It’s fair to say Sydney has taken a bit of a battering this year.
The lockout laws have strangled venues and put a dampener on our city’s live music, and time and time again we’ve been put to shame by our Melburnian cousins. But though the situation is dire, something legitimately magical has emerged out of all that oppression and restriction: Sydney’s music scene, despite all odds, has begun to truly blossom. Everybody’s in a band, and most of them are good. Something is happening here, Mr. Jones, and we know exactly what it is.
One of the focal points of this new movement is Elizabeth Hughes, a singer-songwriter and member of Phantastic Ferniture, a supergroup comprising four singularly talented musicians – Hughes, Tom Stephens, Julia Jacklin and Ryan Brennan. Jacklin in particular is experiencing huge successes both nationally and abroad, and Hughes posits that a large part of her own confidence stems from watching her friend and bandmate triumph. “With Julia, she’s done really well with her music,” Hughes says. “Even just with my group of friends you can see how that pushes other people. Everyone’s feeding off the same energy.
“Like, you go, ‘OK, Julia wrote those songs and recorded them with not much money and she made these video clips and she had the confidence to do that. Maybe I can do that too.’ So everybody started making video clips around the same time and recording and pushing into the next gear because we all saw that it was possible. You have to have an idea and you have to stick by it, and you have to have the conviction: especially in terms of doing things like video clips. You have to be so confident with that kind of thing, just to have an idea and believe in the idea and yourself enough to do it.”
Hughes’ solo work touches on a variety of genres, though as with the music of Phantastic Ferniture, her powerful tunes are anchored by some truly impressive musicianship. “I play with Tom [Stephens] on drums and Cam [Whipp] on bass,” she says. “It’s a pretty recent thing: we’ve only done a few shows together. But they’re both really good because they learn stuff so quickly and I have a lot of confidence in them because they’re both very seasoned musicians.”
The diverse, multitextured quality of Hughes’ songs – particularly the soulful ‘Video Shoot’ – seems to be a direct result of her musical influences. When asked to talk about the musicians and styles that inspire her, Hughes doesn’t namedrop Joy Division or The Velvet Underground, or whatever en vogue touchstone bands are meant to mention these days. Instead, she discusses a very different point of influence. “I reckon I definitely draw a lot from African drumming, for sure,” she says.
“Although I started playing piano when I was about six, I started playing drums when I was like 16. I was really into that. There were a lot of repetitive rhythms and when I muck around on guitar I find myself writing these repetitive bass lines and I think that’s where the influence comes from. I’ve also had an interest in jazz and soul, so influence sort of comes from there as well.”
Hughes took to songwriting naturally, but she has also always embraced the theatrical aspect of musicianship. She’s not a shoegazer; she engages with the audience and her performance spaces are remarkably inclusive. “I’ve always been into performing,” she explains. “I guess because I did dancing when I was younger and I was into drama. I always really liked being up on stage and sharing the stage with other people.
“Starting to do music was different, though, because you’re by yourself and more vulnerable, but you get comfortable with each step that you take and the further that you go. You do something that’s hard or different or you play a bigger venue or to a bigger crowd or to people that you admire and respect, and it’s always hard the first time, but by the time you’ve done it once it’s enough to give you the confidence to do it the next time.”
Though it might be practice that makes perfect, peers certainly help, and Hughes seems energised by the scene that she finds herself right in the centre of. She is a part of an emerging musical culture, but she’s a fan of it too, and to hear her talk about the music her friends and compatriots make is to hear someone talk about the very thing that gives them strength. “I guess we all now consider seeing other gigs as part of what hopefully is becoming our jobs,” she says.
“When your friends have gigs or other musicians have gigs, you go along to their shows. Even if you feel a bit tired or you’ve got other stuff to do, that’s part of the whole journey. You have to be there for other people like they are there for you. You also get inspired by that and you just know how much it means to the musicians, especially in Sydney where people think it’s this crappy dying music scene. It means a lot to see people there. It can be the difference between a good show and a crap show if there’s even one extra person there who has come out to see you.”