Emma Dean, performer
Growing up in an environment where music and performance were celebrated meant I had the freedom and support to explore my wild creative urges from a young age.
Many of us can recall performing lounge-room concerts – coffee table pushed aside, hairbrush microphone in hand, our parents patiently sitting through a cringe-worthy rendition of ‘… Baby One More Time’. While most parents were not so enthusiastic about an encore performance, Emma Dean’s sat patiently, nurturing her musicality and creative spirit from a very young age. This early love of performance continued to become a career, with the multi-disciplinary musician’s talents taking her across the world, seeing her collaborate with musical greats and release more than ten independent original albums. On Saturday January 30, the Brisbane local will be bringing her theatrical joie de vivre to the stage at Brisbane Powerhouse, sharing heartfelt stories and lush pop songs about love and the human spirit alongside a baby grand piano and some of her beloved musical friends. Ahead of her performance, we took five with Emma to discuss verandah choirs, 2021 goals and the blow-dry skills of Placebo’s Brian Molko.
Let’s take it back to the beginning – what first ignited your love for all things performance?
My dad, Christopher, is a performer and music enthusiast. I have very early memories of me listening to him on the radio (he was a classical and jazz music radio announcer) and trying to talk to him in his studio through our speakers at home! Growing up in an environment where music and performance were celebrated meant I had the freedom and support to explore my wild creative urges from a young age. Our lounge room was my first stage and my parents were very patient and understanding audience members.
You’re a multidisciplinary artist with a lot of feathers in your cap – is there one medium of performance that you love most?
It changes all of the time and I find it very difficult to keep still and do one thing at a time – ha ha! The thing I’m really interested in at the moment is how physicality and movement are intrinsically linked to singing and music performance confidence. I feel called to move my body more in 2021 and explore what it can do.
COVID obviously had a huge impact on the performing arts sector – how did you spend your time in those early days of lockdown?
Like so many artists, I lost almost all of my work overnight. So, I spent the early days in lockdown figuring out how to pivot towards an online platform so that my beloved community choir, Cheep Trill, could continue to connect. In the first week or so my team – Tony Dean, Corinne Buzianczuk and I – created Computer Choir, which helped to sustain us, emotionally and financially, through this strange period.
You’ve released all of your material independently – what is the hardest part of this process and, on the flipside, what is the most rewarding part?
The hardest part has been the financial burden and lack of industry support. The most rewarding thing has been the creative freedom, collaborating with people I love and respect, and building a support network from the ground up through community work and genuine connection.
When you’re conceptualising a show, where do you seek inspiration?
Oddly, the first thing that comes to me is a mind-picture of my body on the stage. I can see what the lights are doing, what I’m wearing, how I’m holding my body, the colours, and I can feel the energy. I then figure out what this image is trying to tell me and what it sounds like. Inevitably, the initial idea evolves several times throughout the development, but this is where it all begins!
Has the way you approach crafting a live performance changed in the wake of COVID?
Yes – I am now having more FUN! COVID forced me to find an identity outside of music and performance. I discovered that there was more to me than this, so the stakes have actually lowered and I am relaxing more. I will always strive to do the very best job that I can do, but if I fail or a reviewer says I’m terrible, my life no longer falls apart. At least, not in the way it used to.
You’ve shared the stage with some incredible talent such as Kate Miller-Heidke, Placebo and Macy Gray (to name a few) over the course of your career. What has been the most ‘pinch me’ moment for you?
I have been so lucky to collaborate with and be the opening act for some amazing performers like the ones you mentioned. I will never forget watching Placebo (Brian Molko was my high school crush) side of stage at Terminal 5 in New York and then chatting with him backstage as he fussed over his hair with a blow dryer. Swoon. However, the most rewarding moments on stage are the smaller, quieter ones. In particular, collaborating with my family – particularly Tony Dean, Katie Swan and my love, Lucas Clarke – has been life changing. I pinch myself and say “how did I get so lucky?”
Your community choir Cheep Trill sounds like an absolute blast – can you tell us a little more about how it came to be?
It is one of the most joyful, soul enriching things I have ever been part of! It all started in a tiny shoebox apartment in New York. I was burnt out and in the throws of depression and had decided to come home to Brisbane. Longing for community connection, I put a Facebook post up asking if anyone would be interested in being part of a little singing group. The next morning I woke up to more than 100 comments, emails and private messages from people who were hungry to sing. We began in January 2014 on a verandah in Everton Park and the rest is history!
What was the last new song or band you heard that really made an impact on you?
I have been listening to Midnight Oil’s latest album called The Makarrata Project and was particularly moved by their song ‘Change The Date’ featuring the voice of Gurrumul and Dan Sultan.
You’re coming to Brisbane Powerhouse for one night only (with some special friends) on Saturday January 16 – what can audiences expect from the evening?
Hopefully a big warm musical hug! I’ll be playing LOTS of old tunes – some of which I haven’t played for more than ten years. I’ll also be performing some new songs on the guitar, which is a new, terrifying challenge for me as I’m not a super confident guitarist yet. But I always tell my students that life is all about learning, growing and challenging yourself, so I must practise what I preach!
You can enjoy an intimate and melodic night with Emma Dean on Saturday January 30, 2021, at Brisbane Powerhouse. For details and tickets, head here.