Meet Kathleen Mary Lee and fall in love

I think it’s a bit like the characters in Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris: if I’d been young in the sixties I would have dreamed of the twenties. I confess I thrive a little bit on not quite fitting in. I enjoy it. And I am always pining after things I can’t have - not completely because I actually want to attain them, more because I enjoy the pining. Which can be quite a destructive and unhealthy quality to have but it’s good for songwriting.
— Kathleen Mary Lee, singer, songwriter, film-maker

Kathleen Mary Lee is destined for great things. An artist in the truest sense of the word, this Melbourne based songstress is also a gifted film maker. Her songs stop you in your tracks, her films do the same. 

Born to an animator and film maker father, and a mother who paints and works with ceramics, Kathleen has been bathed in inspiration her entire life.

Her songs hark back to another time, but not in a contrived hipster way. The first bars of her music transport you and make you want to lean in. Now would be the time to open another tab in your browser to reference her music as you read this. 

Her brand new music video Hey, Very Good Friend was released this week. After you see that, go through her many videos on your YouTube channel. Check out the song called Blame Me with another project called Mount Saint Leonard where she uses her dad's animation from the 70s. A treat. 

There is much more to say, but the music, poetry and accompanying visuals will speak for themselves. Kathleen spoke with Music Love about collaborating with her dad, her debut EP, and how self conscious she felt when singing for the first time in front of people in a hostel off the coast of Ireland.

Meet Kathleen Mary Lee and fall in love. 

Images supplied. This one by Robert Imhoff

Images supplied. This one by Robert Imhoff

 

What does music mean to you?

Music for me is a way of expressing beauty. There are certain kinds of beauty that can't be completely captured in words, they need a bit of emotion attached, and this can be attached with music. Expressing beauty is one of the only ways I feel we can protest against the uncontrollable aspects and mysteries of life.

Tell us about your artistic parents.

Dad is an experimental filmmaker. He started out making pretty controversial abstract films in the 70s. Mum went to art school and studied ceramics but then painted icons for a while. Now she is getting into film.

Expressing beauty is one of the only ways I feel we can protest against the uncontrollable aspects and mysteries of life.
— Kathleen Mary Lee, singer, songwriter and film-maker

Your dad is also an animator, right? What style?

He played with lots of different styles which I suppose was his style in the end. A lot of it was collage animation, think Terry Gilliam from Monty Python with a more serious twist, but he also played around a lot with completely abstract colours and shapes and also did a lot of hand drawn animation.

How does it feel to collaborate with your dad?

It was unexpectedly great. We edited my band's most recent clip together and were surprisingly in sync with all our thoughts and both focused on the same aspects of the video, mainly the marrying of the footage to the feel of the song. It was surprising because normally our opinions are at odds. 

You must spend hours editing footage – what are some things you do to stay sane?

Sometimes I do. I have an addiction to period dramas, particularly ones that have an element of both mystery and romance. If I have a very stressful and busy week this is the only way I can shut my brain off. I also run a bit and listen to techno which has a different but just as good effect.

Is it true you were a little self conscious of your voice for years?

Yes! I've only just gotten over it. Everyone used to tell me it was bad - even my Mum. But, in their defence, I think it was. I used to be tone deaf and quite shreiky. Took me a while to realise you can sing in a gentle way. A long while. 

How did you feel when you sang in front of people for the first time?

Very nervous. It was in 2010 on the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland. I was staying at a hostel with a girl who was in the process of very quickly becoming my best friend. We were sitting around a fire one night with the other hostel guests and someone started passing my guitar around. I sang Tonight Will Be Fine. My voice shook and I forgot all the words and was convinced that everyone was lying when they said it was nice.

Everyone used to tell me [my voice] was bad - even my Mum. But, in their defence, I think it was. I used to be tone deaf and quite shreiky. Took me a while to realise you can sing in a gentle way. A long while.
— Kathleen Mary Lee, singer, songwriter, film-maker

What do you do, if anything, to look after your voice?

I had a couple of lessons recently and I have some warm up exercises that I did do everyday for a while but now just do if I have a gig or a recording session.

Tell us about your EP

My first ever properly recorded EP, Nice Kind of Pain, came out in the middle of this year. I wrote most of the EP over the space of a year and recorded it in two lots with Isaac Barter at his home studio in Geelong. Lyrically there are several reoccurring themes across the songs. I am inexhaustibly interested in romantic love and the role it plays in giving life spiritual meaning. I'm also really interested in the intricacies and contradictions in human nature - particularly my own nature. I also try to touch on the moral struggle - it's a difficult one to do without cringing but I'm slowly getting more bold about it, especially after having gotten into Dostoyevski this year. Musically, other than the inescapable influence of Leonard Cohen's finger picked nylon string, I was very into the sound of Donovan's Brother Sun, Sister Moon album as it appears in the Zeffirelli film of the same title. There are lots of warm, almost cheesy strings and flutes that have a kind of medieval tinge to them. We recorded in an intentionally slightly sloppy multi layered way, which we referred to as our 'guitar orchestra', and Isaac did a very good job of evoking the medieval feel with sounds from an old mellotron. 

What instruments do you play?

These days I mostly just stick to my nylon string. I do have a steel string but it never feels quite gentle enough. I first learnt music on the piano when I was a kid but I hardly ever play that now.

Were you born in the wrong era?

Ha ha. I don't think so. I think it's a bit like the characters in Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris: if I'd been young in the sixties I would have dreamed of the twenties. I confess I thrive a little bit on not quite fitting in. I enjoy it. And I am always pining after things I can't have - not completely because I actually want to attain them, more because I enjoy the pining. Which can be quite a destructive and unhealthy quality to have but it's good for songwriting.

Which Australian non-musical artists inspire you?

There are some film makers I like a lot. Jane Campion being one of them. There's a lot of strong weird emotions in her work. I'm always attracted to that. I like Henry Lawson a lot. I'm not so into the glorified Australian bush vibes, although I'm getting there, but he has a few really beautiful quite romantic little poems and stories. My favourite is called 'The Bush Girl'.

 

Who are you favourite Australian women in music?

[I'm] quite into Julia Jacklin at the moment. Been meaning to do some more listening. I really like The Grand Magoozi. I have always been obsessed with the The Seekers but I'm not sure if I actually like them or just enjoy them for nostalgic reasons. Also had a great sound chick at our last gig, Sarah Madigan, she was very cool.

What is your favourite place in Australia?

There are a few. I like this particular spot on Mount Tarrangower in Maldon. It's a striking rock formation on a bit of a natural look out. Feels a bit sacred. I go to the folk festival there every year and my sister and I always go on a sunset pilgrimage to try and find this spot. Sometimes we don't find it and sometimes we do. I also like the back beach in Queenscliff. I often go to Queenscliff to write and my favourite thing to do is to go for sunset/post sunset walks along that beach. It's usually relatively deserted.

Favourite Australian café or restaurant, retail store and/or brand?

I love cafes. I find them the easiest place to write. My current favourite is "Piccante" in North Fitzroy, not only do they not make me feel guilty for sitting there for hours and only ordering two coffees, they actually encourage it. Ex favourites are: "Carter, Smith, Devlin & co" in Williamstown and "Milk Jam" in Fitzroy.

Favourite lyric of all time?

It's from "Famous Blue Raincoat" by Leonard Cohen. "and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes, i thought it was there for good, so I never tried"

What next?

Next year I'll be releasing bit by bit another solo EP and an album with my band, Mount Saint Leonard. I'm hoping to play lots more shows with both projects and keep writing and practicing guitar.

Listen to Kathleen's music and watch her incredible films at www.kathleenmarylee.com

And follow Kathleen on social media, here.... 

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