Imogen Clark on Joni Mitchell and the importance of musical mentors

Imogen Clark on Joni Mitchell and the importance of musical mentors

Imogen Clark has poured not only her own life into her new EP Bastards, but the lives of many others around her – from heroes and mentors to, well, bastards.

Imogen Clark is a storyteller – she has been since she started writing songs at age 14. Now with a score of fantastic, deeply personal indie rock releases and a wealth of industry experience under her belt, her craft has been honed to perfection.

As she prepares for the release of her new EP Bastards, a ton of tour dates including a Joni Mitchell tribute show celebrating 50 years of Blue, and more generally, a return to the lifestyle that was taken from her in 2020, we thought it high time for a chat.

Imogen Clark Interview
Photo: Jess Gleeson

HAPPY: Last time we saw you, we were delivering a pack to your house in lockdown! Did that end up being a productive period for you? How much did it change up your workflow?

IMOGEN: Thank you again for that amazing happy pack of goodies! Lockdown was so challenging psychologically for me. I went from a year where I played shows all around the world, from Europe to the UK to the States and here in Australia, to having my entire year’s touring plans wiped out basically overnight. My identity is so bound up in playing music for people, it’s as much who I am as what I do. That’s how I communicate and how I feel like I have value as a human. With that taken away, I went into a bit of an existential tailspin.

The only way to pull myself out of that and not be swallowed up by depression and anxiety was to double down on what was still possible; finishing the music I’d started making in LA at the start of the year and getting it out into the world.

I did a streaming tour, which I put a lot of effort into making high quality and not just going live on Instagram with an iPhone. I felt like if that was going to be the substitute for playing real shows, I should make it look and sound great and sell tickets, so I got some of the people who work on my music videos together and we figured out the technology and all the shows ended up selling out.

We made a video for My Own Worst Enemy by getting a bunch of musicians like Clare Bowen and Davey Lane and Lindsay McDougall to film parts wherever they were locked down and send them in and we stitched it all together, and it really connected with people.

When we released The Making of Me EP last August, shows were just starting to come back and we did two sold out launch gigs in Sydney. I’d never been so nervous before a gig in my fucking life, but oh my god once we kicked off that first song it was like my soul re-entered my body. There’s just nothing like turning your pain into rock songs and seeing people mouthing the words back to you as you play them, like they understand those feelings too and you’re not alone in feeling them.

So it was a really clarifying time, it put a lot of shit in perspective and made me appreciate what I do more than ever.

HAPPY: First Class Man is a terrific song, I think Glen would be very proud. Could you tell us about him?

IMOGEN: Thank you for saying that. Glen Hannah was a genius guitarist, producer, designer, and one of the most genuinely good-hearted people I have ever known. I met him when I was 14, just starting out as an artist, playing cover gigs in bars. He became an instant mentor and was there for me for a whole decade of milestones, often playing with me as a guitarist and music director but often just as a sounding board and a source of wisdom and encouragement. He always brought out the best in me and always knew the right thing to say when I needed him. The first time I ever played with a band, he was leading that band. The first time I ever played to a massive crowd on a massive stage, he was right there next to me.

Two years ago this month, he lost his battle with depression and we lost him. For me, it came completely out of nowhere. I think of that phrase ‘still waters run deep’. If you’d have asked me, I would’ve said that if there was anyone who had it all figured out, it was Glen. After it happened, I spent so long questioning why I never saw the signs and if there was anything I could’ve done to help. All you are left with are questions in a moment like this – and the grief, the absence.

I knew I had to put all of these feelings into a song, and to commemorate Glen in music. I just couldn’t handle it on my own, it was like trying to touch an open flame. When I connected with Colin Hay, someone whose music has been with me since my childhood and has helped me through some of my toughest times in life, it gave me the courage to bring this to him and ask him to write it with me. He brought so much to the song, and the first time I heard that vocal of his on the track, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, it was so haunting. It’s the hardest song I’ve ever had to write.

HAPPY: Who else have you worked with that’s inspired you?

IMOGEN: So many people. One of the best things about collaborating with other writers and musicians is what they can inspire in you by bringing in perspectives or ideas or skills that compliment or challenge yours.

Mike Bloom, my producer for these two EPs, is so incredibly creative and has such range as a musician. He is god level as a guitarist, and he does so much different stuff on this record; the intricate, layered fingerpicking on First Class Man, that grungy solo on Never This Time that blows your speakers out, the interlocking textural tremolo stuff on Eat You Alive. Not to mention bass on every song, beautiful harmonies, keys, and percussion. He is so tireless about never settling, always trying to find new ways to refine and add details and depth to the tracks, it really makes me step up and bring my all into the studio every day.

When we were in pre-production, we kept referencing Tom Petty records as the epitome of the style of keyboard and organ playing we wanted. Eventually we realised that any session player we brought in would just be imitating Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers, so we decided to take a punt and ask the genuine article if he’d consider playing on it. I couldn’t believe it when he said yes, and the time in the studio with him is etched on my memory forever. It really blew me away how much respect he gave my songs, and my vision for them. He would come up with amazing parts within a couple of takes, and if they didn’t fit our conception of the style of the song, he wasn’t precious at all about starting over with a new, equally brilliant idea. I think the last two records he played on before me were Fiona Apple and Bob Dylan, and nothing indicated to me that he put any less care and artistry into my songs than theirs. What an amazing quality for someone who has basically locked in to go down in history since he played Refugee in 1979. If I ever achieve half as much as Benmont, I hope I can stay as open and engaged as he is.

There are so many others I could talk about here – Alex Lahey, Taylor Goldsmith, Emma Swift, Pete Thomas, our engineer Will Golden, Diesel, Timothy James Bowen, etc. – but really the biggest thing they all have in common is that they all treated me, and anyone else we were working with, with total respect. They didn’t play mind games or manipulate. So many people act like fuckwits and chalk it up to “artistic process” and I’ve learned at this point that if people this talented can be decent human beings and make incredible art, then the other kind of people are just being assholes to be assholes.

HAPPY: It’s a story I’ve seen so many times before – a mentor being so important to an artist in their early years. Do you hope to return that favour one day with someone else, so to speak?

IMOGEN: It’s funny, because even though I’m so young I’ve been playing music as my main source of income since I was 13 years old. So I am already starting to find myself being able to offer advice and mentorship to some artists who are starting out, particularly through the work I do with the Talent Development Project and APRA, two organisations who have been pivotal to me and my development through the years. I watch young artists starting out as teenagers and I remember all the challenges, self-doubt, and heartbreak I experienced back then, and I hope I can lend some helpful advice to encourage them to persevere.

I feel like it’s good karma to pass down the things you’ve learned if it might help the person coming up the ladder after you. There’s just no reason not to.

HAPPY: There’s a few songs from Bastards for us to hear yet. Are there any other stories you’re particularly excited to share?

IMOGEN: I am pumped for all of these songs to finally be out in the world. Time has moved so incredibly slowly through the pandemic, that even though it was only last January I was in the studio in LA, and only last October when we reconvened over Zoom to finish the record, I feel like these songs have been ready to burst out for so long.

The title track Bastards is such an important song for me. I had spent so long afraid to back my own judgement and opinions, or to contradict the more experienced, usually male, voices telling me how I should do things. I suffer from an anxiety disorder and I have in the past bitten my tongue when I shouldn’t have, to avoid making a scene. It’s also put boundaries on my music that I now know didn’t need to be there. I was comfortable being sad in my songs, but not really angry. Writing this song was like ripping off the band-aid, embracing how central rock music is to me. It was the beginning of a creative rebirth, and the thunder that Pete Thomas brings to those drums on the track is like my fucking heartbeat now.

Casualty is the first duet I’ve ever recorded. Timothy James Bowen is an old friend and one of my favourite male voices in the world. Sam Telford and I didn’t necessarily write this as a duet, but it felt so right to turn it into one. It’s about a relationship that’s been crumbling from the inside, but both halves of it are afraid to call time. I was listening to a lot of jangly ’90s rock when we cut this and it really influenced the sound, particularly that great 12-string guitar part that glues the whole thing together.

One of my favourite memories from the recording process was the day we cut the vocals. At this point, we were recording out of Studios 301 in Sydney, with Mike and Will in LA producing over Zoom – which by the way is way less awkward than you’d think. Tim came in, we worked out which lines he was going to take and then he went into the booth. I’ll never forget Mike and Will’s eyes popping out of their heads when Tim came in on his first line, how knocked out they were. We are going to get to sing this together at a few of my shows this year, and I can’t wait.

HAPPY: I see you’re playing a tribute show for Joni Mitchell soon. What’s your relationship with her as an artist?

IMOGEN: I met Dave Le’aupepe from Gang of Youths years ago, when I was still a teenager, and when he found out I hadn’t heard the album Blue, he told me I had to go out and get it. When I heard it, it was like a missing puzzle piece in my life and my musical map of the world. Everything about that record and Joni’s whole catalogue… those wild melodies that go places no one else would think to go, that voice that you can feel go right through your bones, and most of all, those lyrics that are just painfully honest and true, so openly vulnerable that they come from incredible strength.

I’ve played with the idea of doing some kind of Joni tribute show for a few years. I knew I never wanted to put on a blonde wig and do a Canadian accent, but I wanted to pay tribute to the songs and what they’ve meant to me, the influence they’ve had on me as an artist and a woman. I’ve spent so long rehearsing for this show, getting my chops on the dulcimer up, working through Joni’s catalogue to narrow down songs for the second half of the show (the first half is the Blue album in full to celebrate its 50th anniversary). I feel such a sense of responsibility to nail these songs and do justice to one of the greatest artists of all time.

HAPPY: What do you think it is about her music that’s stood the test of time?

IMOGEN: I think the emotional directness is such an important part of it. Being poetic but not obscure, not trying to disguise what any of the songs are about or hold back on any of the feelings she’s writing about. The songs are sophisticated and complex, but the first time you hear A Case of You or Both Sides Now or Court and Spark you feel everything they are about, and they just stay with you. “Songs are like tattoos” is one of her best lyrics, but her songs really are. Once you hear them, they are with you forever.

She’s also been so influential to now multiple generations of other songwriters, from Prince to Taylor Goldsmith. I feel like I can hear stuff in the new Middle Kids album that feels influenced by her. If you get a couple of songwriters in a room with acoustic guitars after a few drinks, someone is going to play Big Yellow Taxi.

HAPPY: Has Joni influenced the new EP in any particular way?

IMOGEN: I wouldn’t be the songwriter I am without Joni’s influence, so in some ways she’s touched every song. Most specifically, I think First Class Man is a song where she loomed large for me. It’s written in an unusual guitar tuning, which is a real signature Joni thing, which also leads you to unusual melodies and chord progressions. Really the main influence is how bare and vulnerable I had to let myself be to write the song honestly. I tried to use her example to force myself to tackle what the song was about head on and put those feelings front and centre, in a way that might be almost uncomfortable to listen to for some people, but I think was the only way I could really do it justice.

Eat You Alive is definitely in the mould of classic Joni ballads like My Old Man and River, those forlorn piano songs that take you on an emotional rollercoaster and have really beautiful flowing melodies that stick in your brain. I’ve always found beauty in sadness, especially in music, and that is kind of the flip side of the anger and abrasiveness I’ve embraced in songs like Bastards and Never This Time.

There’s some kind of Mount Rushmore of songwriters for me, with Joni and Springsteen, Taylor Swift, and a few others up there who will always be my north stars whenever I sit down to put my heart through the meat grinder and come up with some new tunes. I can only write like me, and write about genuine emotional experiences, but I’m always standing on the shoulders of the great artists who came before me and inspired me to pick up the guitar in the first place.


Imogen Clark’s new EP Bastards is out May 21st. Pre-order or pre-save your copy here.

Tour dates

Tuesday 25 May – Low 302, Sydney – Solo
Friday 2 July – Mary’s Underground, Sydney – 50 Years Blue (Joni Mitchell Tribute)
Saturday 3 July – Factory Theatre, Sydney – Torch Fest
Tuesday 10 August – The Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle – Full Band
Thursday 12 August – Vinnies Dive Bar, Gold Coast – Full Band
Friday 13 August – The Zoo, Brisbane – Full Band
Sunday 15 August – Studio 188, Ipswitch – Solo
Friday 20 August – Live At The Bundy, Bundalaguah – Full Band
Saturday 21 August – The Workers Club, Melbourme – Full Band
Saturday 13 November – The Barn, Wombat Flat – with Timothy James Bowen