Greta Gertler Gold is a Sydney-born, Brooklyn-based composer, lyricist, performer, and producer. Her latest project sees her return to Australia for a brand new musical, The Red Tree, based on Shaun Tan’s book of the same name. For this production, Greta is teaming up with playwright Hilary Bell, director Neil Gooding, actor-singer Nicola Bowman, and musicians Ben Fink and Bonnie Stewart. We were lucky enough to speak to Greta, just after her arrival in Australia, about finding your own musical voice, seeking out collaborators, and what to do when characters start emerging from your songs of their own accord …
Rehearsal Magazine: How did you start composing? Were you first classically trained, and how did you decide to move to pop and rock music, rather than classical music?
Greta Gertler Gold: I was classically trained, in piano, from the age of 6, and then studied music at Sydney Uni. I really wanted to be a classical contemporary composer in my later years of high school, then when I got to university I just started going out to hear a lot of bands around Sydney. I found that I just wanted to focus on songwriting, and that just captured my interest. So, I basically found that I wasn’t ready, at that age, to just be in a room writing music on my own. I was more social, I wanted to get out and play with other musicians.
RM: It was too solitary, to sit in a room and compose by yourself.
GGG: Yeah, at that point it hadn’t occurred to me that you could form your own classical group! I couldn’t have imagined that, at that age, and I also could barely imagine playing in a band at that age. I was pretty much the classical geek when I was in high school and then got out of high school and my world just exploded, with going to see bands and singer-songwriters, and something less formal than I’d been exposed to. But I really still treasured my formal training, it was just that I was trying to find a way to bring that into the songs that I wanted to write.
RM: I suppose it must have given you quite a good grounding to find your own style.
GGG: Yeah! I think it really did, in terms of all the practice that I did on piano, even though I wasn’t encouraged to try any improvisation or jazz or anything. I think my muscle memory of playing a lot of Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert definitely came into what I was trying to write when I was at the piano, just writing songs. But I didn’t know anything about arranging for a rock band, or how electric instruments would work with acoustic instruments, and I was really fascinated by that side of things.
RM: So what did you do then, to get those skills? When you decided that you wanted to branch out and find this new style to work in, how did you go about doing that?
GGG: Well, I just found musicians who had a similar experience with coming from a classical music background, like string players who were playing rock music, for example. I went to hear a lot of people play, and then approached the sidemen or singer-songwriters who seemed to play that sort of music. I also played in a wedding band and got experience playing keyboards in a band with drums and bass and electric guitar, and, unexpectedly, I learnt a lot from playing all these covers. I guess just getting out and playing, and listening to all different styles of music. These days, Spotify or something similar would be a good way to follow some strand of your interest and discover recordings. I was always interested in recording, as well as performing. I was probably more interested in recording because I always had stage fright and nervousness around being the leader. But when I was recording, I could try whatever, I could create sounds on my own or bring other musicians in. Putting a home recording studio together, I think, is just a great tool to have. Using whatever technology you can get for free, and then just meet other musicians and play with people. I think booking a gig and trying things out on a gig is the best impetus to learning!
RM: Because you just do it and then, whatever happens, you go “Oh well, that worked or that didn’t work…”
GGG: Yeah, I think you should work with musicians who are supportive of what you want, and who can step back from their own musical agenda and be willing to try what you want to try. You should find musicians who you really admire, who want to play with you. You might as well try things - even if you think the musicians might be too busy to play with you, it’s always going to be possible to work with musicians of all different styles and calibres. I feel like musicians are the best people in the world and the most supportive of each other, so if you haven’t been out of the institution that you’re in, finding musicians of all disciplines is going to be exciting. I was in Sydney for several years just doing all these different things, and I was pushed to try different things by other people - some people said “why don’t you try adding some beats to your music” and “maybe you should work with a dance producer”. So I did some stuff that was not in my comfort zone but I thought I might as well try it. That kind of things can really help you to figure out what you want to do. The other thing is reciprocating; it can be really rewarding to offer to play with other people and contribute to their musical vision, and it can lead to unexpected collaborations.
RM: That’s really great advice. When you started working on The Red Tree, what was the process like of creating a musical from a book that wasn’t originally written to become a show?
GGG: It was really interesting to know the visual aesthetic of the book and to work with that in mind. I’d never done that before, and that was really exciting. Shaun Tan’s work is so intricate and emotional, and I felt like he was a kind of unknowing, silent collaborator. It was nice to know we had his permission and support as we were going along, too; he listened to some of the demos and gave approval as we were working, which was very helpful. I think the strength of his artistic voice and identity forced us to be strong too, to match it. Working with Hilary [Bell] has been amazing. She’s such a fantastic writer and collaborator and was really encouraging. We’ve been working in a very intuitive way, and it’s been quite easy to find this musical version of the show, and I’m really excited about it.
RM: And has it been a long process?
GGG: We’ve been working on it since February, so about 6 months.
RM: It sounds like it’s been a really rewarding experience.
GGG: Yeah, it has been. There have been many different stages of the development. We’ve had two workshops with the actress, Nicola Bowman, and some of the musicians who are in the band. Nicola is incredible. She’s just such an amazing actor, singer, and performer, and she just embodies the character, which has made the process really effortless, in a way! Writing with her voice in mind has been liberating, and I feel like I can try anything and she’ll be able to nail it.
RM: Finally, how has your experience coming from Sydney, and now being Brooklyn-based, impacted on your sense of musical identity and place?
GGG: I’ve been in New York for a long time, and the experiences I’ve had there - particularly in music and theatre, but also just life events - has really influenced my ideas of what is possible musically. Being in New York actually led me to musical theatre, a few years ago. Before that, I was always dubious of musical theatre and its cheesiness and over the top-ness, but I realised that I had always heard musical theatre, even if I wasn’t aware of it. Musical theatre songs had definitely entered pop culture as well, even in Australia, but I hadn’t had the same access to them before as I’ve had in New York. So I started getting more interested in musical theatre when I was writing songs, and there were characters emerging from these songs and I didn’t know who they were or what to do with them, but I had an urge to write something with a narrative structure, so I knew I needed to start writing musicals!
The Red Tree is the furthest I’ve gone into the world of musical theatre, which is really exciting. I’m thrilled to be doing it in Australia with everyone here. I feel like, because I was pretty old when I moved to New York, that I’ve never really lost my Australian musical identity - you can’t lose that. My sense of place has definitely expanded, through music. Music has given me a sense of home and place, even when I’m far away from home so that wherever I am I can create a space I feel happiest in. I think without that, I wouldn’t be able to live far away. Music also gives me a way to navigate the world and connect with family, friends and community. It isn’t always the most stable work - I remember when I first started, I was doing shift work during the day and writing music at night - but I’m so grateful for it.
The Red Tree is presented by The National Theatre of Parramatta and will play at Riverside Theatres from 19 to 28 October. You can read more about the show and book tickets here and read more about Greta and hear her music here. Main illustration by Brian Vallesteros.