The trials of Alyx Dennison

Following the breakup of her previous band Kyu, Alyx Dennison’s future in music was uncertain. It wasn’t until she took a trip to India that she rediscovered her confidence and passion. Nestled under the shade of a tree, Dennison opened up about her anxiety, learning Dhrupad and making her debut solo album.

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Photos by Liam Cameron

HAPPY: So you recently released your debut solo record under your own name and I have to say it was pretty awesome! One of the things that featured prominently on your debut solo album is a vocal style called Dhrupad, how did you get into that?

ALYX: When I was traveling in India I started training with a teacher in Benares. It’s an old vocal tradition. I did for about five months and other people do it for a lifetime, so I feel a little silly talking about it. But yeah, that’s what I did and I really hope I get to go back to keep studying.

HAPPY: What drew you to it?

ALYX: Well, I’d actually, in a very roundabout way, had quit music. I decided and I was gonna go study science at Macquarie where my sister was doing science. Then I thought I needed a transitional holiday to take myself out of [my] context. It sounds really dumb! But to find out who I was outside of the whole musician / band thing. The more I was away from it and the more I was away from instruments the more I realised I missed it and the more I realised I needed it.

When I was in Benares a friend of mine was at the Benares Hindu University studying music, and she knew this woman Uma. So she hooked me up with her for some lessons. So it just rekindled my love for singing. She was actually French but she had been living in India since she was a teenager and now she was in her 70s.

HAPPY: She was like a wise sage to help you find your way!

ALYX: (laughs) We’d sit on the banks. Her house was right on The Ganges, and there were stairs that went down to the river. We’d sit there, drink some tea and sing. It was really nice. Whenever I’m nervous on stage I just imagine I’d be sitting with her. I’d just close my eyes and imagine that I’m with her drinking tea. It chills me out (laughs).

HAPPY: What kind of person was she that could inspire that?

ALYX: She was very humble. She was wise but when I had my first lesson with her she was like “I’ll teach you if I can, but I don’t know if I have much to teach you“. Just really humble and kind of nervous. She was very lovely, a very wise, very nice woman.

HAPPY: Has she heard your album at all?

ALYX: No! I tried to get in contact with her. I think I’m just going to have to go back and knock on her door. I don’t really have any [other] way of contacting her.

HAPPY: And you were just traveling recently correct?

ALYX: Yes! I sing and play music in a production in the Shaun Parker Dance Company. I’m in the music ensemble and we just played a run in Germany. Such a good experience.

HAPPY: Do you see yourself going back there to play your own self-titled album?

ALYX: I would really love to. I mean, I don’t have any money. I don’t have disposable cash, just like everyone (laughs). But finding out about the Australia Council cutting funds for people looking to go touring is a little sad as well. But yes, if I ever have an injection of cash I would definitely go back.

HAPPY: Cool. The reason I ask is that I was curious as to whether traveling informs your songwriting at all?

ALYX: Yeah, I think traveling really informed this album. A lot of my music before this was much more experimental and free formed. Where this is more song-y songs. A lot of songs in C that were written on guitar because I didn’t have my usual instruments around me. And a few of them I wrote in my head. And a few of them have a lot of field recordings and samples that I’ve taken during my travels. I think this album really did start being made in my head, on my travels (laughs).

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HAPPY: Well that makes a lot of sense, especially listening to a song like Triptych which feels very organic and loose, a lot like the progression of one’s thoughts.

ALYX: Thanks. There’s a sample of someone speaking. You can’t hear it very well, but I was in New York and there was a guy talking about pizza, it was so good! It’s really hard to hear but he says (in squeaky old man voice) “The thing about pizza, there’s a lot of pizza…” I wish it was louder now but at the time I thought it was too weird and turned it down.

HAPPY: Really? That’s awesome! What inspires you to put a dude talking about pizza into a song?

ALYX: A lot of the time when I include stuff like that it is for sentimental reasons. I like having, I dunno. My time those people in New Jersey was really special, they would have the most hilarious conversations. It’s a bit creepy that I did that though. But just having them and including that, I’m just really sentimental about capturing something and using it elsewhere in my music. There’s heaps of that in the album. Little buskers or someone playing violin somewhere, someone talking or bells chiming. Whenever I hear them I think of that place and that’s really exciting to me.

HAPPY: Hey, maybe you’d record someone and end up promoting his pizza place. Then he can pay you!

ALYX: (laughs) I’m just worried he’d be angry with me, that’s why it’s so low. Don’t sue me! (laughs).

HAPPY: I guess in that respect you’re always after a story, incorporating more than one story into your story.

ALYX: And there is. That’s the way I write songs, just really dense. But for me, no one else would pick up on it, but for me they’re so dense with memories I can listen to them and remember. And it also feels more collaborative too when I use more recordings and stuff, it feels like other people are involved and less of just my stuff. Jewels Are Just Lumps, the main violin riff-y thing, (laughs), what do you call it? The main violin line?

HAPPY: That shredding violin riff?

ALYX: (laughs) That is someone that I was playing music with in India. They were tuning up their violin and I was recording. There’s that element of chance when you’re not writing something yourself.

HAPPY: Do you have any other samples you didn’t use that you’d use later?

ALYX: No, that was it. It was so weird, when she was tuning up her violin she was playing lots of different stuff and there was that one little bit. Originally I wanted to cut it all up and make chords out of it, then take the long notes she was playing and make it a textural thing. Then there was this little line that was just sitting in that place. It was in the right key and it was just the right timing. It was a perfect fit there.

HAPPY: Well once you’d collected all those samples you continued to collaborate with David Trumpmanis in the studio. How was it working with him?

ALYX: It was really good. It’s so amazing when you gel with someone creatively and they understand what you’re trying to do. He wanted to achieve what I wanted to achieve which isn’t easy because I’m pretty scatty and vague and I’ll explain something in a weird metaphor like “Make this sound like it’s blue“, (laughs), and he’ll be like “Yeah! Cool!” I’ve worked with people before and they’d be like “What do you mean!?” So that was really, really nice working with him. We’re creatively very in tune with each other and could do things really quickly and go on tangents.

It was a really nice experience, just being free. And I wasn’t self conscious thinking “What does this person think of me?“, which is something I’d do if I was working with someone new. I’d be a little eccentric and be thinking “Ohh, be normal! Be normal! Be normal!“. So in the mixing stages too he worked really hard and put a lot of time and energy into it. He was very passionate about the record. It was really nice to have someone on who spent some extra time on it because they wanted it to sound cool.

HAPPY: Of course this is isn’t your first foray into music, after all you were a part of Kyu as well…

ALYX: That was from 2009. That went really quickly. We were playing Homebake and big supports. It burned brightly and then burnt out. So I think we broke up in 2010. After the band broke up we released our second album. After the band broke up I was like “Oh my God!“, I was very attached to that project. For a very long time I felt pretty upset about that ending because I felt that I was doing something really sincere. It’s hard to explain. Like when you find a voice…it just felt right. Just like this project, I had a lot of stuff where I’d say “Oh, I don’t want it to sound too much like Kyu! Kyu is what I sound like“. So I had a lot of anxiety over that.

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HAPPY: How important do you think it is to have a good dynamic with a producer?

ALYX: I think it’s important to get along well. When I start working with someone I’ll want to get to know them first. I’ll tell them about my life or ask them questions. I think it wigs people out but I think it’s important that we’re friends, there has to be an element of trust there so you don’t feel judged or self conscious. David was really familiar with Kyu and my past work so he knew what I was like creatively.

It was important for me to be able to reference Kyu stuff, and vice versa as I knew stuff he worked on too. Every sound engineer I’ve worked with, Dan Jonson on the first Kyu record or whatever, you really treat them as a member of the band and value their input. I really love work different people for that reason because different people bring things out of you.

HAPPY: With that break between Kyu and your solo work, so what prompted you to get back into it? It clearly was a tough thing to let go of.

ALYX: I’d written a lot of the songs over a few years and recorded a few demos. I played in Richard In Your Mind as well. Jordie Lane was in the band at the time too and he heard some of my demos and encouraged me to make an album. He really encouraged me to do it which was great. He helped e record some of the early manifestations of the songs. I think we did five or six songs. The they kind of sat there for another couple of years. I had a lot of anxiety of putting stuff into the world.

With Kyu, I was so young and came under so much scrutiny and it really bothered me. I’m totally fine if I get a bad review now, but when you’re 18 you feel that people are judging you and people hate you and they don’t know you. It can be such a horrible thing to go through. I think I was just really worried I’d come under that scrutiny again and that people would say that I sucked. It was only after, this sounds silly, but my time in India that I realised that I actually didn’t care. I was content enough to do it and put it out there. It took me a few years from where it crippled me to where I didn’t care.

HAPPY: That’s awesome dude! Well on that note I’ll ask my last question. We always talk about stuff that makes us happy. So Alyx we want to know, what makes you Happy?

ALYX: The first thing I thought of is my dog. He’s really adorable. Is that sad? That my main source of happiness is my dog?

HAPPY: Not at all. What type of dog is it?

ALYX: He’s a Spoodle.

HAPPY: A what??

ALYX: A Spoodle, or a Cockerdoodle. (laughs) He’s half poodle, half cocker spaniel. He’s such a weird creature, he has this massive head, his proportions are all wrong, because usually when you see Spoodles they’re really beautiful dogs, but I think the mix didn’t work. He has these tiny legs and big, barrel-y body. When he wags his tail his legs comes off the ground, it’s just all wrong. He’s like a cartoon. His name is Nero, Nero the hero!