Standing in an alcove cut into the side of the Scala in London’s Kings Cross, sheltering from the relentless drizzle of yet another embarrassing excuse for a summer, I find myself in awkward proximity to a man so drunk he is unable to stand upright. It is 6pm on a weekday night, and in another universe he is the incredible L-shaped man, a crime fighting set square with a troubled past, and I am not deliriously hungry or wet. An hour later, Lisa Mitchell finally turns up. She is wearing shorts, a light top, and looks half frozen. “I’m so sorry,” she says with genuine concern, “I didn’t know I was supposed to meet you.”
Lisa Helen Mitchell was born in Canterbury, Kent, nineteen years ago, but has spent most of her life living in the countryside three hours out of Melbourne with her Australian mum, Scottish dad and sister Nicola. At least in the physical plane. Half an hour in her company and I walk away feeling a bit like I’d fallen down a rabbit hole. In many ways, Lisa is a typical teenager. Fresh-faced and freckled, she talks excitedly and in circles, leaping from one non-sequitur to another. She uses “like” a lot.
At one point she stops mid-answer, wide-eyed, laying her hands flat out on the table of the Italian café in which we’ve taken refuge. “Don’t freak out,” she whispers, and a momentary panic flashes through my head. “Do you see that photo there?” she asks, pointing to a canvas on the opposite wall, a blown-up photo of a bunch of olives hanging from a tree. “That’s exactly the same as the one in my mum’s house! The exact same one. Right when you asked me about my mum and dad, I saw it.”
She looks down shyly at her cup of tea for a second then fixes me with a meaningful gaze. “Do you get, like, omens?” she asks quietly. “I get a lot of weird deja-vu moments. I don’t know if they’re omens,” I shrug. “Like dreams? That’s so exciting. Lately I’ve been going through a phase where I’ve been noticing omens and signs. Like, affirmations that you’re doing well and you’re in a good place.” She goes on to liken this to the subconscious equivalent of mild obsessive–compulsion. When she puts milk in her tea, she says, she has to stir it three times clockwise, once in the other direction, then tap the spoon on the rim of the cup. “It’s quite a calming thing,” she smiles. “Like, yeah, now I’m ready.”
Most pressing on her mind are the associations with ravens that keep cropping up in her life. The song ‘Oh! Hark!’ on her pretty and enjoyably peculiar debut album, Wonder, is quite possibly the strangest song you’ll ever hear about being dead. Trying to follow her logic as she explains the lyrics is something of a lexical adventure in itself, but the upshot is that, like Leonard Cohen before her, Lisa takes the iconographic role of the raven as a bird of ill omen and flips it with that of the dove, the symbol of hope. I think.
“My world ends on a regular basis / I fade quick in lonesome places / but no sooner than I am dead / I feel the raven tugging at my hair” are lyrics worthy of a Tim Burton short, and I’m reminded of the sleeve of Lisa Germano’s In The Maybe World, where a magpie pulls at the ears of a rabbit buried in snow. I suggest that being dead doesn’t sound all that hopeful and she giggles. “Well, you’re in this place, right, and you’re dead. And then the raven hops along, and you’re quite scared, and you’re feeling terrible because you’re…dead. And then it tugs at your hair and wakes you up, and then it’s all okay. It’s like a change in mood.”
As it turns out, fluctuations in mood are a big source of inspiration for Lisa. As an example, she tells me how, a few weeks before, she was walking down a street in Melbourne with a friend when she was rudely elbowed by an aggressive passerby, and that the shock and anger she felt knocked her out of the downer mood she had been in. “She didn’t turn round or anything. I felt so angry but instead of taking it personally I sort of flipped it and walked on in spite of her. It spun me into a wicked mood, sort of triumphant! An affirming mood, just from this one negative thing. So it’s funny things like that. Things you wouldn’t expect that a song might come from.”
But moods aren’t always a positive influence. They can be quite costly, as Lisa discovered when she returned to Australia after several months away in London recording with producer Anthony Whiting (M.I.A., Eugene McGuinness) and living in an attic in Queens Park. Listening back to the tapes, she got the feeling that something wasn’t quite right about the vocals. “I think I was just really homesick,” she explains, gazing towards the window. “You know, you sing because you’re happy and I don’t think I was happy. The vibe of some of the songs was just a little too down.” There was only one thing for it – to re-record half of the album.
“I love Anthony to death. He’s a lovely guy, and it was so good working with him and Emily, his partner. We had all this pre-‘70s valve gear and mics so the quality of the sound is just gorgeous. But on some of the songs I had to take it back to square one.” And, as fate would have it, one of the first songs Lisa worked on with new writing and recording partner Dann Hume of New Zealand rockers Evermore was ‘Neopolitan Dreams’ (sic), which quickly got picked up for a TV ad for detergent brand Surf, selling over 15,000 downloads on iTunes with zero promotion. “It kinda blew up so we ended up doing a whole lot of re-recording. We have a good way of working together.”
Lisa makes a lot of references to homesickness throughout our chat, and she obviously misses her family hugely. She doesn’t seem to know that many people in London, and even the band she’s been playing with lately were strangers until a couple of weeks ago. Leaving her regular drummer and bassist in Australia because “we didn’t have the budget”, Lisa has been working with four session musicians to bring her songs to life on the stage – something she has been finding quite a learning curve. “They’re really lovely people and great musicians so that’s been interesting. I suppose they look to me for direction, and I’m still very new at this, so I never know what to do really! They can pull anything off, but inside my mind it’s been a bit frantic. But good. Great fun.”
Lisa extols the virtues of Skype, the software that allows you to make voice calls across the internet, and says it’s the perfect invention for a traveller. She spends hours talking on it to her family, and wonders how people ever managed before it. She tells me how her dad met her mum while on his gap year in Australia (“probably at some really nerdy university party,” she giggles – they were both studying medicine), how they fell in love, and how maybe she gets some of her musical talent (“I don’t really know what talent is,” she shrugs) from her auntie and her grandmother, who both play piano, while her dad, who plays guitar as a hobby, always had great music lying around the house. “I grew up on, like, Bob Dylan, Velvet Underground…”
And she’s off again on another adorable tangent. “I’ve gotten to the stage where I’m rebelling against my travelling situation!” she exclaims. “My friend just gave me a copy of a Velvet Underground record on vinyl and I really want to buy a record player. You know, for a traveller to buy a record player, it’s like, why would you want to do that? It’s totally impractical. But I’m not going to deny myself a record player just because I’m travelling. Everyone wants a record player. I’ll find a friend to foster it when I’m not here. But yeah, as I was saying, my dad has great taste in music.”
Bob Dylan and the VU are hardly the musical touchstones we’ve come to expect from contestants on reality TV shows like ‘The X Factor’, and yes, as much as her press people would like to bury the association, Lisa was once a hopeful on ‘Australian Idol’. And she did very well too, getting down to the final six. I ask her if she thinks that’s been a hindrance or a help in her career, and she’s very up front and honest about it. Unlike a lot of sixteen year old girls from small towns, Lisa wasn’t drawn to the show for the possibility of fame, saying it was more to do with circumstance and with a lot of prompting from friends.
At first she really enjoyed the experience, as she was allowed to play guitar and sing her own songs, motivating one judge to declare her “the best thing musically that has ever come out of this country,” but the later stages of the competition presented what she diplomatically describes as “topics that were a bit challenging.” Asked whether she thinks that her association with Idol makes it difficult for some people to take her seriously, she thinks about it for a minute, gazing down at the pear she has been nibbling on, holding it in both hands like a shy child.
“I suppose it pushes people’s tolerance of what they think is worth listening to. Maybe there has been a fair bit of music that’s come out of ‘Australian Idol’ and other reality television shows that isn’t maybe as special as people would like to have music being made, which is a shame, a real shame. And I don’t like music made like that, so it does seem kind of ironic that I came from that beginning.” She pauses for a second. “I still find it quite weird as well. But I’m really glad I did it because it was a start.” Tellingly, almost every mention of her stint in the show has been deleted from her Wikipedia page.
Lisa has been writing songs since the age of twelve, and it’s clear that the ones that made the album have a very special meaning to her. She feeds off experiences with other people so tends to write more when she’s busy, but also says that she often writes songs when she’s feeling very tired. “You seem to let your feelings out a lot easier when you’re a bit worn down and you fall into that half-asleep subconscious place.” Like Alice in Wonderland? “Yeah. I’m completely in awe of the literature I read when I was growing up, like Lewis Carroll. And that’s why I called my album Wonder. I was going to call it ‘Attic Space’ but after re-recording the songs with Dann, it just didn’t fit. But, you know, wonder. A special land. I think it’s such a special word.”
If you’ve seen the video for Lisa’s recent single ‘Coin Laundry’, the fantasy of finding secret worlds where you would least expect them is loud and clear there too, as Lisa plays a girl who lives inside a washing machine, smitten by a boy who comes in to rinse his undies. Keen eyed viewers will also spot a painting of a raven on the back wall, which I suspect is less of an omen than it is entirely intentional. But I’m willing to suspend belief. As a parting shot, Lisa tells me how she went down to the Tower of London the day before, to see the ravens, but the doors were closed. She did catch a glimpse of a Beefeater though. “See, all these random things keep happening!” she grins as I puzzle through the disconnect, trying to see if I’d missed anything.
“I live in a pre-furnished apartment and the guy who owns the place has all these weird little ornaments. And one of them is a little ceramic Beefeater! I never knew what it was; I mean, I thought it was some royal guard or something. But on that day I was like, that’s a ravenmaster! I’d had a ravenmaster in my house the whole time!”
Wonder is out now on RCA Records.