Happy Axe

Happy Axe is the solo project of Canberra-based musician Emma Kelly, recently returned from a tour of Europe. Using violin, musical saw and vocals, combined with digital manipulation and looping, she creates ethereal soundscapes that bring enraptured audiences to a standstill. Each time she performs she is recreating the pieces anew, layering the sounds together live. We talk to her about the struggles of solo performance, her creative process, and some of her experiences performing overseas as well as on home soil.

Could you tell us a little about your musical background, and how Happy Axe come about?

My musical background is classical. I was classically trained in violin from a young age. As I got into my teens I started becoming obsessed with Spanish composers, and composers of the late Romantic period such as Debussy and Ravel, whilst simultaneously starting to jam with bands, hang out with DJ’s and play with their turntables, and layer violin on their fruity loop compositions, and go to a lot of electronic music gigs.

I then embarked on a degree in violin performance, and my favourite form of procrastination was being in at least 3 bands at any given time. It gave me a taste for improvising, (something relatively foreign to classical music) the local music scene, the festival circuit, and the joys of touring. A lot of these groups though didn’t really allow me to really access that part of my composing and performing that stems from the classical world, something Happy Axe now does.

Happy Axe came about from a need to develop new ideas that worked in a kind of conversation between classical music and electronic music, two worlds that have throughout music history always had an interesting relationship.

You’re the first person I’ve ever seen play a saw as a musical instrument. Can you talk about how you discovered this, and why you’ve chosen to incorporate it in your solo work?

One of my friends was jamming with me, and I was mostly playing violin, but one day he asked me if I’d ever played the saw, and did I have one lying around. I’d seen an amazing Newcastle band called Mojo Juju and the Snake Oil Merchants, and they had a great sawist, so I said I’d give it a try. I had a saw in the shed, and I tried to bow it with my violin bow, but nothing happened!

Next time I saw the guy from this Newcastle band, I asked him for a quick tutorial. He spent about 10 minutes showing me how the S-bend of the saw had to be, and at what angle to bow it. I then took a bow into Bunnings and tried bowing some of the saws whilst the teenage boy working looked on apathetically. I chose a saw with a nice response, and plenty of pitch range, and spent the next two weeks practising getting the pitch and vibrato right. I still to this day play that saw! $40 is the least I’d ever paid for an instrument.

You recently returned from playing all across Europe, how was that experience and how did that differ from playing in Australia? What was the best part of your tour?

It was awesome! The best part of the Tour was Norway. I had met a lovely Norwegian couple last year when I attended the New York City Musical saw festival, and I contacted them about heading to Europe. They drove me across the country and helped me set up gigs, which were so lovely. They have a duo called Bluebird’s Ghost so we had a bit of crossover and playing on each other’s songs. In some ways, it was surprisingly similar to playing in Canberra. Lovely small venues, with plenty of attentive audience members.

The main difference was, when you’re touring in Australia, I often come across really cranky sound engineers that talk down to me and are generally a bit unpleasant to deal with. Canberra venues like the Phoenix, Polo and Smiths excluded, their sound engineers are just the loveliest. But I had one sound engineer in Berlin who actually cycled home to her house to grab a guitar for Sam, as the other band hadn’t turned up, and we agreed that he could do a Burrows set in their place. She was so friendly and lovely and professional! So cool. And the venues had candles on every table, and people smoking in the dim light, something I haven’t seen for some time in Oz!

Where do you take inspiration from for your pieces?

In terms of other musicians, I take inspiration from 90s trip hop groups like Portishead, and the more recent Goldfrapp, but also Bjork, Thom Yorke’s solo stuff, Patrick Watson, and a bit of Ravel and Debussy.

Can you walk us through the process of creating a Happy Axe piece?
A lot of experimenting with weird sounds, and effects, and sometimes just recording a long improvisation, listening back, and picking out my favourite bits and structuring them into a composition. But some pieces just end up staying as an improvisation around a set of different effected sounds or processes. Occasionally, I actually produce the song first, as a finished recording, and then have to figure out how to perform it in retrospect. The process does vary a fair bit, depending on the piece. But a lot of improvising and recording informs the writing process.
You collaborated with another local looping artist, Ghost Noises, earlier this year for You Are Here festival in Canberra. Can you tell us about that experience and what you learnt from it?
Yes! That was so fun. It was a huge challenge actually, because often collaborating in the past with others, has meant me fitting a nice violin part into and already written song, which is fun, but comes quite naturally to me these days having done it a lot. It was surprisingly hard to step away from this comfort zone, into actually composing from scratch with another person. A long process, that required a lot of musical communication, with a person who I’d only met once before. I think I learned about collaborative composing in a different way to before.
What is the most difficult part of performing solo as Happy Axe instead of as part of a band?
The difficulty at first was just stepping on stage all by myself! I’m used to having a bunch of friends on stage with me, which adds a surprising amount of confidence I’d never realised until it was taken away. You also have to believe in your project by yourself. In a band, it’s easy, there’s multiple people saying to each other: ‘Yes! This is good, this is worthwhile, and now we’re playing it to people because we all agree they should wanna hear it!’ But when you’re by yourself, writing it all yourself – it sounds cliché, but believing in what you’re doing becomes really important.

Happy Axe will be performing at ANU School of Music’s Floriade Rhythm & Blooms Festival on Stage 88 in Commonwealth Park, Wednesday October 5th 12-1pm. Entry is free. To check out all the acts on stage, visit the Rhythm & Blooms Festival Facebook Event Page.

Follow Happy Axe on Facebook here.

Photography by photographic pillar of the Canberra arts scene, Adam Thomas.