Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Taja Coles-Berenyi
Singer-songwriter Ella Hooper often feels as though she has ants in her pants. ‘People always say, Ella, you’re so itchy; itching to go and itching to explore.’
Embracing calamine lotion as her life’s emblem, she recently teamed up with musician Gena Rose Bruce for The Calamine Sisters Tour, but I’m not entirely convinced she needs any kind of ointment.
Ella has a way of being upbeat and energetic, but not in a way that requires you to adjust yourself as if tugging the string of a balloon to match her. Instead, there’s a friendly attentiveness and steady calm that makes you want to tell her all your secrets.
Now a multi-media personality, Ella balances her independent music career with regular radio spots, media appearances, guest lectures and workshops, and MC’ing.
‘I do have a lot of great opportunities and I don’t want to miss any of them. I want to do so much, but sometimes I don’t know what to say yes and no to.’
Despite a seeming endless sense of drive, Ella says she balances the daily frazzle with alone time and afternoons spent making soup.
‘My life has changed so much in the last decade – I’m not with a record company, it’s just me and my manager. I’m way busier and slightly frazzled, but I am in control of every element of my work. It was perfect timing that the iPhone came out when I started getting in charge of my own business!’
The former Killing Heidi singer said early success has informed her views of creative life and what it takes to make it on your own.
‘I was able to experience amazing things when I was young, but it also sort of went away. I didn’t yet know how to work hard and I have had to fight to get it back and prove myself.’
Ella now appreciates when she does well and finds joy in doing a good job. ‘I don’t have rich parents that are going to leave me anything. I’m a self-made woman so I got to get making…making those dreams a reality.’
From mornings spent in the office – aka the local café – to the details of her ever-changing routine, Ella shares a refreshing account on creativity, success, and everything in between.
‘I'm not set in my ways, I welcome change to my routine, but I do have some things that I do every day – and they are mainly my foibles,’ she laughs.
My addiction to coffee drags me out of bed, sometimes very, very early, sometimes not so early. The time I wake up changes drastically because my lifestyle does. I could be up at five to catch a flight, or seven to do a radio interview. I’m one of those people that wakes up straight away – I’m not groggy, though I'm becoming more of a snoozer as I get older!
"You have to take the rest when you can otherwise you would burn out because you are not guaranteed to get it every day."
I don’t think I need much sleep, but in saying that I catch up on it when I can. On a day off I will try to stay in bed till ten and get a coffee and take it back to bed. You have to take the rest when you can otherwise you would burn out because you are not guaranteed to get it every day.
If I’ve got to catch a flight, I’m a really quick packer and I have a lot of time saving tricks. I’ll put my makeup on in the cab and make sure to put my contact lenses on last to give my eyes a break because I'm blind as a bat!
I don't tend to do breakfast, it feels like an odd time of the day to sit down and eat a big meal. Instead I’m straight into the coffee. I’m an addict – I’ll have three to four cups and then tea in the evening.
Some days may look quiet from the outside but they are full of admin.
If I’m in Melbourne, I will go to a café, or what I call ‘the office’ and if I feel snowed under by emails I can sometimes stay there for most of the day.
Sometimes I might set out to have a productive morning but get distracted by the crossword, the quiz and the astrology stars in the paper. I need to hide them under my laptop!
Then it’s probably off to my booking agency in Collingwood to check on posters and make sure all the gigs have been booked. I might also have a meeting with my manager to have a check in about the bigger picture.
I don't have a driver licence, so I’m often walking everywhere or catching a train or Uber.
After I meet with my manager I usually walk up to Smith Street or Brunswick Street and do a bit of shopping. There is always a photo shoot on the horizon, or a visual thing being planned, so I need to do be on the lookout for clothes. Well, I like to think I need to be!
Lunch is usually on the run unless there is a meeting. That is the great thing about meetings – they are often at a nice restaurant or cafe!
There will be other meetings around the place. For example, my afternoons this week have included a TV show audition at Docklands; a filming for Channel 9; a two hour podcast with Paris Wells; co-hosting the Em Rusciano radio show on Fox FM; a two hour guest lecture at Collarts College of the Arts; hosting an outdoor music event for Bank Of Melbourne; a meeting with a stylist; a photo shoot and two face to face interviews about about the upcoming Killing Heidi reunion. Each of these events takes prep, which is what I'm doing in between emails at 'the office.'
It's busy, but it is fun and that is what keeps me addicted to the lifestyle. There are still days where I will have to have a little cry and can't handle it because I’m being too many things at once. But I love everything I do, it’s just the volume and I would love someone to delegate to.
"There are still days where I will have to have a little cry and can't handle it because I’m being too many things at once."
I usually try to find time to have a drink with my boyfriend, so I’ll pop into the café or pub where he is working and say hi for an hour, do some emails, give him a kiss on the cheek and then go home and get ready for rehearsal.
If I’m preparing for tour I’ll rehearse in the evenings with the band. We will meet at my house and maybe take soup to the studio that I’ve made on one of my rest days. We'll eat and then start jamming until around eleven.
The problem with rehearsal is it amps you up and so I might not get home till midnight and that is when I bring the naughty food out. I think I’ve given the wrong impression with the soup comment! I eat a lot of junk food. The soup is just so I feel less guilty about the packet of chocolate biscuits that I will eat at night with three cups of tea.
I don’t do much other cooking. Maybe garlic bread and in summer I do salads. I’m very much the side-dish girl and someone else makes the main!
If there is no rehearsal, I love watching a series – at the moment it’s Stranger Things or the Night Manager. I’m shit at relaxing, so I rely on other people to organise it. My roommate and boyfriend are better at chilling out, whereas I’ll be buzzing till late and then finally sit down to watch two episodes.
Eventually it's time to go to bed. I would love to read, I love reading and poetry, but I'm shocking at making the time. I'll most likely just lovingly glance at the stack of books, gathering dust by my bed.
I’d say once a week I have a ten hour sleep, but mostly it is more like five hours.
"I would love to read, I love reading and poetry, but I'm shocking at making the time. I'll most likely just lovingly glance at the stack of books, gathering dust by my bed."
"You have to seize the quiet moments and just zip it – buy three magazines, read them all, and try not to talk to anybody."
Weekends are busy because I’ll either be performing, travelling, or going to see a friend’s bands. They are not exactly restorative – I might be out somewhere having too many drinks and socialising.
I do try and put a weekend in there somewhere, but it is not usually on the weekend – usually Mondays and Tuesdays are the equivalent to a muso’s weekend.
One the quieter days I have to force myself to be a recluse and switch the phone to silent and try rest my voice. You have to seize the quiet moments and just zip it – buy three magazines, read them all, and try not to talk to anybody. I’ll do some really restorative things like make soup, go see a movie or go to the country to my mum’s house and lay low.
BEHIND THE SCENES
On what she would change about her days…
Taking heavy instruments in and out of cars is a big chunk of our lives as musicians and it is not creative – it’s annoying and usually done early in the morning when you haven't had a coffee yet.
I would ideally love to have my own music space where everything is set up. Things like that would make me feel like a smart muso, not a schlepping muso.
On how our relationship with work changes through the decades…
I’m more time poor than I’ve ever been and I look back on my twenties and sometimes scream at myself for wasting all the free time. I was just sitting there and I could have been having a picnic, I could have been going to Daylesford, I could have been doing a million things. Now I can’t even schedule a weekend trip to Daylesford with my boyfriend!
"I’m more time poor than I’ve ever been and I look back on my twenties and sometimes scream at myself for wasting all the free time."
But when you are in your 20s, you don’t care, I didn't anyway. I thought I didn’t have to take every opportunity, I could just chill out with my friends and nothing would change – I’d just be able to sing in a band and be paid heaps forever. I didn't know how to work hard yet and so I went through a very challenging patch in my 20s when things began to peter out. I didn’t feel like I had the wind under my heels to get things done, but I actually need to get things done now – time is a-wasting and things don’t just come out of no where.
"I didn't know how to work hard yet and so I went through a very challenging patch in my 20s when things began to peter out."
Ever since I turned 30 the work monster got me. I just wanted to work to get to be where I want to be by the time I’m 40. I do want a lot – I want a house in the country where artists and friends can come and hang out and make music and enjoy big slow roasts on a Sunday.
On not caring about FOMO and embracing being a piker…
Missing out doesn't worry me, I’m more of a piker if I get the chance! I should say I go and see a tonne of bands, but I don’t always. I love my couch, I love my bed, I love my books and I never regret staying in. Embrace the pike! Just like the great Courtney Barnett says, no one really cares if you don't go to the party.
Being well known from a young age means I’ve been seen enough and I don’t really need to go and be the life of the party anymore. I’m still very outgoing, but sometimes when I go out I feel a certain pressure to talk to everybody and be the person they expect me to be. If I did that five nights a week I feel like I’d have nothing left to give.
Everyone thinks I’m an extrovert, but I recharge alone. If someone is around it is impossible not to give them all my attention so I have to go be alone to really reflect.
"Just like the great Courtney Barnett says, no one really cares if you don't go to the party."
On the importance of practice…
Whether it’s music or hosting an event, success is all about practice. I don’t buy into that idea that you can just be talented and swan around – that certainly isn’t me. I’ve always wanted to do a good job, I’ve always wanted to practice. I always want to be prepared and then I can relax. If I am underprepared I am not happy, I am not relaxed.
On success and the best advice from her mum…
I’m such a fan of my mum, she is a special lady and everyone thinks that, it’s not just me! She is a hard worker and always said you can have a career in the arts as long as you work hard.
"You can get the money and the fame and feel like you’re not there at all or there is no satisfaction. You have to ask what you feel good about versus what just feels like ticking boxes."
She said to me quite recently that maybe I should spend some time thinking about what success really means to me. I experienced the stock standard “success” – money and fame and all that crap – when I was young, but that doesn’t always match your individual definition of success. You can get the money and the fame and feel like you’re not there at all or there is no satisfaction. You have to ask what you feel good about versus what just feels like ticking boxes.
On the constant creative process…
The creative process starts anywhere and everywhere. Often I am walking and it’s like a radio has been turned on in my head and I hear a melody and often a lyric. I’ll get my iPhone out and whisper into it and people must think I’m crazy! Then I’ll go to my guitar and see if I can find the chords that support the melody. I’m not the world’s greatest guitarist, so it takes me quite a while sometimes. Then I will take that into a jam or into a rehearsal and sometimes within twenty minutes the rest of it will appear because of the talent of the musicians I work with.
That's my big highlight – creating a song out of nothing. It’s better than sex, better than red wine! Okay maybe equal firsts, but it is something that that is there forever and it is from a moment in time and it is from the heart and sometimes if you are lucky it makes it onto a CD and gets out there and touches somebody else.
On being all and everything…
I’ve been trying to find time to go walking as well and get some exercise. I’m just trying to get my routine to be vaguely balanced, and it doesn't sound very balanced at all!
I live around the corner from a beautiful yoga studio and have been saying I will go there every week for months and never do! On the odd occasion I will go on a yoga retreat and go deep into it, so I guess I’m a bit more extreme. I do things whole heartedly, but I do have trouble making things into a routine. I'm all and everything, and I somehow fit it all into the one day – the chocolate biscuits and the soup!
“It sounds so hallmark and gross, but an extraordinary life is about having the courage to chase things that are really going to fulfill you.” – Ella Hooper
Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch by Henry Miller
This book is blowing my mind. It's an amazing reflection from his later years on his earlier work and his life in the magical sounding Big Sur.
Passerby by Luluc and their first album, Dear Hamlyn. Just do it.
Daine Singer Gallery. Always serving up the freshest and best, with friendliness, no art wank. I love staying tuned to what Minna Gilligan is doing. She's a mate and I love the joy and unbridled emotional expression in her artwork.