Humanity’s collision with nature feels especially pronounced on the drive to folk musician Leah Senior’s house in Preston, Melbourne. On one side of the busy, multi-lane stretch of asphalt is Fairfield Park, where you can rent tiny rowboats and drift along the Yarra River under gum trees. A sign for the boathouse advertises it as a place “where time stands still”.
It’s a fitting lead in to NME’s interview with Senior, whose new album ‘The Passing Scene’ explores her love of nature and anxiety surrounding its treatment, and the ebb and flow of time. A little wattlebird squawks from a tree in Senior’s front yard as she opens her door, swaddled in a woollen jersey and scarf. Inside, her small paintings grace the kitchen wall. One is of a dog driving a red car and in another, a small elf-like figure has “soup night” with its cat.
Curios and antiques are dotted around the living room and tiny home studio where Senior and her partner Jesse Williams recorded ‘The Passing Scene’. From the old Tascam TSR-8, a reel-to-reel 8-track recorder, to the framed ’70s prints and a looming portrait of John Lennon, Senior’s attachment to decades past is clear.
“I do feel old fashioned. But I’m comfortable with that,” says Senior. “When I was in primary school I’d just stand under a pine tree and sing Beatles songs to myself. I remember [my dad] would tell me off because it was like I was never in the present.”
Released on June 12, ‘The Passing Scene’ is Senior’s third album on Flightless Records, the label set up by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard drummer Eric Moore initially to release the band’s music, and has since expanded. Moore signed Senior after hearing her 4am cover of Big Star’s ‘Thirteen’, following a chance meeting at a King Gizzard show.
Her first two albums, 2015’s ‘Summer’s On The Ground’ and 2017’s ‘Pretty Faces’, are sparsely arranged folk records – usually just Senior and her guitar, maybe a bit of piano – with songs she says were often born from anguish. But on ‘The Passing Scene’, Senior moves away from the sounds of early Joni Mitchell to something echoing the late-’60s, jazzy, jam-band sound of Karen Dalton’s ‘In My Own Time’. Senior says she approached recording with a sense of playfulness for the first time.
“After I put out my second album, I was really struggling to write for ages. I’ve always written previously from a very visceral place and I think I’m probably more stable than I used to be. So this album is, in a sense, me rediscovering play as a way of making things,” says Senior. “Songwriting gets harder and harder in some ways… you have to remind yourself that there’s endless possibilities and you can tap into that world.”
“I do feel old fashioned. But I’m comfortable with that”
You can hear the sounds of decades-old, East Village folk singers in Senior’s songs, but recorded popular music wasn’t particularly present in her rural family home in Woodford, Victoria. She had to seek it out herself. But she did grow up playing classical piano, discovered the guitar in her teens and describes her Swiss mother as a talented soprano that would lead Senior and her three siblings in harmonised sing-alongs.
As we sit in the sun on her back step, she chuckles her way through one of those songs, ‘Det Äne Am Bärgli’, a song about a little mountain and a goat refusing to be milked.
All of this brings to mind images of the von Trapp family frolicking in verdant pastures, which Senior says is inaccurate, though she does feel a connection to the land from her country upbringing. The album’s gently plucked, pastoral title track is about tuning into nature. “[It’s about] noticing what’s there and what’s left and the importance of how bird song or something calls you back to the present moment,” she says.
Generally, though, the album expresses Senior’s worry about the lack of action to halt environmental degradation. The album’s closing song ‘Time Traveller’ is about Senior’s fear of what kind of world her six-month-old niece Eleanor will inherit.
“That song is about this idea that things just keep coming back around and repeating themselves […] that we don’t seem to learn from our mistakes,” says Senior.
“Songwriting gets harder and harder in some ways. You have to remind yourself that there’s endless possibilities and you can tap into that world”
The visible scars born from humanity’s disconnect with nature are especially pronounced right now by their absence. With industry ground to a halt and cars remaining parked, pollution levels have dropped around the world. Following the lockdown in Wuhan, toxic nitrogen dioxide levels dropped across China. And in parts of Punjab, India, people are seeing Himalayan peaks for the first time in 30 years.
Senior wrote the album cut ‘Jesus Turned Into A Bird’ after a jarring party experience at a friend’s property near the Otway Ranges. Sitting under a large gum tree with morning approaching, all she could feel was a crushing disconnection from nature.
“I was looking around and it just looked like a fucking wasteland,” she says. “It felt profoundly disconnected from the natural world. It’s that idea of us standing outside of the landscape and not as a part of it… we feel like we’re separate from nature, as opposed to being in it.”
She tells me about the ink and wash paintings of Sesshū Tōyō, a 15th-century Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest and artist. Sesshū’s paintings frequently depict small human characters and architecture dwarfed by colossal cliffs clung on to by trees and forests. In the last year, Senior has turned to Zen Buddhist meditation, too.
“[Zen meditation is] really centred around that idea of impermanence, and understanding that everything falls apart, and will always fall apart, and come back together,” she says.
“The idea is if you’re totally kind of immersed in the present, then time becomes just less on your radar. It’s like [how] you can lose yourself when you’re drawing or painting. You can just lose hours and it’s because you’re totally in the present. You’re totally engaged with what you’re doing. I think you have to continuously work to connect to your surroundings with that kind of real awareness.”
With all of this talk of Zen, Senior explicitly asks to make it clear that, after only a year of practice, she’s still very much a student and doesn’t want to appear pious or preachy. But as we discuss the trance-like state of whirling dervish dancers and the 13th-century poems of Persian Sufi mystic Rumi, creative escapes and natural wonders, it’s clear she enjoys wading through life’s mysteries.
“I enjoy being overwhelmed by something intangible, or that you can’t even really explain,” she says. “And I think if there’s any way that you can capture that in what you make, then that’s good.”
You can hear all of that in ‘The Passing Scene’. There’s the anxiety brought on by environmental destruction, but also something hopeful, too. The album’s a reminder to acknowledge small things like the call of little wattlebirds, reconnect with history and to explore interior worlds as well as wide-open spaces. Early on in our conversation, she reads me one of her favourite poems from an old paperback, Wild Geese, by American author Mary Oliver:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Leah Senior’s ‘The Passing Scene’ is out now.