Ed#462: Lessons to be learned

4 July 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#462: Lessons to be learned

While flipping through a newspaper recently I came across an article with a photograph that made me stop and ponder. It was of the singer-songwriter Melanie Safka. Long before Madonna and Shakira (though around the same time as Cher), she was known in the pop world by her first name alone. She was a long-haired minstrel with a quavering voice for the hippie decade, taking the stage at Woodstock in 1969 while just 22. Now 67, she recently performed in Australia, playing mainly to people who have grown older with her. Chrissie Hynde, meanwhile, is a rock’n’roll veteran seldom mentioned in the same sentence as Melanie. The voice of, and driving-force behind The Pretenders (whose hugely successful first album was released when she was in her late twenties), Hynde has just released a solo album, Stockholm, at 62. Age shall not weary some. But many other young women who find fame early on find it harder to stick around.

Australian-born Gabriella (‘Sweet About Me’) Cilmi was only 16 when her first album, Lessons To Be Learned, was released in 2008. Great things were predicted for her…and haven’t really eventuated. She’s still young, of course, with plenty of time to produce some memorable work. But her name inevitably comes up in any discussions about early arrivals in the notoriously competitive music industry. As does Ella Hooper, who in the late-1990s, at age 16, was the voice of Australian band Killing Heidi. Remember her dreadlocks and the song ‘Weir’? She was recently on TV screens as a panellist in the rebooted Spicks and Specks, which couldn’t capture the magic of the original. In contrast, the star of American songstress Taylor Swift just keeps rising. She’s now just 24, though it seems she’s been around for a long, long time. This is what can happen if, like Cilmi, a debut album is released when its creator is only 16.

Others who know a lot more about the music business than me can debate why Swift’s career has kicked on while others have stalled. The question is raised in the context of Lorde, the dual-Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter who will be performing in Australia this month. Lorde is her stage-name; to her parents, she is Ella Yelich-O’Connor. She was born in New Zealand, which makes her another talented and creative Kiwi we can add to a list that already includes Flight of the Conchords’ Bret and Jemaine (oh, alright, you too, Rhys ‘Murray’ Darby), the Finn brothers and John Clarke. Russell Crowe? We’ll get back to you…

At first, people always mentioned Lorde’s age. She is still just 17. But, as Clem Bastow makes clear in her cover story (see p14), her style and originality give her credibility. She is a musician; you can’t tell someone’s age from their voice on the radio. (Though, in the case of recent Bob Dylan songs, you can make an educated guess.) With a string of awards to her name, Lorde’s big challenge will be deciding what she does next. After achieving so much so soon, it will be fascinating to see how she evolves as an artist. In terms of staying-power, she could either be like Ms Swift (apparently they’re friends, despite different genres) or someone whose name comes up in Whatever Happened To…? quizzes. Speaking of which, our next edition (#463) will feature something which began as a one-off and has since become a popular annual event: our Big Issue quiz. As before, questions will be drawn from magazines published this year – which gives a head start to readers who can never bear to part with an edition. Anyone wishing to do some homework in advance may find that some of our vendors stock back-issues. That, to paraphrase Melanie, could be your brand new key to success.

» Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.

This article appeared in Ed#462 of The Big Issue magazine.