It’s hard to sum up Hellen Rose in one paragraph. Sieving through the highlights from her raft of accomplishments alone would fill pages. Not one to conform, Hellen has achieved admirable success and commanded high levels of respect from those in the know for more than 20 years now. While she’s not busy pushing musical boundaries, her preceding reputation has also led her to tap into other creative pursuits, including acting and opening her eponymous performing space, the Hellen Rose-Schauersberger LabOratorium. And the list goes on. For a woman who has proven her worth many times over, we’ll keep the superlatives to a minimum and have Hellen shed some light on her past, present and future.
Covered: Back in the ’80s…, constant adjustments, The Hellen Rose-Schauersberger LabOratorium, Moonlight film and a one-woman show.
Audrey Lee: You’ve been making music for more than 20 years now and have sung alongside bands including X and Dangerous Curves back in the 80s. Care to give our readers an insight of how your career in music first began? How have you and your sound progressed since then?
Hellen Rose: I started singing when I was very young. I come from a family where one side is music and the other is… all the other stuff that I’ve never been into. I snuck into a pub at around 14 and pushed my way onto the stage and just got up and belted out a blues number I was making up on the spot! My first live show with a band called Great Dane who were totally cool about it and the crowd loved it!
When I moved to Sydney at around 18 I asked Peter Reid at a venue called Frenches if I could get up and play his guitar and sing when he finished a Moist set and he said yes! That’s how I got to know and work with all the Black Eye folk. One day before then I think, I ran into Ian Rilen on Oxford St when everyone lived in Darlinghurst and I had no idea who he was and I gave him a flyer for a band I was in at the time called Moral Fibro. It was OK but I didn’t really fit in with them and he said, “I’m in a band called X and we need some back up vocals for a tour we want to do”, so I became an Xette for a while. We were rehearsing in our lounge room and all my house mates knew who Ian was, while I sang back up vocals like “I’m Your Dip Stick Not Your Lipstick…” First gig I surely found out that X were great!
Dangerous Curves was a late ‘90s version of the original Peter, Paul and Hellen, only we got Rev Kriss Hades in for this round and new songs. In the ‘80s I was into extreme noise carve-up guitar and caused absolute outrage around town by carving up an SG copy with a kitchen carving knife. I loved the guitarist from The Butthole Surfers and Snakefinger, Fred Frith and Black Sabbath and Diamanda Galas and Yma Sumac and The Runaways all mixed into one with a touch of country.
AL: For the sake of our readers who aren’t familiar with your work, how would you describe Hellen Rose’s music and who or what has influenced you musically?
HR: Everything has influenced me. The blues and spirituals have always been my foundation. Meeting Jimmy Carter this year from The Five Blind Boys of Alabama at The Opera House and singing a Mahalia Jackson song for him was one of the best moments for me, he held my hand and he was so old, the last remaining member of the original band and the cool thing was that he was really total rock ‘n’ roll; the coolest 84 year old, full of energy and life, I loved that!
I have recently been training with an opera diva and my voice has expanded into further dimensions. I don’t really know how to categorise my music I’ll leave that up to the listener, hell – Sleazy from Coil died last week, they influenced me as well as Throbbing Gristle.
At the moment, I am working with Jeffrey Wegener (Laughing Clowns), just doing drums and voice. It’s amazing that the sound is full enough with just those two instruments. I’m definitely going to get out the carving knife and hack into that axe with a manic energy that will leave me feeling all calm afterwards, haha.
AL: Your work requires you to travel out of Sydney quite regularly, predominantly to Berlin. Do you feel like you have to make constant adjustments as an artiste as a result?
HR: Yes it’s just so difficult shoving those shoes and dresses into one small bag and not getting charged excess. I have to get around like all artists must, especially Australians, as we are so so so far far far awayyy from the hub of the world.
I love performing in Berlin, Switzerland, wherever I can; I got to sing at the Australian Embassy on Australia Day last year. That was weird. I sang ‘Summertime’ in my unique style, in a glass atrium and it was 20 degrees below zero outside – wacky it was. I loved singing to generals and bureaucrats and other artists; a unique gathering.
AL: Sounds like you already have so much on your plate. What’s more, in 2007, you actually opened The Hellen Rose-Schauersberger LabOratorium in Surry Hills. What gave you that idea? How has the space evolved since its launch?
HR: Well now. I have spent a lot of time living in warehouse spaces since squatting The Gunnery in Woolloomooloo in the ‘80s with many Black Eye folk and painters and dancers. Then I moved to another warehouse space called Gearco with Bain Wolfkind and the painter Adam Cullen, but I missed being in a space that was full of constant thriving creativity and where all artists must have freedom to create. I think there should be a bohemians and artists strike march downtown to demonstrate about the ever-crushing state of trying to fight for a studio, living space and exhibiting/performing space where artists can be free to create what the buyers fight over, and what all the punters pay to see and hear: music and art!
This town is constantly crushing the goose that lays the golden egg. Galleries are in a sense a dead space for the final processed product of the artist; studio galleries are a place where art is in full throttle and the work is whirling straight off the hands and lips and out of the soul of the artist.
AL: OK, music aside, let’s talk about your acting pursuits. I’ve read that you once trained as an actor at the Victorian College of Arts. What fuelled your decision to pursue an acting career? And how has that endeavour been going for you?
HR: In Melbourne training as an actor at VCA, I became interested in performance art rather than traditional ‘acting’, I wanted to incorporate music into my work too. This was considered bizarre at that time as no one really knew or understood what I was exploring. Many times the police were called to my shows or they were described by the media as shocking, dangerous, satanic, haha. My work at that time looked heavy and some of it was, but in reality I was playing with the hypocrisy around me and directly attacked homophobia, misogyny, paedophilia. A lot of my work was pranksterish – the world was much darker in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Roger Rogerson running Taylor Square cop shop, Frank Arkell getting killed by Mark Van Krevel, Justice Yeldham committing suicide etc.
In the ‘80s I formed a group called ACHHAC and we performed at the old Performance Space and other galleries around at the time. Around 1987, I was asked to join a group called Butchered Babies; this group had a huge influence on the band Thug and contributed to the whole artistic oeuvre of that time. That group as well as another group I was in called Big Mac Overbite with Joe Claxton and Sybilla Vassali, both from the legendary riot girl band Matrimony, used to perform in between bands like Thug, Lubricated Goat, Box The Jesuit. We’d do these strange theatre pieces that converged with music; it was great, though for some reason we weren’t taken very seriously as no one really knew how to sell or promote what we did. And probably because we were girls (in BMOB) we really got ignored or vilified for even being on stage. Jo really copped it when she shaved her hair off! Bloody weird now to see that level of sexism in retrospect, I’m so glad we busted through that!
In 2009 I did a performance at the MCA dedicated to an Afghani friend. She had told me in an email that she was going outside without a burqa on as she just wanted to feel the sun on her face and the wind in her hair; for this she was killed and mutilated. Wade Keighran from The Scare accompanied me on bass and I worked with the fabulous interactive sculptures of the genius sculptor Philip Barnes.
I am currently working on a neo magic realist/surrealist play called Ladders By The Sea by Keiran Carrol. It’s going to be on here in The LabOratorium – 9, 10, 11, 16, 17 and 18 Dec 2010.
AL: You were recently in Pakistan making a film with the Australian artist, George Gittoes. Tell us, what was the experience like, and perhaps you can also tell us a little about the upcoming film?
HR: Well I could write a book about that! Working with George is like working with the high priest of ‘uberpranksterism’. Just getting me into the country was a kind of intervention and prank. After shooting the film Moonlight on location in the day, we would shoot all the nightclub scenes, in the large dining room of the hotel at night. This became like doing live theatre every night as it attracted many men from the mountain villages. They came to see girls without burqas and word had got around that there was a foreign actress on set: me. The scariest thing we did was to make a dance video clip in the film where I come up wearing a pretty ‘risqué for Pakistan outfit’ – very tight fitting – and performed a super-wild “vampire” themed interpretive performance/dance with the small guy actor/comedians Bul Bul and Arshied, Na Na and plastic AK-47s. The local Taliban were in the audience and they seemed both shocked but thrilled to see something like that, seeing women live without burqas was a big drawcard. What personally cracked both George and me up was that we did it to ‘I Wan’t Everything’ by The Ramones – nice way to introduce a legendary band to the good folk of The North West Frontier Pakistan, now officially known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It was scary because it could have been seen as really overstepping the mark and we may have had to face the wrath of locals with real AK-47s, but somehow we seem to have got away with it so far.
I have worked with George a few times now, but it was great, and a real privilege, to be the first person George has ever taken into a war zone. Many soldiers and male artists have asked him many times, but it was good to be a woman and going to a place where there is apartheid against women so that I might fight against the misogyny we face today through art. George has always been a staunch supporter of women and that has been something that attracted me to him as an artist. Bullets of the Poets, a film about the female Nicaraguan freedom fighters and poets he made in 1986, totally amazed me.
Wearing a burqa or niqab was a very strange experience for me and gave me a very deep understanding of the nature of that form of oppression and torture, a combo of a type of Stockholm syndrome and Chinese water torture – a subtle psychological daily torment that can drive you mad. It was strange to be bullied/shunned/ignored openly because of my gender.
AL: Finally, what are your plans for 2011?
HR: 2011 I’m in heaven. I hope not literally! I will be working again with George, this time in Afghanistan working on more films and… radio plays! I have always wanted to do that mainly because I love Orson Wells’ radio plays and now I get to create some. Happy day! I am also planning a move to NY at some stage, which will be great fun I hope. I will be recording with Jeffrey Wegener and fantastic bass player Mme Julie Kim, someone whom I’ve had the privilege to work with previously in a performance music group called Young Shaved Pissing Boys and more recently Prowler with The Rev Kriss Hades.
I am also working on a one-woman show with the very clever actor and director David Field helping in the background, and I am almost popping to get that on a stage in Sydney and show everyone a work that will be a real conglomerate of my experience and styles in performance, acting, writing and music.
Posted by Audrey Lee on November 29, 2010