Listening to Laini Colman’s self-titled debut album for the first time is like stumbling upon a cache of lost Nico recordings. Like the music of the former Velvet Underground collaborator, Colman’s voice has an exotic, haunting feel, and the album’s production is sweeping and cinematic in scope. Early on, wobbly piano chords and LoFi electronic drum beats give way to a mélange of funky bass lines and a string-and-percussion arrangement that calls to mind Led Zeppelin’s epic and often-sampled “Kashmir.” As the album progresses, Colman layers disco and hip-hop beats over jazzy chord changes to produce dreamlike sonic landscapes. In fact, if there’s one theme that creeps up throughout Colman’s oeuvre, it’s the power of dreams to shape our reality. Not coincidentally, it was a topic that cropped up once or twice when the Tasmania-based recording artist recently agreed to answer a few questions about her life in music.
The first track on your debut album is called “Dreams Come True,” and I understand that you’re in the process of moving house from one boat, Pied Piper, to a new boat, Dream Catcher. Is this a coincidence, or is something more going on?
Ha ha, well I guess you’d think that, but no, “Dreams Come” was originally penned a few years ago and was influenced by a friend who was struggling to grasp the one dream that he had because of fear of the unknown. I am a great believer that dreams can come true, but you have to want them badly enough, and be prepared to work hard to achieve them, often by making sacrifices and taking great “leaps of faith.” I love the name Dream Catcher, but it is just a happy coincidence, as she (boats are always female) came with that name.
Does the stuff of dreams ever filter into your lyrics—or the sound you’re going for in your recordings?
I do live inside my head a lot, which can be at times terribly frustrating for those around me, so, in that sense you could say that all my lyrics are written from a place of dreaming, rather than dreams per se. When I first started writing songs I had a pool of feelings and experiences to draw from, but very soon, I needed to expand my source of inspiration otherwise my songs would become boring – my life is just not that colourful! And so, I take inspiration from the world around me – people, places, nature and then (just like an actor) I role-play in my head (for example putting myself in someone else’s shoes and trying to imagine how they would feel or react in a certain situation) or I just allow my eyes and ears to soak up the sights and sounds around me and see what thoughts/feelings they evoke. Not always, but usually, I start with the lyric and then allow the melody to form around that. The final sound is then very much driven by the emotion of two together, so once again, yes, you could say, that it comes from a place of dreaming. However, I’m always very, very open to different ideas from a producer on this and rely very much on their expertise and skills.
I’m curious about the idea of working with a producer. Can you walk me through the process of going from an idea to the finished product?
In the case of my debut album, all the tracks were co-written with Jimmy Reece, a very talented musician, also from Tasmania. It was a very interesting and unusual way of co-writing – very experimental, liberating and exciting. The process varied from track to track, but for the majority of the tracks, I presented Jimmy with a lyric and melody and he took these, re-arranged them (in some cases stripping them down to their bare minimum) and then built up sounds around them using a mixture of loops, samples and real instruments. For three of the tracks, we decided to try it the other way round. Jimmy presented me with an instrumental arrangement, which I built a lyric and melody around. Final production ideas came from Mike Raine, who produced the album from his home recording studio in Ranelagh Tasmania and where I recorded the majority of the final vocals (the rest being recorded on “Pied Piper”). So, you could say that the finished product is really a case of the sum of the three parts making the whole.
It’s interesting that your recorded some of your material on Pied Piper. How does living on a boat fit into your process?
Living on a boat definitely has its challenges primarily because of the limited space. I don’t have a home studio I can just head into, but rather I have to set myself up each time I want to record ideas or vocals – and I have to make sure I’m “home alone” so that I don’t get disturbed. Windy days can also be a problem, too, as the lines creak or the wind whistles in the rigging, so if I do want to do any vocal recording at home I have to pick my days. Having said that, I did record some of the final vocals for the album at home in the front cabin, and I have to say that the acoustics on “Pied Piper” were fantastic as there weren’t any square walls for sounds to bounce off, and there was lots and lots of wood!
Nowadays, with the advances in modern technology, though, it’s amazing what you can do in a small space. On Pied Piper I only had room for my guitar, a two octave keyboard, a desktop microphone and headphones and my Mac with Garageband on – all which had to be put away after I’d finished my session – but in reality, for songwriting that’s all I need, and I’m a great believer in collaborating with people who have the instrumental and production skills that I don’t have. Having said that, I’m very excited now that we’ve moved onto a larger boat as I’ll be able to have a full-sized keyboard (although it will need to be stowed when we go to sea!) which is something I’ve longed for, for years.
Does the fact that you live on a boat give you any opportunities that other musicians might not have? Being mobile, can you arrange tours and personal appearances that might be more difficult for other artists to put together?
All the sights and sounds I have seen and people I have met whilst travelling have provided wonderful inspiration for songwriting, but being constantly on the move is actually not a good thing in terms of relationship building and collaboration which is so essential if you want to grow as a songwriter and artist. This is why, three years ago, we decided to stop traveling (at least for a few years) and base ourselves in one place so that, amongst other things, I could start to build those relationships and be part of the musical community that I craved. If we hadn’t have done this, there is no doubt that I wouldn’t be sitting here today with you talking about my debut album.
On related topic, you’ve said in the past that one of your goals is to inspire women to follow their dreams no matter what age they are. Why is that important to you? Why is it a message that needs to be shared?
Yes, I think this is a hugely important message that needs to be shared. Raising families and working, together with all the pressures of modern society, mean that women are trying to juggle more things than ever before in their lives, leaving them little time to pursue their dreams and as time goes by, often to forget what their dreams actually are. I always remember my Dad saying to me that he wished he’d had the opportunities that I’d had when he was younger, and I know he had regrets about things not done. The thing is, the world is so full of opportunities nowadays, but many women (and men too) don’t feel that they have the time to take advantage of them.
The reality, though, is that taking an opportunity and following a dream is (not always, but often) down to choice. If you have a dream, you can reach it if you choose to, choose to accept the hard work and the sacrifices and often great leaps of faith that maybe required. And, even if it is not possible when you are younger due to circumstance, age nowadays is no barrier – it is just a number – and it is never too late to start. I didn’t start song-writing until I was in my 30s and now, at the age of 53, I’ve just released my debut album and I intend to keep recording for as long as I have the passion to continue.
I don’t make a point about talking about my age as to me (and I hope to others) it isn’t even a factor – it is the music that is the important thing. But, by revealing my age, I just hope that it will inspire women to follow their dreams not matter how old they are.
I especially love that point about age. So much of our culture centers on youth, and the unspoken message tends to be that if you’re not young, you shouldn’t bother trying something new or putting yourself out there as an artist or a performer. What do you think maturity allows recording artists to bring to the table that younger musicians might not have?
The beautiful thing about getting older is that you become much more self-aware and sure of yourself (sure of who you are) and that helps you to have a clearer idea about what you want from your music, from both a creative point of view and from a business point of view. This enables you to be much more in control of your music and career than perhaps a younger recording artist might be.
We are now seeing more and more examples now of older women in popular music – Debbie Harry making a comeback at age 71 has been such an inspiration for me – and she sounds fantastic! And others, such as Madonna and Aimee Mann in their 50s, Sia in her 40s amongst many others – still recording albums and being at the top of their game! Our culture still has a way to go in terms of changing the public perception and acceptance of older women in popular music compared to older men (too much focus is still given to age and appearance, which is rarely broached upon with older men) but, thankfully, it is slowly changing.
In terms of appearance, I’m picking up a bit of an Annie Lennox vibe. Is she an influence in any way?
I certainly admire Annie Lennox, and I can certainly see why you picked up a resemblance, but I don’t think that consciously I have tried to base my appearance on any other artist. It is important to me that my appearance reflects both who I am and my music. I was always a bit of a tomboy as a youngster and have always been quite minimalistic in terms of colours and style. Also, my music is very genre mixed, so a slightly androgynous look suits both me as a person and my musical style.
Who are some (other) artists who’ve influenced your work?
I have always found this a very hard question to answer, as I listen very widely to many different musical styles (including world music, European pop, classical music, 80s/90s British pop and hip hop/trip hop, and current Indie and Singer-songwriter styles) and so my work if very much influenced by a blend of all of these. If I had to pick out just one or two though, I’d probably have to say David Bowie, Portishead, Massive Attack, and Bjork, but I know I’m missing out on so many others who have influenced me by narrowing it down to these four.
You’ve certainly already had some dreams come true with the release of your album and your seafaring peregrinations. What dreams come next?
Good question. Well, at the moment I’m working on a series of covers which I hope to release as an album before the end of the year, but I’ve already started work on some new originals which will form the basis of a third album, so on the music front I’ve a lot of exciting things on the horizon. Sailing-wise I’m looking forward to getting out locally on our new boat – we’re still surrounded by boxes after the move, so she’s not exactly “ready for sea” yet. Tasmania is wonderful cruising ground, though, so for the moment, we won’t be doing any more extended voyages – not until my third album is finished anyway.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, and good luck with all of your future endeavors!
Thank you, Marc!