"She sounds like a female Jeff Buckley when she sings" was the line from an American review that was the most obvious one to latch onto when approaching the work of Carla Werner, even though, let's face it, beyond his ever-toussleable hair and eminently chuckable chin, Jeff Buckley sounded like a female Jeff Buckley when he sang! When she speaks, Carla Werner is ever the Kiwi; although she moved to Australia at age 19, the ensuing decade has had little effect on her accent. Yet, irrespective of how she feels or what her legal standing may be, now that she has got an international profile in showbiz, she's an Aussie - just like Russell Crowe, Split Enz and the Datsuns.
Early in his writing career, Woody Allen used the description "she had a body that resembled Louis Armstrong's voice". The thing about Carla Werner is that she has a body that resembles her voice. As stunningly beautiful as she is on her CD cover and related artwork, she's even more gorgeous in the flesh. But then she opens her mouth and sings and - if you can get beyond letting it wash over you numb and dumbstruck - you begin to realise that she can sound like Jeff Buckley. She has the vibrato, the range, and the ability to leap from this note all the way down here to that one all the way up there, effortlessy, and back again. She also can sound like Joni Mitchell, and has been likened to "a young Joan Baez", but admits to Buckley’s influence most readily, without wishing to get caught up within it.
Werner’s only shortcoming at this early stage of her career is an understandable lack of experience. Thus, she has few anecdotes and little interview experience, so her answers to questions have a tendency to waffle. She also seems to be keen to defend a position that hasn’t even been established, let alone called into question, which makes her seem to take herself too seriously. In time, she will have developed an interview persona that communicates who she is as readily as her songs do; my lack of experience meant that, whereas I should have edited her more closely, and played more of her songs, I left everything intact.
The first time I went to see Carla Werner perform, I was introduced to her by some Sony people between sets. She seemed pleasant enough to me, but greeted the woman next to me with a great deal more gusto (a hearty smile, a peck on the cheek, an ensuing conversation). Carla recognised her as the then-struggling writer who had profiled Werner for a free ‘street’ publication some years earlier. (It is to this journalist, a woman called Janine, to whom I owe the insight of Carla’s early collaboration with Paul Oakenfold.) When it came time for me to do my interview some weeks later, I was early and happened to run into Carla in the foyer. Usually the artiste is safely ensconsed in an office before the journalist is announced and brought in. Carla Werner had no reason to recognise me after a brief introduction amongst many such brief introductions between sets at an industry showcase performance weeks earlier, and yet did, and started chatting long before we got the tape rolling and were ‘on the record’. Thus, if it sounds as if I'm going in soft, it's only because there’s no reason to go in hard. Listen to Carla Werner's album Departure for yourself if you get a chance. It’s beautiful.
The interview was broadcast March 13 2004.
Music: ‘Heaven’ - Carla Werner
Demetrius Romeo: Carla, you've been away for the last few years. In that time you've recorded an album and debuted in another country. It almost feels as if you had to leave Australia to make a start to your musical career. Why is this the case?
CARLA WERNER: I didn’t set out to say, ‘right, I can’t make it here, so I’m going to go overseas and make it over there’. It was a step-by-step circumstance that happened in my musical life. I wanted to record an album independently because the labels here didn’t really know what to do with me – in all fairness, I was still in the middle of developing my songwriting style – so I just chose a producer who I wanted to do some work with, and it was John Holbrook, who had done Natalie Merchant's Tigerlily album. We sent some stuff to him and he replied. He said, ‘yep, sure, get on a plane and get over here and let’s do some work’.
Demetrius Romeo: It's interesting that you mention Natalie Merchant, formerly of 10,000 Maniacs; a lot of people have compared you to lots of different singers, and the main ones seem to be Jeff Buckley, also to ‘a young Joan Baez’, and I also hear shades of Joni Mitchell on your album. Which of these seem to make sense to you?
CARLA WERNER: I think, definitely not Joan Baez, because I’ve never really been a huge fan of hers, although I appreciate what she has done for music, as I appreciate all the artists you’ve just mentioned. Joni Mitchell is not someone I listen to on a major scale - I think that her work is amazing and I have two of her albums, Ladies of the Canyon and Clouds and they are really amazing records, to me, incredible songwriting and melody. And of course, the late and great Jeff Buckley, who I saw live at the Metro when he came out to Australia and absolutely blew everyone in this world away. I think, equally, those three artists have brought something new and engaging to music as a whole. I probably would say that I have been more influenced by Jeff Buckley’s work, out of all three of them. But, in saying that, I have a myriad of influences. He’s just one of them.
Demetrius Romeo: What is it that you’re bringing to music that’s different to all of that?
CARLA WERNER: Mmmm. I don’t know if you can really answer that. I just feel like, if anything, I just want to keep creating. I want to do something original, something that’s different to what’s going on in the music world, that people can escape into. I don’t know; one hopes that the music they’re creating is definitely their own individual take on things. And just ‘originality’, I guess. And an escapism for people; a world to escape into and then slip back out of whenever they want to.
Demetrius Romeo: I suppose calling an album Departure does speak a lot of ‘escapism’. How does that feature in your music?
CARLA WERNER: There is definitely a theme of ‘departure’ in the songs – from being in one place of growth and moving through life and life’s experiences, to reach another place of growth and understanding. And also, there's almost a dream-like quality to some of the songs. I am a self-confessed dreamer, I do sit around and I can get lost in my own imaginings and a lot of the work that came out on Departure, especially lyrical content, is testament to that. I am a bit of a dreamer and I do tend to go off into other worlds sometimes. I suppose that’s also just paying homage to the influences I’ve had in my life, such as Kate Bush and Pink Floyd, very much artists who wrote in ‘soundscape’-type ways. It’s a very big influence on my work, I think.
Music: ‘Southern Sun’ - Paul Oakenfold featuring Carla Werner
Demetrius Romeo: A couple of years ago you featured as a vocalist on a Paul Oakenfold album. A lot of female artists, before they become known in their own right, feature on someone else’s track. Sophie Ellis-Bextor did it, Dido did it. Why is this a path to development for a singer-songwriter?
CARLA WERNER: For that song in particular, I didn’t set out to utilise it as being a key thing for me to do in order to boost my career. Absolutely, there are people that know I'm a vocalist through that track, who normally wouldn't listen to the music I create – the danceheads and the ravers. But that was a situation that came about all on its own, and wasn't one that I had any preconception about or that I needed to do. Again, it was just an opportunity that presented itself to me and I found it an interesting task to sink my teeth into, to write something different outside of Carla Werner music. It came about to be that he [Paul Oakenfold] really liked the song and the melody that I’d placed on the music. He used it on the album, which was a really great experience because it then took me off to Top of the Pops in the UK and it then introduced me to Robert Plant, who is a member of one of the best rock ’n’ roll band that has ever existed, in my opinion. And one of my biggest influences, as well.
Demetrius Romeo: The people you have namechecked, like Pink Floyd, Kate Bush and Led Zeppelin, are all distinctive for taking music to the next place. I’m wondering where ‘the next place’ is for Carla Werner, after this album.
CARLA WERNER: Well that's a funny thing because I've been continually writing throughout this whole process. Even when I was stopping and starting inbetween, and doing sessions for Departure and trying to finish that album off, I was continually writing. And the music that was presenting itself – I have a bunch of songs ready to go for the next record and they are a bit more electric-oriented, something I can really sink my teeth into. I just hope that as a song writer I can continually evolve and continually keep writing interesting music. Honest music.
Music: ‘Departure’ - Carla Werner