Born or bred? Imogen Clark on what makes a musician

Imogen Clark Collide

Story by Fenella Henderson-Zuel

When Imogen Clark answers the phone for our interview, she is noticeably out of breath. She’s currently on tour and had to run from soundcheck to answer Music Love’s call.

“Tonight is a show with Diesel. I’ve been on tour with him throughout Australia and tonight we’re playing in Geelong. We’ve had such a good time.”

Diesel is the stage name of musician and producer Mark Lizotte, who produced Clark's new album Collide, out now. It’s his national tour that will keep Clark busy until the end of May before she heads over to Europe and the UK to support Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes in June/July.

Such a packed tour schedule is no surprise for a seasoned musician with a decade of performances and multiple CMC Music Award nominations under her belt. What is surprising is Clark's age: she’s just 23 years old.

“I really have grown up doing this as a job so you get into this, almost like an autopilot mode where you’re just like ‘oh yeah, this is what I do’ and then occasionally it hits you when you’re on stage, what you’re actually doing and the fact that everybody’s actually just sat there looking at you and it’s quite intimidating when you actually start to think about it.”

Playing her first shows at twelve and releasing a first EP at fifteen might seem precocious for some but for Clark, music has always been an integral part of her personal and now professional life. A musician father and poet mother meant that she was instilled with a love of music and lyrics at a time when most people are just learning to talk.

Does she feel that she was destined to pursue this career?

“Maybe, and it’s a funny question that I was thinking about earlier today,” says Clark. “There’s this whole thing of nature versus nurture. Would I have been this, would I have done this as a job, as a passion, if I hadn’t grown up with a father who was like this or if no one in my family had been musical? I think it’s a combination. I look back on these old videos of myself, childhood home videos, where I’m in a little cradle and my dad is playing music to me and I’m very clearly trying to sing along with him, making these noises, as a tiny little baby. And I think that’s a product of both my genes… but also the way I was brought up with musical instruments all the time. It’s just something that I found so naturally.”

Even so, it took time for Clark to see a future beyond her beloved hobby. She got her start professionally doing cover gigs in pubs and cafes, playing the music she’d learned to love at home: rock, as well as Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

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Her epiphany came when she wrote and performed her first original song.

“I was around fourteen and I remember thinking ‘Ah, this is it. This is what I want to do’,” she says. “It’s not just singing other people’s songs, its playing my own music and watching that connect with an audience and recording those songs and releasing them and playing them live. It was just all about the original song for me.”

Once she knew what she wanted to do with her life, things moved quickly. Clark released her first album, Love & Lovely Lies, in 2016, before recording backing vocals on Shane Nicholson’s award-winning record Love & Blood. Wider recognition came when Kasey Chambers’ #1 album, Dragonfly, which featured two tracks co-written by Clark, won the ARIA Award for Best Country Album, and a Golden Guitar.

Add to that a nomination for New Artist Of The Year at the 2018 CMC Music Awards and you would be forgiven for thinking Clark would play it safe and stick to a mainly country feel for her second album. However, Collide deliberately avoids being pigeonholed into one genre, mixing folk, roots, rock and yes, country.

Although she has often worried about where she fits in musically, Clark says that these days she’s far more interested in embracing all the musical elements she’s loved over the years.

“I’ve always felt that little bit of wanting to see where a wider genre can take me. I love country music and I always will. But something in me just felt like I’m not just a country artist and I knew I had other influences boiling under the surface. I really wanted those to come through in this record,” she says.

“All my favourite artists are artists who you can’t really put in a really specific category. People like Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. It’s very much something that I think the best artists in history have crossed over those genre lines so it’s something that I aspire to as well.”

It’s not just the genre that has developed over the years. Clark sees her albums serving as snapshots to specific times in her life. Collide is a much darker album emotionally than Love & Lovely Lies, with songs that give the listener a glimpse at harder side of growing up.

Lyrics like “I’m nobody’s only/I’m restless and lonely” (Too Late) and “I may be young but I have fought with everything/I’ve never had to be in this fight/And I have never felt a part of anything” (You Got The World Fooled) hint at a woman just entering adulthood and encountering a loss of innocence. Imogen counts them as some of her favourites.

“It’s a pretty big thing, revealing that much of yourself [through song]. I always thought of Love & Lovely Lies as being a little bit more … naïve in a lot of ways. Not in a way that makes me look back on it and feel like it’s no longer relevant, it’s just got that touch of young girl naivety about it. Whereas with Collide, I really wanted it to be quite a discovery of adulthood.

“All those things about entering adulthood, all the joys and the challenges and how tumultuous it all is. You feel new sorts of freedoms with being older but you also feel a lot of new pressures and new worries that perhaps you can’t quite trust the people that you thought you could. I guess that’s where all of those lyrics come from, that self doubt and vulnerability but mixed with this kind of newfound confidence of getting older. It’s about real sort of yin and yang of growing up.”

Clark, who runs regular workshops with students of the Talent Development Project/AEG Ogden Scholarship, which she won as a teenager (her biggest piece of advice: “you just can’t give up”), is conscious of the example you can set for younger artists.

She names Missy Higgins, whose album The Sound Of White was one of the first albums she bought, Kasey Chambers and Gillian Welch, alongside her childhood hero, Joni Mitchell, as some of her biggest influences both musically and professionally.

“I’m continually inspired by how many amazing women there are in the music industry and the amount of perseverance that [they] have because it really is a tough industry. And yet, we have some of the best female and young performers and songwriters in the world [in Australia] and it’s just wonderful to see how much we persist and keep going despite challenges.”

Thanks to them, Clark is at her most passionate speaking about the transformative and unifying power of music.

“I love the fact that music I love really moves me and affects me in a way that nothing else can. There’s something about the melody combined with the lyrics: it’s so special and so different to anything else you can find on this earth and that’s what I love about it.

“Ultimately, I just want my music to affect other people in a way that music I love affects me. It’s very important in my life so I just hope that I can have that effect on other people, that’s what its all about for me.”

Collide by Imogen Clark is out now