Jessie Webb — Hello Sunlight

Posted on February 17, 2015

Jessie Webb discusses 84000 ideas from Eva Popov.

Eva Popov once described songwriting as ‘a cross between creating a really intricate sculpture and having a magical conversation with the universe.’ In conversation with her, this makes sense. She speaks in the way she writes songs, shaping thoughts into images and getting at the heart of things. We sit at her kitchen table with late-winter sun streaming across the timber — marked with its own multiplicity of stories — while Sunny, her youngest daughter, plays behind us. ‘Sunny’ also describes the feeling in this room, and I’m reminded of the repetition of this motif — of light, and sun — throughout Eva’s work.

In my memory there is Eva Popov on stage in Northcote, singing about the first day of summer, the day of her eldest daughter Maisy’s birth, ‘like a shot of cocaine’. There is Eva in a Fitzroy pub on a winter night, surrounded by her band, Hello Satellites: the audience drawn in around tables, sprawled across each other on the floor, packed in and warm, soaking in sound. There is a summer day on Western Australia’s South Coast, Eva’s voice filling the room as drummer Mark Gretton and his father listen to early mixes of Hello Satellites, the band’s first album.

As we start talking about 84000, the band’s second album released this year, I’m also reminded of a duality at the heart of Eva’s work. 84000 is, on the surface, buoyant and exuberant, consisted with these recurring images of light and sun. But for Eva, the album includes memories and physical experiences of darkness. ‘I can hear that in the album, still,’ she reflects. ‘84000 was, in a way, quite a brutal process. It was made as a way of coping with an internal challenge in my life at that point. On top of that, I was pregnant and having my second child. It was a physically exhausting experience, and it accompanied me through some really raw nerves.’ Not that she doesn’t also hear the joy in it — and joy, like light, is a central theme to Eva’s musical life and creativity — but with this, she says, ‘I do have a physical memory of — just darkness really.’

Eva Popov is a Melbourne-based singer-songwriter who found solace in music early in life. She remembers the childhood joy she found singing with others: Bulgarian Hymns in church, and with her family each night before bed. Following the unexpected death of her mother when she was ten, music — particularly the classical piano — became an anchoring force, and by the age of 13, she says, it was an obsession. Deciding first that she would be an author, then musician, she began accompanying herself on the guitar and piano when her words evolved into songs. Eventually finding the piano ‘too lonely’, Eva rediscovered the fulfillment of making music with others, and is now the centre of an interchanging cast of band members and collaborators. Peter Emptage, Cathryn Kohn, Georgia Harvey, Amy Tankard, George Weis and Mark Gretton are her ‘satellites’ who have together created their own experimental folk-pop sound. Collaboration is now central to her songwriting: recordings will circulate between band members’ homes and the studio, where layers and textures evolve with each exchange. They might return to her with five different bass lines, or a new track called ‘sticky tape’. ‘It’s a collage,’ she says. ‘Those albums are collages of things that happened in different places, at different times.’

Despite Eva’s physical memories of darkness, the magical sculpture-conversation-collage that is 84000 holds many things together — experiences that are equally musical, emotional and conceptual. ‘I wouldn’t say it’s a sad album,’ she says, ‘and I wouldn’t say it’s a happy album. But what I wanted it to do was present this illusion, the beautiful bright illusion of infatuation, and then unravel it.’And unravel it she does. The album opens with rich, colourful sound assemblies accented with handclaps and layered voices. Titles like ‘Joy Inside Our Skin’, ‘Like Sunlight’ and ‘Belly of the Sun’ suggest the brightness of new love. But, continue on and these bright openings stretch slowly out into more mysterious musical territory. The final track, ‘All Fiction,’ asks us to see it out: what’s behind the brightness? What is in the belly of the sun? Here — behind the thrill of first meetings, of waiting for a lover (All the life we’re yet to live/I can see it shining), of romance humming in your veins, you’ll find lyrics about emptiness. It’s a place where windows open to the night and souls fly away (Josie woke up, said I am empty/While I was sleeping/My soul flew out of me). Somewhere beyond Shangri-La, we find a piece of the darkness and the sense of physicality that Eva describes in her experience of making the album: which for her is a story that can’t easily be put into words. ‘I feel like the album tells the album’s story… enough,’ she explains. It’s already written in the music.

This was a different experience to making her first (self-titled) Hello Satellites album and her earlier solo recordings. ‘Hello Satellites had a real element of joy and discovery to it, because it was the first time I had made an album like that. It was a really beautiful collaboration with (Two Bright Lakes producer) Nick (Huggins), and I learned so much about album making. I would make things at home, then I would take them to him, he would shape them and I’d take them home again. We kind of dreamt it into existence together. I remember that as being a really bright and beautiful process.’

But this creative responsiveness took on a different dimension the second time, and the ‘unraveling’ process in the recording and creating of 84000 became a sort of lived experience for both Eva and other collaborators. ‘If you create songs,’ she explains, ‘they hold this energy in them. If you sing them over and over again, it’s like your body learns that energy.’ For this reason, Eva warns, ‘You have to be wary of what you put in your songs because your body has to go through it, over and over again.’ In this way, her creative process is a temporal and embodied thing, where the music is lived as it’s created, every time. I sense that this is also where a creative tension lies: requiring Eva to crack herself open, almost, as much in performance as in the expression of her lyrical themes.

‘I mean,’ she explains, ‘it’s important to sing what’s true. I don’t want to start designing songs to shape life to some construct. I think if we’re not sharing truth, it’s pointless — I mean that’s where the energy is, in what’s true, and it’s important to have forums in life for pain, as much as joy.’

The themes in 84000 are just that: experiences of life that can contain in them light and joy with darkness and grief. Through birth and death, love, sexuality — and infatuation — she shows us where darkness is always hovering on the periphery of joy: You can try to be an angel but you’re born into blood/to a woman whose body has opened up. Just like the creation of her music, the experiences she sings of are all embodied — we live them out through our physical selves. ‘I think every song contains blood,’ she laughs. But this openness, this honesty, comes at a cost. ‘It feels expensive,’ she says, ‘in terms of my own personal psyche.’ She can leave a gig, she says, feeling like something has left her body, ‘and now I don’t know where it is, or who has it. Where did it go?’ she asks. ‘How do I come back to my daily life and replenish that?’ This seems to be a central question to the physicality of Eva’s creative process. ‘I find that whenever I do a lot of shows or I’m touring, I wonder how to ground myself. How to give, yet be grounded.’ And does she get things back through that process, too?

‘In the moment, absolutely. I think I have become a better performer in the last few years, because often when I’m playing I’m feeling the most ridiculous joy. I’m singing and I just want to cry with joy. The band is such a beautiful thing.’ The audience, she says, contribute to this too, especially when they join in. At these moments, she thinks, ‘I don’t know you, but you’re singing with me! And I feel like you’re totally looking after me! And we’re so together in this, at this moment.’ There’s still a process of balancing, however, once it’s over. ‘It’s re-grounding yourself back,’ she says. ‘Just like, I don’t know — love affairs!’

Eva sings about embodiment, and she embodies what she sings about. This unifying thread is encompassed in the album’s mysterious entitling number.

‘Buddha went through and categorised 84,000 delusions or sufferings, and then came up with 84,000 solutions to them. I thought that was quite funny, and it became my working title at that point when there were lots of songs about infatuation and sexuality, and all these things started coming together. Then one day I picked up a book by Eliot Weinberger, and inside there was a beautiful quote describing the way ancient Chinese medicine believed there were 84,000 holes in the body and the wind got through them and they made you sick.

I thought — 84,000 delusions, 84,000 holes in the body. There you go. Body: delusion. It felt like it held everything I wanted to say without saying it. And I liked the way it sat with Hello Satellites as well.’

But after the immensity of that undertaking, Eva says she is uncertain where she’ll take her music from here. ‘I feel a bit intimidated about going forward with album-making from this point, because of the edges I came to in that last process,‘ she explains. For now she has taken her songwriting into a new realm, presenting a series of workshops that focus her interest in the connections between people, their own bodies, and their creativity — through singing, movement and songwriting. ‘I want to bring that creative process to people in other forms, as a facilitator,’ she says. ‘That’s really interesting for me, going about the work of songwriting and reframing it — trying to make it more immediate, more community-focused.’

I am reminded again of my memories of Eva in performance. The atmospheres she creates manifest that collaborative nature of her writing and music creation. I am not surprised when she tells me people regularly confess to crying during her performances. Eva embodies the kind of trust that would allow upswells of emotion, the same care she describes receiving from her audience. It also doesn’t surprise me that offering this can take its toll.

The deeper she goes into family life, she says, the more challenging this can feel. She has less time, now, to devote solely to songwriting. ‘I have a feeling that when women have two small children it’s quite common to be at a really low ebb,’ she says, but she still feels loaded with the sort of ‘emotional excess’ that can spill into song. ‘If I’m doing dishes or driving the car, anything that needs processing just comes out in song,’ she says. ‘If not songs I’ve already written, then new ones. They still kind of follow me around.’ I think this sounds beautiful, but Eva says is can also be frustrating. ‘Sometimes I think, I don’t know what to do with you!’

Now, there is also more to be protected. The expense of giving energy and being open calls into question how much is to be shared. ‘The more you love,’ she says of this, ‘the more challenged you’ll be.’ It is another consideration to hold in balance, another challenge of creative expression — for any artist as much as it is for Eva, who cherishes the collaboration. ‘Is it mine?’ she asks. ‘Is it me?’ Whose is it to give? For this reason, she does not perform under her own name, because, she says, ‘I need some barrier between me and the music.’ She dreams of singing into a hall in the country, unencumbered by equipment and other ‘hoo ha’ — just her voice and the space. She wonders if the name Hello Satellites is neutral enough now for this music she’d like to make. ‘It sounds so technological,’ she says.

But I think Hello Satellites speaks in other ways. Perhaps it’s Eva’s ability to hold so many things together around her, and around each other. To find a place for creative expression between opposing tensions and forces. There’s the suggestion of duality, and the unraveling of illusion: you think it’s a star, but is it a satellite? And this universe she converses with expands inward as well as out: You are wider than the endless sea, she sings, You are one unchartered mystery. Eva occupies these places and shows us views — from afar, and up close — of ourselves.

Photos by Lucy Spartalis and Alice Glenn.

Jessie Webb studied at La Trobe University and The University of Melbourne.

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