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ade ishs & Chelsea Allen: “The ishs/ Allen Project are recording the kind of music that makes people happy”

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One thing is for certain about The ishs/ Allen Project. They don’t hold back. The band has crafted a very specific, signature take on modern jazz, that enthusiastically incorporates a vast array of different elements (leaving out swing, bop and other traditional styles), reflecting the artistic attitude of  the co-leading duo; ade ishs is an extremely lyrical pianist, while drummer Chelsea Allen is a captivating storyteller. It is no wonder that they decided to title their second album ‘Stories’. They are currently launching a crowdfunding campaign to make it happen, which is on itself a perfect opportunity for an interview. 

Why did you decide to fund your next album through pozible?

There are a few reasons. We’d like to gauge the level of interest people have in it (and us). We also did a crowdfunding campaign for our debut album and thanks to the supporters, we reached our target. It’s a good way for creators and supporters to interact with each other. It’s definitely an interesting model by which to source funds for arts projects, and never really more necessary than now, when funding for the creative arts is diminishing at a rapid rate.

It’s really an honest, guilt-free, low-risk, and direct way to trade with our listeners. We’re running an all-or-nothing campaign, so nobody loses money if it fails. If it’s successful, it’s pretty much like a pre-order. In some ways, even better with some of the extra perks. For example, some people would like to be recognised for their patronage, so we provide an option to have their names specifically listed in the liner notes. Or, some would like to hang out with us, so we’ll organise a barbie with them.

If we raised significantly more than we need, we could do the stretch goals, like making a music video, doing a tour, include more tracks (those that have been attending our gigs and keeping tracks of our songs would know that we have more than a CD can fit!), etc. We chose Pozible because: their HQ is in Australia and they have the campaign creator’s legal ID. So, Pozible and we are bound by the local laws. This means that if the campaign was successful, but then a wicked warlock injected us an evil serum that made us decide to run away with the money and burn the bridge, they could call 000.

How has this been going so far?

We’re more than halfway already! As with other campaigns in general, there’s no linear growth of the raised funds as people tend to wait until the last few days to support. So it tends to be exponential. Having said that, we would appreciate more support. The quicker we meet the target, the earlier we can make arrangements with other parties to be involved in the recording process.

How preoccupied are you with the financial aspect logistics of music, instead of concentrating on the creative side of it?

ade ishs: As a bandleader, it actually really preoccupies me up to the point that I wish I could afford hiring people to do the non-music stuff. I know that it’s not only me who sometimes feels exhausted doing the various administrative stuff. The truth is it’s hard and there are a lot of tasks to do, but they must be done. Most people have no idea in how much work is actually put into doing a two-hour gig. So yeah, it’s a necessary compromise. However, doing it together with someone smart like Chelsea makes it less a burden and there’s also the joy of attacking problems and resolving them together. Sometimes we interleave our discussion with co-writing, which makes it more fun.

Being a solo artist/bandleader definitely makes me better in the business side of it, although I have to also attribute my work in software engineering. I still remember years ago getting an ABN, attending ATO workshops, playing around with accounting software, reading up on project management, practising business writing, etc. And up to now, still doing negotiations, time management, resource allocations, etc.

Chelsea Allen: I can only really admit to being neglectful of the more practical, logistical aspects and business-minded aspects of music, even though I know how critical they are to advancement and self-promotion. At this point, my priorities are definitely skewed in favour of playing, practice, composition, gig-seeing, and the like. I always feel like I’m playing catch-up at the business and financial aspects, on doing them on an ad hoc, as-necessary basis. I endeavour to take some of the administrative strain off ade, at the very least – but that’s at times too little too late, for someone as organised as he.

In what way will your new album be different than your first? What ideas are you exploring?

Chelsea: Performance aspects aside, this album will definitely seek to explore some different compositional structures. ade and I have toyed with – and talked about – the idea of through-composed work and song forms that aren’t of the typical “head-solo-head” structure. Those elements are now coming out in our co-writing, certainly.

ade: I always think myself as a better composer than performer. Playing is magnitudes harder than composing for me. It’s funny that it seems to me that it’s the opposite with Chelsea. But you know, like the laws of magnetism, plus and minus poles pull each other.

The thing that excites me with this new album is that – as a composer – there will be a higher level of writing collaboration. Since playing with Chelsea (and the outfits we’re in together), I have been pushed to venture into uncomfortable territories in playing – and I’m so grateful for that! So, I guess, it’s just fair that now I challenge her into writing more, hopefully she feels the thrill that I feel. There was one track in the debut album that we composed together (Guildford Lane). In terms of the process, that was rather ad hoc. The composition was actually finished during a break in our recording session. We played it together only once before doing it for the second time, i.e. the recorded track!

Now, in terms of ideas, I feel that the straight-ahead way of doing jazz, you know, the thing Chelsea mentioned, the head-solo-more solo-even more solo-head with all in the same form gets old rather quickly. At least, that’s what I feel coming from the classical background. For me, that’s like soft drink. Too much of it, you’ll need to see the dentist. Not that I’m against it totally. So, we’ll explore more compositional ideas. We’re putting more complex stuff, but not for merely complexity’s sake. We could be putting even simpler stuff, but not out of laziness. It’s more for spiritually liberating ourselves.

How would you describe your music to someone who’s never listened to it?

Chelsea: I’ve used the words “cinematic” and “filmic” to describe our music to people, whether they’re jazz lovers or not. It has aspects of storytelling – as good music should, I think – and hopefully a quality that could suggest you’re listening to a beautiful soundtrack from your favourite film.

ade: Emotive, visual, dramatic, storytelling, cinematic, lyrical, full of dynamics. Paul and Ee Shan are also really into these things. I love dynamics. Dr David James (author of The World’s Best Jazz Club) interviewed me (included as extra material in the ade ishs Trio Live DVD), he made a comment about there’s little dynamics in jazz piano. I was shocked to hear that for two things: 1. The instrument has the capacity for a wide range of dynamics, 2. on the other hand, I didn’t listen to jazz piano recording much.

What would you say to persuade them contribute to your crowdfunding?

ade: We’re recording the kind of music that makes them happy. It’s uplifting. And it focuses on sounding good, not about the amount of chops or who does more solos or how much improvisation there is.

Chelsea: I can only encourage people to engage with the arts, generally – not even specifically with ours. I think we’re at a critical juncture, to be honest, where music, theatre, film, dance, and the fine arts are terribly devalued in Australia. Crowdfunding can be a response to that – it’s people-powered art. An opportunity to partake in the making of something beautiful and lasting that describes part of the human experience.

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ade ishs and Chelsea Allen, performing ‘Guildford Lane’ | photo by Paul Bonnington

How did The ishs/ Allen project come to be?

ade: Five years ago, I was a regular attendant of a series of workshops ran by jazz icon Steve Sedergreen at Guildford Lane Gallery. One Friday, an unidentified non-flying girl came as well. Steve told me to play again. This girl, whom later we found out to be a drummer, asked me, “Can I join you?” I said yes, and we played Sonny Rollins’s St Thomas. My jaw dropped. I had never played with a drummer with such subtlety, wide range of dynamics, and lots of creative ideas right in front of me. I thought, “She’s too good to want to play with me regularly.” To my pleasant surprise, she said to me that we should play together.

Apart from being an excellent musician, she’s also among the nicest people I’ve met in my life, and she’s become my best friend. Our first co-composition, ‘Guildford Lane’ is a nod to our meeting.

Chelsea and I started playing in the trio format since then. I love this format; however, mid-2012, I was too keen to try a bigger format, particularly a quartet with a horn player, and I kept talking about it with Chelsea. At that time, I was already in a contemporary jazz quartet called MOU with saxophonist Mihoko Abe. I organised a couple experimental gigs with sax player Jon Magill. I had good times doing those sax quartet gigs, but at the time, I wanted to do something I had never done regularly.

We had a bit of argument as to who should be In the bass post. However, in addition to being a nice guy, Paul had the right the attitude and also the interest in contemporary jazz. Gladly, he said OK, and we had done a couple trio gigs with him and he became an instant fit.

Back to the horn situation, in MOU, Mihoko changed the line up and she enlisted this young trumpeter Ee Shan. We did one gig without a rehearsal and she just blended into the band so well. However, I wasn’t so sure whether she would be interested in this new project. The kind of music MOU played was difficult, really technical, and demanded lots of chops and improvisation. The band had a whole different ethos to TiAP. One day, I uploaded a picture of my handwritten chart of Little Flower to Facebook while throwing a remark, “Now, I just need a trumpeter to play it with me.” Ee Shan responded with a smiling face emoji.

So, late 2012, we had the line up and we started performing early 2013.

What is sharing leadership like?

ade: It feels good to me; it also serves as an ego-check. At times, we start having opposing opinions on a certain matter, and we tend to balance each other. Chelsea also communicates our ideas to the whole band better.

Chelsea: I feel like I have the easiest co-leadership role in the world, to be honest! ade is one of the most unbelievably well-organised people that I’ve ever met – and worked with – so at times it feels hardly like a role-share. More that I’m riding his well-ironed coat tails. I do love sharing the responsibilities with someone so dear to me, though. I would say that I most enjoy the people-facing aspects of being a band leader. It’s fun and rewarding to engage with new people, and to have music be the thing that opens the dialogue.

How would you describe your collaboration?

ade: To me, it is an extension of our friendship. I feel that Chelsea is my musical kindred spirit.

Chelsea: Absolutely. There’s no better way to express it, I think.

What is the best thing about it?

ade: It has the qualities of friendship, and it makes it not feel like a chore. My past experience taught me that you shouldn’t mix business with friendship, but you know, there are always exceptions to things. At the risk of sounding like an idiot in front of businesspeople, maybe it’s the kind of multi-million dollar business that shouldn’t mix with friendship, and this business is far from that. On the contrary, it benefits from friendship.

What does each of you bring to the equation?

Chelsea: I definitely enjoy the people-facing aspects, as I said. I think that’s something that comes easily and naturally for me – the art of conversation is a beautiful thing. Music is a way into conversation with many people that you might not ordinarily meet. So, creative aspects aside, perhaps I’m the slightly louder, brasher voice of the band, in a way.

ade: I’m neurotic at times. I’m obsessed with little details. Any setlist I write is usually highly accurate with at most 5-minute errors. For any album project, I write four costing estimates. I’m easily irritated by typographical sins. Chelsea counter-balances with abstract pictures and ideas.

What trait of each other you most admire?

ade: I can’t say only one trait. She’s friendly, sensitive, smart, and I always respect someone humble.

Chelsea: Also impossible to name just one! ade is humble, kind, selfless, open and deeply intelligent.

Which one do you find annoying?

Chelsea: ade is shockingly well-organised. In the face of someone as relaxed (read: lazy) as I, it can be a little daunting. And also inspiring. There’s hope – things CAN get done.

ade: Again, only one? I refuse to say only one. So here are a couple: (1) she’s such a fine musician that it gives my huge ego nightmares; (2) her standard is occasionally too high that I’m too frustrated to meet it.

How do you work on your music?

Chelsea: I write fairly strictly at the piano, where I’ll either transcribe a melody that I’ve conceived in my head, or play until I find something that works. It always begins with a moment of reflection or by being inspired by an event in my life, or by a person.

ade: Composition-wise, if this is my own composition, usually it’s something that I feel/experience. I wrote Welcoming Spring in the beginning of spring 2012. Train was composed mentally when I was on a train in mid-1990s listening to the collisions of the train wheels and track. The first time I flew to Australia, somewhere above Gibson Desert if I’m not mistaken, I composed Above the Desert. After I arrived in Australia, the first beach I went to was St Kilda, and as I was standing there, I mentally composed St Kilda Waters. When I compose a tune, I almost never think whether I’ll be able to play it (I almost never use any instrument when composing). Sounding good is my focus. And so, at times, I have to figure out how to play what I have composed!

If this is something Chelsea and I write together, we share stories and feelings first before putting notes. On my side, I feel that it’s the most natural way of writing.

For the band performance, we just set up a rehearsal/workshop and keep playing the music until we nail it.

How do you decide which compositions suit TiAP and which are better suited for other projects?

ade: I don’t really think specifically in that way. Things just evolve, you know. One of TiAP tunes, Welcoming Spring is a good example. When I wrote it, I had the trio with Chelsea and Daigo Nakai in mind playing it (we did one rehearsal doing it, but never ended up playing it in any gig). However, the piece was premiered solo, and it ended up recorded by TiAP. Also more recently, Chelsea and I did a trio gig with Tamara Murphy, and we played a TiAP piece A Place in the World, and she did a very beautiful bass and voice solo on this piece.

If there’s a somewhat hard-and-fast rule is that in TiAP, we now avoid playing swing. No hatred against swing, but it’s just one of the easiest ways to distance the band from things that were highly popular in the past – and still are. As an analogy, if I were to open a take-away shop in Roxburgh Park, I wouldn’t sell kebabs. A swing tune that I wrote, ‘Blues for Chelsea’, started as something TiAP would play but not anymore. I ended up recording it solo in Four Seasons Live and playing it on stage in a trio setting with Chelsea and Daigo and more recently, Geoff Kluke, Frank Di Sario, and Tamara, who are all great bassists – I have learned a lot from them just by playing with them, and I would love future opportunities to do so again.

Who are your heroes?

Chelsea: Amongst others, I deeply admire contemporary drummer-composers like Antonio Sanchez, Bill Stewart, Mark Guiliana, and Stanton Moore.

ade: Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Frederic Chopin, Claude Debussy, to name a few. If that list is politically incorrect on AustralianJazz.net (ed.note: it is not) , my views of music changed a lot for the better when I first listened to the original recording of First Circle by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. As a teenager, I used to listen a lot to Dave Koz. We watched his recent gig at Bird’s Basement. I felt like walking down memory lane!

If you could pick any artist (no limitations whatsoever) to join TiAP, who would that be?

Honestly, we don’t know. The TiAP idea is that we have this core quartet, and many other things can be added on top of that. It can be harmonica or guitar, or as you’ve seen in the self-titled album, glockenspiel and melodica, or as you can see what we’ve done live in the past year, Ben Nieuwkerk has helped us with woodwinds. Well, let’s just see whatever comes in the future.

Which song best describes your current state of mind?

Chelsea: Three Little Birds by Bob Marley. “Don’t worry about a thing. ’Cause every little thing is gonna be all right.”

ade: It’s probably a bit weird that it’s now about the middle of the day, yet I’m feeling Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy.

The ishs/Allen Project will be playing at the Paris Cat on Thursday 19 January. To contribute to their crowdfunding campaing, visit the website: www.tiap.band/stories

About Nikos Fotakis

I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king. Also a father, a husband, a writer, an editor, a coffee addict, a type 1 diabetic and an expat. Born and raised in Athens. Based in Melbourne. Jazz is my country.

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