We got to sit down with the emerging Sydney-based singer/songwriter, Ella Haber. The 21-year-old classically-trained multi-instrumentalist weaves her bold, mature and relatable lyricism with jazz and soul melodies. Her passionate performances on stage demonstrate her abilities in the setting when she unmistakably feels the most comfortable.
We sat down and had an open and honest chat about love, heartbreak, her debut 2019 EP Clay and making music.
BYO: What got you into music? and did you come from a musical family?
Ella: Yes, I came from an extremely musical family. My dad is a piano player, my mum is too, my brother and sister played in the band at school - kind of a musical household from the beginning. There was a lot of music playing when I was growing up; the beautiful folk writers from the 60’s, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. I think I was drawn to that poetry.
I played trumpet for a super young age. And I think it was the jazz band [at school] where I was introduced to Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Etta James, and some soul music as well and it just felt completely right.
I started writing my own music in my early teens, you know, tweeny dramas. But it was eventually finding Amy Winehouse when I was 17, and the emotional potency that that provided me in a time of adolescent turbulence that was just extremely cathartic. And Amy Winehouse become a huge inspiration for the EP I wrote.
BYO: Why’d you decide in 2019 to release the EP?
Ella: I think I’ve learned not to put a date on art. It just happens when it happens. I wrote these five songs in September of 2015, when I was writing my HSC, and experiencing the aftermath of heartbreak.
BYO: So it took a while to edit them?
Ella: Took a seriously long time. In 2016, I released the songs as super demo with my friend Oscar Joe. We kind of made them in a few weeks in his dad’s studio, all in the early hours of the morning, just eating Thai food and making those demos. I popped them on Bandcamp for my release, and my label, Soul Has No Tempo, found it and they were like, ‘These are excellent songs and we love the song writing, we just think they have potential for revamping.’ So I collaborated with Jordan Rakei, and that took two years. The first version had nothing, no instrumentation, just me and the keys. And it was the potential that they saw in it which led to what it is now, which is very thick instrumentation.
BYO: What was the inspiration behind your EP?
Ella: It was the end of my first love and it was based on a particular moment in the timeline of love, which is after the breakup. When you're both trying to retain dignity and resist the urge to fall back into each others orbits and just proceed with your lives. It's incredibly difficult because you've formed yourselves around each other. And there's obviously sexual chemistry. We were kids, so we'd grown up into each other, but - what was that song? "When your heart breaks, it don't break even". In my case, there was one person, me, who was trying to resist that urge and someone else trying to pull me back in. And I felt like I was being moulded like a piece of clay - and that's where the title comes from.
The 5 songs go through - and this was unintentional, but it happened - 5 different emotions of that process. Behind Closed Eyes is incredible, emotional and kind of drenched in sadness, Responsibility is super angry, Clay is more mature, but a diatribe of ‘stay away from me’ and then Old Friends is kind of a reflection once I’d gained some distance and a bit of objectivity. But you can clearly see my passage of evolution through each song.
BYO: I think you’re brave for putting that content out, especially when women are taught to hide their emotions, passions and sensuality. What made you choose to break that mould?
Ella: I would be lying if I didn’t directly say that it was ‘Frank’, by Amy Winehouse. It was that record. Just the soundtrack to that period of my life, playing at every moment, playing while I was having these late night encounters with the guy that broke my heart, and the attempt to move away from that with this other person. Amy was basically there that whole time.
BYO: As an emerging artist, how has the music industry accommodated you?
Ella: It’s very interesting, they accommodate me a little too well. It’s a really interesting line that a lot of non cis-male artists are walking at the moment, which is this popularisation of otherness. And I’m definitely being asked to play shows because I’m a woman. And it’s confusing, but it’s a line you have to walk between “I want representation”, but ‘I don’t want to be reduced to my woman-ess”. Like I am an artist, full-stop. But at the end of the day, I will always do a show because it’s a female lineup because I want to be a part of that, and I’ll put aside that I’m being reduced to my woman-ess, but it’s definitely a different tide to how it was say 60 years ago. I’m not being excluded from the stage. I’m being propped up there because of my body and my gender.
BYO: And for your talent.
Ella: But also my talent *laughs*
I guess there are two ways to answer your previous question: structurally and interpersonally. That was my answer to the structural part. There are more and more opportunities for representation which have problematic caveats, which I’ve just alluded to. But in terms of interpersonally, I still feel sexism very frequently. Recently I just bought this keyboard, and so I’m lugging this 40 kilo machine to all my gigs, with wires and cables, and there’s so much unsolicited advice coming my way from men. Like, “Do you know which way to plug that in?”
BYO: What are the top things you love about making music?
Ella: I love making sounds, being part of an ensemble more so than I like being solo. I like contributing a layer of sound to an ensemble. Feeling my voice lock into a number of others and creating a sandwich of sonic magic.
I love live music a little bit more than I like recording. I love creating the space of a live show. I’ll dress up the stage with fabrics. The space of live music is holy, I can walk in alone to a party, listen to a show and talk to anybody I like and feel in my element. I love creating that for people, singing words that might register to people in ways even their closest friends haven’t understood them. That’s a huge factor.
And the thing I probably love the most about music, is that the point of music is the line of energy between you and the person’s ear who listens to it. So these days when I write, it’s like I’m whispering into someone’s ear. It’s so much less about myself and more about the parts of myself that I can see in others. So yeah just speaking to people, through song, through an art that I love.
BYO: What’s something you’ve recently listened to that you really like?
Ella: I’m going to check my Spotify.
I have been listening intensely to my label sister Tiana Khasi’s record, Meghalaya, it’s a masterpiece. I listen to Angel Olsen frequently, her 2016 record My Woman is brilliant. Doja Cat is good, [particularly] ‘Bitch I’m a Cow” because I just think it’s weird and good and awesome. And I’ve recently been listening to a lot of London jazz. I’m heading to Gilles Peterson’s festival in August outside of London. So I’ve been listening to the Ezra Collective, Yazmin Lacey. And always Girlpool. Listen to them if you haven’t.
Ella Haber will play at Harpoon Harry’s Vivid showcase on June 6, alongside Julien Dyne, NAEEM, Merph and Setwun, info here: https://hotelharry.com.au/whats-on/jun-6-harrys-x-vivid-sydney-planet-trip-showcase/.