A stone’s throw away from the bustling hub of Chapel Street sits a repurposed old church, built in 1858 and steeped in history.
Now known as Chapel Off Chapel, the venue has played host to a number of impressive performances since its transformation into an arts space, from cabaret shows to comedy skits, rock music to reggae.
Melbourne musician Thando Sikwila is no stranger to the Chapel stage, and has performed there so often she’s almost part of the furniture. Asked to be part of their 2020 Chapel Summer Sessions series, she says there’s something special about the place that keeps luring her back.
“Before you even walk in, its magical already,” says Sikwila. “There’s such an atmosphere, and the team behind the venue really work hard to make sure that the space is sacred.”
Sikwila spent her childhood years singing in her church’s gospel choir, so the Chapel is a familiar setting for the Zimbabwean-born artist. One of four girls, she was the only one of her siblings to pursue a career in music, inspired by her father’s love of jazz and a fondness for Paul Simon.
“I just never pictured doing anything else or being anything else since I was a kid,” she says. “I grew up on the Paul Simon album Graceland, where he collaborated with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, so that was the beginnings of me discovering music and learning how to compose and how to write.”
Her own musical path pushed her into the realms of hip hop and R&B, genres she’s dominated over the years, collaborating with artists like Remi and Françoistunes. However, a desire to grow and expand her repertoire has moved Sikwila in a new direction, seeking out inspiration in unfamiliar places.
“I decided to sort of expand my knowledge and world view,” she says. “I started going to gigs more and watching a lot of music that wasn’t necessarily what I was always directly involved with.
“I thought I’d said everything that I could in my music at that point in my life and I had a lot of growing or experience to have before I created more content. Taking that time out to find inspiration elsewhere through music that I wasn’t familiar with initially and conversations with people from different walks of life helped me.”
This musical progression has involved creating an entirely new set, which she’ll be debuting when she takes to the Chapel stage on Friday February 21. She’ll be swapping her usual lineup of keys and samples for guitars and organic instruments, aiming to capture the essence of sonics and musicality with a new, raw attitude.
With the help of her writing partner Henry James, Sikwila’s new material channels a rougher energy, drawing from performers she admired growing up, like Queen’s Freddie Mercury.
“I always wanted to write a rock song or perform a rock song,” she says, excitedly. “I’m quite interested myself to see how it’s going to be received by people who know what to expect when they come and see me play, because we decided to just do a 180.”
Driving Sikwila’s ambition forwards is an air of unshakeable confidence, a pride in her art and a belief in herself and what she does. She says it’s something that’s grown during her development as a musician and a performer, and credits the historic venue for the role it’s played in her personal journey.
“I feel like for anyone that’s attempting to do this and to do music, you’ve got to have a sense of confidence whether you believe you’re going to succeed or not,” she says. “I feel like I’ve worked long, and I’ve worked hard enough to know that I’ve done a good job.
“I’m the best version of a performer I can be because I’ve had the opportunity to grow on the Chapel stage.”
Catch Thando at Chapel Summer Sessions on Friday February 21. Tickets and more information via chapeloffchapel.com.au.