Having first dipped her toes in the solo waters for the soundtrack to the movie Suburban Mayhem in 2006, Adalita Srsen has remained steadfast fronting Melbourne’s mothers of sonic invention, Magic Dirt. With the announcement of a low-key tour through some of New South Wales backwater towns road-testing new material for her first solo album [review], Webcuts felt it was long overdue to reacquaint ourselves with Miss Srsen.
Tucked away in the corner of The Heritage Hotel in Bulli, we find Adalita killing time making paper dice and nursing a glass of red wine. Bonding over The Church, who’s “Tantalized” randomly appears as an encore in her set (though sadly not tonight), we discuss what has brought her into this new arena — the transcription of this chat appearing below. Walking on stage and starting off with Magic Dirt’s “Full of Rope”, Adalita seems a little adrift, swaying between the microphone and her amplifier as if fronting a ghost band. The sparseness of the new tunes and the jagged tone of her guitar don’t easily translate well in this setting, at times making what seems like a tender song sound ugly and abrasive.
Unaccompanied by other instruments, and with the ubiquitous Gibson SG hanging around her neck like a mahogany security blanket, you felt the songs weren’t given a deserving chance. Of the tracks I recall, “Perfection” is a soft ballad that seems to bear a close resemblance to Nick Cave’s “The Ship Song” and would work perfectly backed by the Dirty Three. “The Repairer” is a gritty, dark country tune, one of the few songs that Adalita stretches herself on vocals to rise above the din of the Gibson.
A few songs, in particular the strong melodies of “Good Girl” radiate a self-assured confidence but at other times Adalita appears uncertain of a songs potential, giving a delivery devoid of colour or spark. It’s not all bad, and by no means should this be taken as over-critical of what is obviously a low-key testing of the waters, but “Invite Me” resonates with a kind of stripped back beauty you would expect from Patti Smith, and when Adalita dips into the back catalogue on “Tee Vee”, one of the stand-out tracks from Magic Dirt’s Tee Vee, you realise just what she is capable of with her voice and a guitar.
Finishing up with the hypnotic confessional “Hot Air”, Adalita looping a two chord rhythm riff and then soloing her heart out on the extended outro, she closes this one woman show to a jaw-dropping degree, single-handedly putting all of my previous concerns to bed. Dragged back for an encore of vintage Magic Dirt in the form of “The Influence” and once more again (to her utter surprise) for a perfunctory sprint through Neil Young’s “Harvest”, you feel like Adalita ‘The Solo Artist’ is very much a work in progress, but for what was shown on-stage, the parts are definitely all there and Adalita herself, is definitely all there. Bring on the album.
This is my first time in Bulli, have you ever played here before?
This is my first time too, but I’ve heard good things about the venue. It’s a nice sit down affair. Doing the solo shows which I haven’t done many of and playing in rooms where there is that sit down at a table style gig, works really well.
Has this been your first official solo tour?
Yeah. It’s pretty low key, which was deliberate. I did my very first solo shows in Melbourne. I did a residency at the Retreat Hotel in Brunswick, and that was my very first one, and then we just planned New South Wakes and now I’m going back to Victoria for some regional residencies.
So have you been playing a lot of places you’ve never played before?
Oh yeah. The Hopetoun gig was the only place I’d played at before with Magic Dirt, but all of the other places are new.
…and more “adult” establishments…
It is! I know! I’m growing up. I don’t know, I’m getting older now and turning into an adult and doing adult things.
Is this a sit down or a stand up affair for you?
I stand up. I tried sitting down when I was rehearsing, but I couldn’t sing sitting down. I can, but I can’t push it out. Standing up gives me more oxygen and more push with the vocal and I move around a little tiny bit. I can’t keep still.
How do you feel being on-stage alone? Is it a little nerve-wracking?
(laughs). Traumatised is the word. But happily traumatised. It feels really full-on.
A bit of a challenge too then after fronting a band for 20 years?
It’s definitely the unknown. It’s really hard and it’s really different because there’s so much more space around you. I just try and get used to that space and silence and see what to do with it and what not to do with it. Just accept it and let it settle around you like a fog and just go with it.
Did you go away and watch solo artists before this tour to see how they manage the space and silence?
I think you can learn a lot by people doing solo shows. In Melbourne I watched a couple of local artists do their thing. Amaya (Laucirica), she’s like a Mazzy Star-esque singer songwriter. So I watch her and ask her a lot of questions and kinda hope that her confidence rubs off on me. She been gigging for a long time and you can glean a lot of information from people like that. But when you get up there you kinda have to do it your own way.
How did this decision to go solo come about? You’ve been pretty busy with Magic Dirt, but was it time for the band to take a bit of a break?
Definitely. We had a five month long tour last year which was intense and that really burnt out at the end, in a really great way. It was a great tour but we haven’t had a proper break for many, many years and it’s been 16-17 years of constant playing. I guess it was a bunch of things. People were asking me “are you going to do solo stuff?” and I had never thought about it. It was like “Nah. Why?”
You did contribute two songs under your name though for the Suburban Mayhem soundtrack.
Yeah — “Double Dare” and “Sex Beat“, the Gun Club cover. Yeah, I guess it was that as well. Little things started to happen where I was naturally being pushed in that direction. There’s a lot of songs I’ve written that haven’t worked well in a rock band format or just haven’t even been tried ever. I kinda feel good airing those songs and trying a new vocal territory.
So this break isn’t really a break then.
I haven’t had a break, no. I’ve kept working through my break (laughs). But it’s good, it’s good to be busy. It’s good to be productive and it’s a great challenge for me in many ways.
So are you using this tour to road test what you’ve written?
Absolutely, yeah. Just to see what people think, get some feedback and see if it actually flies. I wasn’t really sure if I could do the solo thing, and I’m still not sure. It’s an experiment still, but it’s going well so far.
Have you enjoyed the tour so far?
Yeah, I’m actually really surprised how it’s all going. People have been digging it. I’m slowly getting used to my nerves.
I guess with the low-key tour you’re getting people who are familiar with your stuff and want to support you?
Yeah. It’s so got that vibe. It was a great way to ease into it and just get the comments. It’s been a whole word of mouth tour which has been really effective and really good.
Have you looked at old Magic Dirt songs in a different way and seen whether you can play them solo?
Oh yeah, I’ve been playing three Magic Dirt songs which actually work really well playing them solo.
Are these songs that started off as songs written on guitar?
Yeah. With Magic Dirt the music and lyrics happen at the same time. It’s the same process most of the time. Writing in my bedroom, I’d write a riff and just kinda sing at the same time. Sometimes I’ll write a whole song in my bedroom on a four track or sometimes it will just be a riff with maybe an idea and I’ll take it to the band room where everyone will just jam and add their parts.
So tonight it’s just electric guitar and you?
How does that reflect what you’ve recorded so far?
It’s kinda the same thing. I just went into the studio and just tracked guitar and tracked one vocal and then I’m going to go back and maybe embellish some of it but I want to keep it pretty minimal. I think it will be bolder in that way to just have guitar and vocals. I don’t want to add any band-y stuff — I don’t want a drum kit, no bass, no nothing and see how it sits on the record. Maybe a bit of percussion here and there.
So you’re kinda playing it by ear, really.
Yeah, I am, very much. Just experimenting.
…and it could change from now until it comes out?
Yeah, it could but I don’t think it will change too much. I kinda have ideas to keep evolving with the solo stuff. I’ve got another musician in mind to come in and do some guest stuff on the record. So it’s very much a work in progress I think.
Can this musician be named?
He’s a Melbourne musician and multi-instrumentalist. I don’t know if it’s going to happen. He used to be in a band The Hungry Ghosts — JP Shilo. He’s working with Rowland S. Howard at the moment and he can play a bunch of stuff. He’s a pretty amazing dude. I’ve asked him on MySpace and said (imitates typing) “Come on John, come to the studio”. I think he’s pretty keen, so hopefully fingers crossed.
So doing this on your own, do you feel the weight of four shoulders sat squarely on one?
(laughs) I’m experiencing it right now on this tour. Man, it’s really eye-opening. I’m learning so much. With Magic Dirt I’m jumping around and screaming my guts out, getting really into it and sweating after the show. But with doing the solo stuff I’m hardly moving around. I don’t break a sweat. I’m just standing and singing but I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus when I get off-stage. I think it just must be the tension and trying to focus and get every note right, because you’re under the microscope you can hear every single thing, every mistake. Being on your own, you do have to call the shots. It’s all new to me. All completely new. I never knew. It’s like with Magic Dirt we just all go along with each other and support each other, but when you’re on your own there’s nothing around you.
How does that work out with recording. Are you looking at avoiding the past and bringing in new instruments or exploring your voice more?
Yeah, definitely. Dean (from Magic Dirt), is co-producing the record with me. He’s such a great producer. He’s done theredsunband and Gersey, so amazing stuff. So I have him there to be the ears and for the real great critique.
Are you wary of making a record that the public expects you to make?
I haven’t kinda consciously thought about that stuff. I think that stuff comes in retrospect. I try not to think of that, but I definitely don’t want to box myself in any way, like “maybe I should be a bit more rock, maybe I should be really weird, maybe I should be a bit more country, maybe I should be a bit more feminine” — I’m really not thinking about that.
Are you bringing any singer/songwriters influences with you? With Magic Dirt being quite a loud band, are you leaning towards a more quieter approach to this record?
Absolutely. I think I’m getting quieter and quieter. Doing the solo shows I’m realising how important it is to be sparse with a lot of the stuff I’m doing. I’m not really thinking of anyone when I’m in there. I don’t really think of any styles or artists or records. I just going in there and do whatever the song needs. It’s all about the song. That’s the priority, that’s the be-all and end-all and everything else is secondary. You just can’t think about anything else, there’s no point.
So when do you expect the album to come out?
I was thinking later this year, but realistically early next year. Maybe like March.
What do you have in store? Are you thinking of supporting the release with a different band, or again just yourself?
I guess that depends. Definitely solo. I don’t want a band at this point. But I’ll keep an open mind. I may have guest musicians. Just kind of special little things. Whatever the song needs to bring it to its full realization.
And for the rest of the dirt bags are they going to rise again to kick out the jams?
Oh yeah. I’ve been wording every one up at the solo shows and telling them that Magic Dirt is all good and we’re going strong. We’re touring soon.
So you’re fitting this in between your supposed break?
Yeah, exactly. We’re on the road soon and we’re releasing a new EP which we’re going to have on tour and a new video for a track off “Girl”. So yeah, it’s really exciting and we’re going to go back out on the road. We’ve got a few things in the works so it’ll be really exciting. It’s all full steam ahead, there’s really no rest (laughs).