved to Melbourne as a 19-year-old to study Jazz & Improvisation at, what was then, the Victorian College of the Arts.
SdF: Your album Life is Brut(if)al, one of your latest releases, is so engaging, not only for the intriguing titles of the tracks such as Suicidal Snails and Blip, but for its stellar musical content too. Can you tell me about your creative process when producing this work? Is there anything in particular that you do that is special to your creative process?
AK: Life is Brut[if]al features my band Five Below with special guests Julien Wilson & Scott McConnachie. I started the band in 2017 and this studio recording was made in late 2019. Over that time, we played a gig at least once a month, so we were able to develop a sound, and a way of working together that’s unique to us, and I had the opportunity to workshop and develop the compositions over an extended period of time to consider and adapt, etc. All of the pieces are somehow connected and influenced by my research into the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. I don’t think it’s perceptible, but I’m using techniques that I find in his music, some quite literally, and others more abstractly. I’m fascinated by improvising musicians and how we create music together – as a composer/performer/band leader, I’m excessively concerned with how to negotiate the activity that goes into this, and how to achieve the most satisfying results for the music and all the players. My creative process relies on a lot of TEARS (Trial, Evaluate, Adapt, Refreshed Strategy)
SdF: Who is your sounding board? There must be someone that you trust to give you brutally honest feedback on your music. How do they fit into the process?
AK: My husband, Mick Meagher, who is a great bass player/improvising musician. He has this effortless way of giving me full support, total honesty, all cushioned in love. He sees everything and is incredibly perceptive. I am totally blessed to have him as my partner! We also play together in a couple of projects, which I love for many reasons.
SdF: Have you experienced particular challenges as a female musician? How did you overcome these challenges and what do you think needs to change for others to avoid these challenges in the future?
AK: The challenges I’ve felt as a musician, I’d say, are universal. I try not to speculate on why I might not get asked to do this or that gig, or why I do get asked. I see no benefit in making assumptions, because the truth is, you actually don’t know why certain decisions have been made, unless people tell you. Sometimes people do reveal their thinking, and I must say, I feel just as insulted knowing that I’ve been booked for something because I am a female, and the band/organisation/institution need to demonstrate efforts towards gender equity, as if I were told I’m not being booked because of my gender.
The biggest challenge that has been clearly and perceptibly connected to the fact that I’m female, is the discrimination I’ve experienced because I’m a mother. I don’t think we’ve actually even started talking about this properly yet.
SdF: What’s on the horizon for you? Any projects you’re working on or new releases to share?
AK: 2021 should see the release of two new trio albums, one with Sam Anning & Shannon Barnett, and the other with Tim Wilson & James Macaulay. Both of these albums feature original compositions from all members. I love the intimacy and freedom of the trio format and playing tunes by my colleagues is one of my favourite thing to do. I’ve also started a couple of new bands – PATSy, which features Flora Carbo, Callum Mintzis & Steve Grant is a gorgeous quartet of Piano, Accordion, Trombone & Saxophone, and Wave Riders, a quintet which is on a path to being an improvising heavy metal/doom band – I plan to record both of these bands this year. I was also really fortunate to receive a commission last year from the Monash Art Ensemble, which should be performed and recorded this year (COVID permitting).
SdF: What is your most memorable performance and why?
AK: There have been lots of memorable performances, due to either who I was playing with, or that we were able to reach a certain spirit/flow in the music. But if I had to choose one, it’d be a performance I did at the Moers Festival in Germany in 2007 with the Andrea Keller Quartet. This was the first time I had presented my own music with my own band at a major international jazz festival. We performed in a tent to 2,000 people, and they listened to every note and were so warm towards us. It was a massive thrill and felt like I had arrived somewhere.
SdF: What advice would you give to any aspiring musicians out there?
AK: Persist. Work hard. Don’t make excuses. Dream big and broad, and work out the steps you need to take to get there. Work with people you like, who are nice to you, generous people, who are willing to get in there and make something with you, ignore the others, the music won’t work with them. Always be courageous.
To learn more about Andrea Keller visit: andreakellerpiano.com.au
To buy Andrea Keller’s music and merch visit: andreakeller.bandcamp.com
For more information on International Women’s Day visit: internationalwomensday.com
Keep an eye out for my next interview in the Shout Sister Shout series where Ellen Kirkwood shares her perspective.