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We Interview Toucan


Recent graduates from Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music, Toucan demonstrate majestically playful jazz indie pop, synth and piano melodies infused with lyrics that don’t dominate vocals to ensure distinct character and variance in tempo, balancing both instrumental and vocal accent in fluid harmony. Both are musically sophisticated beyond their young impressive career, clearly skilled and when meeting them, Shea Duncan is as imposingly tall as he is handsome whilst it’s remarkable to hear Jess Pollard’s dazzling voice come from a woman so comparatively diminutive, a fusion similar to the styling’s of Estelle or Sia. AAA Backstage’s Bailey had a chat to them when they popped into AAA HQ while in town supporting the Jungle Giants on the national “She’s a Riot” tour.

Tell us about your music, how did you develop your sound? It’s this kind of richly lush tone that new to the Aussie indie scene…


Shea: Wow that’s a nice compliment! Well we both met when studying Composition, Jess has a really strong background in jazz and she’s a singer as well, and I come from the composition side and a real interest in electronics and production and so we were always friends and just kind of hung out going through uni together and towards the end of our degree we started to write together. We usually start at a piano and develop ideas acoustically and then we take it into arrangements and work on the sound and often that kind of relationship inspires new ideas. So Jess will have an idea and I’ll take it and work on the sound and the harmonies…


Jess: And the beauty is also that with computers now and having Shea’s background in production and our sort of melting pot you have access to so many sounds, there’s something both limiting and beautiful about having, say, just a guitar or just a bass whereas each instrument has it’s own sound world and the cool thing about having the computer is your asset and work environment for songwriting process you have so many possibities.


Shea: I think that’s a really good point, for instance when you play in a band and theirs two guitars and a bass and keys and drums and your sound recipe is framed. So theirs obviously room for variation in particular when were working on the record and the way we choose to write and the way we developed as a band was to work in a studio and work on what sound world we wanted and sometimes, well I’m not necessarily a string player but we might have a string quartet in a piece.


Well that’s really interesting to work with, working digitally through production but also laying the organic part of it, the vocals and adding strings gives you versatility…


Shea: Yeah, that’s exactly what we try to harness I think.


How important did the support and exposure that being Triple J Unearthed Feature Artist’s last year help kick start your music career? How did it open doors for you?

Jess: Oh, it opened up so many doors! Triple J is such a big part of the Australian music industry and we were really lucky that they decided to support us and have since, opening doors in terms of management and agents.


Shea: It’s a fantastic spring board.


Jess: The amount of artists in Australia that have exposed is huge now and it’s growing.


What’s interesting about your music is the absence of guitars… Does making music digitally give you more options to compose and develop your rich jazz sound?

Shea: Well neither of us are guitar player’s hahaha!


Jess: Hahaha we don’t have the skill!


Shea: It’s not by choice haha we love guitars, everything’s got its place but I think naturally the way we develop is because we’re both piano players initially and we work with synthesizers and coming from a composition background and working with horns and strings you sort of work with your skills.


Jess: It’s definitely not a ‘no’ for the future, like touring with the Jungle Giants your like ‘awww’… It’s nice hearing guitar.


Shea: One of the main things we’ve been talking about at the moment is the way we like to approach the songs is just think about what’s best for that particular track and the sound world and the mood and the characteristics…


Jess: And if that’s guitar, its guitar but it sort of hasn’t come up yet.


You guys toured with The Kooks at the start of the year, tell me about the day you found out you were confirmed on the tour. What was your reaction like?

Jess: I remember the exact moment! We were on a plane heading to…


Shea: Brisbane! We were on our way here because we had a show at Alhambra Lounge.


Jess: Yeah we found out on the plane and we just kind of looked at each other when we got the email and usually when my phone goes off its just some update but it was Renee our manager.


Jess: And it was really nonchalant, as well…


Just casual, no big deal.



Shea: Meanwhile we were just… yeah. It was phenomenal.


Jess: So it only really set in when we arrived in Brisbane to do the shows and met them to play the first gig at the Tivoli.


Shea: Beautiful venue.


Jess: It’s that nice sort of small to medium venue; I think its only 1500 capacity…


Shea: But really intimate and full of character. On that tour there was Sydney Festival Hall which are your big barns and the Tivoli and the Astor Theatre in Perth and those shows had a really beautiful kind of energy, whereas I think the other shows were all ages so they were a bit more ready to party. It was such a privilege to be on that tour and learn about that whole side of it… That was only our 11th or 12th show as a band and  it was this huge privilege to learn about that large scale of touring was fascinating.


And especially to go on tour with The Kooks, they are such nice guys!

Both: So nice!


Shea: The first day, it was at the Tivoli and we kind of rocked up and there were these guys at the top of the stairs and one offered to carry our cases and we realised it was Hugh! It was surreal; you had the Kooks offering to carry our stuff!


But if you eventually get to that point in your career, I’m sure your going to be just as supportive and humble…

Shea: I hope so…


Jess: ‘Hope so’?! Hahaha!


Shea: Haha, yeah and it was really nice to see that, even at that level because you grow up listening to these bands, obviously phenomenal songwriters and great musicians and then despite their level of success to meet them and have a hang with them and go have drinks afterwards.


Jess: And it’s the same with the Jungle Giants, incredibly lovely people.


Your live performance is unique, blurring lines and musical genres- Is performing a really intense process for you? How much is improvisation and experimentation? Vocally and digitally?


Jess: Oh, interesting question! Well thought out. I’ll have to think about this…


Do you adapt from recording to playing live?


Jess: I think there are quite a few similar elements because we like to take what we’ve recorded in a similar vein live because people want what they hear, but the variables of where you’re playing and the sound that you’re hearing, whether it’s even mistakes, does lend itself to variables of improvisation.


Shea: And we’ve also learnt from working on the arrangements of songs that are more equipped for a live environment. When you first start playing, usually club nights and sort of PA’s that you don’t usually get a great sound check on, the nuance on a lot of things are lost so your adjusting to that and often the main things that your hearing are the drums and hopefully the vocals sit on top of that. Every show has a unique audience so you have to adapt. For instance on this tour with the Jungle Giants in Melbourne it was more of a listening audience which was really nice and gave us the opportunity to play more intricate songs whereas in Adelaide it was a later set and the venue was a bit more of a party venue and that was a much more energetic show.


Jess: You’re constantly improvising and trying to adapt…


Shea: And like those Kook’s shows, the energy of Festival as apposed to the Tivoli was completely different. Every time you play a show you’re learning, these things were working here and then the funny thing is you may apply them to your next gig and it may not necessarily work.



You guys are half way through your “She’s A Riot” tour with the Jungle Giants, and are playing at the Zoo tonight, how have the shows gone so far? Any crazy stories from the road?

Shea: Oh, they are lovely guys!


Jess: So nice, we love them! Big heart for the Jungle Giants.


Shea: It’s literally like going on the road with your mates. Our drummer James knew Sam initially and when we were here in January, Sam actually came along and we hung out that night and he’s just the loveliest guy.


And he’s taking care of you while you’re up here, hey?

Jess: Yeah, we’re staying at his house, eating his food!


Shea: Haha, he makes a mean sandwich. But yeah, the whole band are such genuine people.


Jess: And they have such a great listening audience. They’re on their second EP now and they have a huge listening base and it’s a credit to them as songwriters and as people and as professionals that they’ve built this up so early on and we’re just lucky to be able to be a part of that. Say for instance, we come on stage with them for the last song of the night…


Yeah, you guys come on for ‘She’s a Riot’ don’t you?

Jess: Yeah, that’s an indication of how welcoming they are!


If you had an unlimited budget and the sky was the limit, what director would you love to work with on one of your music videos?

Jess: Ohhhhh, that’s a hard one! You’re so good at questions! You rule at questions! That’s hard… Hahaha Peter Jackson!


Hahaha something really epic?


Jess: Some Hobbits in there somewhere! Maybe something Star Wars’y?


Shea: Maybe Ridley Scott? I’m a big Hans Zimmer fan and I know that’s not really answering the question…


Oh god, so am I!

Shea: I’m not really a film buff but I really like soundtrack composition so in terms of movies that have moved me it would have to a combination of Zimmer and Scott because they’ve done a lot of stuff together. So potentially those two…


Jess: But it’s a music video…


Shea: Okay, well if Hans Zimmer did a remix, that would be amazing. So if Zimmer has our original, and Ridley Scott directed, and there was a rearrangement, you know, just for kicks… Thelma and Louise was a pretty mean film…


Jess: I still want Peter Jackson. I just want Hobbits. And Orks.

Shea: We have a very similar creative vision, as you can tell.


Jess: I’m just imagining some Ork’s in the convertible driving off the cliff haha!


So this a serious question, what are some challenges you guys have faced? And on the other side, what have been some of the absolute highlights?


Jess: Oh, we’ve never been asked that in an interview!


Shea: Umm, going back to your question about live versus studio, because we do develop ideas as a two piece and we use a mix of sounds, take the songs into live arenas has been quite challenging and figuring out things like arrangements. What elements we’d like to keep live and leave for the recorded works. For instance there is a whole lot of backing vocals that we do with Jess’s voice, working with a live drummer where we don’t always have in our recorded work. That’s a really good point because Jess can only sing one line at a time and the harmonies that come out from us developing our vocal ideas and vocal layers are a really important part of our overall sound.


What has surprised you about your experience in the music industry so far?

Jess: One thing I’ve definitely noticed is the more we do it the more respect I have for everyone else that does it. The challenges you encounter and the more people you encounter the more you realise how hard everyone works and that everyone deserves where they’re at. There are so many bands, so many great businesses and they all work together… everyone should be out there supporting everyone.


I think that’s such important part of the industry, for young indie bands coming up to support each other, even on the tour you’re doing now, getting exposed to each others fans.


Jess: And the more we push Australian music, the bigger it’s going to get. Gotye getting a number one in the US is great for everyone, like the exposure and spotlight, and everyone props each other up. So you realise, it shouldn’t be a competitive edge at all, we can do this together as a family.


I’ve found that, since working with Mat and even seeing my friend’s bands touring, everyone is super supportive of each other.


Shea: Brisbane is great for that, you guys have a really really good band community, and it’s really good to see. And everyone seems to know each other too, like the Ball Park Music guys and the Last Dinosaurs guys so it’s cool, it’s really good. It’s nice to see that sense of community.


Jess: And the more people you meet the more you realise it’s this one big kind of family. All good things happening and it’s helping everybody. You’re all working hard so you just enjoy it and support your friends when they have opportunities and they support you.


Even though you both recently graduated, how do you think you’ll find balance between further studies and also furthering your music? What do you think you’ll prioritise?

Shea: Definitely at the moment our music. We’ve been presented with some fantastic opportunities and we’re really grateful. The irony is while we were at the Conservatorium of Music and doing formalized study, you’re quite occupied by the syllabus and you’re concerned with grades and we went through uni as friends and would always share albums but when we started writing together on the side was when we were first finding it hard to juggle touring and study whereas now we’re out we can concentrate more on music.


Jess: But I don’t think, and the people out there should know that they are not mutually exclusive. There’s so many ways to study that it’s just about working smarter, not harder. As long as you’re enjoying it.


So recently you’ve been announced on the Big Day Out lineup next year, congratulations! Are you looking to doing some international tours in 2013?

Shea: Oh, that would be really nice. It’s hard to definitively say yes, because we’re still such a baby band.


Jess: We’re still within our first year of starting…


Shea: We’re still exploring the environment in Australia and really been privileged to go to every city and play shows and every time we go back we not only know where the best gelato shop and coffee shop is but we know more about the cities we play.


Jess: I guess if the opportunity presents itself of course we’d take it up. Ask us in a year haha!


As such young artists, what’s the best advice you’ve received and who was it from?

Jess: Oh my gosh! Well, mine would be from our manager and that’s to keep writing songs, that’s the main perspective. Keep enjoying music; the rest will look after itself!


Shea: It sounds a bit cliché but it really is because you’re obviously really invested in it and you’re quite interested in the ins and outs of the industry but at the end of the day the opportunities that have presented themselves for us have only come from us getting together in the studio and writing together and really enjoying that side. It all comes down to the songs.


Jess: And to keep perspective. Have fun. You’re touring around Australia with your friends- It’s really not bad.


Martina Bailey Pitrun - AAA Backstage

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