Export quality: In conversation with Luna Paige about Harmony

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After many years, Luna Paige is back with a full-bodied, rich album called Harmony. It is a goodie.

At the same time, she has released an Afrikaans album, equally good. Izak de Vries asked her about the albums.

(He is chatting to her about the Afrikaans album here, in Afrikaans; just follow the link.)

“What draws us together can push us apart.” That is the opening line of the song “Harmony”, which is the title song of the album. Am I correct that the entire album plays with “The push and the pull between/ The good and bad every day/ While clinging to the power of love” – once again a quote from the title song?

Yes. I relate to the philosophy that we are the whole of things not whole. That we are all somewhat imperfect. That we are not 100% good or 100% bad – even though we live in a time when everyone is trying so hard to put their best foot forward, when everyone is trying to show everyone else how great they’re doing, how happy they are feeling. It’s not realistic. Thematically, I played with the theme of acknowledging everything. But also knowing that we are a work in progress. That we never finally arrive, and that it really is OK. But I do believe that we should have purpose; we should strive to be fair and, where we can, address injustices and give voice to those who haven’t found it yet. But, in essence, I also acknowledge that you can only do that once you’ve taken a deep and hard look at yourself and know your dark and your light, your own rights and, more importantly, your wrongs. There is freedom in knowing. It’s in that space where you can start letting go of the things that aren’t serving you anymore. And perhaps become more understanding of others’ imperfections.

Harmony is a multi-layered, rich album. Am I correct that is has been ten years since your last solo album?

Yes. It has been ten years since the release of a full-length English album. During the pandemic, I did release a couple of singles (some of which have been reworked and included in this album, and some of which haven’t). Examples of two that were not included in the new album are “Little lies” and “I long”. They can both be heard on YouTube. I do, however, plan to rework these two songs, as Matthijs van Dijk has done amazing string and brass arrangements for the songs. Budget and time did not allow me to record them as spectacularly as they deserve to be recorded – so watch this space! The songs selected for Harmony were selected because I felt they fit well in the Harmony puzzle. I still believe in bringing out albums that have a theme. I struggle seeing the songs as separate entities for the sole reason that songs are written in a certain time in one’s life, when one is in a certain headspace and one is dealing with specific issues and thought processes. What is interesting is when one notices those same themes in other people’s work. Then you know you are operating in a specific time/period and that you are, in fact, tuned in to what is going on in the world and, therefore, in people’s minds. No idea is ever unique. We as songwriters and artists are just there to capture and package it all – in a way that people find palatable and relatable.

Sure, there are traces of your previous works in Harmony, but I think your voice has reached a richer, darker timbre with the years. How do you feel about it?

Yes, some of the songs on the album have strong elements of my previous style. I think there is something that inherently will always be in the music – which, I guess, is me. I do, however, feel that there is a shift in the way I present and express myself vocally and lyrically in this album. I also play in genres I have never previously dabbled in. And that, to me, thank goodness, was fun and indicative of growth. One’s voice does change as one grows older – female voices tend to become deeper (look at Joni Mitchell)! I often must transpose songs from my earlier years and sing them in a lower key. It’s interesting. But I also think that the way I sing has changed. There is more freedom. And I owe that to the show, Her blues, which I did round about 2018-2020. I studied the women in blues and covered their songs. I loved the way these women sang around the tempo, how they played with melody and never sang a song the same way twice. It opened up new singing pathways in my head – even in my older songs. It gave me room to improvise and deliver them differently – as an older, more experienced singer.

To add to the previous question: Wonderful life opened with a Suzanne Vega-like sound, and you have collaborated with many artists over the years. In this one I hear Luna. I like it. Who are your icons out there?

Thank you. That is good to hear. In the first half of my career, I was very shy and, dare I say, insecure. I was not comfortable collaborating purely because I did not trust my own musicality to hold in a collaborative space. As I grew older and more confident, I found collaborations wonderful, and I am so sorry I did not start doing them much earlier in my career. What I love about collaborations (where people mutually respect each other, of course!) is that we are sponges; we borrow sounds and ideas. Not necessarily on a conscious level. When working with people you admire, playing their music and getting to understand where their inspiration and influences come from, you cannot help being influenced by them and growing musically. Every collab I have done has ensured the creation of one or more songs that sound different to what I would have sounded like if I had stuck to playing in isolation to others.

Icons for me? Strangely, I don’t really have any. What I do admire are strong female artists who use their platforms to touch on real issues, but also who support each other and build community (such as Brandi Carlile). I have always been a fan of singer-songwriters such as Nick Cave, Tracy Chapman, Paul Simon, Tori Amos, Alanis – the list goes on. People who write lyrics with meaning. Some people listen to the beat; some listen to the words. I have always been a lyric and melody person. When it comes to groove, my ears lean towards the bass more than the drums, interestingly.

In “Red”, you sing: “When I wake up in the morning, there are black dogs next to my bed/ When the comfort of the night time dissipates/ Got to face those monsters in my head.” I know you work with persons struggling with addiction, among others. Is music a way for you (and us) to keep the monsters at bay?

I did work with people with addiction in my social work days, yes. The movie Basketball diaries, which is about addiction, inspired me to go study in the field of social sciences. Little did I know, during that time, that a life in the music industry would expose me to this as well. In a country where alcohol abuse is the norm, one does not have to look far to see various forms of the unhealthy relationship people have with alcohol. And I count myself in here. The music industry has its foundations built on the phrase, “Sex, drugs and rock ’n roll”, right? When one is young, it is easy to fall into that trap – especially if one is introverted in a world that requires you to be the opposite. Luckily, I did my social work master’s thesis on the use of music in group therapy with addicts. I think it somehow acted as a type of protective shield around me.

I still believe that music can be an incredible tool in harnessing true conversation about feelings, and even triggering memories and experiences and regulating unpleasant emotional states, such as anxiety. What making music means to me is proof of that. It’s only recently that I realised that for me, being a singer-songwriter is not about being on stage, being adored as an artist, becoming famous or even becoming rich (which wouldn’t be too shabby, of course). Being a singer-songwriter is imperative. It is the only way I get to deal with life. It’s how I process it, file it, understand it. It’s how I grow and somehow almost diarise my growth as a human. Sharing it and experiencing people’s reaction to the music confirms to me that I am not alone in my experiences. Sharing it sometimes also helps others who can’t express their feelings adequately. It’s a service. A gift. Yet, it is reciprocal. It’s healing. It’s fantastic. It’s in those moments between myself and my instruments when I write the songs, and then when I release them when it’s me and the audience, that somehow, yes, the monsters are kept at bay.

I have to say that my favourite song is “Circle of witches”. Please would you tell us more? I love the irreverence. Many of my friends have received this quote, with a big push to listen to your new albums:

But some men say they’re tired of those
Bra-burning bitches
Some men say the tables have turned
Being male is like being burned at the stake
Ha ha, yeah, by the circling witches
Ha ha, yeah, by those whining bitches

I must say, this song always hits a nerve when I perform it live. I have always been a feminist. And I have always found the negative connotation to feminism in this modern age, confusing. Especially when I hear women say, “I am definitely not a feminist.” What it shows me is that those women might be a bit scared of other people’s reactions to their belief system. Why else wouldn’t you be a feminist? A feminist is only someone who believes that women should be afforded the same treatment as men. In a world where gender inequality is still one of the largest social concerns (despite popular belief), feminism is clearly still necessary. And it should not exclude men in its cause. Unfortunately, I hear more and more people speak about the marginalised man, and it is usually spoken about pretty aggressively.

I cannot deny that some men feel or are marginalised, nor can I ever claim to understand those feelings or experiences. What I do, however, believe is that one group’s marginalisation never nullifies another’s. And that is why I wrote this song. I wanted to challenge those men who think feminism belongs in the not so very distant past – rather to learn from the feminists. Hence my saying, “You’ll do well with your own circle of witches.”

Why witches? In the far-back olden days, a woman who was educated, who had knowledge about medicine or nature, who was unmarried but sexually free, who swam upstream, who lived on her own outside of the norm, who did not adhere to the religion or culture of the day, was labelled a witch. Today, a woman who stands up for herself in the workplace or at home, who dares to express a negative emotion or frustration or steps into a conversational space that might cause conflict, is often labelled as a bitch. No woman wants to be called a bitch. Yet, it happens every single day.

My favourite line is this one, though: “I’d rather be alone than alone in love” from the song, “I’d rather be alone”. Harmony is a dark album, but not hopeless, methinks. What do you think?

Yes, when one reads “I’d rather be alone”, it might come across as dark. But it’s actually a liberation song. I am quite intrigued by the concept of aloneness versus loneliness. This is a definite consequence of the lockdown and the isolation many of us experienced. Many people who were trapped in their homes with their partners came to understand that they are lonely in their relationship, while others who were alone in the lockdown somehow found natural rhythm and peace. The assumption is often made that aloneness is loneliness, and society often treats people who are alone sympathetically or sometimes even (which is not nice) as if there might be something wrong with them. Hence the fact that so many people would rather be with someone unsuitable than be alone. This song is a song about self-love and liberation – and holding out for the real thing. I purposefully wanted the album to have hope as much as it acknowledged that there is despair. My song “Thank you” also speaks to that.

The video of “I’d rather be alone” is a little masterpiece. How long did it take to film it?

Wow, thanks for that. It was a two-woman project – can you believe it. The young videographer Tessa Jay Glanville and I packed our bags and went to Swellendam, where we found this quaint little guest cottage where we shot the video in a day and late into the night. We had a clear idea of what we wanted and literally shot in the lounge, the kitchen, the bedroom and outside in front of the house, and then drove out to a beautiful field overlooking Swellendam. I think Tessa did a great job. She was so kind and gentle, which helped the shy me to come out of my shell ever so slightly. We shared ideas about imagery like the swirling birds, the ocean, reflections, shadows – all of these things that could set the mood and imply what needed to be implied in a not-so-obvious way.

“News of the day” certainly continues the oblique look at our present lifestyle. “There’s a war in full sway/ Online like a show/ See the followers grow.” Who taught you to write lyrics like this?

Ha ha. Nobody. Perhaps the lockdown did. Isolation. Sitting at home and being connected to the world only through social media and the internet and realising that it’s (pardon my language) a shitshow. The niceness only lasted about three weeks, and then the knives and daggers came out and it was overwhelming. I realised that the shallow social media existence might be society’s way of trying to shield themselves from all the nastiness out there. But me rather watching a girl contour her face, than follow the Ukraine-Russia war, hit me hard. The fact that I could switch a YouTube news channel off and move on to something as mundane as that was scary.

And music? Where did you learn to play and compose music?

I dabbled on the piano when I was small. My mother had a piano and played by ear. I enjoyed watching her play. In grade four, I started taking piano lessons and played until matric. I was a bit of a lazy student, but I started writing songs as early as grade eight. The song which sealed me a recording deal was written while I was in high school. I initially preferred playing the guitar in high school, but then discovered Tori Amos. When I heard her play the piano in that unclassical way, I was like: I want to do that, and I started refocusing my attention onto the piano. Funnily enough, in the last decade I have been leaning more towards guitar-driven songs. I write on both piano and guitar, and I find that the sound of the music and even my lyrical phrasing is different when I write on these two instruments. I am buying a small Taylor travel guitar pretty soon, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of that little thing as I travel across Europe.

I think “Middle-class shoes” is a turning point in the album. I love these words: “Get unstuck!/ Put that middle-class foot down/ Let’s get unstuck!” Is music one of the ways in which you rage against our existence?

I guess our country’s racial politics is always in the foreground. I don’t think class politics gets enough attention. There is much said about the rich and the poor, and it is often tied to racial politics, but there is very little said about the middle class. I wanted to accentuate the importance of this class, which, luckily, is becoming more and more diverse. I believe that the middle class has more power than it is taking. It is caught between a rock and a hard place. People keep their heads down and graft to stay where they are. They are the ones who support the arts, who start the small businesses that employ one or two people, who pay their taxes, who pay their bills, who make debt, who strive to climb that ladder to the top while often getting their hands dirty helping out in poorer communities where help is needed. It is my wish that the diverse middle class would start using its power in building from the bottom up, not waiting for the top to do it. We might wait very long. This is the first time I’ve had the guts to write about something like this that irks me. Yes, it is my way of raging, but it is not useless anger. I am hoping that it inspires. I read stories about communities taking hands in rebuilding and fixing things to make life better for each other. I find it extremely inspirational and think we need more of that. This “opposites warfare” that is being propagated by the guys at the top needs to be smothered by South Africans who work together for a greater good. There are many of us who want nothing else but that.

Tell us how one records an album like this. You have collaborated with the big names in the industry: Mauritz Lotz, Schalk Joubert, Kevin Gibson, Keith Farquharson, Frank Freeman and more. This could not have happened “At two, friends drinking in disguise”, to misquote your song, “Red”.

My first decision was to work with recording engineer Peter Pearlson after meeting him on the Strawbs project. Schalk Joubert invited me to do backing vocals on their new album. Peter recorded that album. I really liked him and felt he was the right fit for my new music. He and I got together a couple times, laying down the demo tracks of the songs and discussing what we thought could happen to these songs and who we would like to include in the recordings. As mentioned earlier, some of the songs were previously recorded and only required remastering or little tweaks postproduction to fit into the overall sound of the album. Most of the songs were recorded, mixed and produced by Peter Pearlson with rhythm section Mauritz Lotz, Schalk Joubert, Kevin Gibson and Jonno Sweetman. Keith Farquharson did most of the keys, while Blake Hellaby also contributed keys and piano tracks to the albums. Peter introduced me to Keith and Tim Welsh (who plays for Good Luck). He played some sexy sax parts on “Red”. Peter also introduced me to Floris le Roux, who is a recording engineer but also a guitarist and singer. He did some great backing vocals on both the Afrikaans and English albums. I really wanted a male vocalist to contribute to the album. Petrus de Beer and I have worked together numerous times. He is also a favourite of Peter’s, so it made total sense to invite him to play violin on the Afrikaans track, “Sweetness”, which was right up his alley – considering the gypsy jazz music he often plays with accordion player Stanislav Angelov. In “Kiss of Africa”, I invited Jamie Jupiter to come and play his hosepipe. He and I toured and performed together with the Korreltjie Kantel show. He is quite the trickster with his hosepipe. Previously recorded tracks included artists such as Frank Freeman, Nick Turner, Lee Thomson, Mark Buchanon and Brydon Bolton and were recorded at Dave Langemann’s studio in Plumstead and Simon Ratcliffe’s Sound and Motion Studios in Cape Town. Many of these artists I have worked with for years. It was my first time working with Mauritz, which was a huge honour. What a great guitarist. It has been a while since I worked with Kevin Gibson. I am a huge fan of his drumming. It was a great honour once again to have him play on my albums. Jonno Sweetman himself is a treat and a great addition to any musical team. He also played drums on my album (mostly the Afrikaans album) and was also involved in the previous recordings that were included in the album. Schalk Joubert and I have come a long way. He has performed on all my albums apart from the first one. It was good to have him on the team. At some stage, I was sitting in studio watching Kevin, Mauritz and Schalk discuss what they were going to play on one of my tracks, and I thought, what an office! It took about three months to record, mix and master the two albums. It was intense, but it was good.

I love the fact that you have created a booklet with the lyrics and the artists. How does one purchase this?

The lyric book is available as part of the USB drive on offer. This drive includes the two albums, the lyric book, musician details, album and poster art, photos as well as the two music videos. It is my way of encouraging fans to support me (as we don’t sell CDs anymore, and revenue from online streams is unfortunately not adequate to cover album production expenses). The music business model needs attention, and until then, artists need fans to buy merchandise in order to have sustainable careers. Fans can purchase the USB drive by ordering it via my website. I also have a more expensive version which includes all my albums, videos, lyrics, original poster art, etc – quite the collection of close to 100 songs. See www.lunapaige.com.

Like most South African artists, you have a day job. If you were to have a magic wand, what would your wish be? You may have one wish for yourself and one for our country.

I had a day job until the end of January 2024. I decided to dedicate 2024 to travel after a three-year period of working outside of the music industry due to the impact of the lockdown. My wish has come true, I can almost say. I will be travelling, seeing the places I have always wanted to see. I will be exploring a business idea abroad and plan to perform in the second half of my travels. My wish is to fine-tune my business plan and to come back to South Africa and relaunch Iluminar (my company). But, first, I am opening myself up to new things, new inputs, new inspiration, new people, new collaborations and, maybe, a new me.

For my country: I wish that we would all stand together to topple those in power positions who are corrupt and who do not have this country’s best interests at heart. My hope is that young leaders step up and give the masses a reliable alternative to what we have today. My last wish is that the masses give those young leaders the opportunity to rise to the occasion.

  • Photography: Nardus Engelbrecht
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