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Songwriter's Choice: LA Mitchell


Suddenly Strange – Bic Runga

“Fire inside my shoes,” she said. I’m starting here with Bic Runga. Her album, Drive, was a lightbulb moment for me. I’d been aware of New Zealanders in music: The Fan Club, Headless Chickens and Supergroove had all been glued into my head. None of it really spoke to me directly, it was just enjoyable music. Bic’s album and this song was some kind of teenage epiphany. I felt like a New Zealand musician was speaking to me about my experience alone. I didn’t even know songwriting was a career choice at that point. I was planning on studying design and architecture. Like a punch to the ear, this album made me stand up and reconsider that path. I switched from piano to guitar, I started destroying words and calling them lyrics. Everything about this album felt attainable. Musically, my favourite moment is the bridge: subtle and tiny, packing a bunch of major chords descending into this beautiful out-of-character E major – it turns your ear around, the strings unwrap like a gift and you move from feeling strangeness and awkwardness to a state of open-aired emotional release. Stunning. 

 

Right On Time – Nadia Reid

It is the little things that get me involved in a song. I get stuck on a tiny thing and can’t get enough. I remember listening to the same 30 seconds of Chick Corea’s ‘Captain Marvel’ just to hear these especially gratifying chord changes in his solo. The little thing in this beautiful piece of work from Nadia Reid is the 2/4 bar in the chorus. The Beatles used this switch of time signatures in their songs all the time. It speeds it up, gives it a wee push and as the listener you feel like you’ve been picked up and spun round in a wee dance before being laid back down in the chorus you love, a bit heady from the twirl. Not to say that there aren’t other things here that I love too. For me, Nadia’s voice feels like I’m having my hair stroked. A woman’s voice with an ache in it always gets into my heart with happy solidarity.

 

Me And The Museum – Tiny Ruins

This song is like a sound photo, it carries so many pictures of places that are familiar to me and in a musical tone of voice that connects with my own feelings. When I moved to Auckland, I lived on City Road, a steep, steep street leading up to K Road. I would often walk across Grafton Bridge to the Domain and pause in the Wintergardens for warmth and that feeling of being momentarily transported. “Nobody feels old at the museum and nobody feels cold – in the wintergarden”. This little nugget of a description pauses like you’re hearing the motion of her thoughts in real time. The guitars are like a film reel, the soft shuffle of brushes on snares. She is ridiculously good with words and melody. She makes me breathless with admiration.

 

Layer – Julien Dyne feat. Mara TK

As a musician, a lot is made of the tension and release of harmonics and melody, but in this instance the thing that triggers my “like button” is the rhythmic tension and release. The whole of Julien Dyne’s Pins and Digits album is full of these swapping, switching rhythms – like the groove is passing through a hallway of magic mirrors. I’ve picked ‘Layer’ featuring Mara TK because of the lovely horn line in the verse that accents all the upbeats – it’s like the front of the beat has moved forward underneath you only to then release you into the tiny pocket of groove on the downbeats of 3 and 4. We all sense where beat one is, it’s somehow intrinsic. This song bounces around it like a fidget spinner and then occasionally, satisfyingly, comes back to the earth of beat one. This is so subtle and simple a twist, it pulls and pushes your body and your ears to this rhythmical holding up and setting down pattern. It’s so beautifully simple and clever.  

 

Settle Down – Dukes

This is written by my husband, Matt Barus, but I haven’t chosen it out of flattery. Of all of the Dukes material I worked on, the acoustic EP was my favourite piece of work and this song hits my heart. Good songs always make me stir somehow, make me restless with that feeling I’m avoiding an emotion – this piece of writing is telling me my truth and reality. I love this lyric of Matt’s because it’s an effortlessly conversational dialogue with the self, softly beaten-up and now in a state of humble acceptance. I never tire of singing this song live. Often in recording you’re trying to capture that live quality. This version is all of that to me, it felt as I listen back to my piano that the notes were loose, and falling off my fingers and it was easy, familiar, like a family member. When songs are this ingrained in your playing repertoire, the performance of them has a freedom from thought. I yearn for this always and sometimes achieve it.

 

And You Will Lose Everything – Dave Dobbyn

There is a Major 7th chord at the very beginning of this song. I’m such a sucker for the Major 7: its off-centre resolution and awkwardly sitting resolve, almost unsure of its conclusion. I played this song often with Dave Dobbyn as a duo and would melt into this chord every time. This is a perfectly set up song, the chords, melody and phrasing are braided together so succinctly that you never crave being any where other than the section you are. There is no description in this chorus – it’s as plain speaking as you can get. “And you will lose everything and everyone will leave you”. The word “everything” lands on the apex of the melody, with the ‘ea’ vowel sound arriving in this little point of melody that turns its face upward, wringing its hands. The descent of the melody sends us away with the feeling of abandonment. On the word “leave”, we linger on the first vowel like a draining sink of water that dribbles away, two lilting notes afterwards – “you” is left; a single note, staring at the plughole. 

 

Settle Down – Kimbra

It would be remiss of me not to have a pick here that represents my joy in the use of the voice as an instrument. I’m picky with voices. I think when you’ve learnt a great deal about a subject you begin to dismantle it. Instead of seeing or hearing the fabric, I see the thread and the stitch. This is what happens to me when I listen to singers. Often as a result I become disconnected from the big picture of sound and just hear details. Even though my ears do this, when I listen to this track I am rewarded. Inside this tune is someone so capable at manipulating the musculature of their voice that its controlled contortion is effortless. I don’t think I can express my joy and wonder adequately enough. The muscle she is using to create sound is tiny, like the size of your fingernail. What it takes to work with this group of muscles and remain fluid and unrestrained is an Olympic feat.

 

Levels – She's So Rad 

Matt and I danced daily to this song when it came out. If given the chance, it would still trigger a session of shape throwing in the kitchen. The thing that gets me in this song, and really it is so simply done, I marvel at the power of it. They drop the bass note on beat four in line three in the chorus. If they stayed with a straight two and four bass note placement, you wouldn’t get the urgency that is created by this shift. Add the lyric “that you love me, that you love me, that’s all I want” and this last line is imbued with a sense of pursuit that is exhilarating.

 

Night Swimmer – Chelsea Jade

This song is so exciting to me. It’s the texture of it. It is hard to imagine viscosity in music, but to me, this song has it. Delicate layers of production, a ping-pong sort of sound, the scratchiness of the beats, the rushing breath, phaser-edged synths, dome-sounding shimmers. It has a sense of space that is comforting. It is also exciting because there is this stunning array of amazing New Zealand women making unique, utterly breathtaking music, with certainty in their musical voice. This track is a perfect example. I am inspired and also in envy of it a great deal. It’s a wonderful place to be.

 

When I Don't Speak – Terrible Sons

Okay, this one is utterly self indulgent, being that it is my current project. But truth be told I have listened to this piece a lot and I want to tip the hat here because of the story involved. Matt, my husband and fellow band mate, wrote this song in 2011, post-Christchurch quakes. It’s a lilting, falling-apart love song. Rusty Garage Band demos gave way to spacious, cinematic production with David Long out at his Island Bay studio. Before traction could be made I entered the picture and said you know what, why don’t you put me in the band? The result of this decision sent us back to the studio, this time with Ben Edwards in Lyttelton and what was born, was this. Six years, a marriage and two daughters later, and we’ve finally managed to release it. I love this song: it has aged gracefully, it came from tenderness, in my approach to playing and singing in it. Something maybe I only understood how to be after becoming a mother. The bridge, I’m a sucker for a bridge, always leaves me heaving a little with its surreal intensity. My favourite part is the hanging 7th note coming out of the bridge.

 

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About LA Mitchell

After studying jazz vocal performance at Ara Institute in Christchurch, LA Mitchell primarily performed and composed music in a  jazz-soul-pop vein. Mitchell has opened for international acts Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie as well as working with Fly My Pretties, touring with them through New Zealand and Australia and featuring on The Story and Fly My Pretties IV. Mitchell also worked with Christchurch pop-rock band Dukes, who had radio success with platinum-selling singles ‘Vampires’ and ‘Self Control’ and toured with The Pretenders, Blondie and INXS. A session musician who has played for Dave Dobbyn, Tim Finn, Bic Runga, Anna Coddington and Sola Rosa, Mitchell has also worked as a vocal tutor at University of Auckland and Ara Institute. Based in Christchurch, she works primarily as a songwriter and has worked with Sola Rosa and Oakley Grenell. With her husband Matt Barus (Dukes), Mitchell is part of a musical project – an ethereal indie folk duo – called Terrible Sons. They have an album due for release in 2017.

 
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