27 Jan 2024

The Mixtape: Ebony Lamb

From Music 101, 4:00 pm on 27 January 2024

Following the release of her acclaimed solo debut, Wellington musician Ebony Lamb is preparing for three shows with American indie band Calexico next month.

New Zealand musician and photographer Ebony Lamb

New Zealand musician and photographer Ebony Lamb Photo: Supplied

In the meantime, she says choosing songs for the RNZ Mixtape is a way of "breathing life back into her love of music".

"I need to have that special feeling come back because it has been such a complex few years," Ebony tells Charlotte Ryan.

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

Ebony Lamb supports Calexico on their Feast of Wire 20th Anniversary Tour this February.

Until last year, Ebony, who also works as a portrait photographer, was best known as the frontwoman of the alt-country band Eb & Sparrow.

Although she'd loved singing since childhood, she says it took quite a few years to accept that she was, inescapably, an artist.

"I was furious about it because I actually would quite like a more stable life. And unfortunately, for me, I don't know how to do that.

"My whole life before becoming a musician was already pretty full. I've done a lot of living. I had a very big life-changing experience in my 20s that changed my life but even before then I'd already had a life … I was a young mum, I'd been around the world, I'd gone to this alternative school. It really worked for me. I'm dyslexic, I'm quite sensitive but there was a sense of belonging [there] and it really worked for me, despite myself.

"I feel lucky that I've actually managed to deal with so much, now I can figure out what I'm supposed to do. It took me years to give in to the fact that I was an artist and that's my purpose. I was furious about it because I actually would quite like a more stable life. And unfortunately, for me, I don't know how to do that.

"I tried to do that for a very long time. I was a parent and I thought if I could just get it together… I have to follow the purpose and the compulsion and find the channel. I do it through photography, and I do it, weirdly, through music which is a surprise to me even all these years later …  I don't cope very well not having this channel."

If a person is supposed to be an artist, going against that is going against your own "deep nature", Ebony says.

"That is dangerous. That's the way I see it. It's more dangerous because the conformity can kill you, at some point, it just doesn't work."

She encourages other people to "have a go" at different forms of creativity, as she has done.

"Maybe you don't know what it is but the answer will come if you try stuff out. I did spend a period of years just trying stuff out … It was an odd day when I said to my friend 'I really think I'm supposed to be a country singer and we both howled with laughter and that's what I did for the next 10 years … and I loved it."

Feeling "quite tired" at the end of her time with Eb & Sparrow, Ebony says she had to "get quiet" for a few years to find what she wanted to say with her music.

"There's no point putting out a record that everybody else has already made, in my mind, they're saying it for me. So my voice had to come from quite an internal space."

The album Ebony Lamb which took five years to write, features Kody Neilson on drums and Bic Runga on bass guitar.

"Kody mixed and mastered it to tape. I play the guitar, the electric guitar and obviously [did] the singing. My partner Gram Antler did some solo guitar parts because I can't play those.

"I loved making my record. It took me a long time but I loved making it I wanted to make a new sound and swim into new waters and I think I couldn't have done it without [Kody and Bec] so I'm forever grateful."

Over the last couple of years, Ebony has been working on a set of songs she's hopefully can come together as "a really good record".

"I just need to sit down for about a month, probably by myself. What I really need to do is go to [an artists'] residency because I know that I've got a bunch of stuff together. But I've got empty-brain about it so I don't know what it is at the moment. I've just got recordings all over the place that I need to bring together. It freeflows out of me, I'm self-taught and I know now how to capture that, bottle that. Just pay attention to it.

"I love being by myself when I'm doing it. I can't write around anyone else so far, on my own records. I'm working on it but I haven't quite got there yet."

While releasing and touring Ebony Lamb was a "gift", she says getting an album released is extremely hard.

"It's such an odd thing to talk about because I don't think anybody really knows what it is to release music unless you're very close to someone who's a musician who's actively doing it or you yourself are doing it.

"I tallied up how much money it cost me to put out my record and I can't say it on here because it's an unspeakably high amount over many years. Because what is it? it's research, it's connections ... it was multiple years of working it out, it was the middle of a pandemic."

For Ebony, it seems "totally unsustainable" to have a full-time music career in New Zealand.

"I'm going to have to go overseas. happy to go overseas. I am gonna need help getting there because New Zealand is as far as you can go away from where this type of music is loved and appreciated and I can tour and I can buoyant-up my exposure and when you boil out buoyant-up your exposure, you just get more people so you know, we only have so many people here in New Zealand."

Songs played:

'What I'd Say' Part 1 and 2 by Ray Charles

"I heard this the first time when I was maybe 16 or 17. Someone had fallen in love with Motown and they had a mixtape back in the late '90s where it was actually on a tape. I remember just listening to this on repeat. I just wanted to move and party and have a great time. And the cool thing about it is it had nothing to do with what was popular at the time. It's just an incredibly fun track and I loved it. It's very raw as far as… not raw but there's a simplicity that happens. It's that crossover of soul, gospel and mainstream music that just cuts through. I love the last part of the track, it just makes me want to sing and go out, makes me think about [former Wellington venue] Mighty Mighty, actually."

'Oil of Angels' by Cocteau Twins

Ebony was introduced to the Cocteau Twins by her childhood friend Rifka Pegler and her father David in Hastings.

"It's one of the most beautiful songs I can imagine. I think that they're an incredible band. I am in love with this band and it's never changed. Their [songs] are like a multi-layered painting. I listened to this when I got up in the morning, especially through those hangover years when you're... we did some pretty heavy experimenting in our youth. So yeah, this is the sound of the morning for me. This is the sound of the morning after and loving life."


'So Long Underground' by Hannah Everingham

Christchurch musician Hannah Everyingham was one of the local artists Ebony enlisted for. her tour last year.

"I've had this on repeat ever since. I am in love with this track. I just think 'wow, what an amazing person'. (Just a little heads up she will be going on tour later on this year and she is putting out a record very soon.)

"I'm thrilled to be able to say that because this is one of those artists that you think 'gosh, I want to hear more from you'. I didn't know anything about Hannah and she's just this beautiful songwriter whose performance was astounding and it was a real treat … [This song] is what songwriting is for. This is what it's for."


'I Can't Keep Checking My Phone' by Unknown Mortal Orchestra

"I'm a really big fan of Unknown Mortal Orchestra .... all of the records are amazing.

"If you want to know about music, you should listen to it .... this is an amazing band. I love the intros. [It's like] what is the song going to be once I've done this little orchestral moment? And then they kick in. I like the sentiment of what he's actually singing about a lot."


'I Feel Love' by Donna Summer

"This makes everyone want to dance in our family. 

"This song is just so fun because it was just so forward-thinking in its time. it isn't just like a beautiful black woman who's singing Motown hits. It's like taking that into a new space. I love that. Donna Summer is a spirit animal of the dance scene for me."


'Alone Again Or' by Calexico

Although Ebony is a fan, she's yet to see Calexico live and says it's a special honour to play with them because her bandmates love their music.

"I'm so excited. because when people would ask us who we are, I'd say well, if you like Calexico then you'll probably like us … That's the way to explain it to people ... It's such a joy to know that I have this opportunity, I'm so thrilled.

"Recorded music is brilliant and great but this type of music comes alive in an entirely different way when you hear it live.

"Calexico are bridging really traditional Mexican music and American folk songs but also honouring them but in a very contemporary way. That's brilliant. That's the best of music in my mind.

"That whole thing about uplifting is so important in music land and I think Calexico bring about the best and know how to honour another culture in a mainstream setting that benefits everyone. They love doing it, they've dedicated their lives to it, so it's great."