The sort of conversation Time Out is having with Jade MacRae is a rare experience. Here’s an artist who has enjoyed major label urban pop success (and all that today’s The Voice contestants aspire to), and yet found herself existentially questioning the validity of it all. And, not being contractually bound to anyone now as she launches her new project, Dune, she can finally talk frankly about it.
On the surface, MacRae was the blue-eyed girl with a shock of blonde curls who played the industry game: signed to SonyBMG and shoehorned into a Beyonce-style role; paired with top producers; going on tour with the likes of Renee Geyer; fuelling gossip column inches with any change in relationship status; and appearing on TV shows such as It Takes Two.
Yet she’d never really fit that mould. She grew up in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, but as a Maori with an English accent, stuck out like a sore thumb. Her parents are both musicians – her mother was an in-demand session vocalist and her father was a forerunner in the UK’s experimental electro scene – and MacRae pursued her own passion for music by studying at the esteemed Sydney Conservatorium of Music, at which she joined forces with members of the Presets and the Sleepy Jackson for fledgling projects. Just quietly, her talent for composition (she wrote or co-wrote all her own songs) has seen her penning hits for artists across Europe and Japan. Similarly, that voice has been put to good use on many an artist’s album, and is one-third of the vocals on the Sapphires soundtrack, alongside Jessica Mauboy.
The songwriting chops and vocal technique combine for MacRae’s new baby, Dune, and it’s a bold step in a new direction. Entirely self-funded, self-produced and self-released, it’s at once mystical, mythological and futuristic, drawing on the arcane sounds of MacRae the elder’s impressive vintage synth collection. First single, ‘Shoestring’, was lyrically laced with tribal ritual and had an Egyptian feel (right down to the video, featuring Jade bound up like a mummy – but, like, hot mummy), while the title track of new EP Oh Innocence mourns the loss of the uninhibited imagination we enjoy in childhood (with excellent remixes from Client Liaison and brother Moses MacRae).
Live, MacRae teams up with a bassist and drummer (Luke Hodgson and Leigh Fisher, who also moonlight with Gypsy and the Cat), and long before any scheduled album release they’ve already been invited to showcase the set at The Great Escape (the UK’s SxSW) in May, chosen alongside fellow Aussies Stonefield and Hungry Kids of Hungary. It’s the result of a lot of hard graft, right down to the hand-built studio (with the help of husband Harley Webster, aka MC Phrase – the pair take turns in supporting each other in this way), but MacRae finds that while the belts may be tighter, the rewards are now sweeter.
Jade, you have total control over your music and business plan now. What acts out there make you think: that’s the way to do it?
I’m a really big fan of Chairlift and St Vincent. The music is just that strong that it speaks for itself, and without sounding wanky, there’s a really high level of quality to the recordings and a lot of care that’s gone into that. I just really appreciate the craftsmanship of both of those acts – they’re doing something that’s quite adventurous artistically yet it’s still accessible. I feel like that’s such a hard thing to do, to do something that is interesting without making it too obscure for the everyday person.
As far as the business side of things go, people are in two schools of thought at the moment. Some people are really embracing this whole notion of giving your music away and others hold on to “your value is in your product”. I think that’s really interesting, the dichotomy between those two schools of thought. In theory I think, “No way, you’ve spent so much time and effort on these recordings that there should be value placed on them.” But the further I get into Dune, I feel that perhaps this whole process of giving it away is better than no one hearing it ever. It’s so easy for anybody to set up a studio in their bedroom now and record at really quite a high level that’s never been possible before, that you’re really fighting a lot of noise to be heard. It’s a really tricky one, because I’ve always been a working musician, a professional musician that got paid for the hours I worked. Now I feel like, with Dune, it’s almost become this really expensive hobby.
I’ve got my video up on YouTube and I’m like, “Wow, I’ve had 6,000 views! Amazing!” Then I’ll see some teenager’s had 200,000 views of them sitting in their bedroom, going, “Hey, I’m just going to talk to you guys about my day today…”
So established musicians are fighting to be heard.
It’s not necessarily something to complain about though, because while it means there’s a greater volume of music being made, it also means that people in really remote areas, or people of lesser income you know who never would have been able to afford to talent school and singing lessons, now have the opportunity to be heard.
What has the reaction been to your music by those who were interested in your previous albums?
I think some people are quite disappointed in the new direction – some people on the urban scene can be quite staunch. Or there’s a bit of “you’re not that glamorous, booty-shaking hottie anymore” – which I’m quite comfortable to leave behind!
It’s amazing how short people’s memories are though. A lot of the people that I’ve dealt with in media have no recollection of me – and it’s not that long ago that I was on mainstream television and all that kind of stuff. But the nature of the mainstream is that it is such a rapid digestion of what’s hot. There’s no culture these days in the mainstream really – the idea of discovering an artist, getting all their albums and getting obsessed with them is dying out. It still exists to some extent in indie bands and left-of-centre music.
Pop shows are creating new stars without there being much intention of shaping a career or having longevity. Do you watch them?
Very rarely. Last year when The Voice started in Australia I had a number of close friends compete on the show. So tuned in a little bit that just really to kind of see how they went.
That’s a good example of established performers finding themselves auditioning to be able to be heard in this new climate. You’re funding your career yourself, bit by bit. Do you like the Pozible, crowdfunding idea?
I love the idea of it. It takes your music out of the system and puts it straight into the hands of the people who want to hear it. Even Amanda Palmer raised over a million dollars on Kickstarter.
How did you feel about your creativity when you were writing and recording for the mainstream as Jade MacRae?
I knew I had the capacity to be more creative and leftfield, but at the time I was just in another zone, locked into that whole thing of being glamorous and being a pop star. With certain aspects of the recordings, like with the background vocals, I’d get more creative with that and those were always the aspects of the album that I was most excited about – those kind of subtleties that no one else would really notice. In general, though, I was really just not pushing myself in that regard. And it’s funny because I’d come from a background of heavily improvising in jazz, making really quite free music. Ultimately that’s why I had enough of it in the end – I was just bored.
Wanna hear something interesting? Listen to Dune on Soundcloud