Behind the ethereal Woodes persona is Elle Graham, a masterful singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. Graham’s music is a product of her finely crafted vision and a testament to her skills. She has released music as Woodes since 2016 when she finished her training in Interactive Composition at Victorian College of the Arts.
She has already released two EPs, Woodes EP and acclaimed follow up Golden Hour. She has also released a series of singles, including “I Belong Here,” her collaboration with Set Mo that has achieved ARIA Gold status, and “Silent Disco,” her danceable latest single.
With a full-length album due in 2020, Graham talked to Savage Thrills about her experiences as a female producer and solo artist and balancing her personal and professional life.
You’re from Townsville, North Queensland. Do you feel like there’s a different culture from Northern Queensland to Melbourne?
Oh yeah, one hundred percent. My mom studied marine biology, and my dad is a park ranger, so I had this upbringing where I lived on a national park in Townsville. I was an only child living on a national park – it was just me and my pets and my imagination. Then I went to an actual big city. I hadn’t gone to Melbourne before I was maybe eighteen. I went down to do some recording with one of my best friends who moved down here to study music, and it was just such an exciting place. I remember realizing you could get paid to play shows and being like, ‘Yay!’ So good.
Melbourne has a live music scene that’s just so unique. I still think a lot of the music scene from where I grew up in Townsville.
What was it like to get into music while you were growing up in Townsville?
My parents are big supporters of music. My mom plays the French horn, and my dad plays guitar and banjo. Recently I brought him up on our tour. He also plays the spoons really well, and I really want to integrate that into our live show at some point and get him up there playing the spoons.
I started writing music around [eleven], just me and the piano. My piano teacher was really supportive of that sort of curiosity. I was doing my classical music training. She would break down the chords and show me how songs were made up of and teach me how to flesh out my songs. I was definitely very fortunate to have a mentor who took an interest in what I was making, which was probably pretty bad!
There weren’t that many places to play in Townsville, especially for underage musicians, so we had a lot of house concerts. My first real show playing my own music was at an open mic night they used to have at the beach. You’d write your name on a blackboard, and they’d give everyone a chance to go up and then perform. Through that, you could test it and grow your confidence. And there are quite a few Townsville-based musicians who are still doing music now who I know really benefitted from the time.
I was doing orchestra pits and musicals with the Barrier Reef Orchestra, which meant I was around professional musicians or people who were very, very passionate about their craft. Even though I was about seventeen at the time, I was treated with respect and shown that you could take that music knowledge to another level because there just weren’t that many percussionists in my town.
I find it interesting that while you’re best known for your vocals, you’re also a percussionist and a multi-instrumentalist, and you do all the production for your music. It shows in all of the layers of depth in your music. Tell me more about how you create your songs.
I studied composition, and I love percussion. I always did mallet percussion and previously marimbas and vibraphones. I love film soundtracks and things like that, so the cinematic percussion has been a backbone to the music. Also, I like hitting things when I’m up on stage. I’ve been talking to my drummer about us doing sort of a concert drum line. I just recently watched Beyoncé’s performance at Coachella, Homecoming, how they have the full drumline of people. It’s such incredible energy. It feels so great to play rhythm and to do that in a group would be so cool.
When I first started the Woodes project, I was just me on stage with a vibraphone and a bunch of sample pads. But it’s tough to tour with a vibraphone. [Laughs] So I had to hire them in each city, which is fine but it just became, like, a big thing.
The tones of the marimba are some of my absolute favourite sounds, so I still incorporate that a lot in the production. Percussion has just come across into my production and into the live show pretty organically, in that it’s what I know.
How have your live shows changed over the last couple of years?
Oh, so much. When I started performing, I was looking down a lot and playing keys, being very introspective and being in my own world a little bit. And now, the live show I play the keys less, but I still have my moments doing that. At the very beginning of the live shows, it was me with the laptop and controllers and the vibraphone. I really wanted to be in control of what I was doing, proving the production was me, and I was capable as a multi-instrumentalist. It was a bit hard at first to not be in control of the laptop. Now I’ve just been having a lot of fun being the frontwoman and being able to interact a bit more.
Every tour that we’ve done, I’ve noticed growth. It’s really that confidence thing. I think I keep on daring myself to go for it and be a little bit braver. [Laughs] And I’m finally just really happy with it. Whereas as it can be frustrating when you’re shy.
I recently toured supporting Thelma Plum here in Australia. She’s so good. It really felt like a new chapter and a new wave of confidence.
It was amazing. I’ve been a fan of Thelma’s for many years. One of the things I really love is seeing her shows and the progress she has made. She had an album and changed – from what I’ve read, she changed the direction and went with a new series of songs. To watch the front couple of rows of the audience just know every word and the work to be vulnerable and very personal, I was deeply in awe of her every night.
I was also very supportive to play an all-female tour. I hadn’t done it before, actually. The tour manager, Sarah, was a female. It was a nice backstage environment. Not to say that it isn’t typically, but it’s generally different. Miiesha is phenomenal. I can see her taking over in the next twelve months. They’re just lovely people. You get off stage, and there’s a group hug. It was a really lovely environment.
How did you come to be involved with the tour?
We’re with the same booking agent, and I think Thelma had reached out because she liked my music. We had met before at a writing camp and just like briefly – I feel like – at another festival. We were already following each other on Instagram. She liked what I was doing, and I had a song coming out at the time, which worked out well.
That’s so cool, both that you had connected and that she specifically wanted you on that tour.
Yeah, it was. It really did come out of the blue. It was like, ‘Do you want to do this in two weeks?’ And I was going to America, I already knew that. I always try to make those family reunions because it’s a lot easier for my American family to get there. It’s always a little bit busy and things come up around this time of year. We made the tour work with just two rehearsals before I went overseas and then I flew in from Portland to the first night of the first show in the Gold Coast. So it was just possible. I was really honoured to be selected. It was a really welcoming set of rooms and a great touring group to start this album cycle.
Especially in the past, you talked a lot about including more female voices in music. We know the artists are already out there. It’s not like they don’t exist to put them in lineups. Do you feel like the music industry has shifted at all for women in the past couple of years?
I don’t know! Maybe you feel this too but when you’re so in it – I think about the music industry a lot and making music and a lot of my friends are musicians – I feel like it’s changing a lot. I guess I’ll say I listen to so many female artists as a fan. I was just listening to Rosalía. In Australia right now there’s Tones and I – I believe that she’s still number one. But it’s like there’s just so many incredible women in those top places. I definitely feel like even in the three years that I’ve been doing Woodes, it has been shifting because for me personally, five or so years ago when I started producing music, I was really into Grimes – like, I still am – and Imogen Heap. For me, in high school looking at female producers, there weren’t that many role models or people I knew of. I remember reading this interview with Imogen Heap, where she’s talking about creating “Hide and Seek”: creating the sample, hooking it up, engineering and producing it. This idea – seeing that, hearing that, made that [producing] really possible for me and made it something I really wanted to pursue. I bought my first microphone, so I was recording myself at the piano and singing because of [artists] like [Heap].
I feel like there’s this new wave in that there are so many voices being heard. At the moment, I’m doing some lecturing at my old university, just mentoring two young women who are studying to produce, and they’re just so good already. And it’s just really exciting. I’m not having the same frustrating moments of ‘It’s not changing,’ especially in the last twelve months — things like the #MeToo movement have created a definite, I think, shift. Pop music is vulnerable in a way it hasn’t been before. Artists like Billie Eilish are getting through to so many people with just whispers. It’s a very exciting time for music, I think.
That’s a good point about more vulnerability in pop music. Remember a couple of years ago when Kesha did the song about her abuser?
Yeah, “Praying”! My friend wrote that!
My friend Ben Abraham and Ryan Lewis wrote the song. I remember that as such an important moment. He [Abraham] played me his demo of that when I was in LA one time. He said, “I think we’ve got the new Kesha song when she comes back.” And he played it for me, but it had his voice. It was such an unreal feeling because it was absolutely beautiful, but thinking of her performing it and then hearing her on the recording – it was such an incredible story. I didn’t know any friends who had written that kind of song before.
You had an interview in 2015 in Fashion Journal, where you said, “I’m definitely doing my own production because there aren’t that many females who do studio engineering.” Do you find that’s still very much the case?
Yeah, I know with the Woodes project, I do a lot more collaborating than I did then. I think at the beginning – and I still sometimes feel it – but it’s like this slight defensiveness where you want to be at least credited for your work. It’s that thing where you’re reading something where they sort of say, “It was produced by someone else because they were a bigger artist or known for their production.” Or it’s assumed – it’s an easy mistake. But I just wanted it to be very, very clear that it was my own vision and I’m a small business, and I have created this alter ego [Woodes], and I’m the captain of it, I suppose. Now I’m almost a bit more relaxed in that the people who know me know how across everything I am.
I get a lot of messages from women who want to get into production and ask me for advice on what controllers, what DAW to use, whether it’s Ableton or Logic. Just advice on workshops and stuff like that. I talk about it in interviews and make it very clear what my process is – I involve my community in my process of making music. I have these really great conversations with fans and other women who want control of their music. It is really hard to get into it when it seems very technical. I’ve been doing a lot of workshops since last year, and it’s been really cool to pass on the things I’ve learned to people who are really actively wanting to control their own music and do their own demos at home and explore different ways of releasing music. You don’t have to be on a major label. Yeah, the conversations around processes always really excite me.
Now that there are more people up on stage with you, you’re taking on more of a frontwoman role. Do you still play all of the instruments on your albums?
It depends. For “How Long I’d Wait,” my friend Scoot played the guitar, and a lot of the drums are programmed. For sure, I’ll do drum programming and things like that. A couple of things on this upcoming album, I’ve got my drum and brought my band to come into the studio, which is something I’ve never done before and actually getting them to play the part we’ve written live, which is really exciting. I just really love collaboration. But yeah, the key parts are still me. The vocals, all the backing, are still me. It really depends from song to song. It’s really – I love the strength that comes from collaboration. If there’s a guitar part, I’ll play it. If someone else is into it, I’m happy to record it in.
How has your recording process changed since recording Woodes EP, then recording Golden Hour, then recording this forthcoming LP?
I think it’s changed a little bit. I actually have – Good question. There are a couple of things in it. I’ve definitely been thinking of the live show. All of my favourite albums tell a story; they have their quiet moments and their big moments. There have been times when I’ve been doing a big body of work, where I think, ‘What is the theme? Or what is the thing that carries through? Or, like, what does this mean? Is it actually going to be on that [record]?’ But I’ve been really trying to be like, ‘Write as much as you can, and then the themes and connecting pieces will kind of emerge organically.’
And that’s exactly what’s happened. The themes of loss. There’s quite a bit about even my friends’ stories and things. An important moment for me at the start of doing this album process was I had a bunch of potential skin cancers cut out. Growing up in Townsville, quite a lot of people do get potential melanomas cut out. For me, I was about to go and do a bunch of singing at festivals right after that. I found out just before Christmas that they needed to be out. All of Christmas I was like, ‘Eh, I’m going die or something.’ It was this really strange addressing my own mortality and being like, ‘Well, if this is it, I need to make it really good and just go for it.’ So to go and do these shows right after with stitches in my legs – I think it meant a lot to me. There’s a couple of songs on [the album] talking about one of my best friend’s mum who has passed away from cancer. There’s a couple of things in there where it’s [about] dealing with loss and things like that.
Yeah, the process keeps changing in that I love making music and I love pushing myself to different extremes in the production world, in the live world, as a writer. I’m just always writing music. For this album, I wrote about forty songs. I’m trying to condense it into twelve, so it’s something you could listen to in one go. Then maybe I’ll do some EPs afterward because I still would love to put them all out. But it has just been a lot of writing.
I read an interview you did where you said for reviewers reviewing female artists, don’t focus on age. A couple of months ago I was talking to an artist named Haviah Mighty. She’s from Toronto and she’s a fantastic rapper. She’s 27 – I’m 27, too – and she said one of the good things about being at this age is even though she’s trying to make music that will eventually hit the mainstream, she feels like she has a lot more control versus if she was seventeen. How do you feel making music at this age?
Yeah, I’m 27 as well. It’s an interesting age, isn’t it? I feel the most stable I’ve ever been. I’m in a long term relationship at the moment. I’m acknowledging that when I’m writing, it’s all about writing, and when I’m touring, to give myself a bit more of a break. The whole self-care thing. When I get back on a Sunday night, Monday is all about not doing anything, which is really hard when everyone else is still doing everything. But you can see how it’s planned out more, so there’s an element of stability.
I’m definitely in awe of the younger artists I know. I guess if you have access to the internet and all of these interviews, you can look up how to make what you hear, which is really exciting. One of my friends goes under the artist name Mallrat. I met her when she was seventeen. I have just always been in awe. She’s such an amazing businesswoman and she writes these amazing pop songs that reach people of all ages. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed age too much but it is funny how, being 27, there’s this element of – that creeping feeling of being in your thirties.
It does weigh in on you but it’s like I really want to keep doing this and I can see other artists, other female artists of different ages doing that. I know in Australia there’s a really great documentary called Her Sound Her Story. That was really monumental for me because Mama Kin – whose partner is John Butler from John Butler Trio – she was in it. She was talking about [the myth that] how once you have kids, you can’t keep doing music. But she like, ‘That’s absolutely a lie.’ I guess the industry can put that kind of restriction on you but there are so many women in music that have children – and so many men in music that have children – so I guess they’re the kind of discussions that come around age.
I feel like being of this age and creating my art, I keep getting the maturity and the confidence and the idea where it’s like, ‘I may as well just give it everything.’ Because I’m doing this full time. I want to be able to go around the world and meet different people with my art and things like that. Sort of elevate it.
I find it interesting that it seems like female artists – and just females in general – are always asked about their family, their kids, whereas I’ve interviewed males my last couple of interviews and I’ve known that they’ve had kids, I’ve known that they’ve been recently married and it wasn’t something I asked about because it just seemed like it wasn’t going to be relevant or it was going to be inappropriate. But it’s still something that’s typically asked of women.
I think I’d be really great for men to be asked it too if that’s the angle you want to talk about. I think it’s interesting talking to a male about ‘How do you tour and maintain a healthy relationship to your family and your children?’ and the response to that is something that intrigues me, personally – I’m sure it would intrigue fans, too – but I guess it’s just that thing where if you ask a woman – I’ve been reading Lily Allen’s autobiography [My Thoughts Exactly] and she talked about it a little bit, like, ‘Should you be at home with your kids?’ is the kind of subtext, I guess. Whereas you wouldn’t really do that – I feel, probably – with a man. Which is so interesting. It’s something we have to just keep talking about and find what the seed is to that. It’s a weird thing that women have some kind of an internal timeline that’s put on them by other people – potentially men.
I definitely feel that more at 27 because it seems that everyone is at very different stages in their 20s.
Definitely. My school just had a reunion and there’s a bunch of people that have kids and stuff. It’s an interesting thing. I guess everyone is just on their own trajectory and things like that. I know my mom had me when she was thirty-four
Same with my mom.
Oh, that’s so crazy! But yeah, like, having a mom that was like, “Well, I really wanted to have a career and I really wanted to study marine biology,” and she did her PhD. She was very into study. She travelled to the other side of the world to do what she wanted to do, away from her family, which is a big risk. It would have taken its emotional toll. Just to have her as a role model, as someone who had kids at thirty-four, it’s like, ‘Oh cool, that’s what my mom did so all good.’
My parents are looking at moving down this way. I think they’re just ready for a new chapter. I’m looking forward to them being closer. My mom, at the moment, is like, “I guess you aren’t going home.” And they’re looking at retiring. It’s an interesting new chapter.
On the album, there’s a song on there about my dad retiring but it’s not an obvious song about that. I wrote it the day that I found out ’cause it was a crazy day. I was working with one of my heroes and it’s that thing where, if I could tell my high school self this, then it would be like – weighing in on what success is. It was like – it’s such a dream to be able to work in this studio and you just had no idea what was coming at any stage in your life. There are those big decisions and big moments.
That’s another advantage of being older and make art when you aren’t a teenager because you have a lot more perspective and you’d be a lot more likely to think about your parents, as opposed to when you’re sixteen years old and it seems weird to be talking about your parents, you know?
Yeah, I definitely – I guess in the last couple of years if there’s a movie where there are a dad and his daughter and they’re reunited, I’m just like, “Ugh!” I definitely have been thinking a lot about the sort of sacrifices, all the different decisions people make. Definitely, I’m very close to them. It’s that thing of even feeling like you don’t talk to them enough even though you probably do but it’s trying to be a good friend to a whole bunch of people, communicate enough with everyone, and also your parents. All of that.
I think that’s also one of the realities of being in your twenties. Staying connected with friends is really meaningful but also a lot more effortful.
Yeah, definitely. And a lot of my closest friends live in different parts of the world at the moment so I’m getting a lot more into just picking up the phone, which is good. Having a good conversation versus little messages has been really good.
This article was published on Savage Thrills.