Sydney’s Monica Brooks has modelled sound works, compositions, and improvisations from piano, computer, field recordings, glasses, radio, and accordion. As a performer she has collaborated with various fabulous folks such as Jim Denley, Dale Gorfinkel, Herminone Johnson, Chris Abrahams, Robbie Avenaim, Kraig Grady, Richard Nuns, Eugene Chadbourne and Joe Talia.
On May 23, Brooks will be performing solo on piano at Vivid LIVE for the Repressed Records showcase featuring Royal Headache, Blank Realm + more. Her previous solo piano performances have been strikingly beautiful and sonically immersive. Monica is currently recording a solo album for piano with assistance from Jon Hunter (Magnetic Recording Council), Chris Abrahams (The Necks), and Yoni Hochman (Holy Balm) for R.I.P. Society Records, due for release in 2015. MusicNSW’s Greg Clennar grabbed her for a chat ahead of her performance at Vivid LIVE.
Tell us a little about yourself, and how you came about as an artist?
Other than my Dad’s excellent record collection, my paternal grandmother played piano, and made my mother promise to keep my brother and I in music till age 16. We quit shortly after; I was particularly bad at reading music. Nonetheless, I applied and eventually completed a music degree at UWS Penrith. It was here I met a pretty amazing bunch of students, teachers, and arts community folk through the Music, and Electronic Art program that exposed me to some really great ideas. This branched out into the broader community later on. Specifically, DIY experimental music scenes and rocknroll communities, as well as folks associated with ARI spaces, are how I’ve been able to participate in music and art in Sydney. Over the years more and more venues and education programs have closed due to bizarre funding or licensing laws – perhaps this is also due to attitudes as to what culture ought to be being perpetuated in Australia, although this is changing. Folks that often sit outside of formal institutions, or indeed a western classical canon, have been the sorts of artists and organisers that encourage people like myself to continue (oranisations and individuals such as the NOW now, RIP Society, Serial Space, community radio, etc.) The Splinter Orchestra in particular is a community of musos and non musos that I was lucky enough to be invited to in 2004, enabling me to engage with music, gigs, discourse, politics, and friendships over the years.
You use accordions, different pedals and radios in composing your music. What musical/nonmusical influences shape your sound?
That’s some of the stuff I do, but at the moment I’m focussing on this solo piano thing that’s been ambling along merrily for quite a few years. Nic Warnock’s really helped me pay more attention to it as a ‘serious’ project. Explicitly, Alice Coltrane, Anthony Pateras, and Chris Abrahams, have been a massive influence on how I’ve thought about the piano in the last decade. Otherwise, I’d say main influences come from mates introducing me to interesting music, or having good conversations…
What is your proudest moment so far as an artist?
I’m stoked about most of them I reckon! I rattle around with nerves before most performances so I’m happy that any of them get to the finish line. In 2000, I played keyboard for a folk band called Jonah’s Pride, and we got to play at the Reconciliation Day Walk Across The Bridge thing. It was a pretty important moment for the guitarist, De, who’d been looking for part of her family for a while, and so those sorts of events can be pretty moving. More recently though, I can think of playing at the Paddington Uniting Church for a piano gig in 2011 (some temples/churches have been pretty important in letting gigs happen in Sydney as venues, even if you’re agnostic/atheist/non-Christian): I supported Hermione Johnson (NZ), and Chris Abrahams. My Mum came to the show, which was awesome, and wrote all this prose and notes during the sets. She thought the piano reminded her of glaciers, moving slowly but with bits being interrupted by cracks and creases in the whole structure. It’s not just Mum though, you’d be surprised by how much non-artists understand or describe art better than those that make it. If you asked me about gigs where I’d embarrassed myself in front of the audience, I’d be able to tell you some much more entertaining/incriminating moments!
If you could collaborate with any Sydney based artist or band, who would it be?
Crickey. That’s a long list. I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with excellent folks like Laura Altman, Scum System Kill, Jim Denley, the Women’s Auxiliary Choir, Creeks, Melodie Nelson, Aemon Webb, West Head Project w Jason, Claire, Damo, etc from Ensemble Offspring, to name a few legends that I’d love to collaborate with some more. If it were someone or a made up band I hadn’t played music with yet…I’d love to play glasses with Angie Garrick; a piano duo with Lawrence Williams, too; a sound walk or field recordings with various good eggs…cripes! That list is endless…I think music or sound based people can afford to branch out and contact their peers from different forms (which they do).
Can you explain a little about your songwriting and recording processes?
I’d say most musos end up in different formats so it’s a bit too nebulous to wrangle down to a few sentences. Because I’m plugging the piano thing at the moment, I’ll go with that. I started to pay more attention to piano stuff more in 2007. Specifically, this work that’ll be released(due on RIP in 2015), comes from two inspirations from Sydney based artists, Peter Farrar, and Aemon Webb. I’d played on one of Aemon’s compositions (2008) that involved multiple tempos working together in an ensemble that brought me into the idea of trance and endurance in composed/arranged/improvised (?) work. This influenced the way one could be enveloped in the method of making sound instead of the very conscious awareness when performing. Around this time I’d had a few plays with Peter Farrar (experimental music, as well as an electronic beats dude) on sax, and me on piano, recorded on tape. He introduced me to Ghanaian, Ethiopian, and Malian music from the 70s, but also stuff like the tonality and composition of Alice, and also John Coltrane. I don’t know music like Pete does, so it was fairly rough from my end. But Pete’s really good at supporting folks who don’t play formal musics to just take what they can from it. The guy’s one of the only people I’d call a musical genius. The rest of it comes from practice scales and percussion practice rudiments.
Recording wise – I’d always used my Zoom for internet release stuff. For this upcoming record though(Nic Warnock’s RIP Society), I wanted to get some folks that knew what they were doing so I could do it justice. Chris, and Hunter, have always been an inspiration recording (and music!) wise, hence why I like their input. Yoni was an unexpected massive help when I couldn’t find a piano to record on. He’s really chilled as a sound recordist and also good for feedback. All three folks have been instrumental in getting the music to a point that’s good enough for release. The best thing is that they’re all really good to chat about music with, as well as being constructively critical about your own stuff, and have good ears when it comes to the process. Advice. It’s good!
What can we expect to see from you in 2015?
The record on RIP Society! I’m hilariously excited about being on vinyl. Haha. Such an ego boost! I’m working on a couple of things for Yan Jun (Beijing), in word and sound form. I’m looking forward to what’s in stall for that! He’s another legend, really interesting mate to listen to, too. A magnanimous choir I sing in, Women’s Auxiliary Choir, will be playing a few a few shows…but you’ll have to come down to the pub for that! A long standing ensemble I’m in, Great Waitress, is booked to be in Europe again at the end of this year. I play accordion in this band, but Mags is a fucking demon on piano, and equally Laura on Clarinet. They’re also bloody great mates.
Otherwise, the piano thing will be trundling along! I’ve had a few gigs in Sydney recently, at 107 Projects, w Clare Cooper at Woodford Art Academy on the 16th May, and another at a DIY place near Central Station. There’s also a Vivid gig coming up at the Opera House on the 23rd May, which will be a great gig. Royal Headache is headlining, so there’ll be an exciting line up!
You’re performing as part of the Repressed Records extravaganza at Vivid Live at the Opera House. What about playing at the Opera House are you looking forward to the most?
I’m totally shitting myself about this gig, so I’ll be glad when I can sit back with a beer and enjoy the rest of the sets!
Where we can we find more about you?