7 Questions with Madame Wu
and Elise Graham
Since combining a lifelong passion for poetry with hip hop Madame Wu has worked tirelessly to produce a sensitive yet fearless style of lyricism commenting widely from social justice issues affecting youths to the highly personal. With over 50 live shows under her belt in Sydney, Katoomba, Brisbane and New Zealand supporting the likes of De La Soul, Def Wish Cast, Thundamentals, Hermitude and Tuka there are no signs of this emcee slowing down. Ethereal vocalist Elise Graham joins her to complete a commanding yet intimate live performance.
How did the Wu and Graham power team start? What brought you two phenomenal ladies together?
"We have known each other since the start of high school and been good friends the whole way through. I had always loved lots of different styles of music and singing. It was Jussy who introduced me to hip hop and with Jussy that I went to my first hip hop gig. When Jussy started rapping I was very keen to make music together as it's always more fun with someone else!"
"Elise has been a singer since forever and we’ve been best mates since we were twelve. About five years ago I told her I’d started writing songs but was too embarrassed to show her, so she got out her guitar and sang a song for me to break the ice. I got the guts to rap for her and she supported me from the beginning, even when I was totally crap!"
You brought out an album a little while ago. How is the progress going on the new release and how is it different from the last?
"With this new release we are trying to experiment by adding more singing to the tracks and also overlapping singing and rapping.We have beats from a wide variety of producers and some tracks will be more rap based whereas others more melody based. We want this album to stand out as a "Madame Wu and Elise Graham" album with our own sound and not just another hip hop album."
"Our new album is coming out early next year. It has taken us way longer for this one, but that’s because our choices have increased substantially. Since the first release the hip hop community has really opened up to us, we have so much more freedom to collaborate with a lot of different artists. I’m grateful to Caustic (from Cooking With Caustic) from the Blue Mountains who helped us start out- he produced, recorded and mixed our first album and is now recording and mixing our second one. This album is more personal, local and anchored to this place and time. "
Is the live music scene dead in Sydney? Where do you perform, and what changes do you want to see supported in the live music industry?
"With a lot of live music venues closing down I've noticed a shift to live music being played in people's homes and different spaces as opposed to bars and pubs. I think this has shifted the audience to people that seek out live music as opposed to passing by a pub and being drawn in by the sound. These style of gigs that we have played are different in that the music is the reason everyone is there and therefore the audience is very attentive. I feel there is more emphasis on the poetry and lyricism of the music in these settings. I would like to see more venues in Sydney staying open though and supporting local music without a big price tag attached."
"Definitely not dead! But I am sick of seeing people take advantage of aspiring musicians at gigs I go to. Not only money, but time is a precious resource for musicians. I want to see a diverse audience at these shows. I like seeing all types of live music, I feel there are a lot of people like me out there, that just don’t know how to connect with our community. I’d like to see more cross promotion. Spaceport is a fantastic example of creating a diverse live art space with a welcoming atmosphere."
Do you think art plays enough of a role in making social change happen? What else do you think is instrumental in our society in making social change happen?
"I think art is a great way to be expressive without boring people. Art makes people listen and think and in that way I think it can be a great tool for social change. It also brings people together and is a catalyst for discussion on these topics. Whether this leads to actual change though..."
"Art is a symptom of social change, and can be a stimulant for it. An audience is looking at the final product, a snap shot of an artist’s creative opinion on a subject. When it is a stimulant for social change it is because the audience can connect with a story that is not theirs. They can empathise with a statistic that has become human.
An artist has the power to humanise anonymous stories, in the words of Brother Ali, create ‘verses for the voiceless.’
In saying that, I think real debate is the most important tool- when people respectfully challenge another’s opinion in conversation and continue to be friends with people who hold opposing social views, I think that is instrumental to social change.
We also need to encourage more diverse story tellers to create social change, hip hop is for everyone."
You wrote a song about Australia’s appalling treatment of refugees- that’s a few years ago now- if you were to re write the song now, or write another one, what would you say?
"In the song ‘King’s Land,’ I rapped about individual stories, such as the plight of Al Kateb and the families who were separated within the context of indefinite detention. I also tried to emphasise the demonisation and dehumanisation these individuals are subject to by the Australian media.
Sadly those aspects that I wrote about all those years ago have escalated, so the only thing that I would change would be including more contemporary examples of individuals. Essentially the theoretical new song, like the last, would be a story of shame and a pervading sense of futility, I can’t change that.
Justice Kirby is still the bomb though."
What is the hardest professional skill, life skill, asset, personal feature etc (pick any) you have had to learn to master to be a successful artist?
"Not being afraid to bite the bullet and put yourself and your music out there even when you are not 100% happy with it. The more you play/perform the more you can get an idea of how it sits with the audience and develop it. Being a perfectionist is sometimes the worst enemy."
"Persistence. A little bit of discipline each day and not being too hard on yourself if you don’t get instant results. The nature of writing an album is it can take a really long time to make a project you are proud of, and that’s ok."
What are you listening to right now and who do you think we should be listening to more?
"I'm trying to listen to many different types of music as I'd like to think that our music can span a few genres and doesn't have to be pigeonholed for a certain audience. I'm really liking hearing the experimentation that has been going on with artists who are making music that they want to make and not necessarily abiding by the rules of how it should sound."
"I’m listening to Oddisee, Atmosphere, Joey Bada$$, Sharon Van Etten, Chet Faker and Speeche Debelle at the moment, but I really need to listen to more music. I think we should be listening to more local hip hop shows such as Hardcore Classic on 2SER and ‘What’s Good’ on FBi. If you want to discover new music, podcasting those shows is a good start.
You can catch Madame Wu and Elise Graham AT the arts and hip hop night at BAR 303 IN MELBOURNE on Saturday 23RD OF JANUARY alongside COOKING WITH CAUSTIC, SPECTACLES, DEEPSEA LIGHTS AND MR RUCKMAN AS ONE OF THE MANY SHOWS ON THE SPACEPORT 2OUR 2016. HEAD TO WWW.SPACEPORT2.NET FOR DETAILS.
Interview conducted by Sarah Connor (Sarah Connor Music)