Interview with Phillippa Lusty by Chantelle Constable
Between Kessenya, Bella Sorella, Dolcy Vaughn, and things we probably don’t even know about yet — what is Phillippa Lusty up to these days?
As the director of Seraphina Music, my acts – Kessenya and Bella Sorella – have been taking up a the majority of my time over the last year. I have been writing and arranging their repertoire, scoring the music; producing backing tracks; choreographing movement; sourcing and sewing costumes; scripting dialogues…and so much more! Being independent is great, but everything takes a lot more time when you don’t have a large team working for you! It hasn’t left me a great deal of time for a lot else! In April this year, Seraphina Music hosted ‘A Night To Remember’ on the Battersea Barge, which was a lot of hard work, but a really successful event. The turn-out was brilliant and the audience really enjoyed the show. I acted as compere for the evening as well as singing a few solos, and two wonderful duets with the beautiful singer Mary-Jess Leaverland. We are now in the process of editing the footage from the performance to create live show reels for both Kessenya and Bella Sorella.
‘Phillippa Lusty’ as a solo Crossover artist is taking a step back from the stage – partially because of the huge time demands on my time for Seraphina Music, and partially because of wanting to move in a completely different direction. I feel that my music has naturally grown and evolved away from the crossover genre, and sometimes you have to just ‘go with it’…And this is where Dolcy Vaughn appears! Over the last few years I have been working on Dolcy as a sort-of secret side project. With so much going on it has been on the back-burner for a while but steadily moving from the periphery into the focus of my mind’s eye.
By creating a new persona I can start afresh; creating new music, new sounds, and a new style. I have been experimenting too as a music producer in the studio with modern sounds and techniques and combining them with my heavily ingrained classical training. It’s been a pretty bumpy ride as I am an outright technophobe! I ashamedly owned my production software for more than a year before I was brave enough to even try to use it! I’m so glad now that I took the plunge – I couldn’t have got to where I am with developing Kessenya, Bella Sorella and my own solo work if I hadn’t. Sometimes it really pays to step out of your comfort zone. I’m currently storyboarding music videos for Dolcy’s new songs to create a fun visual aspect to accompany the music. You will have already seen a snippet from my ‘Waiting’ song involving a prince, a hobby horse and a plastic frog, and soon I hope to have a lot more in the way of eccentric videos to share with you!
When writing, do you believe in nurturing the muse and waiting for inspiration to strike, or do you agree with Louis L’Amour’s philosophy, “The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on”?
Sometimes inspiration will just hit you. You could be driving to the supermarket or listening to the news, and you have to just stop everything and grab a note pad, or run to the nearest piano possible. However I don’t believe this is a way many songwriters or composers go about making a living – a job is a job and when you have to write; you write. It often helps if you give yourself boundaries and constraints under which to be creative. It sounds contradictory, but give an artist a blank canvas and say “paint me anything”, the canvas may stay blank. Give an artist limitations such as; “paint a portrait of yourself looking happy, using only shades of green and two large brushes.” and you are more likely to get a painting. In my eyes inspiration and stimulus comes from a strict brief you have set yourself. The creative possibilities within those constraints are endless.
Without asking you to reveal too many of your trade secrets – would you take us through your average songwriting process? For example, do you begin with lyrics or melody, and how long does it usually take you to complete a song?
It always varies for me. Sometimes I look at different song structures to figure out how and why they work, sometimes I play with lyrics and try to fit them to music, and sometimes I create a motif that I can expand on. Often my songs begin at the piano – I’m not a great keyboard player, but for me it’s the best way to experiment with sounds and sequences. For me, the sounds and sequences. For me, the best process is when they lyrics and melody happen in synergy and just grow together. Sometimes all you need is a small motif with a couple of words to send you on your way.
However I have pages upon pages of lyrics, poems, phrases, statements and questions that I am yet to manipulate around beautiful melodies. They’re currently stored on various notepads, scraps of paper, manuscript books and post-it notes, and I keep thinking that one day I will assimilate them into one neat and tidy place. The same can be said for experimental harmonies and chord patterns which are stored in a very similar way as my lyrics; in organized chaos.
Which came first: composing or arranging? Did you find one was a natural outflow of the other, or that they were separate disciplines you had to learn?
Ooo difficult question…The first piece I arranged was my song Guiding Light. I was really in love with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata 1st Movement at the time and wanted to somehow pay homage to it. That was my first venture into the world or writing and it was a long and insightful process. I took a piece of music and transformed it into something completely new. I’m sure some hardcore Beethoven fans would call my dissecting of such a masterwork as almost blasphemous, but to me it’s a way of showing how inspired I am by the great composers who pushed music to its limits and were not afraid to go against the grain and explore new ideas.
Studying composition at university was a real contrast. We mainly focused on contemporary techniques and ways of exploring instruments to create new sounds – we were encouraged to step outside the box of conventional concepts of music and be as experimental and eccentric as you dare. And yet everything had to be executed perfectly – presentation was everything when preparing your orchestral scores to be played, there had to be musical structure/form/progression, and if you had created your own harmonic system, this had to be reflected consistently in the music.
One thing this did was open up my mind to new concepts and ways of viewing music. Having studied classical music all my life it was invigorating to have those blinkers removed so I could suddenly see a new way of looking at the harmonic spectrum.
When it comes to arranging, it is usually for other people, acts or groups, rather than myself, and again this is a skill that has developed over time alongside my composition and orchestration skills. Last year I had about 3 weeks to arrange a whole Christmas show into easily learnable vocal harmonies for an eight-piece group who were traveling internationally for a cruise line.
I’ve since taken a short course in music production which has given me yet another way of looking at the writing process – both the way I am used to arranging and the method I compose are very formal, and involve sitting down with manuscript paper and scoring out instrumental and vocal parts. In complete contrast you don’t even need to be able to read music if you compose on the computer – you can just use your ear and build from sounds that you think work together.
Do you find in today’s media-saturated society that it is easy to become over-stimulated and lose one’s inspiration to be an original artist, or does the sheer volume of competition drive you to produce more, and better music?
It’s an interesting question – It’s impossible to say that anyone’s music is completely original, as we are all influenced by our surroundings, our passions and our thoughts. In the world of Crossover, there is very little original music and artists on the whole seem to be performing the same music over and over. Very beautifully, might I add.
In regards to today’s media saturated society, in my eyes the modern western world has created a monster – we’re in an age now of heightened narcissism and self-obsession where practically everyone just wants to be famous. Just because. This is exasperated by commercial pop music that seems to be churned out on a conveyer belt with seemingly hundreds of new artists appearing and disappearing from the spotlight each week, all looking and sounding the same. Don’t even get me STARTED on the socially acceptable misogynistic music videos that accompany these songs.
This saddens me when there are so many fantastic singers and musicians out there who could actually do a much better job than the manufactured pop stars who mime and use auto tune. I can understand why they then lose inspiration to be artists themselves when most of the time is seems you can’t get anywhere without being owned by the record label giants – and for good reason – the cost of a professional album can go into $100,000s to get the right producers, marketing, sound technicians…the list goes on. It’s a tough world out there, but then again the same can be said for any industry.
I’m not a particularly competitive person. I am passionate about what I do, but I’m of the belief that if you love the music you are making, there’s a strong chance that a lot of other people with love it too. There is a lot of competition out there, but I prefer to view it as a lot of possibilities to meet people, experience new sounds and see how music is evolving. I’m not in this search of the ‘fame monster’, nor for recognition or being remembered eternally after I die, or even to make my fortunes. I make music because it’s what is in me. Music connects us in so many way and it’s something really special to be able to share.
Was receiving a music degree always a goal you aspired to, or was it something you began to desire after pursuing a performance career? What is the most useful thing you learned at the Royal Holloway University of London that you believe you could not have learned anywhere else?
Going to university was never something I was particularly bothered about growing up. My parents never pushed me in that direction and I thought it was more important to wait and take the time to think about what was best for me. You need to be ready to go to university rather than just applying because you think you ought to. I took two years out in between finishing my A levels and going to university. During those two years I continued my studies in music from home while working, performing and traveling when I could.
Going to university gave me a fantastic grounding in music. I studied music in many different contexts making me appreciate it so much more as an intrinsic part of human nature. Not only did I study performance, and composition, my studies allowed me to gain great insight into the complex relationship between music and anthropology, sociology, politics, and power.
Besides music, when you are at university you learn a lot about yourself and more than anything, do a great deal of growing up.
Are many of your behind-the-scenes skills such as “recording, mixing, and mastering” (per the Bella Sorella Facebook page) self-taught through necessity, or do you think you would be interested in those fields even if you weren’t a performer yourself?
Definitely self taught through necessity! For years I avoided that part of music like the plague – it was completely unknown and terrifying. However, you know the phrase “If you want something done well, do it yourself.” That’s something I slowly learnt the hard way. As an artist, you are completely at the mercy of The Producer who can make or break a song. They determine the style and sound of your music and it is then down to their discretion to ‘get it right’.
It started for me having to make practice tracks for Kessenya – the girls needed backing tracks of the arrangements I had written with guide vocal parts on top. At first I asked a producer to make them for me, but I realized after spending far too much money on them that the end result just wasn’t good enough. So I took a crash course in music production and have been completely self sufficient since. I still have a lot to learn.
Who are some of your influences and dream collaborators? Have any of those dreams come true for you so far in your career?
Influences…so many! In regards to singing, writing, style and persona… Kiri Te Kanawa, Anna Netrebko, Natalie Dessay, Kate Bush, Barbara Streisand, Amy Winehouse, Beyonce, Karl Jenkins, John Rutter, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, System of a Down (seriously!), just to name a few. Dream collaborators… just a really good producer who shares my enthusiasm and wants to make music happen.
How did your interest in music develop, and when did you mentally decide to make it a career focal-point? What are some other activities — whether as hobbies or professionally –that you enjoy?
It’s just something I have always done. When I was very little I loved singing and would always get the school solos in assembly and the nativity play, and then when I started learning the violin, that just became my identity. I loved performing and used to do it all the time – at Brownies, in school, to family and friends. I probably sounded like a wailing cat by I didn’t care. My parents aren’t musicians so it’s always been a self-driven path. There was never a conscious decision to make it a career, for me there just wasn’t another option in my mind. When times are hard I look back sometimes and wonder why I didn’t study economics, maths, or science, but in truth if you can make a living doing what you love then that is more important than anything.
Your recent charity single “Dream a Dream” supports The Invictus Trust. Can you tell us about your decision to support this group in particular, and any other causes that are important to you?
My passions other than music are conservation and human compassion. It deeply saddens me to see what we are doing to our planet and the other animals that we share it with. I want to raise awareness of the extinction of so many species that we are causing, the loss of our precious rainforests and the destruction of our oceans and all marine life.
Supporting local charities is something I believe to be really important and often the most in need of support and help. When they are smaller you can often see the difference you make for them. This charity was particularly close to my heart because it was set up in memory of a friend of mine who, already suffering from depression like so many young adults, took his own life after suffering a traumatic experience. It was a terrible loss for his friends and family, but also highlighted the lack of care available for vulnerable people in need of help. The charity can’t bring Ben back, but it can stop tragedies like this from happening again.
Which do you enjoy more: Performing live concerts, or writing and working in the studio?
Hard one to call. They are so different. I suppose writing and working in the studio makes you feel like you are ‘going to work’. I sit in my office and work at the computer by day and then often perform in the evening. Performing is exciting because despite how much you plan and practice; you can never predict what is going to happen on the night. It’s wonderful to have an audience and be able to connect with them. When you are performing, you are giving people a special unique moment that can never be repeated. It can take you all over the world too, so you get to see and experience places you would have never thought of. In a way, the writing and working in the studio all leads to performing in one way or another so the two are intrinsically linked.
Do you hope to communicate any particular message to audiences through your original songs? What is the most rewarding thing for you about sharing music with others?
Music is something that connects everyone. Music can be very powerful and can convey very strong messages. My music is much more anecdotal, reflective of my thoughts feelings and experiences, not always personal to me, but things that have drawn my interest. Perhaps a situation a friend experience, or just a particular point of view. I don’t want to be aggressively political or controversial with my music, but who knows what I’ll write next!
Music for me is a gift I can give to people; it’s something I love to do, and people love to hear. The most rewarding thing about being a musician is feeling that you have brightened up someone’s day, made an event more special, or done something memorable.
To learn more about Phillippa visit her Facebook