Mezz Coleman - Artist Interview
ARTIST INTERVIEW: Mezz Coleman
A jazz singer in a former life, Melbourne songbird and storyteller Mezz Coleman finally found her home in the folk music world, and has spent the last decade performing her unique blend of dreamy folk pop at festivals and venues around Australia.
We caught up with Mezz to find out what makes her tick, how she managed to forge a career in music while having kids, and what she’s learned along the way.
Tell us how you started playing music and a bit of your journey so far
I’m very lucky because I grew up in a musical family, so I almost couldn’t tell you of a conscious moment when I decided I wanted to play music, because it was just always there. I’m only learning now when I talk to other people that that’s a rare experience.
I grew up playing music with my two brothers. My parents both play music so it was always in my life. I decided to get pretty serious about it as a teneager and started studying voice, and then went on to study jazz improvisation at VCA which was an interesting experience. I experienced there many things I loved about music and also some things I realised weren’t quite what I wanted. I’ll always love those old jazz standards, but I finally realised I wanted to tell my own story rather than sing other people’s jazz songs forever.
So the last 14 years since then has been this slow journey of trying to figure out what is my voice and what is the music I want to be making and sharing. It’s a journey I’m still on.
So do you have any clarity on that now?
Yeah it’s getting closer, I think it will always be shifting as I shift, but I’m drawn to folk music for its story-telling, I’m drawn to jazz music for its harmonic & melodic interest, and I’m drawn to “good” pop music for its accessibility, and I think that what I create sits somewhere within those three genres.
I think I’m getting closer to figuring it out but it’s one of the hardest things to do, because as soon as you say “I am this”, the fear is then that you become very boxed in by that. But at the same time I think it’s important to have a creative vision about what you’re trying to make.
So in light of that, what kind of advice would you give to a young person embarking on their first EP or album?
I’m torn because I think part of knowing your sound comes from knowing yourself. And when I think back to 20 year old me, I don’t want to suggest that I had no wisdom or maturity, but it certainly wasn’t what I have now. So I think, like all young people should do, you should experiment and you should try things and see what works and what doesn’t.
I would be very reluctant to tell someone who is 17 or 18 “know your sound” and “know your audience”... I feel like for some people that works really well but I also feel that for young people it’s still about exploring and you kind of come to that place after you’ve tried a lot of things, and you know, after potentially having a few failures, it’s often when you learn about who you really are as a person and artist.
Yeah, its like failure is the thing we run from, but it’s often the place where you learn the most about yourself.
Absolutely. And I think about so many experiences I’ve had that would not be looked at as success. When you’re in it it’s horrible because you feel like a failure, but when you are through that situation, of course you learn from it. If you just see it as a bad experience and you want to forget about it, you won’t learn. But if you’re willing to go deep and reflect and think about what you could do differently next time, you will grow. Like seriously- my whole music career has been a series of just learning what hasn’t worked, and getting to that place where you start to make just a few more choices around what IS going to work.
So you’re a mum and a musician. How do you find balance doing that?
It’s all I know. And it’s probably never balanced, that’s probably the most honest answer. What I’ve found over many years is I’m not very good at being balanced. Generally if my kids need me, I can drop everything else and just be all in for them. But vica versa, I also know that when I’m diving really deep into some artistic spaces the first thing that’s gonna drop is my presence with my family.
So how does it work?
My kids are great, and they also have an amazing and supportive dad so I’m sure that’s a huge part of it. We tend to fill in the gaps when the other person isn’t so the kids never miss out on at least of one of us being really present. Not that we always get it right. I remember someone once said to me after a full week of shows, recordings and lots of family things going on “how do you do it?” and I’m like “come to my house and you will see how I do it… it’s disgusting! No-one has put the washing away, no-one has eaten a home cooked meal in 4 nights... that’s how I’m doing it!”. I’m not doing it all particularly well, but recognising that it’s not forever, and it’s OK.
There’s a bit of a buzz-word that people talk about these days: “mum guilt”. And I’ve been pretty determined not to feel that, because its just bullshit. I know I’m a pretty loving mum, my kids know I am, and I am mostly very present. So if occasionally my music takes me away for a bit, they know I come back and I think I’m modelling that pursuing creative passions is important.
Well that was going to be my next question; how important is it to you to model creativity for your kids?
So important! When I bought a piano, we tucked it away in a private part of the house because that’s what I thought was necessary to be creative and not to disturb anyone. And about a year ago when we were shuffling things around I made a very deliberate decision to move the piano into the main room of the house, literally right next to the TV. And I was worried about that, because if I played music it was going to disturb people and annoy the family but it’s actually been the opposite experience. Me making music has become a more centred part of the way the family exists. I don’t run off to hide in that little room anymore to create, I just do it in amongst the chaos. My daughter now shows way more interest in the piano ‘coz it’s there… we sit and jam together in a way that we didn’t before, and I think it’s a really important way of bringing what I do into their lives as opposed to closing the door and “mum’s doing this now”.
There is a bit of a subtle perception, that for women, if you want to have a go at making music, you’ll need to do that before you have kids. Which in a way is wise, but it doesn’t have to look like that, and if you have got kids that doesn’t have to be the end.
Well I had my son when I was quite young, and by the time I graduated uni at 21 he was born. So I didn’t have that time in my life where music was my one and only priority. It’s always had to sit behind the wellbeing of a child, and at the end of the day that’s more important. I only know what it’s like to be a musician where it can run a really close 2nd to my top priority but never be the ONE… so of course there are times when I perceive friends my age doing bigger and better things, and have been resentful and wished I had my 20s to myself to do that.. but it’s not how it was. And I wouldn’t change a thing.
I’m now entering a new phase in my life where my kids are growing up and I’m pretty free again, and a lot of people who have had that music career and are now thinking about children and are quite concerned by “how is this going to work?” But you can make it work, trust me (laughs). This is a conversation men should be having too by the way, not just women!
Have you experienced any significant periods of “writer's block” and how do you deal with this?
I don’t think I’ve ever used the words “writers block” to describe my writers block, but yes I’ve definitely had it. Maybe I’ve said that I’m a bit uninspired, or just really busy. I found after I had my son I was very determined to not let it stop me being who I wanted to be, so once he was born I was out there gigging and recording, and released a record not long after his birth.
But the second time round, five years later when I had my daughter, I made a very deliberate decision to spend the first 6 months just enjoying her and pulled right back from music. But that 6 months turned into two and a half years, and by the end of it I was pretty sad. I needed the time away to allow myself to be with my baby, but when it was time to step back into writing and performing, I had lost a lot of confidence. So I would say now looking back, that was a period of writer’s block but also just a lack of confidence as far as who I was in the music industry. It felt like, in the time I took away, everyone else had raced ahead of me a little bit. Which took some pretty slow rebuilding.
But I haven’t experienced writers block for a while, because I don’t measure myself. I do try to allow regular time at the piano though, which is where I feel most creative and free. And I know if I don’t carve time into my schedule to sit there and see what happens, I will not write. So I think that’s been a really important practice that I’ve only discovered in the last couple of years. If you keep showing up, things will come.
Do you have a team around you to help manage your music or are you fully self managed?
I am managing it myself and I would love to have some more support with that. I don’t enjoy it. I’m not good at admin. In fact, here is a really recent example of how crap I am at it- my website disappeared this morning because of an admin error on my part! A lot of my friends who are musicians are really good at it, and I think I’m better these days at promoting myself, but it’s more the unglamorous and not particularly creative parts of management that I struggle with. I’ll have a bit list of festivals I need to apply for, for example, and then the dates will pass, and I’ll have missed it.
One of the things I’ve learnt is that a lot of my friends in the industry do have “managers”, but the managers are peers of theirs who have come alongside them because they love their music and they’re just figuring it out together. Which can be messy but from the artist perspective, their not doing it all alone.
Its funny, when you think about becoming a musician you don’t often think “I’m gonna become a manager, admin assistant, promoter and accountant”...
Yeah and I feel after all these years I’m still constantly winging it. When I went to uni and studied music, I kept waiting for the class where we’d talk about this stuff and learn about the industry and it never came. So maybe I wish I’d done some sort of music business course, there’s stuff like that out there now, and maybe we as musicians need to take a bit more advantage of that. If you are very creative, sometimes the more “admin” side of sharing your art can really weigh you down.
What do you think about “branding”? Is it important to you to stick to a certain image that people can identify you by?
I’d like to say I never think about and it doesn’t matter at all, but I admit that it’s a thing I’m conscious of. The word makes me feel uncomfortable because it’s sort of about image. I think I’m really careful about what I share online for privacy reasons, but I’ve also become a bit more curated than I ever thought I would. I do think there is a slight “Mezz Coleman” look or brand or thing that I put out there… it’s hard to put into words. What I would say though, is since being more conscious of that, I have a bigger online community.
Branding is a really uncomfortable space to sit in and I think it is something I’m hopefully not controlled by, but conscious of. When I think about my life; the way I write, the people I like, the things that have always been of interest to me, the theme that seems to tie it all together is a sense of finding the “beauty in amongst the slightly gritty”. And I think that theme comes up again and again- from where I live, to the people I love, and the songs I write. If there was one way I’d describe my “image” or “what I put out into the world” it’s maybe that - that there’s beauty everywhere, and it can be a little bit messy and gritty.
What does success mean to you, and when you’re feeling successful, what gives you that feeling?
Yeah I can totally describe what feels successful! Quite specifically. It’s this: A room full of people fully engaging in what I’m bringing them musically and emotionally. It doesn’t have to be a big room, but everyone in it is hanging on every note that I sing, every word that I say and every note that I play because it matters. In that moment I am singing in my full voice, but more importantly, I am emotionally connected to what I am singing, and because of that all the people in the room are experiencing that too, and we all become connected in some way. Sounds a bit hippy-dippy, but that’s what success feels like to me, and I’m lucky to have experiences like that now.
When I was twelve, if you asked me what success looked like I would have said it was to be a Broadway star, and if you asked me when I was seventeen, I would have said it was to be the jazz singer in Melbourne who’s out playing gigs every weekend with all the best musos in town. In my early 20’s I got a lot of work as a backing vocalist for quite a lot of big names doing big shows and recordings, and I thought I’d reached something that was success. But after doing that for quite a few years I realised it was not very fun and creatively very uninspiring for me and I don’t do work in that field at all any more.
So I think your idea of success can move and change and that’s ok. While I’m pretty satisfied with my concept of success at the moment, maybe 10 years from now it will be different again. But I do know the feeling now of holding an audience in the palm of my hand and when I get it, it’s pretty great. You know, I could perform to 300 people who aren’t listening, but I’d rather 10 people who are. If I can do a good enough job to make people stop and spend half an hour paying attention to some live music, that’s success to me.
I don’t know... what do you think?
I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I think when you feel like you’ve failed it really makes you reassess those things. For me, I realised the thing that I thought was success that I was chasing wasn’t making me happy. And just the other day someone said “success is happiness” and I’d always said I’m not going to chase happiness because its superficial and it never lasts, but actually making music should make me happy and if I’m not, or Im just doing it because I should, I’m not going to produce anything.
Yeah it’s a really noble goal and its one we can be embarrassed by but there’s nothing more important. There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel fulfilled, and that’s a word I’d rather rest on. Because with success it always seems to lean towards a numerical outcome, i.e. how many people came to your show, how much money are you making, etc. Where I’ve been thinking more and more in the last few years, ‘when do I feel fulfilled?’ ‘What fulfills me as an artist?’ Fulfillment is more important to me at the moment than success. But I think a fulfilled and happy person will be successful in their own way.
What is the biggest lesson you learnt along the way?
There’s probably a few… I wish I knew what we were just talking about! That success can look like however you choose success to look. I wish I knew that I was the writer of my own destiny and there wasn’t a formula to how you become a successful musician. Because so often when I followed what I thought was the formula I felt like I was pushing bricks up a hill. And over the last few years when I let go of that to find my own measure of happiness and fulfillment, there’s a flow that comes with that. You’re not pushing and trying so hard.
And another big lesson I have learnt is the value of hard work. I was raised to believe that my music was a gift, like a spiritual gift. And I don’t disagree with that - I think that’s a really beautiful concept, but we need to be so careful with language around this stuff. I believed for many years that my singing wasn’t really something that I did or worked on, it was just a gift handed to me. That’s not very empowering. I got to a point at around 18 or 19 where I knew I had to get a lot better if I wanted to be more than just another “good” singer, but I didn’t know where to start. That kind of undid me for a while. Realising that I wasn’t going to continue to just get by “winging it” forever, and that music was a skill I should work on and develop was hard. I don’t have a hugely strong work ethic even now, and when things get overwhelming I still get lazy, just rely on talent to get me by. I don’t want to lose the concept of music being a gift completely, I just think there has to be more to it than that. It takes all the power away from you when you think- ‘it’s not you, its a gift’. I realise now when you work on things, you can improve and that’s an incredible feeling.
So where can people find your music?
Mezz Coleman is on Facebook, YouTube, and all your online platforms. And I play live, which is still my most favourite way to meet a fan!
Mezz is performing every Monday evening in August at The Wesley Anne in Northcote, 6:30-8:30pm.