What was the first song you learnt? Blowin’ in the Wind on the acoustic guitar. Of course Dylan invented this whole song lyrics on cue cards thing.
What’s your favourite memory of your early musical life? It all comes down to my mum. There was an amazing confluence of things when I was very young. She took me to see the stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar - I was so excited I literally couldn’t sit in my seat and stood up the whole time; I also went with her to rehearsals with her theatre group, and one day there was a live band jamming a 12-bar blues… loud. Around the same time, Gough Whitlam was campaigning and everyone was singing ‘It’s Time’. It was very moving, even though I was too young to understand why. From my mother's record collection I zeroed in on Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends and Dylan’s Highway 61, and then my friend’s mum had Sgt Pepper. I learnt to read by reading the lyrics on the covers of Bookends and Sgt Pepper, before we started reading in school. Mum also had some prog rock in her collection - Moody Blues, Pirahna, Pink Floyd, and also some Jazz - Dave Brubeck etc. We lived in Balmain which, then, was full of penniless, newly liberated single mothers. The kids were both neglected and had a lot of freedom. The mums endured hardship but there was joy. They cried and they partied. Music was part of it all.
What made you want to play music in the first place? I don’t know but it just spoke to me from as early as I can remember. It spoke of difference, or otherness - it joined you where you felt isolated, lonely or like you didn’t fit in; and also it lured you toward another dimension. I used to lie on the carpet with my head in front of the speaker and my face pressed into my arms and just try to astral travel inside the music. There was the promise of escape - whether it was Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow in Wizard of Oz, or crossing America on a greyhound bus in Simon and Garfunkel’s America, or the fairytale tripping of The Beatles' LSD era. I wanted to be them, to go there, wherever it was.
How old were you when you started playing? I didn’t pick up an instrument until really late - I bought myself a really hard-to-play steel string acoustic when I was about 18. Then I was also in a theatre group, and I volunteered to play bass in a production, without ever having played. I had to learn five songs, so I figured, how hard could it be? I'm a bit musically dyslexic - I don’t read music very well, I never learnt. I play by ear and fretboard choreography. I think it’s really important to learn if you can, though - for your own confidence and to realise your full potential. Jazz players would call it ‘harmonic security’, which sounds like something we all need, right?
Who were your music heroes/idols back then? Who are they now? There were many - I went through the classics from Fleetwood Mac, to Abba, to the Pretenders and The Smiths, and then the Go-Betweens stood out for me when I started seeing bands play live - the Lindy and Amanda heyday. Seeing Lindy take her handbag on stage and put it down next to her drum kit was a revelation. It’s hard to imagine how much of a rebellious act that was. This was at the height of pub rock which, while fabulous in many ways, was also absolutely soaked to the gills in testosterone and alcohol and petrol fumes. When she sat in a vintage frock behind a drum kit and played in her own style, you could feel the winds of change blasting from the stage. These days I couldn’t say I have idols. There are many musicians I admire. My favourite quotes about music belong to Joni Mitchell - on her so called ‘weird’ chord voice-ings, she says "chords to me are emotions”. I think that’s really worth taking to heart. And on bass players specifically, she said that, before Jaco Pistorius, they were all putting a ‘dark picket fence through her music’. It’s such a good description and those reminders are so important - less can be more, let it breathe, music is expression. I saw Blondie and Kate Bush on two consecutive nights in London last year which felt like some kind of landmark. My favourite musicians now are probably my band mates in Knievel. Mature friendships that have grown from a shared interest - I have a deep admiration and respect for them.
What was the name of your first band? I played in a band called Oliver - brilliant power pop. I inherited some great bass lines from the former bass player, and then I think I ruined the band. But the songs were unreal and it was a thrill to learn and play with them.
Tracy Ellis plays bass in Sydney band Knievel.