Interview with Kavisha 1998

Andrián Pertout speaks with Kavisha Mazzella about her beginnings, and multi-culturalism in Australia.This interview was recorded in 1998

Kavisha was born in London, UK, and immigrated to Perth, Australia in the 60s, setting the scene for her intuitive journey into the world of art and music.  Initially mesmerized by the elevating spirit of music in general, a major source of inspiration soon emerges from her most unique multi-cultural heritage, endowed via an Irish-Scottish-Burmese mother and an Italian father.

In 1981, Kavisha forms the trio ‘I Papaveri’ (The Poppies), performing traditional Italian songs from the 14th and 15th centuries, which ultimately leads to the formation of the Italian Women’s Choir in 1990, ‘Le Gioie Delle Donne’ (The Joys of Women), and an ABC documentary film celebrating the event.  This is subsequently followed by the ‘La Voce Della Luna’ project (The Voice of the Moon) that is established in 1995.

What was the music that initially inspired you to be a musician?

KM: “I suppose the whole folk thing.  When I first went out to hear music, I went to folk clubs.  And there was a little folk club called ‘Stables’ in Perth, run by a Welsh guy called Stan Hastings, and he encouraged a lot of singers.  And there was a real vibe, it was a fantastic vibe.  People used to climb up this ladder, into this tiny little loft and crowd in, and it was just excellent fun, it was just so great. I was listening to Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, all that kind of stuff, and I was really inspired to sing by Sandy Denny.  I didn’t think that I’d be a musician or anything, I just wanted to sing.  I then went to art school, and I played music in a little bar around the corner from Claremont Art College, so I could pay for my paints basically.  Yeah, so I was painting and just sort of singing at this place once a week to also cover my rent.  That was in the days when rent was twenty-seven dollars a week by the way (Laughs).  So it was really like, you could do it, it was possible.  So yeah, it took off from there.”

How would you say that your Irish, Scottish, Burmese and Italian lineage has made an impact on your life?

KM: “I was always reminded of it when I was a child, because we’d be walking in the street and people would always come up just to say, ‘Oh, what nationality are you?’  You know, so we’d go through the whole thing, ‘Burmese, Irish, Scottish and Italian’ (laughs).  So we were so aware of that, just on an everyday level, you know, people asking this strange question, ‘What nationality are you?’ when we were in fact Australian.”

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How do you think all this impacted on your music?

KM: “When I first started exploring Italian folk music, I felt to a certain level that a part of me came home.  And this was Neapolitan street music from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which is just fantastic music.  When I was at art school I had a party in my last year, and this Sicilian guy came to the party, ‘Sanjiva’, and he had brought all these tapes of Sicilian and Neapolitan music with him.  And they were bands that were contemporary in Italy in the late seventies.  They were having their own folk revival there, while the English and Irish folk revival was happening.  And they were just fantastic, and it was really exciting because it was something Italian that was exciting to me.  You know, it didn’t sound like the trashy pop stuff that I associate Italian music with (laughs).”

And how did you come to that conclusion?

KM: “(Laughs) You know, Italian music to me had been really embarrassing up until this point, and here I had found something that was really exciting, and something that I would be wanting to explore further.  That led me later on to start the Italian Women’s Club, when I was just playing that music to a group to Italian women, and from that whole experience, and that enthusiasm for traditional stuff, but done in a really gutsy sort of way.  Neapolitan music is very feisty and fiery, and it’s very exciting.  And from that project I started writing songs about the experiences of immigrants in this country… actually hang on a second…”

(All of a sudden a Schoenbergian piano concerto begins to thunder in the background of this phone conversation, and Kavisha tells a playful child that there is an actual interview in progress.)

“… So you know, I guess in a way from exploring my heritage, I found that the natural progression was to write songs about what happens when you come to this country.  Although when I immigrated here I was three years old, and I was too young to remember, the whole thing of leaving England, where I was born, and coming here, I’d been made so aware of that all my life, just in references.  But that whole feeling of coming to this country, and what that means, and feeling that you never quite belong here, and trying to find ways that you can belong to this country, I think the way is to acknowledge that you’re an immigrant actually, ironically.  Once you embrace the fact that you have come from somewhere else, well then you’ve got somewhere to start with, and you’re not totally lost in a limbo.  So acknowledging that music through the traditional forms led me on to being able to write about it, and write about the experience in the way that being an immigrant is also its own unique experience, because when you come to this country you change the country, and you are changed by the country.  And in a way if you go back to the country of origin, you’re never the same anyway.  You know, you can’t ever belong to where you once left, so in a way that makes you very Australian.  Because all of us are mostly indigenous people, we’ve come from somewhere, and in fact the experience of being an immigrant is truly an Australian experience.”

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Tell me about your global travels, and the collection of instruments that you have acquired along the way.

KM: “I went to India on one trip, and for my eighteenth birthday I got given a harmonium, which I’ve been travelling around with a lot.  I just carry it from house to house where I live (chuckles), but I didn’t get to play it much until lately.  I kind of dusted it off, and I started playing it.  In ‘Stone the Crows’ actually, and I had such a great time playing it that I just kept going with it.  And then I used it on the recording (Fisherman’s Daughter), instead of using let’s say a traditional organ sound for a song, I decided to go for the harmonium sound, which is a softer, warmer kind of sound, earthier.  And I’ve got a tamboura, which I picked up in another trip.  It’s a large drone string instrument, with a gourd and a hollow neck so that it resonates.  That one I picked up in Poona, in India, and I remember going to the shop where you buy these things, and being just transfixed by all the amazing instruments.  And I remember picking this up and starting to play it, and the old man in the shop saying, ‘Oh my goodness me, if you play that instrument you will be there all day, and you will be getting into great trouble.’  And I thought, ‘This is the instrument for me,’ so I bought it (laughs).  But he was so gorgeous, and he picked it up and started playing and singing his Indian songs, and I just fell in love with it.

“I’ve always been fascinated with Indian music, and I was really lucky last year to work with a dance master called Chandrabhanu.  And Chandra has always invited fantastic Indian musicians to play with his company, and there was a voice master here, a North Indian classical vocal style master who was writing music for Chandrabhanu’s new show.  He was here for a couple of months, and I fortunately caught him on his last six weeks, so I did six weeks of singing lessons with him, in July last year.  And it was just such an eye opener, it was absolutely fantastic.  And because to get the kind of accuracy for the incredible ornamentation you need to be very relaxed, I realized how tense I was in my voice, and had to learn how to become so utterly relaxed and yet so very alert about what I was doing.  It was really a high experience, it was very exciting, and it made me very curious, it made me want to actually dip into it in a deeper way.  In the future I’d like to go to India and maybe just immerse myself in a totally different music from what I’m doing, because it throws new light on things, when you can go into a completely different style and drown yourself in it.  You can come out of it almost renewed, about how you approach your own music.”

“Fisherman’s Daughter” distributed by ABC Music and EMI.  For further information contact DdR Management, 201 Govetts Leap Road, Blackheath, NSW 2785.  Tel: (02) 4787 6338, Fax: (02) 4787 6348.

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The second part of this interview was published in Mixdown Monthly issue #51, July 1998.  In this article she discussed her new album ‘Fisherman’s Daughter’, and the Australian folk music scene.

'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #50, June 3, 1998


All rights reserved. All text, graphics and sound files on this page are copyrighted.
Unauthorized reproduction and copying of this page is prohibited by law. Copyright © 1998 by Andrián Pertout.

Andrián Pertout speaks with Kavisha Mazzella about her new album ‘Fisherman’s Daughter’, and the Australian folk music scene.

In the last decade, Kavisha has become a prominent face within the Australian folk music scene, with career highlights that include four awards from the Western Australian Music Industry Association, original compositions featured in the short film ‘Acquiring a Taste for Raffaela’ and the play produced by Freemantle’s Deckchair Theatre ‘Waterfront Women’, as well as notable guest support performances with Hothouse Flowers and Michelle Shocked.  It’s the interactive nature and diversity of these artistic platforms that have fashioned Kavisha’s eclectic horizons, and in the process have also provided the impetus for the ongoing musical exploration of her Australianess.  ‘Fisherman’s Daughter’ is her follow-up to her 1995 debut solo album ‘Mermaids in the Well’, and was produced by Kavisha Mazzella and Michael Thomas from ‘Wedding Parties Anything’.

What was the concept behind your latest album ‘Fisherman’s Daughter’?

KM: “I wanted to make a more intimate album than my last album.  The last album was in a sense more orchestral in its approach.  It had brass bands, you know, full on, it was just full on (chuckles).  And it was great because there were a lot of fantastic musicians from Western Australia, including Lucky Oceans on pedal steel, Peter Grayling on cello and Lee Buddle on sax.  A lot of fantastic players from the jazz scene, and also from WA’s Symphony Orchestra came and played on it, but I just felt that I wanted to do a more down to earth sort of album.  But it’s eclectic enough, in that it follows in the tradition of the other one, and there are a lot of different styles.  I guess I’ve got more influenced by my rhythm and blues, there’s more rootsy feel in this album, compared to the last one.”

Do you have a particular approach that you usually employ in your songwriting?

KM: “Well, if there is one I don’t know what it is yet.  I don’t feel like I’m experienced enough to have had an oversight of what it is that I’m doing.  I suppose I really admire songwriters such as Paul Kelly, in the sense that he’s got such an amazing way of saying so much with so little words.  And I think a good songwriter is someone who knows the balance between what’s said and what’s unsaid.  You know, the visible and the invisible.  It’s understanding silence, understanding how silence and the unsaid plays a big part in what is revealed.  And I think someone like Paul Kelly has a great ability to edit, or strip his songs down to the essential, and yet create such a strong emotional feeling.  He knows what the trigger points are, that’s the word, and what triggers the imagination.  That’s the way I feel like I want to work, and in a way I feel that that’s the way traditional folk ballads are in a sense.  They carry that essential kind of archetypal quality in their story telling, and that’s what I’m attracted to and try to create in my songs.  But whether or not I’m doing that or not, I don’t know (laughs).”

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Tell me about some of your other work as a composer.

KM: “For a start, I don’t write music down, I do everything by ear, and I’m very slow at reading music, so don’t use it when I work.  I tend to work by memory, and I tend to work with big groups of people who don’t read music anyway, so that’s very useful.  We just do everything by memory, and I don’t even carry tapes around with me, because I find that gets in the way (chuckles).  I probably should, I would have a much more organized life.  But I really am a great fan of the whole oral tradition, in that when you get people to sing things and they have to remember it, they have to remember it in their bodies, not just a head thing.  So when I work with people in singing in choirs or whatever, I get them to move their bodies a lot, like dance with the music.  And it could be swaying or whatever, because I feel that when the music connects with the whole body, it connects with your whole memory.  It’s not so much of an intellectual thing.  I respect people who can write, and work in that idiom, and of course it is a lot quicker, because when you don’t know people you can hand them a sheet of music that they can read and then play.  But there is a certain distance, so for me I love the whole thing about hearing everything by ear, and working from the instinct, and working from memory, that’s the way I like to work.  So when I do pieces for theatre groups for instance, everyone remembers it together, or forgets it together (laughs), whichever way it goes.  I just feel like it’s a much more organic, more whole approach to music making.”

For the past decade you have taken part in most of the major folk festivals around the country.  How would you describe the general atmosphere of these happenings?

KM: “Each festival has it’s own personality, but generally speaking, the festivals are just so exciting to go to because there’s usually such a diverse group of people.  All huddling to be in the same property, and there for the same intent, which is that they love music.  And at the grass roots level, the folk movement’s very exciting.  It’s just a shame that not more of mainstream society seems to know about it.  But it’s very, very exciting, and it makes me feel optimistic about Australia, that there’s a place for diversity, where diversity is celebrated and people are curious about it.  I have to say that the festival that is the most advanced in their point of view about the nature of this country, and the nature of its culture on the grass roots level is the Woodford Folk Festival, which is run by the Queensland Folk Federation.  And also, they’ve embraced Aboriginal and Islander music into their festival, so we really get a lovely depth to the quality of everything that’s going on, because there’s the acknowledgement.  First of all, when the people come to the festival, there’s an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land.  So there’s a big influence of Aboriginal and Islander music in that festival.

“And there can always be more of that in this country, because I feel that in terms of Australia’s culture, it shouldn’t be just an Olympic style treatment of Aboriginal culture, where you just go, ‘Oh, we’ll have your boomerang thanks!’ and ‘We’ll have you guys at the opening ceremony thanks!  But actually we’re not really interested in you.’  I think the Kooree culture, the Aboriginal culture for me in lots of ways has inspired my own work, discovering my own traditional roots.  You know, people like Archie Roach, Kev Carmody, Lou Bennett and Ruby Hunter have done a lot for me personally in acknowledging that I have these roots.  And it’s ironic that it’s coming from the Kooree.  Their attitude to culture is so rich and fantastic that I think that the festivals can always do with more of it.  We are lucky enough to be living in a country with the oldest surviving living culture in the world, and that says a lot about their ability to survive.  And I think looking into your own culture gives you a chance to really respect what’s going on there, and treat it with the respect it deserves, not just as a souvenir type attitude.  You know, ‘This is Australian culture mate!’  That really upsets me, that whole Olympics attitude, it’s shocking.”

What are your dreams and aspirations for the future?

KM: “I guess the whole thing of access, to be able to play with great musicians, to play with people that inspire you.  I would like to be able to travel and meet musicians, and just keep working, keep continuing to make music.  And hopefully continue to get enough work out of it as well.  To make a living as a musician in this country is a miracle really, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do that, but I think it’s because I do a few diverse things.  So hopefully I’ll be able to just keep doing it.”

Do you have any interesting events pencilled into your diary at present?

KM: “Well, we’ve got a little north coast tour coming up, then we’re going to Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and playing there.  Hopefully also at a festival in Italy, and Calgary Folk Festival and Canmore Folk Festival in Canada, and I’ll spend a month in Ireland.  Someone’s given me the bodhran player from Anam.  Amy Leonard has given me a handmade beating stick, like a drumstick that her father had made for the bodhran.  So I want to go to learn to be a bodhran player in Ireland.”

“Fisherman’s Daughter” distributed by ABC Music and EMI.  For further information contact DdR Management, 201 Govetts Leap Road, Blackheath, NSW 2785.  Tel: (02) 4787 6338, Fax: (02) 4787 6348.


The first part of this interview was published in Mixdown Monthly issue #50, June 1998.  In this article she discussed her beginnings and multi-culturalism in Australia.

'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #51, July 1, 1998


All rights reserved. All text, graphics and sound files on this page are copyrighted.
Unauthorized reproduction and copying of this page is prohibited by law. Copyright © 1998 by Andrián Pertout.