This week I sat down with Kate Milligan and Georgia Scheepers over cups of cappuccino and prana chai at Tenth State, to talk about their all-female acapella group, the Mockingbirds. Kate is the Musical Director of the St George’s College-based ensemble, while Georgia is their President. You can catch them performing at the Women’s Week Tav Show on Wednesday Night, at 4.40pm, which also happens to be during Happy Hour.
Eloise: So let’s start from the beginning. Can you explain to someone like me, who is without a shred of musical knowledge or ability, what is acapella?
Kate: Acapella probably comes from some Latin derivative, but I could not tell you what that is. It basically means a bunch of singers playing without instrumental accompaniment of any kind. So, in other words, we provide our own harmonies and accompaniment for any solos that we have.
Georgia: Any beats that we need, we’ll use our hands or our feet, stomping, clapping for anything that needs a beat underneath, like for solos where there is less voice accompaniment.
K: Rhythmically we do a lot with vocal stuff as well, a lot of our rhythm comes from vocal patterns, syllables, consonants etc. For example dms is a hard consonant sound, that can produce a percussive effect in songs which feature percussion sounds.
*Kate and Georgia break out into some dum dum dums to illustrate this point.*
E: What do you like most about acapella?
G: It’s very different. It’s not your standard, like someone playing music in the background, or having a track playing in the background and having a solo singer or like a group singing to that, you don’t have to have the reliance on an accompanist, you get to do everything yourself, including creating the music itself. It’s more exciting- having watched lots of other acapella performances, it’s so engaging because there is just so much happening, and all the different parts build a really cool atmosphere.
K: I guess my contribution to that would be that it comes from your body, so like it’s a really fantastic experience for a lot of people to realise that they can embody the music on that extra level. It’s also a really great way for people to realise just how creative and musical they are, because this is all happening from them, and they are the only source of where the music is coming from.
E: Who are some of your favourite female artists, and what about them draws or captivates you?
G: I’d say Lady Gaga is probably a big one for me, she’s so different and she just owns everything she does. She has brought a whole new element to music, particularly her initial stuff, this whole kind of weird and wonderful element.
K: Like with her mantra for her Born This Way tour, that sort of acceptance, and finding a space for those people who didn’t previously have a space to express themselves
G: Yeah and it’s not as mainstream as some of what we were used to growing up and I think she is a really good role model and is a female artist that I am inspired by.
E: and what about you Kate?
K: Oh this is way too difficult. Can I think about my answer as we make our way through the questions and come back to it later?
*Note: We forgot to come back to this question later and the identity of Kate’s favourite female musician will remain a mystery.
E: What kind of songs do the Mockingbirds perform?
K: Generally pop covers. Semester One this year we exclusively performed songs by women, so we did Shakira, Kimbra, Meg Mac and Little Mix. We’ve had a heavy focus on women’s music, but obviously this semester we’re branching out and nothing’s out of reach, I think.
E: I love Meg Mac!
K: Meg Mac was a good one. It was nice to do something as local and as Australian, and where the message is pretty strongly a woman’s message. Yeah that was quite cool.
E: What goes into arranging and developing a new song for the Mockingbirds to perform?
K: It’s always a fun challenge, like how I mentioned before, when you listen to a song, you’ll be thinking of ways to express the same sentiment or the same musical gesture, but with your voice. So it’s a process of thinking creatively about how a particular sound can transfer onto the human voice. For example, with Shakira’s Waka Waka, it’s heavily percussive, with not a lot of harmonic instruments, I’ll be thinking how can I translate this to something that is very percussive in the human voice.
E: Is everybody in your group musically trained, or can anyone do acapella?
G: No! Barely anyone is trained in fact, I don’t think any of us are trained in voice. We have a couple of girls who have never had any exposure to singing, or even other instruments and a lot of us can’t even read sheet music. It is totally open to any ability.
K: Absolutely. Also here’s something that I definitely want on record- nobody is tone deaf, that is a social falsehood. This idea of tone deafness is just this thing that society has created- the fact that for some people, when they were in choirs in primary school and got told to mime at the back, I think is so damaging and stupid. Here’s what one of my professors says- if someone is truly tone deaf, then they wouldn’t be able to understand inflections in just general everyday speech. No-one is tone deaf, and anyone can sing, if they just give it a crack.
E: What is the best thing about Mockingbirds being an all-women ensemble?
K: It creates a space for the girls, which I think was really important. If you think about the history of gender segregation, creating a space for women has never been about excluding men, it’s about reclaiming that space. I have been really proud of how the Mockingbirds has really developed the women’s culture at college, I reckon it’s been a process of empowerment for a lot of the girls and allowing them to realise this inner creativity that they have, and that they can be extraordinarily musical, and having it as a place where they can express themselves.
G: Yeah, particularly at a college which used to be all-male, and there’s always this kind of lad culture, and while that has largely gone, there is always that element of that, so it’s nice for the girls to have this group that is solely theirs. I also think having an all-girls group is great for a lot of the girls who haven’t got much confidence, which they soon develop, and they can now do solos and be more confident in their everyday lives.
E: Why do you think it is important to have spaces exclusively for women?
K: A big one that I’ve been thinking about a lot this year is that generally across the board in the music industry, whether this be in your classical industry, your pop industry, in your grassroots folk industry, wherever you want to go, you see time and time again that visibility for women is a huge problem. We have found that, just in the journey of how the Mockingbirds started. What I have generally realised, and this is partially through my studies, is that there ARE women doing what men do in the music industry, but there is less visibility. If you look at the plain statistics of who there is in the industry at the moment, who is acting as role models- the majority of them are men. It’s so much worse in the classical industry, my theory is because women can find space in the pop industry because it’s more commercial, and they have got “assets,” whereas in classical music, it’s horrendous- not because there aren’t women doing it, but because they’re invisible. So that’s why we have to create those spaces for women, because as soon as we create those spaces, women fill that space, and then it creates a roll-on effect, where women have more role models.
E: What do you currently see as some of the major challenges facing young women today that requires immediate change?
K: One that I have really encountered a lot, and it ties in with the whole visibility thing; because we have less role models available to us, it doesn’t hinder us from actually doing what you want to do, but it creates a sense of doubt within you that because you can’t see other women doing what you want to do, that you perhaps can’t do it either. It’s a bit of an unconscious bias created by simply seeing more men in that field. It’s that imposter syndrome, that somehow your legitimacy is being undermined, and your validity is not quite fully formed, and honestly, it’s because we look to where we want to be and it’s often just dominated by men. I know that sounds slightly radical, but the statistics are there to prove it. Obviously in some industries it is a lot more equitable, but in others it is absolutely shocking.
G: I think there is a long way to go in terms of a lot of the issues women face, from a lack of role models, to the rape culture that pervades society, and the sexualisation of women, particularly women in music and pop culture. Particularly in pop, women have to almost sell their image to even attract attention. Also even just in performance, men are allowed to be funny and jokey because it’s that whole lad culture, whereas we can’t really get away with that, because we wouldn’t be taken seriously. Being a female in a performing role, compared with being a man, I feel like there is more of a fear of judgement, because it takes less for your legitimacy to be taken into question. And that’s not just in music, it’s everywhere.
E: Why should someone reading this interview book the Mockingbirds for their next concert/ball/dinner/birthday/First Communion?
K: Eucharists, and if you want us to bless your baby… we can.
G: The public can definitely book us, and they should! It’s something different, it’s very entertaining and our performances are upbeat, and empowering, particularly because we perform a lot of songs by female artists. An acapella performance is such a unique experience, not only for us performing, but for the audience too, It’s providing a group of girls from your community the opportunity to do something they love, and bring that positive experience to everyone in the audience too. We all love it, and we bring this element of passion and enjoyment with every performance, which is almost infectious.
Eloise Skoss | @elo_sko
The Mockingbirds can be found on Facebook at @Mockingbirds.Perth or on Instagram @themockingbirds_uwa, where you can view some of their past performances, find out about upcoming gigs, and make any booking enquiries.