Shout Sister Shout: Briana Cowlishaw (IWD 2021)
Approx. 10 minute read
I first came across Briana Cowlishaw’s music on her latest album, Fjord, where she teams up with her long-time collaborator, Gavin Ahearn. Briana’s voice totally enticed me- it is so enchanting on the classic numbers Gentle Rain (originally bossa nova number written by Luiz Bonfá) and Stompin’ at the Savoy (written by Edgar Sampson, a popular number played by big bands in the dance halls of the 1930’s). I find Briana and Gavin’s renditions of these classic tunes to be so fresh and it is clear they have a great sensibility about the music they create.
I was pleased to see Fjord on Eastside Radio’s album of the Week, this just further validated the musical crush I had on Briana’s voice. Read on to learn more about Briana’s journey in music thus far and where she’s headed.
Sonia de Freitas: Hi Briana, how are you and where does our interview find you today?
Briana Cowlishaw: Hi Sonia, I am currently in Yarralumla in Canberra, staying here for a few days with family. I teach Jazz and Contemporary Voice at the Australian National University (ANU) once a week, so travel down here from Sydney regularly. I am well today, thank you 🙂
SdF: Can you tell me about your journey in music? When did you know that you were going to make music your career?
BC: I have always loved all things creative, sporty and outdoors. When I was in primary school, dancing and clarinet were my creative outlets. Then moving through high school, I developed a fascination for singing and was intrigued by the possibility of making singing and music into a career. I left school and went to The Australian Institute of Music (AIM) in Sydney, primarily because I wasn’t aware of other pathways at that time. My singing teacher at my high school (Pymble Ladies College) recommended AIM as an avenue for pop and contemporary music, so I auditioned, got in and off I went. In hindsight, it’s interesting I didn’t even consider the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, seeing as I have chased jazz my whole career and the jazz language (especially improvisation) has impacted everything I do in music and how I think about music. Since my Bachelor of Music degree, it’s been a real adventure in songwriting and making albums, travelling to New York and London and back, starting collaborative music projects with colleagues, touring to South East Asia, Norway and Europe and now I am currently doing a Music Therapy Master degree… so the journey continues.
SdF: Is there anything particular you do that is special to your creative process? A particular ritual or method of working?
BC: That’s an interesting question and choice of word. ‘Special’ feels like it implies some kind of importance or elite-ness. As creativity is so mysterious to me, my feeling is most artists are trying to solve the mystery every step of the way, with trial and error, one failure followed by a success, followed by another failure, followed by another success and the process continues. I am sure many things I do in my process others do or have done in the past, however, even if we all use similar resources and methods, we do arrange and approach them differently based on our interests and skills. For me, I am a visual learner and very intuition-based in my creative process. So when I am learning something intellectual (e.g. reading about Music Therapy theorists), I have to write out what I am learning onto a colourful mind map, pair it with a related video or listen to a podcast so my brain can take in that information. When I am writing music, I love to give myself some kind of inspiration seed or parameter, a deadline, then follow my nose. For example, I’ll say to myself “explore 5/4” or “start with a bass line” or “what instrument can I use to create the soundscape that matches this feeling of pain/discomfort/joy”? That’s so interesting to me, so I dive into the question and see what happens. It’s always really hard finishing an idea, saying a song is finally ‘finished’, so a deadline is super helpful with that too. I really consider all my compositions to be continual works in progress, knowing, at some later date, I’ll probably change the form, chords or lyrics to mould with a new setting or project.
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?
BC: This differs depending on the project and style of music. For jazz stuff, I often go to my long time collaborator (and one of my great friends), Gavin Ahearn. He’s so skilled and creative in his composition and arranging approach and also kind of gets me and where I have come from, so he is great to bounce ideas around with. I have also done quite a few collaborative projects with Gavin, including The Wires Project (a multi-media improvised based project) and The Helgeland Suite (a suite of music commissioned and written for the Hemnes Jazz Festival, Norway), so we have a good practice for working together and supporting each other, including honest feedback.
For my folk/electro-pop solo project Fetherstone, I often go to my girl power Aussie support group; 4 of us who are singers/writers/teachers living in Australia, Germany and England. We check-in online via video chat on a semi-regular basis to discuss life, personal and professional dilemmas, ask for advice, rant about things we find not cool in the music industry and share creative works in progress. It’s an extremely empowering group of women I am so blessed to have in my life. I often send them songs and mixes for feedback and they are always there to help me reflect on new work.
SdF: What was the first song that you remember making an impact in your life and why was/is it so important?
BC: The songs that come out quickly and seemingly on their own accord are always very influential experiences. I went to see Vince Jones, an Australian jazz vocalist and composer, perform in Sydney in 2010, I am racking my brain to think where this was, either SIMA or the Basement. I have seen him so many times now it’s a bit of a blur. But this was the first time I had seen him perform and I was moved by his way of narrating before and after songs, weaving his songs together with patter that was supported musically by Matt McMahon (Australian jazz pianist) improvising on the piano. He took the whole audience on such a journey, and everyone hung off his every word and every intended silence. I had never really seen anything like it. I went home, jumped on my little dodgy keyboard and wrote a song in about an hour called Vince’s Call, which I recorded in New York the following year on my first album When Fiction Comes To Life.
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?
BC: Arriving in New York in 2010 as a female jazz singer, and trying to compete with the improvised jazz cultural traditions of outcasting vocalists, wasn’t easy. I felt very intimidated trying to get up at jam sessions, often told I wasn’t allowed or told I was allowed then never given the invitation to get up once they started playing. I kind of found ways to make it work, for example finding venues that were more welcoming and supportive and going back there regularly. I also tried to surround myself with musicians that would assist and support me to get up and sing. In amongst all of this, deep down I was terrified most night of singing with and next to those other heavyweight jazz instrumentalists, but I was 21 and had travelled halfway across the world to sing, so I wasn’t going to back down fast. I actually look back at my 21-year-old self now and think I was quite brave then, braver than I am now. When I need a bit of a push these days, I try to tap into that naive, ballsy attitude I had back then.
There are many challenges that women face in the music industry, both performing and advocating for equal opportunity, I don’t even know where to start. I think behind all that we do as women, we need to back and believe in ourselves and maybe most importantly, support our female peers. I know I feel so much stronger when we have other like-minded people and women who remind me of my worth and rights, even when I forget sometimes. We do have to keep trying, keep advocating for equal opportunity and equal respect in the music industry so that the cultural habits keep shifting over time.
SdF: So, what’s on the horizon for you? Any projects you’re working on or new releases to share? Include links if appropriate.
BC: I am currently working on a new album for my project Fetherstone. I decided last year I wanted to produce an album primarily on my own, recording from home, producing from home and trying to learn a bit more about mixing in the process. I have craved this experience for so long but never seem to ‘have time’ to do it or just avoid it as I am scared to try. I am very passionate about giving it a good crack, because I want to discover how having more creative control of the recording/production phase impacts my songwriting choices and the way my lyrics and message are conveyed as a result. As I can’t develop skills fast enough to finish the album on my own, I am collaborating with a dear friend, Matilda Abraham, who is an Australian singer, producer, writer and generally amazing human being living in Berlin at this time. We jump on zoom, share the project/song I am working on via Ableton and start mixing, producing it further, discussing musical and songwriting decisions and have a lot of fun laughing in the process. I am loving working in this way. It’s slower than I’d like due to the minimal time I have to work on it around my 1 day teaching in ACT, 1 day teaching in Sydney and full-time master degree workload every week, but I am chipping away at it and excited to share it hopefully at the end of this year.
SdF: What is your most memorable performance and why?
BC: Headlining the Chilpo International Jazz Festival (Korea) in 2013 with my 6 piece band was a surreal experience. I had such a blast, learnt a few Korean phrases and tried to top and tail my set by speaking Korean to the audience. I had so much fun playing on the stage to a few thousand people and it’s probably the closest I have come to feeling like a rock-star- rare in the jazz world, so you gotta cling onto those moments 😉
SdF: Musicians come in many “flavours”;pianists, trumpeters, bassists… ; if you weren’t a singer, what flavour musician would you want to be and why?
BC: Double bass player, any day. I am dying to learn. It’s the nicest, smoothest, grooviest sounding instrument ever and it makes my heart melt.
SdF: What advice would you give to any aspiring musicians out there?
BC: Trust yourself. Always lead with a sense of curiosity. Have fun. Surround yourself with people who support you and make you feel good. Be kind to yourself. Try not to rush the creative process. Be realistic and dream big all at the same time! Make time for things other than music that refill your creative juices… I like painting, journaling and catching the ferry 🙂
To hear more of Briana Cowlishaw’s music visit: youtube/brianacowlishaw
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 I interview Alex Silver.
Did you miss the previous Shout Sister Shout instalment? Read Athésia’s interview here.