Danielle de Picciotto & Friends: Rosie Westbrook

Rosie Westbrook: “I tend to like music that is a bit dark, or abstract”

Rosie Westbrook (Photo: Sean Kelly)

Rosie Westbrook and I met years ago when she was touring with Mick Harvey. We hung out a couple of times while she was in Europe, but she was so polite and modest I only later found out what a luminary she is in the Australian music scene. Rosie is classically trained in guitar and double bass and has played in orchestras, chamber ensembles and theatrical productions besides collaborating with rock, pop, or jazz musicians. What I find intriguing that she especially enjoys collaborating with visual art, be it in collaboration with painters, weavers, or museums. It has been inspiring to watch Rosie over the years, her quiet, steadfast way of pursuing her carrier as a bassist and multi-instrumentalist feels almost as poetic as her solo music sounds, she seems to flow her way through the world. 

Interestingly her solo albums all deal with water. Her new album “Always the Sea” is a gorgeous celebration of water, with light sparkling in heavy waves of sound. She achieves lightness and depth simultaneously with an elegance flowing through the pieces, comparable to the perfume of oceans and sand. An aroma I love. In today’s world of noise and aggression, Rosie Westbrook is a breath of fresh air and her music an oasis, a haven to relax and enjoy.

Danielle de Picciotto: All of your albums have titles that deal with water. What is your connection to water and in what way does it influence your music?

Rosie Westbrook: Infinite space. In music, I try to evoke the same feeling as gazing out over a huge expanse of water. Especially with the new album “Always the Sea”, I wanted to re-create the landscape/seascape I was looking at; an endless space and calm and freedom; a cessation of the constant noise of external “stuff”. I also find water quite therapeutic in quietening my internal mind, which is usually thinking about five things at once.

What do you look for in music in general, in your own and other?

Compositionally, I’m usually trying to describe something that has inspired me visually and emotionally, whether it’s a painting or a beautiful landscape.
In my own music and in other music I listen to, I want to be moved, to have some sort of emotional reaction. I tend to like music that is a bit dark, or abstract – Einstürzende Neubauten; Ulan Bator; Sigur Ros.
I started my musical life playing instrumental music and even though I’ve spent many years as a bassist for singer/songwriters, instrumental music is still the most natural form of musical expression to me, both as a composer and in what I listen to. As a bassist I am most inspired by the great jazz double bassists – particularly Charlie Haden and Charles Mingus. Also, electric bassists James Jamerson; Carol Kaye; Jah Wobble (PiL, Invaders of the Heart); Gail Ann Dorsey (David Bowie), to name but a few.

Are you a tech nerd? Do you have a home studio? Do you use effects when you play live? If yes which ones?

I have become a bit of a tech nerd on a “need to” basis, in order to be able to record and perform my own music. I do have a home studio where I can make a lot of noise!
Live, I have a loop pedal that I use in quite an abstract way, often I will record some of the weird and spooky sound effects created with the bowed double bass, which will often sound quite ethereal and evocative.
I have a lovely reverb pedal, which is beautiful with the double bass and with the nylon string guitar. A delay pedal is always in the mix and a couple of distortion units because I particularly like dark and distorted electric guitar and find it very expressive in a wonderful way.

Rosie Westbrook at Vigeland Museum, Oslo, Norway (Photo: Joao Friezas)

You have worked as a composer for film and theatre and collaborated with contemporary Australian musicians beside working on your solo albums. Which sphere of work is your preferred? What were your favourite projects that you have worked on? Why did you especially like them?

I think everything you work on contributes to your overall identity as a musician and creative person and I would like to keep doing everything!
My favorite projects in recent years include:
Composing for art documentaries because I have always loved visual art and I discovered that it is a very rich source of inspiration for me.
Performing a live soundtrack for a theatre piece about a wonderful Australian artist, Joy Hester (1920 – 1960). One actor and I in the gallery space at Heide Museum of Modern Art, where Hester had lived and worked, with her paintings all around us, very special.

At the moment I’m really enjoying collaborating with John Phillips, a wonderful Australian guitarist, in a duo project in which I play electric guitar and double bass and John plays electric guitar. We are creating very atmospheric soundscapes as well as some louder and more raucous music, a bit of sonic chaos with wild double bass bowing and riffing and John’s incandescent guitar sounds.

For a long time, I’ve had an ongoing collaboration with a great Australian painter, Jon Cattapan. I met Jon when I was composing a soundtrack for a documentary film about him, and his art and I’ve been inspired to create music to his paintings ever since. I have created live music installations and performed for many of his exhibitions. The music and the art have always worked together quite effortlessly.

You play upright bass and bass guitar; do you feel this is still a male domain or are women bass players just as frequent? When and why did you decide to play these instruments?

I started playing the guitar when I was six years old and started formal classical guitar studies when I was eleven. A few years later, I was asked to play the double bass in the school orchestra – I was a good music sight reader and I was tall!

I studied both instruments throughout my school years and then completed my undergraduate music degree on classical guitar. I started post-graduate studies on the guitar, but then I had the opportunity to study double bass with Bertram Turetzky at UCSD, San Diego, USA. Bert is a major figure in contemporary double bass – an innovator and exponent of the wide range of tonal possibilities and sound effects of the instrument way beyond its traditional orchestral role; Bert has inspired many composers to write for the double bass.
I thought my career would be as a classical guitarist, but Bert changed all that – he encouraged me to improvise and think outside the square as a double bassist. He also gave me a book by Carol Kaye, an American bassist who was one of the most prolific session musicians in Los Angeles over a number of decades, including playing on records such as The Beach Boys Pet Sounds and Richie Valens La Bamba. The cover of Carol’s book pictures her with the double bass and the bass guitar and this made quite an impression on me. When I came back to Australia, I pretty much started my professional working life as a double bassist and also began playing the bass guitar.

Rosie Westbrook & John-Phillips (Photo: Joe Malignaggi)

It was the mid 1980s and in

Australia there were plenty of female classical musicians, including double bassists. In my experience, gender did not seem to be an issue. When I started working with bands in contemporary music, I just assumed that there would be women playing and didn’t think it was such a big deal. I also tended to work with musicians from the more alternative world of contemporary music, who were also perhaps less concerned with gender than mainstream pop music.
I look forward to the day when this is no longer a question, and that day will come!

You have just released your third album. Does it have a specific theme, or do you compose music without necessarily needing an album theme? How would you describe your style of music?

It is very evocative and emotional music, ethereal at times, full of movement and space; always quite cinematic, characterised by ringing guitars and featuring the double bass, bowed, and plucked.
My new album !Always the Sea! was written very much to reflect and evoke the endlessness of the open ocean. I’m very fortunate to live in a beautiful coastal region of Victoria, in south-eastern Australia and I wanted to share the feeling of calm and space that gazing out to the water always gives me. This album had a very definite theme and I do think it is helpful to have some creative parameters, otherwise you can be overwhelmed with choices and options. I tend to improvise a whole lot of music first and then see what fits together stylistically and thematically – I always want to just play my heart out and then put it all together.

Rosie Westbrook & Claire Larissa Nicholls at Heide MOMA (Photo: Jodie Hutchinson)

I am intrigued by the fact that you do sound installations in Museums. How did that come about and what are they like?

It started with creating music for Cattapan’s shows and through that, meeting museum and gallery directors and being invited to play in more spaces for specific exhibitions. I will usually go and see the exhibition on a quiet day and record some improvisations on the guitar, listen to them at home, transcribe whichever bits seem to be the strongest and use them as a basis for live improvisation/performance back in the gallery. It is a live soundtrack to the work, an underscore that (hopefully) complements the art and contributes to the mood, or atmosphere of the space. It is very improvisational and of the moment! Galleries and museums are also usually such great acoustic spaces and that only adds to the inspiration – the sound of the guitar and the double bass drifts through the whole space.

What are you working on momentarily and what are your plans for the future?

At the moment I’m finishing some recordings with John Phillips and then releasing some of our duo music; I have an installation at TarraWarra Museum of Modern Art and I’m also planning some visits to Jon Cattapan’s studio prior to playing at his next exhibition at the Dominik Mersch Gallery in Sydney in a couple of months.
I’m hoping to get back to Europe in the not-too-distant post-pandemic future! I spent some years recording and touring Europe with Mick Harvey, which was a great experience – always very rewarding musically, plus I got to perform in some amazing places and met wonderful musicians who I remain in contact with and with whom I have collaborated over the years, including Thomas Wydler (Die Haut; Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds); Beate Bartel (Mania.D; Einstürzende Neubauten; Liasons Dangereuses; Matador) and Amaury Cambuzat (Ulan Bator; Faust).
I have previously performed solo in Oslo, Norway in the wonderful Galleri Schaeffers Gate 5 and hope to go back there and back to Scandinavia, which is such a magical place to someone who comes from the other end of the planet!

Rosie Westbrook at TarraWarra MOMA (Photo: Jasmin de Wolf)

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