PLAYING MELBOURNE: Woodes Builds Playful Fantasy-Inspired Pop Universe with Crystal Ball

Photo Credit: Jordan Drysdale

Elle Graham is a Melbourne transplant, having moved with her piano from Townsville, in regional Queensland, to the hub of Australian indie music. Best known as Woodes, she released her debut album Crystal Ball on November 13 – an ethereal, hypnotic, meditative exploration of inner and external landscapes.

The album was a balm for Graham’s soul after relentless touring off the back of her Golden Hour EP. She teamed up with producer Danny Harley (aka The Kite String Tangle) to co-write “Close,” a combination of flute, saxophone and anthemic vocals. Written in just three hours, Graham took the ease of its coming together as a sign that she’d write a full-length album just as quickly.

And she did – “Close” was such a powerful instigator that Graham wrote 40 songs for the album, much of it done during a three-week period in Los Angeles with Grammy-nominated songwriter/producer Scott Effman. Effman built his reputation as a producer who can defy genre boundaries to craft earworm pop music by working his magic with Akon, Kelly Clarkson, Mike Posner, Dean Lewis and Tiesto; Graham had worked with him previously for one of her favorite Golden Hour cuts, “Dots.”

“It was my first ever writing trip. I went over to play Canadian Music Week and then my publishers and management arranged for me to do a day with Scott Effman. In only two days, we were immediately on the same wavelength,” she remembers. “We work very well together, so I reached out to him to do an extended period of writing for Crystal Ball. That was a lot of fun, sometimes spending 15-hour days where all we were doing was writing and working on music and only breaking to get food.”

It was also during this period in LA that Graham wrote “Crystal Ball” with collaborator Jason Hahs. The song is inflected with Graham’s sonic tribute to the sci-fi and fantasy aesthetic and vibe that she’s long been in love with. “We both really love Game of Thrones and sci-fi,” she admits, which makes it into the playful song. “There’s lots of weird spells and sound effects, like wizards dueling. There’s about 100 layers of mandolins, vocoders and different sounds in it.”

“Writing about 40 songs for the record, there’s a lot of variety,” she adds. Electric guitar soars over Graham’s romantic promises on “How Long I’d Wait,” “Queen of The Night” reveals a dreamlike imaginary world in its curious instrumentation, and Graham revels in the melancholy sweetness of “This Is My Year.”

The last song on the album, “Distant Places” was a collaborative consequence of working with US producer Alex Somers, who had also worked on one of Graham’s favorite records, Valtari by Sigur Ros.

Between those first and last songs, “Staring At The Fire” was her paean to home. Graham was raised in Townsville, a northern Australian town where the heat and humidity are well-suited to the dreamily perfect beaches and lush mangroves. Graham’s mum is a marine biologist and her father, a park ranger. For Graham, music was as much of an obsession as nature and her childhood was immersed in both. She wrote “Staring At The Fire” on the old piano she’d brought from Townsville. It now resides in her home studio in Brunswick, a suburb in Melbourne’s inner north.

“I’ve lived in Melbourne now for seven years,” says Graham. “It’s been rough this year [with COVID19], but I love it here. All my family are American and they’re living on the West Coast. I’m an American citizen so I got to vote in the recent election. It was surreal.”

Graham moved to Melbourne to study music composition at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), one of Austalia’s leading arts colleges. “I worked hard to build a folio to apply there to study Interactive Composition. You’re right next to dancers, visual artists and musicians. It’s a lot about creating your own Melbourne groove,” she explains. “It’s very special because my band are all from VCA too. The students who attend VCA are dedicated to turning their practice into a job. I actually mentor and teach students there now. It brings me a lot of joy to be able to share the things I wish I’d been taught.”

While at school, Graham kickstarted her career by releasing a string of singles warmly received by radio audiences. “The Thaw” was added to full rotation on Triple J, and “Rise” received over 3.1 million streams on Spotify; they would eventually land on her self-titled debut EP. Stand-alone single “Change My Mind” was featured on fifteen international New Music Friday playlists, including from France, the UK and Vietnam, and the subsequent release of Golden Hour in 2018 officially made Woodes an artist worth watching.

Graham wanted Crystal Ball to bring fantasy into the everyday, so walking through her suburb in armor felt like the ideal way to do this. “It takes a while to find community when you move to a new place. Brunswick is a perfect place for that… I’ve lived in a bunch of sharehouses around Melbourne and Brunswick is very close to the city, but sort of in the suburbs still,” she says. “A lot of my musician friends live around the corner. We have board game nights, dinners and gathering around the fireplace. There’s a lot of co-working spaces and studios around here.” Suffice to say, her neighbors didn’t bat an eye to see her traipsing about dressed like a Medieval warrior.

Her community provided creative connections, too. “During lockdown, Nick Mckk, who lives just down the road, dropped off camera equipment on my veranda, then he takes it away and edits it. We worked on the ‘Crystal Ball’ music video and a bunch of making of videos too,” Graham says.

But perhaps her biggest break through to date has been in a well-known virtual community – Minecraft. “All of my work has a visual element, so I’d work with directors and game developers, including with the Minecraft project. Minecraft is a very creative game, almost like The Sims; you can create your own dream house, so in mine there’s a giant train and a crystal ball in the middle of the town. You can visit each of the songs on the album via this train network,” Graham explains. “I’ve played a lot more Minecraft than I ever expected! I thought it was so cool to allow access to this place if you bought my album, so you could hear my songs for the first time in the world and interact with me by asking questions about how I made them.”

Graham is excited to finally allow the world beyond Minecraft to enter her auditory universe. From Townsville to Melbourne, via Los Angeles, the album is an amalgam of all her worlds. Now it can be ours.

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