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Interviews: Vera Ellen on her new album ‘Monte Cassino’

Nineteen year old Wellington multi-instrumentalist Vera Ellen has put a lot of work into her musical debut and it shows with a impressive layered album that draws on some of her musical influences, but also stands on its own & has a unique identity. We caught up with Vera and asked her some questions about the making of ‘Monte Cassino’….

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First do you want to tell us a bit about yourself? How did you first become exposed to music, what was it that sparked the ambition to write your own songs? Have some of these songs been gestating for a number of years?
I grew up in an extremely musical family. Both my close and wider family were always singing or playing guitar or dancing to music. My brother who goes under the artist name AURA has always really encouraged and supported me musically and my older sister Tali was the frontwoman of several hardcore bands (including DIAL & The Deadline). My Mother is a beautiful vocalist and pianist and used to lull me to sleep with beautiful Polish songs. I have a massive family and many childhood memories at big celebrations with delicious food and all of my uncles and aunties singing, playing music and laughing. I think all of this musical influence I owe to my Polish and Welsh Heritage, both have a long history of struggle and being the underdogs, but have used music as a way to lift each other up and be happy. The very first song I ever wrote was for Mother’s day, and once I started I couldn’t stop. I have many piles of song books documenting my life from the age of 10. A lot of the songs on the record were written during my time overseas, particularly in Europe (like ‘Smoking isn’t bad for you in Paris’ & ‘Monte Cassino’) and a few were written in lil old NZ around some observations I had.

Do you want to talk about the some of the meaning behind the tracks? The opening ‘Monte Cassino’ for example seems to reference the wartime experiences of family members….
‘Monte Cassino’ is about my Grandfather and his battle there during the Second World War. He was a fantastic writer and has a document he wrote about what had happened to him, how he was shot and how he escaped and survived against all odds. When I think of his story and this being a part of my ancestry, I feel very strong. The whole album is a nod to my grandparents. I went to visit the site which was a very intense experience when I was in Italy and wrote the song on the train back.

Vera Ellen

The production on the 7 tracks is quite impressive. There is a lot happening within each track. Do you want to talk a bit about what producer Cameron Wilkes brought to the project? Did you have a specific sound in mind for each track?
Cameron was amazing to work with! He is both super friendly and professional. It was my first time in a studio and he made me feel entirely comfortable and in control. If I wasn’t happy with something he wouldn’t question it and change it immediately and if I asked what he thought he was honest and helpful. He is also a young musician himself which I think helped, he really understood was I was doing.

There are a lot of musical styles on the album. I detected a bit of P.J Harvey & Joni Mitchell, but a couple of tracks reminded me of the early 80s UK lo-fi pop like ‘Marine Girls’. Do you want to talk about some of the artists that influenced you…?
This is a hard one..I listen to a huge range of music and I think they all have influenced me in different ways. I am a massive Joni Mitchell fan and admire her ability to change and grow as a musician with every album but consistently be amazing. I also love Billie Holiday, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin, Beck, L7, The Cramps, Nirvana, Blondie, Nick Cave, Julie Ruin, Beastie Boys, Tracy Chapman & Chopin.There is also an amazing amount of talent in Wellington/NZ who are always very inspiring.

You have the same guys backing you on most of the tracks? Do you want to talk about what they bring your sound? Have you been a working band for a while?
Samuel Austin played drums and Jack Mells was on either guitar or bass for a lot of the tracks. Both are genius musicians and I had played with them both during high school. I actually taught them the songs at the studio and they picked them up pretty much straight away, we aren’t a band who practise regularly or anything. Jack did a lot of improvising so he brought his own sound to the songs as well. Samuel somehow understood the weird noises I made with my mouth and turned them into an album of the drums I was hearing in my head but 8 billion times better. I knew what I wanted but they both brought their own ideas and creativity to the album as well. We all had a real fun time and they are great friends of mine.

You did a video for ‘Modern Girls’. What the idea behind it?
Me and my friend Sonja came up with concept after I first played her the song. We wanted something really over the top that made a satire of ‘female’ and ‘male’ stereotypes and just wanted to mash them all together with lots of bright saturated colours to show that it’s all bullshit and kind of a joke so don’t worry about it. It was also a great excuse to get our friends together and do some creative stuff.

You handle the guitar parts alone on ‘Smoking Isn’t bad for you in Paris’. Is guitar your primary instrument? How does your writing process work?
I have been playing guitar since I was I think 9 or 10. Electric guitar is my primary instrument though I can play a bit of piano and bass as well. Often it will begin with something small like a lyric or a riff or an idea and once I have that the rest comes pretty quickly. If I have any doubts about a song I stop writing it about halfway through and sometimes my songs are almost like a bunch of different ones cut and pasted together. A lot of songs I write will probably never be heard.

You used a proper recording studio as opposed to working with just a laptop/Pro-Tools etc. Do you think that added something special to the finished album?
Originally the album was going to be a mash up of both but honestly I just found I wasn’t getting the sound I wanted and I really wanted to record with a full band. I was also looking for the experience of recording an album. I wanted to learn as much as possible about each part of the process. If I would have recorded it myself I think I wouldn’t have been so good with deadlines about getting it done and made. There is something so satisfying about holding your own album.

Do you want to talk a bit about your experience with releasing an album via Bandcamp? How would you describe the process for a young artist getting started?
I released my album on iTunes and Bandcamp really because I had no means to do it any other way. In an ideal world I would have my record on Vinyl in all of the record/music shops. What is great about mediums like bandcamp is that all the money comes directly back to the artist and it’s a free and direct way to sell your music and you can also see what songs are doing better than others. I think thats great for someone testing the waters when they first are starting out and I would for sure recommend setting one up.

You can buy’s Vera’s album on Bandcamp here. Or on iTunes here.

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