It’s serendipitous that Melbourne singer-songwriter Liz Stringer is standing in the temperate night air when she calls for our interview. “I haven’t got mobile coverage here, so I’m using a pay phone,” explains Stringer. The sun has already set in the Kimberley region where Stringer played the previous evening. Stringer is mid-way through her packed national tour to promote her new album, Warm in the Darkness, and enjoying the chance to visit remote locations. “I’ve played three times in the Kimberleys, and I’m now starting to get people coming back to my gigs. There’s definitely a bit of personal pride to that.”
The rich, soulful southern rock aesthetic of Warm in the Darkness represents a departure from the acoustic style represented on Stringer’s previous albums, Tides Of Time, Pendulum, and Soon. “I’ve been wanting to make this album for a while,” Stringer says. “With this album the songs are more poppier, and I’ve never afforded myself the luxury of a horn section. I don’t always write in a dark, folk sort of style. I suppose with this record I was influenced by Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen stuff – that guitar pop/rock style.” Stringer even goes so far as to admit to an affection for the commercial simplicity of Billy Joel. “I like those neat tidy pop songs – even if that makes me uncool with my friends!,” Stringer laughs.
Like any songwriter, Stringer hopes her lyric writing is also evolving, with life changing experiences having an effect on the words and narratives that come into her head. “I think the lyrics are always at the centre of the song,” she says. “As you evolve as a human being, you experience becomes broader. Hopefully I have more to draw from. And I suppose in a lyrical context I’d like to think that I’m getting tighter,” Stringer says. While there are a couple of songs on Warm in the Darkness that Stringer says are based directly on her own personal experiences, the remainder of the material is largely fictional. “I think a lot of people assume that your lyrics are autobiographical,” Stringer says. “Songs have always been vessels for stories. I grew up listening to a lot of Irish folk, and not all of those stories are based on the songwriter’s actual experiences.”
As principal songwriter and bandleader, Stringer takes the lead role in the studio. Stringer says she doesn’t consider herself a dictator in the recording context ; she is, however, very tough on her own performance. “I have a fair bit of control when we’re recording,” Stringer says. “I get very impatient with myself – I get shitty with myself and probably make it difficult for everyone else,” she laughs. “But I’m always open to new ideas, although I always try to make the final decision. The whole thing about having someone else to help produce with the record is that they don’t think like you. You expect them to know what they’re talking about. And I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s working when we’re in the studio, and what’s not,” Stringer says.
Stringer is in the midst of an extensive tour that’s taken her from regional Victoria, to New South Wales, to Darwin, across to Western Australia and back to her home state. “I don’t mind so much being on the road, but when you get tired it’s hard to break out of that feeling when you’re touring,” she says. “For some reason I seem to start touring at the beginning of winter, so I caught by the change of temperature and season. And I don’t bounce back from hangovers as well as I once did, plus I need more sleep these days,” she laughs. Apart from the perennial enjoyment of playing to her hometown Melbourne crowd, Stringer nominates her recent show in Darwin as a current highlight; the lowlight was locking her keys in the hire van in Sydney – with all the gear still locked inside – and having to pay $400 to rectify the stuff-up. “That just tipped me over the edge,” she laughs. A touring grant courtesy of the Commonwealth government has, thankfully, helped things along. “There’s no way that we could have done this tour without the grant – financially, we couldn’t have done it otherwise,” Stringer says. “The tour has helped me to establish relationships with venues. For bands who’ve done a lap or two, getting access to touring grants is part of what you have to do,” she says.
Stringer has recently expanded the line-up of her band to include partner and cult Melbourne troubadour Van Walker on guitar. Stringer dismisses any suggestion that she orders Walker around on stage and on the road. “No,” she laughs. “Van’s been opening for us, and also playing in the band. The other guys in the band have kids, so it’s hard for them when we’re touring. It’s great having your partner on the road.”
BY PATRICK EMERY
LIZ STRINGER plays the Corner Hotel on Sunday June 10 and the Oakleigh Bowling Club on Friday June 22. Warm in the Darkness is out now through Vitamin Records.