Interview: Briana Cowlishaw

Briana Cowlishaw

Paper Mache City tour. The Loft. 17 Oct 2013

Walking into The Loft that Thursday night to review Briana Cowlishaw’s gig, I thought to myself, “geez, what a strange venue for jazz pop music”. Situated above a medical centre of all places, my plus one and I first hesitantly approached the reception desk and asked if we were in the right place. The door guy affirmed that indeed we were, and proceeded to direct us up the stairs to a cosy room, sans bar and kool kat ambience and seemingly more suitable for pyramid scheme seminars.

However, looks can be deceiving, and this proved to be the case as Cowlishaw and her band (consisting of Gavin Ahearn on keyboard, Peter J Coopman on guitar, Aiden Lowe on drums and Alex Hewettson on bass) fired up, showcasing the space’s incredibly redeeming acoustic features. Quickly forgetting the lack of more superficial qualities in my surrounds, I eased into my comfy, low-slung armchair and settled in for a night of sheer listening pleasure.

The evening saw an intimate crowd of no more than 25 people, which worked to the audience’s advantage as any seat in the house was a good one. No doubt used to performing to more sizeable crowds, Cowlishaw also swiftly relaxed into the modest Canberra gathering while still maintaining an impressive level of professionalism and showmanship throughout.

Kicking off with a funky little number, ‘Once I Had a Dear Old Friend’, from her new album ‘Paper Mache City’, I’m willing to bet the room was completely won over by her lilting dulcet voice and deep, but straight shooting lyrics. Next launching into her empowered lament on modern day single life with the Stevie Wonder infused ‘Another Half to Make Me Whole’, it was clear that for a young woman in her early twenties she takes an immensely mature approach to her song writing.

‘It Could Be So Special’ was a playful composition, appropriating a broad range of musical influences including jazz and pop, but also more broadly grunge and rock as well.  Building up a nice rapport with the audience, Cowlishaw then progressed on to a tender note with the richly textured ‘She’s a Soldier in a War Against Herself’.

Looking like a child at school for show and tell, she then excitedly proceeded to introduce her favourite new toy - an interesting vocal effects contraption. Scatting like a trooper in precise intervals, the machine then worked its magic creating rounds with her voice that were then layered on top of each other – an entertaining experiment that worked to interesting effect.

Next up was the appropriately dreamy ‘Sleepwalkers’ – a catchy little number with a sweet seventies sound and an awesome guitar solo. However, to really liven things up, the band decided to cross over momentarily into Latin jazz territory for a cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Triste’, with the maraca-wielding Cowlishaw showcasing an impressive vocal range and drummer Aiden Lowe tearing up his kit for a spirited solo.

‘Wind Me Up’, a song about the predictable daily grind in the office, had a perfect audience in Canberra, describing regimented peaks and lulls of a cubicle worker. Again employing her vocal trick machine, this song had a quirky, theatrical quality about it that was complemented with some creative musical timing.

Set two began with a lovely little number about two lovers lazing around Central Park, New York; the lyrics and delivery containing all the freshness and optimism of youth. The favourite track of the evening however, would have to be the hypnotically mellow, borderline psychedelic, ‘Take Me to the Goldmine’ – a stream of consciousness song of pure imagination, inspired by her quest to calm her nerves before a show.

The sentimental 'Owls Perched in the Night’ was like something straight out of the mouth of nineties folk icon, Jewel, paying an endearing and playful tribute to the 65-year marriage of Cowlishaw’s grandparents. This was followed by a meditative love song duo with Gavin Ahearn, who also contributed a touching piano solo to the piece.

Never sticking with one mood for long, ‘A Vision of You’ and her album title track, ‘Paper Mache City’ were alternatively intensely fun and upbeat arrangements, with the latter providing the best publicity for the City of New York that a PR agency could ever dream of.

Finishing with a unique, jazz fuelled interpretation of The Beatles’ ‘We Can Work It Out’, Cowlishaw managed to put her stamp firmly on this classic, with all the interesting twists and turns characteristic of her musical style. Cowlishaw’s restless creations are like listening to ten different songs in one, with something new and exciting to discover around every corner and never a dull or repetitious moment to be had.

Better yet, although jazz is at the heart of her music, it doesn’t have an associated chaotic abstractness about it, making it accessible for the uninitiated. As well as the sound system for this performance being top grade, the chemistry of the band also played a key role in this aspect. Both sets were polished and extremely tight, with communication between each member strong and intuitive.

The lesson here is don’t judge a book by its cover, as it may be hiding treasures between its pages. Sure the surroundings didn’t match my preconceived, stereotyped idea of what a jazz concert should look like, but in the end this aesthetic nonsense isn’t what soothes the soul and makes the heart sing – it’s the crafting of sound - and Cowlishaw and her band mastered that beautifully.

Deborah Hawke

When: Closed
Where: The Loft
Bookings: Closed