In Profile: Rachael Dease

Gail Priest

Rachael Dease, City of Shadows, Malthouse' Helium program

Rachael Dease, City of Shadows, Malthouse’ Helium program

Rachael Dease, City of Shadows, Malthouse’ Helium program

The 2008 rock documentary Something in the Water by Aidan O’Bryan suggested something elemental makes such a small city so musically productive. What’s particularly interesting about the Perth music scene is not just the number of high calibre bands and musicians that emerge from it but the fluidity with which these artists move between genres and musical scenes. Composer-musician-director Rachael Dease is a perfect example of this.

Since graduating with a Bachelor of Performing Arts (Music) from WAAPA (perhaps some of that secret watery ingredient comes from the quality of music education in Perth) Dease has been active on the Perth pop scene as a solo artist and in the band Schvendes, her versatility becoming evident when she won both the the WAM Pop Song of the Year and Experimental Song of the Year in 2010. She’s also been involved in contemporary classical music and theatre worlds creating soundtracks and performing live in a number of successful stage productions. Most recently she has created her own music theatre work, City of Shadows, taking the 2012 Perth Fringe World by storm (winning the Western Power Martin Sims Award for Best Overall Performance for Best Musical Work). The work has since enjoyed an encore season at Fringe World 2013, toured to the New York Fringe and was part of Malthouse’s Helium season.

Rachael Dease, City of Shadows, Malthouse' Helium program

Rachael Dease, City of Shadows, Malthouse’ Helium program

Rachael Dease, City of Shadows, Malthouse’ Helium program

Accidental performer

I asked Dease why she thinks Perth musicians are so adaptable. “A lot of us with different backgrounds or different disciplines associate socially, so we sometimes come up with concepts that we wouldn’t if we were living anywhere else…I think that a lot of us want to branch out a little bit and there isn’t as much dedicated work for specific disciplines here, so composers here do tend to actually write quite well for dance and theatre and film, whereas those might be more niche areas in larger cities.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Dease’s current career is that she never really considered herself a singer or performer. “At first I would have liked to have done more film work. That was the dream of the young artist me. I think that’s why I’m drawn to theatre—the magic that happens there. But I never set out to be a performer by any means. I wanted to compose for other people. I’m pretty much an untrained singer so I didn’t think I had a real right to be on the stage. [But] it happened and I was there and it worked. I found I had something I didn’t realise I had and since then I’ve been using that in my work.”

Dease started her involvement with theatre when she was invited to create the score and perform live in Matthew Lutton’s acclaimed Antigone (see RT90). Subsequently she was invited to collaborate on It’s Dark Outside, the puppetry and illusion-based theatre work presented by Perth Theatre Company which has since toured nationally and internationally, (RT109, RT113.) Dease says that the collaboration with the show’s creators, Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs and Tim Watts, was something “that came about really organically. They heard some of my songs and came up to me at a Fringe gig and said let’s start working together and that really pushed me in a new direction.”

Tristen Parr, Aaron Wyatt, Hayley-Jane Ayres, Brian J Kruger, City of Shadows, Malthouse' Helium program

Tristen Parr, Aaron Wyatt, Hayley-Jane Ayres, Brian J Kruger, City of Shadows, Malthouse’ Helium program

Tristen Parr, Aaron Wyatt, Hayley-Jane Ayres, Brian J Kruger, City of Shadows, Malthouse’ Helium program

Out of the shadows

That new direction resulted in Dease having the confidence to create her own music theatre show, City of Shadows, which premiered at the 2012 Perth Fringe World. The piece is an intimate song cycle performed by Dease and a string quartet, inspired by the collection of forensic photographs held by the Justice and Police Museum (the same archive well deployed by Ross Gibson and Kate Richards in their media art work, Life After Wartime, RT34, RT80). Dease was shocked at how well the work was received. When the offers started coming in she had to decide whether she thought this quite personal work, which she describes as “an exorcism” of sorts, was something she felt comfortable continuing. “I was very concerned when we premiered the piece in Perth that people wouldn’t understand that I was in no way wanting to exploit these images or use them to gain anything in any other way than to project a message. I guess I felt safe doing that in Perth because I had a reputation here and people understand that that’s not the kind of artist I am. But then all of sudden I got offers to take it to New York and then Melbourne—I don’t have that [reputation] there and I was concerned. But to my complete joy, 99% of people have understood what it is about.”

Accompanied by the highly evocative images, the cycle has a loose interlinking narrative but features separate sections that Dease says focus on “particular victims or particular perpetrators. And there’s a whole section largely dedicated to the detectives themselves.” Dease chose to accompany herself with a string quartet (Brian J Kruger, Hayley-Jane Ayres, Aaron Wyatt, Tristen Parr). “I write for strings quite a lot so it was something I could rely on, that this particular sound was going to suit these images. As a lot of it is largely improvised with the strings, I knew the performers that I wanted and I knew they’d interpret these notes and songs and these images the way I wanted them to.”

In City of Shadows Dease realised she’d slipped into another role she’d never really planned, that of director. So to investigate this further she applied for The Besen Associate Artist Program at Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne undertaking a one month residency in July 2013. She split her attention between working “with Jethro Woodward in sound design, Matthew Lutton in directing and David Chisholm in composition. So I got more of a handle on that style of communication between professionals and how music can sit live and pre-recorded in a theatre setting and how a director deals with those kinds of things.”

(Listen to City of Shadows here
Watch City of Shadows trailer here.)

Keeping her ear in

While Dease has been working in theatre she hasn’t neglected her compositional skills in “art music.” Her impressive 40-minute composition 4 part history (listen here), was part of the site-specific sound installations Dialogues with Landscape, commissioned by 2011 Perth International Art Festival and the UWA Cultural Precinct. She’s also just completed a commission for Perth new music ensemble Decibel. Dease comments, “I would like to do a few of those kinds of works a year. I think they push me in a different direction and make me think more about things, especially when I’m given an instrumentation (not choosing one); that really makes me work hard for it and I really enjoy it in the end.”

But it does seem that the lure of the theatre is becoming stronger. Dease is currently thinking about a new show that will take one of the characters from City of Shadows and continue her story. “I think I’m definitely going down the path of using songs in interesting ways in theatre. I’m still trying to explore that and figuring out the best way it can be done.” She feels that collaboration is a real key and that she needs to seek more of this interstate. “As much as I really love working in Perth, I’ll have to continue to duck out, almost on a monthly basis. I enjoy meeting new people and bouncing new ideas [around]. For someone who burrows themselves away in their cave some times, it’s nice to have that feeling of creative unity with another artist.”

20 November 2013