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Interview: Basking In The Limelight, Brisbane's Indie-Icon Clea Remains Grounded

Clea | Lily Cotter

Brisbane's indie songstress Clea (pronounced Clay) is a breath of fresh air. Her smooth, dreamy vocals, captivating storytelling and penchant for fashion are the perfect combination which shines in her music and performances, gripping your attention as you fall into a cloud of silky indie-pop. Despite the times 2020 was a very productive for the artist which saw her release three singles complete with videos that embody the singular style and pride that she has for her art. We had the privilege to chat with Clea, learning about her influences and gleaning some insight into her upcoming sophomore album. Catching her before running out the door for a bit of rock climbing before getting ready to attend the QMusic Carol Lloyd Award for Womxn in Music, where she was nominated as a finalist, we were able to tell Clea how impressed we were with her performance opening for DMA’s at the Tivoli last month. She responded by telling me how much she enjoyed those shows and the benefits from performing over consecutive nights. “By the last DMA’s shows we were euphoric, we had definitely found our jam.” That was obvious; Clea alongside her partner Alistair Richardson (Zefereli, The Cairos), delivered stunning vocals with acoustic guitar prowess and we were treated to some new 2020 releases, including ‘Sugar’ and what was at the time a sneak peek of latest single ‘Limelight’. Growing up with parents that “constantly smashed out the goods”, playing Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Clea always had quality folk music in her ears. With music as a hobby for both parents it’s no surprise that Clea was drawn to certain artists, forming a deep connection with their music. “Dad always played guitar. He has a repertoire of maybe like four solid songs, one of those is a non-stop rendition of 'Stairway to Heaven'. Mum has always sung, she did theatre when she was young.” Finding her own taste as she got older with artists like Laura Marling and Grizzly Bear, both huge initial influences on Clea’s music, it was support from her parents and high school music teachers that really got her started on her musical path. “I’ve always sung. I sang in the choir when I was really young, then as I got into high school I started to pick up the guitar. Writing compositions came quite naturally to me and I instantly fell in love with it. I was really encouraged in high school by a couple of teachers to follow through with my music writing. Plus my parents have always been my biggest fans. It helps so much to have that encouragement.” Triple J Unearthed categorises Clea’s music genre as indie dream pop, however Clea herself finds it difficult to describe her genre of music because her sound comes down to what she is feeling in that moment. I was intrigued to learn about her folky roots and that she is leaning towards that sound again. “My music definitely started out very folky and then when you bandify and add other instrumentation it takes a natural course away from this initial genre. I’ve always found it hard to define my music into a genre because it’s essentially what I'm feeling. It definitely moves through rocky stages, pop, and folk so I feel like I'm always a combination of those genres. But recently I'm definitely finding that love again for folk and the natural way of me picking up my guitar and writing a song. Writing these songs take lot of different unexpected turns because I'm not a trained guitarist, it’s all by ear - I place my fingers wherever it sounds good and go from there." Clea’s partner in music and life, Ali, is one of the big reasons why Clea was able to expand her sound when he started to produce her music. Meeting just over five years ago, Ali instantly connected to Clea’s music and asked her to sing on his track for his project Zefereli. Together they have helped each other grow, forming a cohesive team that is confident about what they want to hear, say and create. “I was writing music and Ali was like, well let’s record together, which is what we did with ‘Dire Consequences’, the first song that I put out as more of a band context. It's just gone from there. Ali was very much at the start of his producing career as well so he was learning so much and so was I. It’s really cool how we’ve gone through this journey together, finding our sound and Ali finding how he produces his particular way of making music. We’re definitely at a place now where after five years we’re very confident and everything moves with a little bit more ease. We are both so certain of what we want to hear so therefore it’s a lot easier to put it down into our music.” When asked about the return of Zefereli (there are many fans here at Livewire AU), we breathed a sigh of relief when hearing that “it’s not dead”. And then uttered a squeak of excitement when we heard that Ali’s other band The Cairos have a new tune in the works. “Ali is constantly writing music, I don't know anyone who generates such good tunes at any point in time so he has a lot on his plate. He’s been gradually getting busier with producing and concentrating on that aspect but he still has a burning desire to record his own music, as he should, because it’s incredible. So hopefully soon. It’s not dead, that’s for sure. In the meantime there is a new The Cairos tune coming out!” Having just released ‘Limelight’, the third single in a trio from the year, all accompanied by creative videos that showcase Clea’s eye for detail and love for unique fashion, I wanted to hear more about her creative process and the single itself.

“My three releases from this year ('Limelight, Sugar', 'Soft Blow To The Head') are a good project for 2020. They mesh well together and all of the film clips were filmed pretty much in the same place. ‘Limelight’ was actually the first song of the three we recorded and the film clip was made a year ago. It’s essentially about when you're projecting yourself in a way that is not authentic and not really true to your authentic self so you start to question who you are, what you stand for and what you're about. It’s about finding that core and accepting the good and the bad parts within you.

When you're in the limelight, society's spotlight, it’s about whether or not you are confined to other people's expectations and perceptions or whether you stick to your true self, which I feel leads to a much more consistently happier life.”

Clea’s unique personality and apt for storytelling are showcased in her videos, the creation of which are a huge passion of hers. “My content inspo comes both during and after writing the song. It could be a place that I think of or a certain theme within the song so sometimes it's purely location or actually sticking to the storyline. I obviously love being able to create the looks and the whole aesthetic, it's something that I'm really passionate about. I love accompanying those images with the music, it's a big part of the work for me.”

With those amazing songs to come out of this year, ew had an inkling that an album would be on the way, and we were right! As a bit of an unexpected twist however, at the moment it looks like none of this year’s releases are scheduled to make it on the album. So we’re in for a sophomore album stacked with all brand new tunes.

“The main inspiration for this upcoming album is me coming back to my original way of writing. We’re in the midst of finishing the album now which I believe is a really solid and consistent body of work and touches quite a lot on my folky roots. Obviously a lot of things have gone down this year so it meant that there was time to recalibrate and think about how we want to create this body of work. So initially it was going down that route of ‘Sugar’ and ‘Soft Blow To The Head’ but then it sort of took this turn where everything seemed to fall into place. We just needed that time to really reflect.

So in a way COVID-19 has been a blessing for us because we were able to step back and reflect on what we wanted, instead of getting caught up in making an album for the sake of making an album. When everything around you is chaos you really dig deep to take a look at your authentic self and that is what we found with this album. It’s really exciting, it will be interesting to see what people think of it.”

Following the success of her debut album Vermillion in 2018, last year Clea won the QMA Song of the Year for ‘Dreaming’, earning herself a plaque in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. “Winning the award reaffirmed that we are truly in this and it was really nice to get that recognition. This is the right track, we are doing the right thing and there are people that truly believe in us. It was like a big push. It was amazing, such a privilege to receive that award and get that plaque. I went past it one time and saw there was a cigarette butt on it and I was like ah to be expected from The Valley and then Ali brushed it off for me. It’s all part of it.”

Image credit: Lachlan Douglas

Clea herself is a fan of many fellow Aussie artists, including Tia Gostelow, Merpire, Methyl Ethyl, Cub Sport, Mallrat, Hatchie and Sycco, and is putting it out to the universe that she would love to collaborate with Julia Jacklin. So we're putting it out there too, it would be a dream combo.

“I know that Tia Gostelow released her album and it’s amazing. She always puts out solid songs. Merpire as well, Rihannon is an amazing person and amazing musician and she constantly puts out music that impresses me. There’s a lot of solid tunes around and I feel like melody got lost for a couple of years there but now everyone is bringing back those melodies and those big ballads. Personally I would love to write a song with Julia Jacklin, I'm putting it out there.” The Brisbanite is also very passionate about her environment and doing her part to motivate and inspire change by living by example. Not one to preach, Clea chooses instead to make small changes in her life to help enrich and preserve her natural environment. “I just like to tread lightly because I feel the best way to motivate change is to live by example. I’m very conscious of the fact that our natural environment is dwindling at a pretty rapid pace and I think that can be so overwhelming so it’s just about changing aspects of your daily life. So I just try to do those little things. I'm a vegetarian and I’m always looking to buy from local designers and try to avoid fast fashion at all costs. It's not about enforcing it on people, it’s more about if you live by example then people will be interested and ask. Even if everyone ate one less meat dish a week it would make an amazing impact. For me it’s just those little things.”

As well as her talent as a musician and passion for the environment, Clea also has a range of other talents, including the ability to do a series of animal noises and crazy control over her eyes. Of course we had to know if she ever whips these talents out during her performances.

“I've never whipped it out on stage but I've definitely been training with these party tricks from a very young age. At the moment I'm trying to master the magpie call... Yep I practice my magpie call. There's actually a bird noise at the start of ‘Sugar’, I should just say that was me.”

On the topic of live music, we both agreed how good it was to have it coming back again in full force, boogie and all. Clea automatically taking a deep breath in, demonstrating the relief of having this part of the industry back on track “it actually makes you breathe in”. However this led us to discuss a scary side of the industry; with artists relying heavily on live music for most of their income due to the popularity of streaming, if we were to be hit with a pandemic again, unfortunately the industry might not survive.

“If we were to be hit with a pandemic again, live music is where you get a big chunk of your income so if we don't have that then there needs to be other options [aka better pay for artists on streaming sites] because otherwise we won't survive."

Clea’s star continues to rise and with a brand new album scheduled for the middle of next year and music coming out before then, next year is already looking up. As she focuses on finishing her album and creating content around it, the rest of us are definitely in for an absolute treat.

“There's almost that industry pressure of your first album being your best album but I definitely feel like it should be your worst because you want to be constantly improving and I genuinely feel like that’s what we’re doing, this constant growth and hopefully you can hear that within the music.”

Before signing off, Clea asked me what I had planned for the day, her sincerity and humble energy continuing to shine through as it had throughout our entire Zoom chat. My status as a Clea fan well and truly established, even more so after our chat, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for everything she has in store for 2021.

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