Melbourne’s The Letter String Quartet recently revealed their stunning debut album All The Stories. We chat with three of their members as they talk us through the ins and outs of their humble beginnings through to the outfit they are today, performing and collaborating with renowned local and international musicians.
Hey guys, congratulations on the debut album All The Stories! It’s been a long time coming, you’ve been performing together as a quartet for quite some time. Tell us, how did The Letter String Quartet first come to be?
Biddy Connor: I think the first TLSQ-ish thing was when James Cecil of Supermelody asked us to record some strings for his debut EP. I had met James when he recorded a Kes Band album and he has since become a musical colleague and inspiration. On that first recording it was me, Steph and Zoe and we called ourselves The Luxury of Strings – That was back in 2009 – wow, that’s longer ago than I thought – that’s back in Myspace era! The three of us really really enjoyed playing together and we wanted to do more but it took a while to get that happening – years in fact. I think it was finally the realisation that it would work better as a project based thing that didn’t rely on weekly rehearsals in that kind of band format. This meant that we could plan into the future and make the time and there wasn’t that constant feeling of having to cancel rehearsals – this is the reality when everyone has a big chunk of freelance work. Our first iteration was with the wonderful Sue Simpson on the violin. When Sue moved to Mullumbimby Lizzy came on board – so sad to see Sue go and also so happy to be playing with Lizzy. Maybe one day it will be The Letter String Quintet.
And what made you decide to hit the studio, for your first-ever recorded material?
Lizzy Welsh: We had been doing some recording with composer friends of their work, such as the very excellent Bree Van Reyk, and had talked from the start about making our own album. Biddy and Maria wrote the amazing song-cycle, All The Stories, and we’d performed it a couple of times already – it was the obvious choice for an album – these stories deserved to be documented. Once we were lucky enough to get a Music Works grant from Creative Victoria, we had the incredible opportunity to make it a reality.
I’d imagine it would be quite a different experience to performing live. How did you find the process in comparison? Was it quite a collaborative effort?
Zoe Barry: Yes, it was a very collaborative effort – between the performers, our engineer at Head Gap Studios, Neil Thomason, our producer Jed Palmer, and Casey Rice, who mastered the record. We thought deeply about the sonic world we wanted to create in the recording, and Biddy and Jed spent a lot of time sharing reference recordings to decide on a sonic ‘tone’ – Lush and reverby? Intense and direct? Dark or bright? (You have to listen to the album to find out!)
We wanted to record the pieces sitting in a circle – the way we sit when rehearsing in Biddy’s lounge room, but not the way we perform (which is a semi circle). We felt more comfortable sitting in a circle, but it made it quite a challenge for Jed and Neil to record it, and still be able to recreate the stereo image of a string quartet – with the first violin on the left, and the cello on the right – in the final product.
We stuck quite strictly to the quartet format and didn’t include many overdubs, and we considered adding some electronic elements, but the pieces are so full and rich that we realised we didn’t need them. There were many decisions to be made along the way, and Biddy, as the composer and artistic director, oversaw it all – it was her vision, with everyone’s input!
And you called in the stunning vocals of The Orbweavers’ Marita Dyson for a couple of tracks too, including a beautiful rendition of their song ‘Momento Mori’. What is it that makes a good cover, and what are some of your favourite cover songs of all time, by any artist?
ZB: Let’s Dance covered by M Ward, and Voice In Headphones by Mount Eerie, which uses the chorus of Bjork’s Undo. And Johnny Cash covering Hurt.
BC: I love that we have Marita doing a cover of her own songs! That always helps make it a good cover. It’s hard to say exactly what makes a good cover. Some covers sound great when they are close to the original.
As a live act you’ve had the opportunity to play a bunch of really exciting performances including the debut MTV Unplugged Australia backing Gang Of Youths in 2018. What was that like? Run us through the behind-the-scenes take of a TV performance.
BC: This was such a pleasure to work on and I love the way it came about as well. Lizzy and I were part of a large string ensemble that played with Spiritualized and the Australian Art Orchestra at the Supersense Festival in 2017. Dave Le’aupepe had come across this concert online – being a fan of Spiritualized. He was also on the search for a string quartet that had been playing together for a while and saw that Lizzy and I played together and then got in touch with me. It was great to know that the internet isn’t always so overloaded that you can’t make these sorts of connections. Dave and the rest of the band and his management were excellent to work with. From memory, I think we did the whole show to camera live twice – so it was kind of like a live show but with many more people behind the scenes than a normal live show. We all had some experience working with in-ear monitoring but that always takes a bit of getting used to – especially with strings, you reply so much on the acoustic vibrations.
What are some of your favourite places you’ve performed either as a quartet or individually? And do you each have a bucket list of venues or festivals that you’d one day love to play?
ZB: We loved playing in Arts House’ Festival of Live Art – we presented a show designed to induce ASMR (auto sensory meridian response) in the audience, who were all listening through headphones. I would love us to play at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. And personal playing highlight – playing with John Cale at Hamer Hall for Supersense Festival.
The album centres around the history and stories of The Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne. What is it that drew you to this site in the first place, and what are some of the stories you uncovered after delving into its past?
BC: Many years ago I was working part-time in an office at the Abbotsford Convent. It was a really great artistic community to be around, even though I was really there doing arts admin. They were offering small grants for projects to happen on the convent grounds and I’d already been a bit obsessed with the large reverb of one of the spaces called The Oratory – so I was determined to do something in there. Because I had been working at the convent I knew a few stories – some of them I’m not sure of the truth. There was one staircase that really creeped me out and I gradually found out that others felt the same, apparently something bad happened on that staircase – I don’t want to perpetuate the rumour…
Working with Maria Zajkowski on the lyrics and Marita Dyson on the performance gave the projects other dimensions that embraced the poetry and the geography of the place.
I know times are pretty uncertain at the moment, but when can we (hopefully) see you perform next, and where?
LW: Like all our colleagues, we’ll be back performing ASAP, doing our album launch concert, which was all thrown into limbo along with the rest of the Australian performance industry. It’s impossible to know more than that in these uncertain times. In the meantime, we’re investigating ways of making music together remotely- we’ve got an amazing resource in our violinist Steph, who knows about all the magical technology-related things in the universe!
ZB: I hope that this prolonged time of isolation encourages everyone to listen to more music – it is one of the reasons we decided to still release our album now, rather than wait until “normal life” resumes – now is a time to slow down, listen, and nourish our souls.
The Letter String Quartet’s debut album All The Stories is out now
Listen via Bandcamp