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Looking into the 'Crystal Ball' with Woodes

13 November 2020 | 4:08 pm | Emma Jones

Woodes delivers a record which will take you on a journey of self-discovery, reflection and to far away places on her debut album 'Crystal Ball'.

A debut album is a major moment for any artist. It's often the culmination of years of work, and can be used a sonic statement: a moment to declare exactly who they are now after evolving and developing to get to this point. It's a time for reflection, looking back on who they've become, as well as a stepping stone forward as they continue to hone their craft. In the case of Melbourne-via-Townsville's WOODES, all of things rings so true.

Having wielded a solidified, concrete artistic vision from the very first release of her career years ago, Woodes (aka Elle Graham) as had an unhurried approach to her music. She's released a string of EPs, impressive singles, toured and supported artists in venues all over the country, jumped on guest feature spots with artists, had writing and recording sessions with many more, and has steadily built a world around herself in which her creative project now thrives. Having always been figuratively set in a far off fantasy land, the character of Woodes has been a form of escape for Graham (who has always been deeply interested in fantasy and sci fi), and while she may create songs for this character to revel in and take on, her songs are still deeply personal and representative of herself as well. It's this that draws listeners in, and it's her approach to songwriting that makes them stay as she sets out to create music that contains feeling and emotion much like her major influences including Sigur Ros, Bjork, Sufjan Stevens, James Blake and more.

2020 has been a year of great uncertainty, distance, isolation and confusion, but none more so than those in Melbourne and Victoria. In a time when Victorians were under the most severe lockdown measures in the world, Graham was getting ready to release her debut album. Titled Crystal Ball, the album is 100% Woodes: cinematic, bold, daring, thrilling, fantastical. It is also a positively escapist record, whisking the listener off into the Woodes world, which has come in handy for Graham given the few months she's survived alongside her fellow Victorians. Bringing it to life through her love of gaming on Minecraft with Reuben Gore, she's managed to find connection and community in a year when many have lost that completely. She's invited other artists and fans into the Crystal Ball world, using the excess of spare time she's had to create something truly unique and give it her all. Much like her music itself, it's a testament to how connected she is not only to the songs and stories she tells, but to the people involved as well. From the collaborators on the record like Grammy-nominated songwriter/producer Scott Effman, The Kite String Tangle, Alex Somers (the American producer behind one of her favourite records, Valtari by Iceland’s Sigur Ros), through to fans and listeners who joined her in the Minecraft world, Graham makes sure everyone is invited to the world of Woodes, while still maintaining that solidified vision of that world she's had from the very start.

From the uplifting gory of 'Euphoria' to the cinematic and dark 'Queen Of The Night', the absolutely stunning 'Close' (which was the song that kicked off the album process) to more recently with lead single 'Crystal Ball', plus the meticulously produced 'Staring At The Fire' (inspired by her childhood and home) or the escapist bliss of 'Distant Places' made alongside Somers, every song on Crystal Ball is within itself its own fantasy. Wooded glens, campside fires, deserts, castles, battle scenes and more, each song evokes its own intricate imagery for you to escape into, with Woodes herself guiding you, now dressed in armour. Now ready for whatever comes her way, the armour Woodes wears with pride is the knowledge and wisdom she's gained over her five years as an artist, the decades more experience Graham has as a musician, and the self-actualisation and assuredness that can only come from time. It's the steeling of her nerves of working with her major inspirations, the ambition she's cultivated to keep pushing her music, and the triumph that comes from releasing a record in a year she'll never forget. While Woodes herself looks ready for battle, Graham too is now ready, and with Crystal Ball, she arrives fully formed and with a truly excellent body of work she can be proud of. While she might not have a crystal ball of her own to predict the future, there is no denying it looks brighter than ever thanks to her debut album.

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Your debut album is out this week! How are you feeling? It must be such a surreal moment.

It is. It definitely is. I've been wanting to put out for ages, it was done at the end of last year, and I guess as an independent artist, you kind of have that flexibility of being able to say when you're going to put things out. But then everything was just sort of taken out of our control and then pushed back. I'm so happy that it gets to be out this year because we were talking about maybe next year and I was like, "No! I'll make you another album!"

Looking at moving it to next year or even delaying it even slightly, some of these songs have existed for so long that you must just be absolutely itching for them to like finally have their life and have their moments.

Definitely. I think I've had like a big gap between listening to it. I got to listen to it in full just without like the context of the Minecraft world or any other of the things that I've been doing with it and just like to listen to it in full, I'm very proud of it and still the themes really relate to where I'm at right now.

It is such a beautiful record, it's so cinematic and bold and big. Every song feels like a fantasy movie soundtrack or something. 'Close' is one of the songs that I am really fascinated by, it's such a beautiful song. And that's kind of where it all started for you. Even without knowing that, the song really does kind of anchor the record as its centre point. You can hear a lot of the sounds that are used on that song are also used throughout. How was it working around that single and do you normally let other songs inform your approach for newer material? Is that a normal process for you?

In the past because I've only put out EPs, I guess they are sort of central themes. I love listening to albums. I'm a big fan of music in general. So embarking on that process, I did want to have some central sort of narratives or themes that I could base the selection process [off] as well. I did a lot of writing, I wrote about 40 songs to kind of whittle down. Before [Close], I was thinking about that maybe I'll do an EP or just keep dropping some songs in isolation kind of thing. But with 'Close', at first I was thinking it wouldn't necessarily be a single but it needed to be said. It was a very special, sentimental song to me and it just felt like immediately like, "Okay, I'm working on an album now." The 'Change My Mind' tour was maybe a month after that and I straight away wanted to play it live. This was was ages ago, but it was about eight weeks after writing it. I was just so excited about that song and wanted to see what other people thought about it and if it was special to them too. So yeah, I think it being a central theme with childhood and loss and the unknown, that becomes the heart of it. I guess with writing 40 songs, you don't really know that that's the central thing until it's kind of done and then you write the thesis or whatever. There was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of -in the times of uncertainty- just thinking of myself as young Elle just loving piano and just acknowledging that she would be really proud of where I'm at now. That's kind of the most important bit, just that you grow as a human and a writer and producer. That song became sort of the top of the playlist for a long time.

It is such a deeply personal song so much so you dedicated it to three particular people. It's also one that you've described as you said of being really proud of as well and as you said, the moment when you knew okay, it's album time. What was it about the song that moved you into that creative space ready for the album as opposed to doing another EP as you mentioned? What was it about that that made you think that there was something maybe more to explore or there was more to discover?

I've worked with Danny, The Kite String Tangle, quite a bit and that was the first time where we had worked on my music together. I had worked on some guest vocal things of his and we'd done a little bit in the past but that was the first time working on Woodes material and, because we both have a lot of favourite bands and similar sort of references, we wrote 'Close' in about three hours. It was pretty remarkable, I hadn't had that kind of quick back and forth before. I've had a lot of really great collaborations but that was very similar wavelength. I think the instrumental layering and the flutes and sort of cinematic part of it, I feel like there was a lot more to explore to tell the stories around it as opposed to piecing together a smaller body of work. I guess maybe there's also like an element of bravery. An album is a big project and I've talked to friends Golden Vessel, and they're like "Whoa, that was huge!" Cosmo's Midnight too, those like massive [projects]. But then, from my understanding is where I'm at now, I'm ready to put out another one quicker. It's just like, "Oh cool, it's fine!" It's a big step for your first one but then it's like, "Oh no, now you've done it, it's good. Oh sweet let's do another one!"

As you said you wrote 40 songs for this album. That is so many songs, how does one even begin the task of culling that down to just 10?

It's been interesting because I wouldn't say that the others are axed or taken away. I think there was just mini chapters within it and I would say a song like 'Euphoria' is as I pushed it in one direction, and 'Distant Places' is the furtherest I pushed it in another one. It's kind of almost like different rooms or different terrains where different songs exist, and then to the side of that there's some more introspective, just voice and piano songs where it's like maybe they're bundled together. I think it's just important because I'd done a lot of touring and supports and and things in 2018, it was just a time to just write as much as possible knowing that once you kind of release, you want to have have things sort of on the back burner ready to launch. I had a band meeting with Hayden and Tim who I've been playing with the last three years. We set up in Hayden's living room and had like a scoreboard, like a leaderboard. We all wrote down our favorites and we're like piecing it together as a band. It's funny because we haven't played any of it live, but the whole point was to have a really enjoyable live show as well. We went about it as a band where we all really enjoy listening to albums in full and creating a really nice live show.

My favorite song is the one you just mentioned, 'Distant Places'. It's such a striking song in amongst everything else. There's something that kind of like caught me off guard. It sounds so "of the record", but it sounds so different at the same time. It's also a particularly special song for you given the involvement of Alex. Huge! That's like bucket list stuff right? Can you tell me what it means to you to have a song like this on your debut album?

I wish I could have stayed there and just written a whole other album. It was so special. I just put it on my dream bucket list and and he liked my music and said yeah, let's work out a day. I was sort of at the end of being over and finishing the record in LA. Walking into their house where it's just all these beautiful Icelandic things, they've they've taken all of their instruments over from Iceland by boat, so there's all of the Sigur Ros guitars, like Jonsi's guitar strap with sewn on stars. It was very surreal. I think it was nice to know like, thinking of again that like childhood self, to be able to say, "It's all okay, it's all gonna be fine." There are some really tumultuous bits of being an independent artist and just pursuing something in the creative arts, but being able to create on a similar playing field with someone you really look up to and have done sort of since the beginning of me starting to produce music, it's really special. We only had about four hours or so to work together, and then we went to a barbecue with a bunch of their musician friends. That was also really surreal because it was people from Feist's band and Arcade Fire. It was just a really ridiculous day and it was just really normal to them. It was so special to be creating on similar sort of your ideas are recognised and their ideas recognised. I think it's a really cool insight into his process. He has boxes of children's toys and little music boxes and literal children's toys that you hit. It was really nice to see how fun [it was]. Maybe why I like those guys so much is they caption memories and instead of it's okay if something's flawed or a little bit imperfect. That song isn't actually matched to a BPM or anything, it was just this wonky sample that we found. I just really enjoyed that because I've been going to that really like grid-like... Something like 'Crystal Ball' where it's all just, put this here, this here and this here. It's a little bit syncopated but this is more just like capturing a feeling.

When I read that I just immediately thought of how validating that must be that someone who's work you love so deeply and actually really inspired you wants to be in the same room with you and make music with you. And, being an independent artist, I feel like validation on that level would be very difficult to come by just because you don't have a room of A&R people that you can send your music to. You don't have the resources to pull from. You got a very close-knit kind of group of people around you that you trust but this is just...  Was it a moment of validation to be like, "Okay, I am in the right place. I'm doing the right thing here, something's working"?

Yeah! We had a phone call ahead of the session and it was so strange to see his name pop up on my phone. We had a little chat and he was like "Yeah, I really like your stuff. I think we can make something nice." I showed him 'Close' and a couple other demos. I've had a lot of thinking about like there's always something more, or something there's always a way to be better or a way to to keep lifting your project or lifting your work. But I think it pulled it back into success or being able to do music as my job, and being able to to work with people to be able to collaborate and make beautiful things with people you look up to. That's the best feeling, it's so wild and it makes all the other moments kind of disappear.

One particular part of this record that I love is how much embraced your home and your childhood. We're both from Townsville, when I listen to 'Staring At The Fire', I was taken back to those times of going to the creeks, going to the mountains. I just thought that was really lovely. Why was it so important for you to pay tribute to where you've been and where you've come from on this album?

'Staring At The Fire', I could do like a whole other EP or album based around that world. I have my piano from Townsville which is where I wrote that song. I wrote that with Chris Collins, he's very much like you get really relaxed, like the he'll go surfing with people or like go for a walk and then come back and you end up talking about a whole bunch of stuff. The songs are I think really personal or something that only you could write. We're just playing piano and it made me straight away go to, I love the drive up Paluma where there's the trees kind of curve in and you go from like quite dry, especially in summer, where it's just the bottom is quite dry and then you get up to the top and then you get clouds rolling in. It transforms up there. I've talked to a couple friends from Townsville who live in different places now and it's just that idea of what if the best times were just these moments you took for granted. Being able to go and camp and have no reception an to have all of those people around a fireplace now when there's friends in Berlin or Brisbane or Sydney, it would be really hard logistically to get everyone in one spot. I think 'Staring At The Fire', throughout lockdown and everything, I've definitely kept coming back to it. It's a song that just had to be on the album. I finished it up with cheekbone, Adib [Parker]! We made this drum out of baking paper and a baking tin. It's on the album, like there's shaking polenta and baking paper.

Looking at your role in this record, you're the executive producer. Every single element has tied into your whole vision from the videos, the press shots, the production, the samples, the Minecraft world. It's all there and it is so impressive. Even though it is very "you", you speak about your deep love of creating with others. How do you get to a point where you can trust others with this vision? Some of the people you worked with are strangers, some of them are friends, but the vision has stayed the same the whole time. How is it working with different levels of how you know people and how can you bring them into that world?

I think sometimes you can really have that gut instinct with collaborators. Through writing this record, I've met a lot of people that are now lovely friends all around Australia and overseas. With songwriting, the best way I think is to be quite open and to talk through not only like films you've watched or whatever, but also how you're going in everyday life. You end up just having these really nice, shared experiences with a song at the end. I really love that and I'd never knew it was a job as a songwriter and it's taken a while to get to that point of being a full-time songwriter but it's not something I take for granted at all. Sometimes you just know with collaborators and you can see when people get really excited. At the beginning of the year I was having these meetings where I was like we're gonna have shields and swords and originally the music videos we're gonna have like full fight scenes with 300 people which you can't do in Covid. They're pretty ridiculous ideas. The Minecraft stuff, I've always wanted to do something like that which we wouldn't have been able to do. I don't think I would be able to give it as much time as it kind of deserves so there's a bunch of stuff that we've kind of trialled and I've learned a lot. I think it's just you kind of know, and then in turn you end up working with the same people throughout. Like Jordan, who shot the album artwork, did the very first woods press shots and he moved to London for a bit and came back.  It's all these little circles and and that's the same with back home in Townsville. You find your close-knit community and people who share a similar vision. At the beginning, I had a Woodes mission statement, like a whole set of things that I guess she agrees with or doesn't agree with or whatever. It can kind of help with the vision, just treating it like it's this other person or like it's my small business. Having a strong vision for it from the start is definitely worked.

For me, thinking about your first releases through to now, the vision hasn't really changed that much. It's still very strong and it's still in that same world it's just kind of an evolution of the world, right? I wondered looking back to the start, do you think that you've done that original vision justice?

Yeah, I think so. There's a bunch of stuff that I've gotten, I wouldn't say "eased up" but... At the beginning, in 2015/2016 when I put out my very first music, I didn't have many female producers that I knew. I was turning to Grimes or Imogen Heap, and then within that first year I met Alice Ivy and Ninajirachi and a lot more people who were very involved in their art and are female identifying. At the beginning, it was really important for Woodes not to be oversexualised or to have these really core values that wouldn't be swayed. Also a big part of it was putting her in a place that wasn't necessarily Australia or in a man-made environment. There was no signs, there was no cars, phones, that kind of stuff. I think through Covid especially, having that transparency and putting fantasy in the real world has been a pivot that I've noticed a lot but I don't know. Potentially it just eases it out of my previous work, but that's been a nice lesson where it's just it's freeing. For the last couple of things, I haven't been wearing makeup. It's not as curated to a degree. It's more relaxed. In this time it's been really difficult, like in Melbourne, my final pivot was that only one person would come to my house and would film things — and we then weren't allowed to have anyone at our house. So it was like, "Okay, I literally have to do it myself."

It makes sense you would be embracing this fantasy world so much because you just stuck at home all the time. You want to kind of get lost somewhere else and then be whisked away even if it's only for 40 minutes or whatever. You want to just kind of be yeah elsewhere.

I mean fantasy is always been a really big part of of my life. I love film and TV and those soundtracks, and a big part of why I started producing music and writing music was having another component to write to. Writing for Woodes and having this bubble I can kind of escape to has been just a really cathartic, nice thing I've done for a while. I wanted to be like a film composer or compose for TV and with Woodes it was just kind of was like, "Oh people are liking it! I should keep going!" I think I do just really like working in a team and to have like a central vision and to have video components and styling components. They're the kind of artists I really like as well like Bjork or FKA twigs, where it's just like every time they release something, I take a seat, I put on my good headphones. It's not just a song, they've been training for a while or they've been in isolation doing something. That really excites me as a creator, to have more dimensions to it.

We've just touched on lockdown, it has been such a crazy chaotic confusing year. And for you, personally, being in Melbourne, that is just beyond what I could ever understand. You had to shift the release date to accommodate for that. There's so much going on that you've had to work with on the fly. If there's one thing that you want people to take away from this record when they hear it, what would it be Elle?

I hope it accompanies and some lovely memories and that it can take you away to a different place. I know with 'Close', I've gotten quite a few messages of it reminding listeners of someone in particular that's really special to them. It's the same when I listen to it. I think of those people that I had dedicated to. I suppose it's just a bubble away from this sort of reality. I hope it accompanies some adventures, especially now the borders might be opening further in Australia. The roadtrips, the camping, getting to see loved ones that you haven't seen in ages.

Woodes' debut album Crystal Ball is out now. Buy/Stream here.

Interview by Emma Jones

Image: Jordan Drysdale