We’ll occasionally be hosting interviews between two industry figures to gain insight into their creative processes. First up, Sydney singer-songwriter Phebe Starr interviews Nkechi Anele, singer of Melbourne indie-soul band Saskwatch.
The pair spoke candidly about female artist stereotypes, music education, what it means to be a vocalist and more.
Read the full transcript of the interview below:
Phebe: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into music?
Nkechi: My dad is from Nigeria. I grew up with a lot of West African music being played in the house. My mom’s side of the family are all very much into the arts. I started doing singing lessons when I was in high school and then in my final year of high school I wanted to be a scientist but by the time I reached the end of the year I – music was probably the only subject that I was still very much in love with.
I auditioned for VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) and I got in and I met pretty much the entire Saskwatch band there.
Phebe: That’s a really organic way to get into the music industry. Did you study voice there?
Nkechi: Yes. I can read music and I can play very basic piano and I’m trying to learn how to play guitar this year. I’ve always wanted to play but I’ve been so scared to. But basically I am just a vocalist.
Phebe: I have found that there’s this dismissive attitude towards being a vocalist. Do you find that at all? because it’s easy to take on that stereotype of ‘Oh you know I’m just a vocalist but I have spent like 10,000 hours practicing’.
Nkechi: I use it every day! I think it’s because a lot of vocalists in a sense don’t have to learn the fundamentals of their voice in the same way as you would a guitar or piano etc. because it’s just there, so there is a lost credit. I think it depends on how you look at education and how you learn because there’s the formalized music education system, which is like ‘here is
Phebe: I think it depends on how you look at education and how you learn, because there’s the formalised music education system, which is like ‘here is an Ionian scale’ and there’s other ways of learning about vocal stills that may be in our everyday culture. I know in different cultures where it’s not on a sheet of paper and that learning is audible, it’s still considered a craft. I grew up in a really small town and I didn’t have a music teacher and I didn’t know how to approach music in the traditional teaching methods.
I taught myself by ear how to play piano. It was a different way of learning and for years I just felt insecure because I haven’t done grades or the steps that a real musician would do. My expression and my adaptability to experiment and all of those things was so much different from someone who has that normal training. I wonder if our approach to education and thinking, this is the way that you learn music actually inhibits our creativity and roles.
Nkechi: I had to come to this realisation that I was a working musician two years into Sasquatch’s professional journey. My dad’s culture doesn’t see singing as something that only singers do, it’s something that everybody does. You sing when you’re happy you sing when you’re sad and it’s not a female versus male thing either.
When we think of a singer we always think of a female and I wonder sometimes how much sex plays into that. Even if they play an instrument we tend not to label them with ‘musician’ until they have really proven themselves with step 1, 2 ,3 .
I feel like guys will pick up a guitar and not know how to play and be like, ‘I’m a musician let’s form a band.’
Phebe: Do you know this story of divas asking for extreme things backstage? Like Mariah Carey how she…
Nkechi: They ask for specific things? Like only blue M+M’s? or to have a humidifier in the room?
Phebe: I would see those stories growing up where these divas are portrayed as demanding. They ask for things that are stupid. After touring for a while sometimes things suddenly click of why they did those things. They are actually really practical and not the way the media makes it out to be at all.
Nkechi: A humidifier in her room actually relates to being a vocalist and vocal health and only blue M+M’s relates to making sure her team respects what she says, which is something that women struggle to gain at any stage of their career.
Phebe: It’s so funny though because the way things are put out there is like, ‘they’re crazy’.
Nkechi: It’s really easy to dismiss and break down a person’s credibility by saying that they’re crazy and that’s even on a social level.
Phebe: When we stereotype, we create an image in our head and then we project that onto a person and their behaviour.
Nkechi: Yeah and I think it’s really easy for the society that we’re in to see women as damsels in distress and so when women have what’s perceived to being male attributes of being like straight to the point, demanding respect. They’re normally seen as aggressive. Whereas guys are generally looked up to because they’re hard-arsed real rockers.
Phebe: Yup, it’s funny because this conversation to a lot of people is quite controversial and it’s awkward sometimes talking about it ’cause I don’t want to come across like I’m a person who’s complaining. I’m definitely not complaining about my life. However, I do see the limitations that we all have when we stereotype someone into a role. I get distracted with injustice a lot of the time. That work will never be done, like it’s a constant battle.
Nkechi: No I know it like ‘this is bullshit, this is unfair’ but you can only do what you can only do.