Small Following - Big Future: Getting To Know Ella Haber
Get an insight into the life of the 21-year-old from Australia who has burst onto the scene in 2019 with music that is packed with soul and attitude, displaying wonderful songwriting maturity beyond her years.
Growing up in Sydney, Australia with the beach on her doorstep and so many inspiring places to discover and explore, a culturally numb life was never going to be an option for Ella Haber.
The singer-songwriter is impressing many on the near side of the world and the far. From becoming the only woman to feature on Worldwide FM’s Sydney broadcast to working with Jordan Rakei on her debut EP and selling out her own headline tour in Australia, the world is her oyster.
"There’s so much beauty around us, it would be a disservice not to pay attention", is the message Haber’s older brother Adam would always tell her growing up. Just five minutes into our conversation and it is very apparent just how much her family and friends have played a crucial part in getting her to where she is today. "I have the kind of friends that people don’t think exist, they’re unicorns," she says while trying to contain her laughter. "We do a lot for each other and I have an incredibly cosmic support network. They’re just incredibly inspiring, constantly creating and sharing art and we’re always pushing each other to grow and succeed."
"I guess I see music and language as one intersecting amazing body, languages are the way my brain works so my passion is almost a very equal split between the two." - Ella Haber
Haber’s parents sent her to piano lessons at the age of five as an introduction to music. Though she may have been crying and protesting at the time, the skills she learned proved to be priceless. "I always wanted to play guitar or saxophone," she explains. "However, my parents insisted that the piano was going to be crucial and it was, it’s my instrument, it’s my everything. It also gave me a great advantage in that it gave me a better understanding of harmonies and pitch, pivotal for my songwriting. I’m very grateful for that and for everything they’ve done for me."
As humans, we are defined by our experiences. There is one in particular that has proved to be definitive in more ways than one for Haber. At the age of 15, she refused to go on the organized school trip to Israel, instead insisting that she took a solo trip to Spain. There was no rational explanation for this decision she tells me but she soon found herself living with an exchange family in the town of Ontinyent, just outside Valencia. "When I went it was absolutely terrifying and I had anxiety beyond belief but it was there where I found my vocational calling," she says. "I absolutely fell in love with Spanish but no-one spoke English at all and no-one was interested in teaching me, so I had to teach myself. It was then that I realized that I love languages and it was a very formative experience. I guess I see music and language as one intersecting amazing body, languages are the way my brain works so my passion is almost a very equal split between the two."
Upon returning to Australia, Haber wasted no time in searching for careers in languages and that brought her to where she is today, studying a Linguistics major alongside Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.
In order to understand and fully appreciate Haber’s debut EP "Clay", we have to rewind almost four years, back to September 2015, where the writing process began alongside preparing for her final high school exams. A special piece of archive, Ella’s Songbook, contains the original drafts of the lyrics for these five songs, all written over the course of a year. It didn’t take long before she began producing early demos, working with her friend Oscar to create what she now refers to as "Baby Clay". The EP, recorded mainly with just Haber sat at the piano accompanying herself, was uploaded to the popular American online music site Bandcamp and became featured as one of the site’s "EP’s Of The Week".
The record soon made its way into the ears of Ali Tomoana and Gavin Boyd, who together run the Brisbane-based independent record label and artist management agency Soul Has No Tempo. "Ali messaged me and said hey we listened to your EP sat with a glass of red and we thought it was brilliant," Haber explains. "It wasn’t long before they said that they wanted to manage me and six months later there were talks about Clay 2.0. This was incredibly exciting for me as I recognized the label’s name as they had done a lot of work with Jordan Rakei earlier in his career. I loved Jordan’s music growing up so to then have him become involved in the project was incredibly exciting."
"I loved Jordan’s music growing up so to then have him become involved in the project was incredibly exciting." - Ella Haber
"My first correspondence with Jordan was a super emotional email," she says with a chuckle. "In this email, I explained how much this EP means to me and how much he influenced me as I grew up. Also about how much he gave this project a second life and how much care and time he put in, acting as a subjective set of ears and eyes. He wrote back a beautiful email and said that his favorite song was "Old Friends" and said to make that song the single. We never really spoke that much, our correspondence was very professional, just exchanging a lot of notes and stems back and forth. We’ve never met in person so hopefully one day I can give him a big cuddle (laughs)."
"Old Friends" announced Haber to the world in February 2019 in what she describes to me as being, in her mind, a brave debut. Not just in the case of this song but the project as a whole. “I did mull over this debut for a long time, do I want to introduce myself to the world as my 17-year-old self once I’m 21?” Haber comprehends. “I’m living a totally different life in the thick of my music career but the music you’re listening to is from when I finished high school. So that was always a question I had to decide. At the end of the day, that kind of emotional vulnerability is where I was at and it’s important to represent my starting point because the next thing you’ll hear you’ll be able to measure it and my growth as I live it.”
Her first single, which has amassed over 20,000 streams on Spotify at the time of writing, introduced us to a young singer with a wonderful songwriting prowess. Haber’s vocals were refined and sophisticated, yet packed with attitude, telling a tale of close friends becoming lovers and the challenges and dangers that can bring. "Old Friends has changed deeply," Haber explains. "Originally it was just me and the piano and it still surprises me every time I listen to it now just about the quality of the sound and the instrumentation.
"I don’t really know what people want, I just know how to write songs (laughs) so I trusted Ali’s and Gavin’s judgment on this being the single," she admits. "Everybody I speak to has listened to that one and not really the others so much and I think that’s because aside from it being a very gripping arrangement, the content is super relatable as people have told me. It was never intended to be so malleable to people’s experiences, I guess the same can be said for the whole EP."
At this point, as you listen to Haber, particularly in this song (if you haven’t yet then I urge you to click play above), it is hard not to draw comparisons to the late, great Amy Winehouse. While she may not have been directly involved with this record and the EP as a whole, it is clear that you can feel her presence, something which Haber is happy to admit and is pleased that it has been recognized. "I’m not surprised that everybody says I sound like Amy Winehouse because five years ago that is what I wanted to sound like," she says definitively.
"I’m part of the generation where we were not functioning humans while Amy was peaking," she explains. "In 2002/2003 we were only five years old, so Amy missed all our radars except for Rehab and Back To Black. None of us knew anything about Frank until the documentary came out. My parents took me to watch it and the way she was represented towards the end of her life in the media was absolutely not true to what she was when she was 20 years old, just an absolute soul beyond her time. When I saw her on the big screen, I just fell in love.
"I was at a particularly turbulent time in my life with love and men and other stuff and I just saw her (Amy) and thought, you are everything I want to be and everything I was and have lost and want to gain." - Ella Haber
"I was at a particularly turbulent time in my life with love and men and other stuff and I just saw her and thought, you are everything I want to be and everything I was and have lost and want to gain," she continues. "It was an epiphany, you know, I felt like I had met her and then I went home and listened to every song she had recorded in her life and that’s all I listened to every day for five months. I’d never heard any music like this before and Frank particularly had a profound impact. With Back To Black I like it but it doesn’t do anything for me, I don't feel like I can hear her as much or maybe I can but I just can’t hear myself. Frank was just her and her guitar with brilliant songs where she was grappling with the sort of things that I was contending with and so it was the soundtrack to my life for the whole period of which I wrote the EP."
Unusual though it may be to dedicate so much space to a part of the interview regarding an artist’s musical inspiration, I think in this case it is important to highlight the power one artist or one particular album can have on a recording artist’s life and career. The way that Haber talks about Winehouse also provides context and meanings behind "Clay" that can’t be highlighted or explained in any other way.
"Amy once said ‘I write music to fill the gaps. Music that I would like to listen to myself’ and I just wanted more Frank and more music like that," Haber explains. "I needed to write music as a catharsis to where I was. I really followed Frank as a sermon and as a blueprint for how to survive the pain I was enduring. That has had severe consequences on my life because she didn’t, at least in her music, portray the most healthy coping mechanisms. It’s so powerful when you really have a connection to the music. So I’m unlearning a lot of the things that Frank taught me.
"If there is going to be one comparison between Amy and me above all else that I wanted to come across it’s that I wanted my lyrics to be as mysterious but also as intoxicating as hers were," Haber reveals. "I never knew that lyrics had that potential before I listened to her. It’s really a huge realization to come to that music is more than sounds, it’s a story. So for people hearing Clay and asking me questions about particular lines and song meanings is amazing."
March marked the release of Haber’s second single, the title track, "Clay". This track is packed with soul, attitude and highly expressive and engaging lyrics. Similar in style to "You Sent Me Flying" by Winehouse, "Clay" tells the story of a relationship ending between Haber and her boyfriend. The pair continue to see each other but only for fleeting sexual encounters to satisfy the referenced male, with Haber seemingly unhappy and longing for something significantly more, yet also unable to cut ties and move on.
The EP had gone through many working titles, some that in the words of Haber herself were ones not to be proud of, but the song title for track four on the record, when considered, just seemed to sit right. "I was looking desperately for a name for the EP and my best friend Dani, who named Behind Closed Eyes, has a wonderful way with words. She said to me 'just call it Clay’," the 21-year-old explains. "Clay the song encapsulates this whole experience as what this was and seemed to fit in terms of my state of mind in my relationship with this boy and also for the personal state in my life as a 17-year-old. It also sat well in the context of this project being my first creative endeavor that hadn't really settled into its surroundings. I was so malleable as a person and so the name was just perfect and felt so right."
"Clay the song encapsulates this whole experience as what this was and seemed to fit in terms of my state of mind in my relationship with this boy and also for the personal state in my life as a 17-year-old." - Ella Haber
"Responsibility", "Behind Closed Eyes" and "Puppet" are the other wonderful tracks that make up "Clay" as an EP, which was released on April 26th, 2019. Each track has its own unique take on pain and coping mechanisms all intertwined with one common theme of hurt and heartbreak. "Behind Closed Eyes" bears such significance and emotional pain for Haber that she could never bring herself to re-record the vocals or perform the song live, that is until her EP launch performance in Sydney a few weeks ago. "That is the only track I didn’t re-record vocals for because I just couldn’t, I don’t feel like I will ever be able to reach this level of vulnerability again," Haber concedes. "Maybe that’s a coping mechanism from over the years and it’s so difficult, so that’s why I thought it would be beautiful to keep the vocals from 2016 because I was feeling it then, so I think that’s really special that it’s been preserved. When I listened to it after the release I was really melancholy hearing it, not for myself but for anyone who’s there in that position now, just uneven heartbreak. This song is a real journey."
With reference to hearing the songs now that they have all been released, Haber holds the view that these songs are no longer her own, instead, they now belong to her audience. "I never thought I’d become so detached and I never thought that these songs would be good. I never thought that they were a big deal," she admits. "They were the first songs that I ever wrote that I was proud of, that’s true, but I thought there would be many more of that caliber. I didn’t have this conception that after this event and chapter my songwriting would change. I’ve written hundreds of songs since then but you know I’ve changed and grown and my songs are not full of so much pain and raw emotion as they were then when I was 17."
With this chapter in Haber’s life now coming to an end after almost five years, collecting her thoughts and regathering herself will naturally take some time but we are blessed to have been given these stories. "It feels strange but also very exciting in that I’ve put in a lot of hard work for Clay to be in the most beautiful state it could be before putting it out in the world. But it’s now like a new slate, I can create whatever I want now," she explains. "More importantly, to have a body of work published at that standard is really breathtaking. I now intend to take some serious time to write a lot of music and reconnect to where I am now. My trip to Europe this summer should help for that in terms of escapism and new opportunities.
This debut EP is still in its infancy in terms of listeners discovering Haber’s amazing work and recognizing her enormous talent but she has a great support network and the right team behind to turn her small following into a big future. She rounds off this chapter of her life and wraps up this interview in a far more elegant way than I ever could.
"Releasing music is strange and always anticlimactic in a way, there’s no fireworks at midnight. But to have that feeling of waking up the next day when it's been released knowing that you’ve really achieved something is very special. Clay may be behind me but it is always with me."
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