Part 1

Name: Helen Franzmann and Mick Turner
Nationality: Australian
Occupation: musicians
Current Release: Mess Esque on Drag City
Recommendations: Helen: Monk by The Sea by Caspar David Friedrich, Bluets by Maggie Nelson / Mick: Listen to Neil Young ‘Cowgirl in the sand’ loud. That guitar solo will change your life.

If you enjoyed this interview with Mick and Helen, visit the Mess Esque Facebook page or their Instagram account @Mess_esque.

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

Helen: I grew up on a farm in Australia, one of six children. We had an old record player beside the dining table and from an early age I would put on old soul, folk and classical records and walk circles around the table listening and singing along to whatever I could figure out. I had a pretty vivid internal world and music was a way to move further into that. I wrote poetry, played piano and sang from an early age but it wasn't until I was in my late teens that I started pulling it all together into my own songs

Mick: I had always loved listening to music and learned guitar from 15. I started my first band when I was 15 in 1975. The music around me growing up was 1960s 1970s popular music from Australian commercial radio and the record collections of my much older siblings who had been teenagers in the 1960s then had all left home leaving their records with me. In my teens, I was into Glam Rock and a lot of 60s garage rock until alternative radio and punk rock appeared in the late 70s which I embraced wholeheartedly, the home-made ethos spoke to me and gave me licence and inspiration for my own creativity.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

Helen: I sang classically until my early twenties, laying the foundation in melody and harmony. I moved to London with the intention of continuing down the classical path. It was there that I was exposed to many different bands both locally and touring through England. A Low gig at Shepherd's Bush Empire was particularly influential. I bought a guitar, turned inward, and started writing and singing my own songs. Can still crank the soprano notes and vibrato when I need to.
Mick: As a musician, I love making music deeply but I have never
been technically great, I don’t have a musical ear to accurately discern melody, I can’t sing in tune and I can’t whistle. I can work out a guitar line of someone else’s but it takes me time and I don’t find it easy. I do think that I have some innate sense of rhythm and phrasing. Like others I would try and emulate something from a record I loved, but it never sounds like the original because neither am I patient. Voila! Originality!

As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?

Helen: This was the first time I recorded my own vocals. I set up a couple of mics in my bedroom and waited until the quiet early hours to catch my vocals. In the past I've recorded in studios so this has been a shift for me, using my own gear. I use an old loop pedal for some of my McKisko sets to add textures here and there. I know there are more sophisticated options around now but there's something about the pedal that feels part of me, the clunk of it, I'm used to it. More recently, especially for Mess Esque, my phone has become a major part of catching and sharing ideas, voice memos. I think one of the vocal takes for Mess Esque was recorded directly onto my phone.

Mick: The main creative item that has advanced over my career has been recording equipment. In the 70s to early 80s multitrack recording equipment was big, heavy and very expensive. Professional studio time was also financially out of reach except for the lucky or the rich. Cassette recorders however were a breakthrough. We did our first home multitrack recordings by playing along with a recording done on one boombox whilst another was recording the result and so on. Poor quality but it opened up a world of experimentation. The next breakthrough was the 4-track cassette which was a godsend. I still have my Fostex 250. 4-track cassette and a Teac A-3340S 4trk reel-to-reel with a great sound. But mostly now I use computers, pro tools. You can do much so easily and cheaply, great for collaging.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?

Helen: There is a lot of trust in collaboration. I’ve never been much of a jammer or talker regarding music. I like to figure out the puzzle of a song from within it, and find the best way to do this is to just get to work. This music with Mick was unusual in that each song came together quite slowly without us ever meeting in person. Two of the songs began with acapella tracks that I had sent Mick to work on, the rest I sang on after repeatedly listening to his early offerings over several weeks. I’d record a core vocal melody/lyric for it and then a couple more tracks with many improvised ideas. Mick would then take these and build on them. It was always exciting to hear it back with his additional instrumentation, editing and production. I’d then layer some more vocals and so it would go until we were both happy. I loved the process of unfolding songs like this with Mick.

Mick: In Mess Esque Helen and I weren’t able to be in the same space as we were in lockdown in separate cities, 2000 miles apart. This has been the only way we have worked together except for a couple of live shows earlier this year. With this record, I sent Helen some basic unformed ideas to write over and we worked back and forth from there, her parts were inspiring and I’d start sculpting things further, collaging her improvisations into a form, then the back and forth again. Hard to know how different it would have been if we had been in the same room. I think the distance allowed us more experimentation and an unselfconscious approach, you could try out ideas to your heart’s content without worrying if the other person was getting bored, then quality review before sending back. Songs formed over weeks.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

Helen: I work best in the middle of the night. I played around with setting an alarm with these recordings. I'd go to bed early, wake at 2am, scrawl down any dreams I could remember, and start writing and recording. The middle of the day is not my time ever. Also reading, having a life outside of music, keeping a diary, paying attention, making sure I give it enough time. All helpful.

Mick: If I’m stuck creatively I’ll try something really difficult that I don’t really want to try to do because it's going to be a lot of effort and I’ll probably fail. Doing that usually works, you might not achieve exactly what you set out to but at the end of the day you have something and it ends up being the most enjoyable process.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

Helen: I'm a woman in the middle part of my life. A lot of women, especially when children come into the picture, move away from music and the public eye. I'd like to remain visible, keep working, stay curious and keep making and collaborating into my later years.

Mick: Art is everything and means everything and nothing. You should be grateful.