Ella Fence: Charting Unknown Waters

On the surface it appears that Stephanie Pickett has come a long way in a very short space of time. A graduate of Griffith’s Bachelor of Popular Music program she recorded her debut EP with Dan Swift (Snow Patrol, Passenger) at Brighton Electric UK – the studios of choice for bands like The Cure, Gomez and Mumford & Sons. That EP spawned the much lauded single Unknown Water, a song that recently scored big time at the Gold Coast Music Awards for Video of the Year and Song of the Year. Later this year Steph will star as Snow White in the La Boite Theatre production for the Brisbane Festival.

But appearances can be deceiving. The 25 yr old local lady has worked incredibly hard in getting to this point and despite the air of confidence she exudes there have been many doubts along the way. When Trevor Jackson meets with her, she’s so disarmingly candid and self-assured he gets the feeling she’s exactly where she should be and very much comfortable in her own skin, yet if that were so, why did she feel the need to adopt the stage name Ella Fence?

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SP: I’ve toyed with a stage name for a long time. Previously I played under my own name but I think it’s easier when you can create a new identity. If you’re playing under your own name there can be too much self-doubt and too much “I’m not good enough”, but when you can separate that and focus on a project or refine your craft for a particular purpose then there’s less of that self doubt.

TJ: Do you refer to yourself as Ella or Steph?

SP: Well I always introduce myself by my real name but it’s funny when people refer to me as Ella because it’s the only name they know. I always make it clear that Ella is a stage name for a project. Ella is actually my middle name and Pickett is my surname so it’s like Pickett/Fence, but it’s also supposed to sound like “elephants” because I’ve always been attached to them having collected ornamental versions throughout my life.

TJ: Can you remember when you first decided you wanted to be a professional musician?

SP: I’ve wanted to sing for as long as I can remember. When I was at kindy one day, I must have been only 3 or 4, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to sing in front of thousands of people and I drew a picture of myself with a microphone – Mum’s still got that picture.

TJ: It wasn’t a direct path for you though was it?

SP: Everyone takes a different path. I did the Bachelor of Popular Music at Griffith to get a better understanding of the different eras and history of popular music. I also wanted to get a better handle on the engineering and production of music that the BPM course gives you.

TJ: Did you see yourself going on to become a professional musician, or dare I say it, a pop star at that time?

SP: Well no, because I’d see an act I admired like Florence and the Machine or Banks and think: “well, that’s for them, but what I’m doing at uni is so separate”. They were in another league and the way I saw it was: “well, that’s what other people do”. So after Griffith I studied a Masters in Communication at Bond as I began to consider things like music journalism and marketing. But in the end it always came back to the fact that I loved singing, I loved performing for an audience and I loved writing songs. It go to the point where I was working in the corporate sector and it wasn’t nourishing my soul. I felt isolated and I wasn’t really honouring who I was and whilst I got a lot out of those learnings it made me realise what I really wanted to do, but the knowledge from that experience has given me greater insights into what you need to do behind the scenes to be successful.

TJ: Until recently you held a job at The Arts Centre Gold Coast, it couldn’t have been easy giving up the security of that regular pay packet to become a full time artist – what was the catalyst for taking that plunge?

SP: I’m very structured in the way I operate, but it wasn’t until I started working with my mentors at WHO Agencies that I developed a much clearer focus – that was a big mental shift for me. It was then that I went to work with Dan Swift in the UK. Eventually I secured management in the UK as well, but there was no grand master plan, it was just little building blocks. Really I just trusted my instincts – after a while more opportunities began to open up for me and then I knew I could do this full time.

TJ: You seem like a savvy young lady, have you mapped out long term plans or specific goals that you want to achieve in the years ahead?

SP: Not down to specifics. I don’t want to be in a position where I’m saying I must play Splendour in the Grass by 2017 or something like that because you get locked into the specifics of it and then you can miss other opportunities or forget why you wanted to do this in the first place. I just have a really open attitude to where things can take me.

TJ: What’s most important to you as a professional musician?

SP: I think it’s a balance. If you’re an author you want to write really good material that another writer will want to pick up and enjoy. So as a musician I want to make music that not only the audience will like, but other musicians will be able to relate to and hopefully respect.

TJ: There’s a real sense of fraternity on the Gold Coast between musicians, a support network that extends beyond friendship often into collaborations. Aquila Young is a very talented musician who is not only getting her solo career off the ground, she also plays keys in your band. Tell me about your relationship?

SP: We were introduced by our mentors at WHO Agencies – prior to that we had both been working with them independently. They saw the two of us being a good fit and we clicked pretty quickly. Aquila has a similar vision as an artist so we do work very easily together. We’ve written songs together and are both very supportive of each other.

TJ: You’ve just returned from overseas where you played everywhere from New York to Berlin – how did that trip materialise?

SP: It really was just a process of deciding to go somewhere and then working out what opportunities might be there on any given date. You might send out 20 emails and all you need is for 1 person to say “yes” and you’re on your way. If you decide that you want to go somewhere and there are venues there, then you can play – there’s no reason why not.

TJ: You recently had the song Hunter added to a Spotify playlist, was that significant recognition for you?

SP: It’s not only being recognised, but having people identify what you do and making the connection with your influences. The playlist is called Femme Fatale and included influencers like Lana Del Rey, Lorde, Amy Winehouse, Adele and Paloma Faith. Spotify of course has a ton of subscribers so naturally it’s a big deal for me. Hunter went very quickly from having under 1000 listens to over 25 000 listens. It’s cool to be acknowledged in that way – it’s random and it’s exciting because anything can happen from there.

TJ: You’ve now just won Song of the Year and Video of the Year at the 2016 Gold Coast Music Awards. Nobody writes songs to win awards, but does that validate your success in a more substantial way?

SP: It’s huge! I really haven’t won an award like that before so it’s awesome to be judged in that way. On reflection it’s really made me think about all of the people who have worked so hard to get me here. I don’t know if people realise how much goes into it, like those moments when it’s 2.00am and you’re dealing with a producer or an agent on the other side of the world. I’m totally stoked about this and the Double Deuce team who produced the video think it’s the best thing ever!

TJ: What’s next for Ella Fence? Are we likely to see an album, or is the concept of the long form record not so relevant in the digital era?

SP: Definitely an album. I think in terms of packaging an idea representing a period in time is really relevant. I love the idea of listening to an album from start to finish and find myself analysing it in the process. Like, why did they put that song there and what does it mean? There’s both a musical journey and a lyrical journey going on at the same time. I think it’s great to digest music in a particular way just as the artist intended. It’s great that there are people who really want to know what you’re doing and are really invested in you as an artist, so I think it’s really important to communicate that and send a message in that way.

PHOTO CREDIT: Shots Fired. by James Wills

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