Discovering Different Versions of Success: Lucy Roleff on Art and Music
Painter, musician, collector – Lucy Roleff's vocations are varied, but all of them link to form an appreciation of the spaces we inhabit, a feeling explored on her new album Left Open in a Room. Nicholas Kennedy interviews Lucy on her connections with art, music, success, and domesticity.
Words and photos by Triple R volunteer Nicholas Kennedy
‘So when’s the climate change album coming?’ I ask, as Lucy Roleff and I potter in her kitchen – boiling water for a French press and heating up cold croissants. ‘Weyes Blood beat you to it, I think, unfortunately. Good album, though.’
Referencing the words of Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old Swedish climate activist, Lucy says, ‘“I want you to act like our house is on fire, because it is.” That’s so simple, but it’s true. We’re in it. For me, I don’t know if music is the place for climate stuff… I feel like art is, visual things. People respond better to imagery and stuff that is relatable. When people hear statistics, it’s almost like something that is just happening over there. You can disassociate from it easily.’
Lucy is direct like that. A Melbourne-based songwriter and painter, she carries a bluntness in her song-writing and manner, avoiding any kind of self-obfuscation.
At the time of our conversation, she’s just released her second album, Left Open in a Room, which simmers down the reflective fantasy of her 2016 debut This Paradise into an autobiographical songbook.
The musical arrangements remain lush, products of Lucy’s time spent at the Jacky Winter artist retreat, and her versatile finger-picked guitar still underpins many of the songs. However, instead of the misty peaks and overgrown gardens of her previous work, the songs of Left Open in a Room are decidedly domestic and interior.
Throughout, Lucy explores romances budding and battered, walls within relationships, and thoughts of things left unsaid.
The avenues of communication shared by music and visual arts – and where they diverge – are not strange to Lucy. She walks the line between traditional folk music and a burgeoning career as an oil painter, and where Lucy chooses to link these two worlds is where the heart of her artistry is found. The romantic and the mundane, the traditional and the contemporary, the personal and the universal.
Lucy’s upbringing is what led to many of the idealised depictions on This Paradise, a ‘pan-European’ traditional appreciation borne of a German-Maltese family. An early obsession with grand oil paintings of mythology, kings, biblical references and sublime depictions of nature inform much of Lucy’s perspective. However, also being drawn to a stark naturalism forces her to straddle those two spaces which are seemingly at odds. This relationship is mirrored in how she approaches both painting and music.
‘It’s not necessarily that they [painting and music] inform each other, but that they’re different ways of expressing the same thing. For me, the connection is this obsession with naturalism, but also this sense of the sublime, the otherworldly, which I’m very drawn to.’
In the case of a song such as ‘Rheingold’, Lucy drew inspiration from sirens present in Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ operas, but set them against an unstable relationship rather than tales of Germanic myth. ‘I don’t really connect with songs where they’re singing about Aphrodite – it’s more about bringing that essence of the otherworldly into the domestic.’
Lucy’s youth spent within the Catholic Church informed much of this early appreciation of Romantic art, but as she drifted further from religion, Lucy found herself with an internal space to fill.
‘There’s this hole that’s left after that, where you’re like, Was that all fake? And so, there was this attempt to reconnect with the grand, or divine – not necessarily God – but something other than.’
Not everything was lost in this transition, though. Lucy’s familiarity with classical paintings – and the stories they sought to tell about their subjects – informs an analysis on the meaning of objects within our lives. Sitting in that small living room of Lucy’s house in Melbourne, the number of small bouquets in varying stages of life tell of her preference for holding onto things.
‘I’m obsessed with the domestic,’ says Lucy, and writes not just of her own version, but others. The album’s second song, ‘A Woman’s Worth’, is melancholic in its depiction of home-life in a decades old relationship, drawing on stories from Lucy’s extended family.
So, in the case of a glass jar and some olives, a deeply reductionist description of the cover of Left Open in a Room, what does that image mean?
‘For me, they’re a reflection. We are very drawn to objects, and there’s a hierarchy to it. A piece of plastic means something completely different to a diamond, for example. I love to paint a mixture of these opulent things – glass, candles, brass – and then mix them with elements of the natural world. I guess it’s a comment on our need to keep things, capture moments in time and always remember them.’
It’s there in the music, too; ‘Sometimes Do’ is a meditation on intrusive persistent memory, neither welcome nor unwelcome, and the way it shapes our futures.
‘If I left music behind, I think I would just be haunted by it. A lot of the last three years have been shaping what I want music to be; and it’s so detached now, from what it used to be,’ she says.
Part of that detachment came through Lucy’s reckoning with ideas of success. The anxieties of constantly rising to meet a new standard of exceptionalism or struggling to attain an arguably impossible goal had her reflecting on what place music ought to hold in her life.
She references a social media post by radio broadcaster Tim Shiel, wherein he discusses the fraught relationship between his success and mental health. It read: ‘The “music biz” is still, in some ways, a factory for disappointment and heartbreak…’
Lucy herself commented in response to the post, thanking and praising Tim for his honesty. Now, back in her living room, Lucy expands on why Tim’s thoughts resonated.
‘You don’t even realise, but you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Even if you’ve got a great album, you can easily be obsolete by the time the next one comes out, just because of how the world is. You’re always striving for the next.’
To me, at least, it seems like Lucy Roleff has found something. The knitting of her art and her music – there’s a powerful, almost unspoken connection that they share, and an ability to inform one another that creates not just sound or image, but space. Someplace to enter and to leave, to find things within that are purely Lucy’s, yet also easily shared.