Remember The Sacred Cowboys? Gospel meets Punk over a hip flask of Bourbon. Notorious front man Garry Gray interviews PENNY IKINGER in 2005 following the release of her album Electra and her tour of America…
GG: Why and when did you start playing music?
PI: It was an accident. I started playing guitar after a friend, Bruce Butler (who went on to become A&R guy for a number of record companies including Virgin and Sony) gave me an acoustic guitar for my birthday. It sat in my room for a while and I thought I better learn how to play it. My sister had told me he was going to give me a really great present. I thought she meant earrings or something.
GG: Do you remember any particular song or artist that drove you to it ?
PI: No. I was inspired a lot by Joni Mitchell though. She was the only other female I knew of at the time who played guitar.
GG: What is music ? Do people have the opportunity to hear and experience it, in the same way as you did, or has it been stripped of it’s role as forum for ideas and means of inspiring the imagination ?
PI: No. Music is a universal phenomenon that transgresses culture, time and space. It is everywhere and always will be.
GG: Are people still prepared to take risks ? Is it tougher staying on a creative path?
PI: Well I hope they are taking risks. You have to make a lot of sacrifices in your life to play music and it can be a fickle, cruel and elusive business. It’s tough but it always has been.
GG: ‘Electra’ is the first disc where you are ‘in charge’. You have been an integral part of numerous projects. What does doing ‘Electra’ mean to you as an individual and why haven’t we seen something centered around you before now ?
PI: Electra for me was a long and strange journey and not without pain. Pain in my personal life and pain in the making. I had to turn around nearly everything in my life to put myself in the position of being able to consider making this album. I had to basically de-construct and re-construct my psyche. I did not think it was possible for me to do my own music. I had always just wanted to play guitar. It’s just that the bands I was in kept breaking up and I had to do something to keep playing music. I had to write and sing my own songs. But before that I had to actually believe I could do it. I don’t think this could have happened sooner in my life though. It’s too tied up with my life “journey”. They are one in the same. In a way it’s a good thing it took me so long to do my own music because I concentrated on learning how to play guitar instead and this has only enhanced what I am doing now.
GG: In the film clip for ‘Kathleen’ a record is playing on a turntable: “the world of Marianne Faithful”…
PI: We put that film clip together in a very spontaneous way. We had no money and little time. There were only a few of us working on it – Rachael Lucas filmed and produced it, Kylie Greer was technical assistant and Gail Harvey was stylist. We all assisted with “art direction”.
Just the four of us – none of us had made a video before although I had appeared in them in the past in Wet Taxis and with Louis Tillett. Gail was in charge of props. She arrived with the turntable and the Marianne Faithful album. She loved the Decca label I think – and we wanted the aqua blue in the label – it suited the other colours in the video. The vinyl and the turntable looked so cool. Any other info ask Gail.
GG: What do you think of Marianne Faithfull and her trajectory ?
PI: As much as I respect what she has accomplished as a musician I was more drawn towards women artists who were instrumentalists rather than singers so I did not follow her career closely. I have seen her play live in Berlin and in Melbourne and I was impressed.
GG: Do you think that female performers are supposed to project their ideas, in the eyes of the industry or public, both lyrically and musically, differently to male performers ?
PI: I don’t know if I really care what people are supposed to do. And surely, as has been said before, rock is about breaking rules not following them. If I listened to what people expected of me I wouldn’t be playing guitar in my trashed up/unorthodox manner anyway and I wouldn’t have started singing. Some of my peers and people close to me told me that it was too late in my career to start singing and that I’d basically missed the boat. I’m digressing maybe…You have made me think of Chrissy Amphlett and also Chrissie Hynde. Before they came along the girls were very contained whereas the boys could do what they liked…
GG: Absolutely. It’s the notion that there have always been prototypes and derivatives: I think I was getting at syrupy female pop singers, guys doing rock music: does the original female performer have more access today than, say, when you started out ? PI: Well, when I first started out there were very few rock female performers around and it’s hard to say why. Obviously there has been a general move in society for women to have more independence and authority, say since the 70’s, but I am still surprised that there are so few females playing rock even now. I don’t think a solo artist can have adequate control over the artistic side of their music unless they play an instrument as well as write their own songs. This gives you your “originality” which makes you unique. With a band it’s different – everyone is contributing.
There are more women playing instruments now than when I started out (but not enough). In relation to your comment about prototypes and derivatives I do feel that women lack role models and this perhaps is self perpetuating. On the business side I would have to say that men are very much still in control and I observe a lot of that “job for the boys” stuff going on. I am shocked by it sometimes. But not everyone is like that and I have received a tremendous amount of support from male musicians and men involved in the music business as well. Those are the people I would prefer to be mixing with for sure!. So I think to a certain extent access for female musicians (original or unoriginal) is still blocked, but I do believe it’s up to the individual to pave their own way male or female. Men are maybe brought up to be more assertive and this is a quality you definitely need in the music business if you are a self managed artist like me.
GG: It was great working with you on the ‘Cold Harvest’ cd (originally entitled ‘Things To Come’ 1997) both in the studio and live. I’ve always searched within and beyond any given group for the right combination. You had an influence on those songs and gave the group a fresh take on itself with your personal style. You replaced Spencer Jones, in fact, who had his own album to get happening by that time. So, my question is maybe rhetorical in your case, but : Do you think there is a greater creative conflict in trying to find that balance of control and originality for female performers when it comes to realising a project ?
PI: Well I can only speak for myself but I think you are either a person who is drawn towards originality or not and this doesn’t necessarily relate to gender. Some artists don’t strive to be original – they want to follow formulas or imitate. As for control – well I observe that alot of men think they “know better” but again it’s hard for me to ascertain if this is gender driven or ego driven…it’s difficult to compare because I deal with so few women in this business. Your balance of control and originality idea is an interesting one though – I had total artistic control with Electra. I don’t know how my next album will evolve with a record company involved now…and more men in the picture!
GG: I think it’s happening for you at the moment due to the uncompromising nature of the songs on ‘Electra’. It’s OK to do a ‘strange days’ or a ‘waiting for the sun’ as a follow up, if that’s what you feel like….What do you think ?
PI: I will follow my muse and I’m not sure exactly where it will lead yet.
GG: Which guitarists inspire you, past and present ?
PI: Well I think we have produced some outstanding guitarists in Australia. In this list I would mention Charlie Owen, Rowland Howard and Kim Salmon as amongst my favourites… of course Deniz Tek carries a huge legacy here also. But in terms of inspiration my style of playing has developed almost as an anti to how other people play – the anti-guitarist!
GG: I was in Oz back in August. Seeing John Howard made me realise why I have ‘maintained the rage’. Apart from that, there was a lot of live music to see. But I’ve been away for some years: How do you see the future of non-mainstream music ?
PI: I think in Melbourne we have a very healthy music scene and we are producing some amazing music here. There are lots of venues here for musicians to play in opposed to say Sydney. I have heard that the scene is good in Brisbane but haven’t been there recently. I think the live scene in Melbourne augurs well for the future of non mainstream music here in an artistic sense. However, as you would appreciate, because of the size of our population it is always going to be difficult for musicians to earn a living here and the distance factor (whether touring nationally or internationally) is also a hindrance. All this CD duplication with home burners is not helping matters either.
GG: Yeah, you have to leave Australia or your music does. When you write a song, what does it have to have for you to consider it something worth recording ?
PI: It doesn’t get past the creation stage if it can’t withstand the scrutiny I impose. That’s not about rules it’s about what decisions you make when you wrestle with your muse. In general though I believe that it has to have a depth of sentiment worthy of telling a story about and it has to be simple and pure in thought and concise in execution. I try and experiment with my songwriting in the form. Some songs might only have a few lines that cycle, others might be more narrative in structure. The songs I recorded for Electra were the only songs I had ever written (words/melody/music) I think. I was by no means a prolific songwriter who had to weed through mountains of material. That was it baby.
GG: You’ve touched upon the link between your journey as an individual and first work as a songwriter: if you could select one song from ‘Electra’ that defines a pivotal moment for you, which one would it be and why ?
PI: Probably the song “Stuck Inside” It was the first song I had ever written lyrics for. It’s about someone whose shadow has left them. They can’t go out into the light – they are afraid (because they have no shadow) so they are … stuck inside. I remember when I first played it to someone – it was Louis Tillett and Charlie Owen – I was very afraid.
GG: So what happened ?
PI: Louis said he thought it was sensational and Charlie was also very encouraging so you see I was lucky hey? Did they realise the power in their hands at that particular moment?! Charlie in fact gave that song it’s title. Originally it was called Shadow.
GG: · Well fortunately, they weren’t thinking in those terms ?!? ‘Electra’ is a strong album…is that why it worked?
PI: I don’t know.
GG: You recently toured the States. What were your impressions of ‘planet america’?
PI: I liked the men, they have beautiful manners.
GG: Do they have weapons of mass destruction ?
PI: I have written this reply in invisible ink …
GG: So you did. Was it your first trip to the States ? What was the mood there ?
PI: Some of the people I met were openly apologetic to me about their political situation and they verbalised distress and embarrassment over the actions of the Bush administration. It can’t be forgotten that our Australian Prime Minister has actively shown this administration support but most people I met in the US , no matter how well educated, had little knowledge about Australia.
GG: How important is playing live to you in the context of your songwriting?
PI: I don’t know if it’s important in the context of my songwriting but it certainly is in the context of my musical expression.
GG: So, are things in sync with the dream, or vice versa.
PI: I am conscious of the fact that I am not utilising the full extent of my musical potential. This is due to my inability to devote enough time to my music at the moment due to other demands on my life. This is out of sync with the dream I suppose. The dream being to be as good as you can and to reach your full potential.
GG: So, Penny, what are your plans now ?
PI: I am writing songs for my second album. I am feeling extremely optimistic and confident with the songs I am producing. The feel of this album will be quite different to the last.
GG: Can you possibly give us an idea of what we can find on your next cd ?
PI: At the moment I am thinking that it will be a collection of real and surreal vignettes that describe events experienced on a journey. Like Homer’s “Odyssey” for instance. Most of the songs were inspired by my trip to America when I toured there last year, so specifically it is about this trip which started in Montana (where Career Records my label are) and finished in Mexico. I have tried to avoid being specific about place names to avoid well worn American clichés and also because to me it is a metaphorical journey as well – the journey of life. The music will be dictated by the feelings in the songs.
GG: Thanks, Penny. I’m looking forward to hearing it and continuing our little chat in relation to the songs themselves….But before we go, maybe we can talk a little about your label, Career Records. For the readers benefit, perhaps the obvious question is why work with an American label and not an Australian record company?
PI: Career Records have strong links with Australia. It was established by Ron Sanchez who resides in Montana and guitarist Deniz Tek. Deniz has spent time living in both the States and in Australia. I was approached by Career Records and they were keen to put my album out in America, Europe and Australia and I agreed to them doing so. They made good headway particularly in America with Electra. It seemed pretty obvious to me that there would be more potential for me overseas rather than Australia.
GG: I was strolling around Athens airport the other day and I stumbled across the latest copy of ‘Uncut’ magazine. The albums of the month were ‘deluxe’ re-issues of ‘The Stooges’ and ‘Funhouse’ with bonus discs. Being interviewed was a very ‘upbeat’ Ron Asheton relating a discussion with Denis Tek on how rock gigs and tours were like military operations, logistical, strategic surgical strikes … Can you relate to that image to describe what you see as the difference between playing live in Oz and playing live in the states ?
PI: Any tour anywhere or an album release is like a military strike and any weak link in the chain can have devastating consequences.
GG: Those 2 guys would have to be classified amongst the all time great guitar players and as you just mentioned Deniz Tek has some involvement with Career Records, too. The guitar on Funhouse is real O mind. I think on Electra you have those moments …