Liz Frencham

A girl and a double bass.

A girl and a double bass.

Herstory

One of my most vivid childhood memories is me waiting impatiently for my mum to finish sewing a dress for me. A simple A-line style. White with blue butterflies. I thought those butterflies were so beautiful! My elder sister Shirley had one exactly the same & I remember being slightly jealous that my baby sister Leanne got the fancier pattern with the fuller skirt & puffed sleeves. Another associated memory is me & two sisters standing in front of the Warilla Baptist Church congregation, singing in these very same matching dresses. My eldest sister Karen is there too, looking distinctive with her long dark hair over her eyes, strumming a twelve string guitar. Mum is amidst us with a huge smile, her awesomely sonorous mezzo soprano voice ringing out. It’s one of those old country hymns…

Blue butterfly dresses.

Blue butterfly dresses.

“And he walks with me & he talks with me, & he tells me I am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.”

…oh the feeling of excitement & warm pleasure that would move through me as our different parts blended into endlessly shifting chords, rising & falling, giving the words meaning.

It was always there. The deep love of making music. It was in everything from my exuberant discovery of the descending chords in George Harrisons ‘Something’ on the ukelele when I was about nine, to the adrenalin rush of my big solo song in the primary school production of  “Sam the Samaritan’. Even though I tried to train as a nurse straight out of school & had a quite serious shot at being a scenic artist at a local theatre for a few years, the fatal mistake was made. I let my first boyfriend talk me into spending the money saved playing one finger, one thumbed electric bass (not a style I would recommend) for The Mulligrub Music Company bush band, on a handsome blonde double bass.  It soon became apparent I would spend all day painting- dreaming of playing & all night playing- dreaming of playing. To think that that little blue butterfly clad girl would one day let such a large instrument work it’s way into her heart.

I was nineteen when I shyly approached that huge plywood monstrosity. I can very clearly remember leaning it up against the corner of my bedroom still in awe, thinking simply “I will never be able to play that thing.” But bit by bit, blister by blister, I made progress. A couple of folk festival sessions later, after playing for hours, covered by the general happy blur of sound & with leather or gaffer tape around my fingers to make it through the night, I was able to transfer my basic knowledge of electric bass over to acoustic. My arms grew stronger & my ear more sensitive as I learned to make minute adjustments to the note to give it the mood or sweetness that the music needed.

That’s what it’s still about for me. Listening to the story & being moved to respond. Speaking through the instrument. Sometimes long, low notes thicken up the ground & give the music comfort & stability, or high melodies dance away from the safe root note to echo the vulnerability of the lyric. It was only after I had settled into my role as a bassist that I was able to cry when hearing Jeff Buckley sing Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, & be rooted to the spot when Joni sings ‘you are in my blood like holy wine, taste so bitter & so sweet, oh I could drink a case of you”. To feel a place in my heart swell with that gentle guitar as Kelly whispers “From little things, big things grow” & to feel indignation along with Ani as she cries “what does my body have to do with my gratitude?” Slowly, the songwriter became king of my world & to this day I am only just discovering Dylan & Cohen like a child.

I had always written songs, but not with any intent. They usually poured out of me as laments for some pure feeling & remained unrefined & raw. One of the earliest I remember from my first year of high school. It was aimed at my brothers friend, five years older than me who used to sit around our house with a far away look, playing Simon & Garfunkel songs endlessly into the late afternoons. “Hey you, try & look beyond the wall”. It had a delayed effect, but four years later he bought me my first love gift (a treble clef charm on a silver necklace) & later still my first double bass pick-up!

When I began to play with bands (The Dead Sticks with Lindsay Martin, Quentin Fraser, & Bruce Fumini) & Settlers Match (John Spillane, Alan Morrison, Andy Irving & Mal Pritchard) I had more motivation for writing original material as I finally had accompaniment. This continued with the formation of Jigzag (with Greg Bryce & Caroline Trengove).  I also gained immeasurable confidence & control over my voice through the work I did with Joy Yates as my singing teacher.  I'll never forget her generosity & how she invited me into her home to share meals with her family after my lessons. These were precious times & so much music was shared! She also gave me my first solo gig at the Newport Jazz Festival. I don't think I've have ever been more nervous in a festival performance before or since- just me and my double bass!

 My style developed further as I experimented with the concepts in harmony I absorbed during my two years studying Jazz double bass at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Man, that place nearly killed me! I’m not sure I would have survived if Jigzag hadn’t been there playing beautiful, free flowing, simple music on the weekends after my weeks were full of local jazz legends scrutinizing my every note. Not to mention nineteen year olds spouting about which of the various periods Miles went through were worth listening to, & posturing in corridors about their horns. I cried in improvisation classes mid bass solo, I cried in my lessons, I cried in my exams when they insisted I undertake the compulsory sight reading test that I always failed. (Why did they have to put me through the motions?) I tried to leave about three times. Twice my gentle & wonderful bass teacher was able to talk me round. The third time I made it to the head of Jazz Studies who took drastic action to avoid the massive inconvenience of losing a bassist from his ensembles. He told me firmly that leaving now would be cowardly (but in less attractive terms- ask me about that story sometime…) & I agreed to go on just as much to get out of his office as anything else.

And so I finished the course & wrote more than ever. Subsequent years of touring & struggling to be at peace with my identity as a musician brought songs like Ordinary Mystery, Stronger the Tree & Jericho. Jigzag produced many albums during that time & played at festivals all around Australia & beyond (New Caledonia, Canada, England, Denmark, New Zealand) They were a dream band & I appreciate the sheer privilege of working with such beautiful, gentle & unusually talented musical souls for thirteen years & also being able to call them friends. We spent so many significant moments on tour together. I’ll never forget creeping out of a shared room at Port Douglas to gather frangipanis, threading them into chains to festoon around Greg’s bed & creating a huge sand sculpture for him on this birthday one year.

We walked around the base of Uluru together & camped within sight of it to cook vegetarian sausages in the moonlight. I remember Caroline singing a spine tingling version of her lovely song ‘Feel Like a Child’ to a tiny live audience at Southbank ABC Studios for our Live album. Equally amazing was the experience of playing on the main stage at the Island Folk Festival on Vancouver Island to a whole crowd of blissed out Canadian folkies.

Jigzag’s chemistry was always unconscious. We never wrote any of our music down & rehearsals flowed with combined energy only broken by the important cup of home-brewed chai or one of Caroline’s tasty tofu & brown rice concoctions.  I’m also fortunate enough to be part of many other wonderful & ongoing musical collaborations, both pre-meditated & off the cuff. These have been the source of many treasured memories. I remember while I was still studying I was referred to Jodi Martin by a jazz guitarist with whom I ’d shared my first year impro-classes. We did a few wonderful gigs together & I can still remember the floods in 2001, coming across a fallen tree in the Jigzag van on the way to Lismore. We had to wait for a chainsaw to arrive before I was on my way to play bass for ‘Water & Wood’ live in the studio with Jodi strumming & crooning & Dave MacDonald from The Waifs hitting those skins in his laid back way.

2003 was the year Fred Smith & I hit the studios in Canberra to make “Into My Room”- my first experience of being a vocal interpreter of someone else’s original material on an album produced by the writer. It was hard & emotional work with lots of magic. I particularly remember the  afternoon that found Barney Wakeford sitting in concentration before a baby grand piano at Canberra Grammar Junior School. He has this way of listening intently & barely touching the keys when he’s learning a piece. One run through the changes & my voice far from warm, the red button goes down.

 “The moon took it’s leave, touching my sleeve, says ‘wake-up, the suns up…’  (Fred Smith)

When we finished it was like a spell was broken & it’s that very same version of ‘The Lonely Road’ that made the final cut. I will also never forget the colour of the sky when we came out for a break onto the fire escape at Infidels studio to witness the beginnings of Canberra burning in the worst bush fires they had seen for years.

2003 was also the year Jigzag explored Europe, Canada & England. Great times we had staying with Gilly Darbey & Ember Swift, sharing so much music. Chris While & Julie Matthews plucked me from Canada at the end of our tour & put me in a studio in Manchester, England to record rhythm tracks live for their album ‘Perfect Mistake’. That first night I nearly fell face first into my Chinese take-away fast asleep, after rehearsing with them for at least 6 hours! But no matter how jetlagged & overwhelmed I was, great music will always pull me through. I still consider this to be among my best recordings as an accompanist. All the while back in Australia a demo of Jericho had earned me a place as finalist in the National Gospel Songwriting Awards.

2004 brought fond memories of making ‘Likely Stories’ with Brett Robin Wood, spending hours experimenting with bass grooves & layering wild & wacky harmonies. We tried everything from soft choral hums- note by note, to raucous gospel ravings. Some of his Urban Folk Bliss nights at the Side On Café were magic, like the first time he sang ‘Believe’ & my boyfriend Steve was squeezing my hand & I really did believe, for a little while. And maybe that’s what all these relentless musical wanderings are for. The search for what to believe, the quest to learn to trust again after you have been hurt, especially by yourself! For me- it’s about learning. What better way to learn than to get close to people & to take the risk?

2005- 2009 my path led me to Melbourne & a debut album ‘Jericho’ & so many more friends & glasses of good red & home cooked meals & dried mango. I made lots more great connections with Victorian musicians, most notably Melbourne locals Vincent Bradley, Tanya Balka and a songwriting association with Frank Jones, Bill Jackson & Ruth Hazelton. I spent a couple of years hanging out with Ruth, Sally Taylor & Cat Moser playing old timey tunes and songs 'girl- style' in a band called Dev'lish Mary that racked up an album, a surprising amount of festivals and a regional tour in their 2 years of existence before we took our final bow in 2010.

During that time in Melbourne, Frencham Smith, completed up our second release 'Love Thongs' and I self produced the first in a series of live Duets CDs with different artist called "You & Me Vol.1". Who knows when and how many volumes it will be, but if the quality of collaborators of the first volume is any indication (Doug DeVries, Carl Pannuzzo, Martin Pearson, Kristina Olsen & many more) it will continue to be a favourite ongoing project.

2009 was the year of my 'tree-change' to Trentham in the Central Highlands of Victoria and the following year I finally married the love of my live- Steve Vella. The focus of my life shifted to the domestic front and touring became far less frequent.The birth of my 2 current original projects happened around this time- Jimmy the Fish (a contemporary bluegrass, acoustic music trio featuring awesome flat-pick guitarist Robbie Long and virtuoso dobro player Pete Fidler) and a duo collaboration 'Red Juliet with local jazz guitarist Myles White. Sadly, as happens so often in all aspects of life, those births were accompanied by a farewell, this time after 13 years Jigzag took it's final bow after recording their 5th album- 'Heart-Shaped House'.  

Throughout 2010 & 2011 both Red Juliet & Jimmy the Fish were an immense source of satisfaction with festival appearances and recordings in abundance. But another farewell occurred in 2012 as both Myles and the brave men of Jimmy the Fish moved onto other projects and once again I was a gal without a band. 

What to do? My very first solo double bass/vocal album of covers "One:The Living Room Sessions" was recorded in my living room in the cold winter of 2012 and released in a USB format. It co-incided nicely with my very first solo tour support slot from september through to the new year with L.A's most debonaire crooner, Mr Gregory Page, very quickly morphing into his accompanist for the remainder of that tour and getting to see some more of Australia AND the world. The opening slot continued over in the UK and the Netherlands and I began to see the possibility of being just a girl alone onstage with a double bass.

The covers album never made it to CD, instead finding a special place as my first exclusive bandcamp release as two separate EP's. in 2013. It's release beyond the short run of USB sticks was mainly due to the support of an incredible soul based in Birmingham UK, Steve Lawson, who accepted the job as my musical mentor and now I can happily boast is a true friend. We have all kinds of plans to carry out the very next time we inhabit the same part of the planet.

The spring of 2013 saw me undertake my very first headlining National tour "The Joyspring Tour" and I made some really lovely sounds up and down the east coast with the help of Damien Neil, Nick Southcott and Tim Bradley. At this time I also dusted off my plans for "You & Me Vol.2" re-energised by the idea that I didn't need to be in a band to play music.

I took this a step further early in 2014 by undertaking the massive challenge of writing 14 songs in 28 days with the support of an online community known as February Album Writing Month or FAWM.  Unbelievably I completed the challenge producing 14 fully written lyrics, 10 of them as recorded audio. Even better I made a whole bunch of new friends across the world. I made another very important musical friend at this time too, one who only lived a few blocks away in my small country town. Robbie Melville, a beautiful local guitarist, approached me to be part of a quartet that would improvise live to a trio of Charlie Chaplin films. We haven't stopped playing together ever since!

There wasn't a lot of spare time to get into the studio in 2014 however as Fred Smith had managed (with some generous arts council help) to book his fully revised "Dust of Uruzgan" theatre show into a whole host of beautiful rooms across the country and for a large percentage of the year we were on the road telling the story of Australian forces in Afghanistan. I still managed to duck into studios with wonderful collaborators throughout the year and finally hold "You & Me Vol.2" in my hand by mid October, though it still remains un-launched.

Here we are now in 2015 with the autumn festival season coming to a close. My 2nd FAWM was filled with my first ever online musical collaborations and again I made the 14 song total within the deadline. I have started "You and Me Vol.3" and will be launching You & Me Vol.2, You & Me Vol. 3 and a re-packaged You & Me Vol. 1. in the spring if all goes to plan. I am used to plans taking longer than what I expect, however, so I will hold them lightly. :)

To all my soul mates who have inspired & shaped my path, I raise my glass. “To the music that is to come!” Too many to mention but you will find them onstage with me sometimes, or in sunlit kitchens or warm front porches. Some of them are listed on the links page of this web-place. They are the Dream Seat, the human face of musical force that drives me.

In closing(for now!), may there be many more times when someone lifts their chin slightly from their guitar & a word escapes them like a low moan. I’ll be there with my double bass, my hands moving with a will of their own, coaxing out an accompanying sob & sometimes it will work & the moment will resonate unbroken & sometimes it won’t & our eyes will meet & crinkle in smile born of our shared humanity.

That’s music.

~liz