Ebony Lamb knows dark and foreboding, both in her creative practices and in life. She also knows her way through - opening up about her new project, as well as how she keeps her mental wellbeing a priority.
The next stage of a remarkable Wellington singer-songwriter’s career has taken a dark twist.
Ebony Lamb’s gorgeous vocals lifted three captivating albums and numerous live stages during the 2010s with the Indy-folk-country band Eb & Sparrow.
She emerged from the pandemic with a series of tours as both a headliner and support act - and is patiently waiting for the right time to release her debut solo album.
Now she’s making her first foray into the eerie world of soundtracks to accompany an 11-part RNZ podcast delving deep into contentious police tactics and a dodgy murder confession.
Lamb has also revealed her own ways of dealing with mental health issues in the arts in a candid conversation with The Big Idea.
Mr Lyttle Meets Mr Big is a paradoxical true crime story set in rural Manawatū and Whanganui and written by journalist and lawyer Steven Price, and the haunted tones and shadows of uncertainty were custom-made for her unique score.
“It was a huge treat to be asked. Steven knows my previous work with Eb & Sparrow, as a fan. We talked on the phone a few times then we met in person and we worked out what he was looking for and why he asked me.
“It was interesting timing because I had the space.
“He’s extremely passionate. He’s very learned .. (but) I had some reservations.”
Lamb’s shimmering music and otherworldly tones lift the story to an ominous level, prominent but not intrusive - and central to the shifting moods of the podcast which focuses on the case of David Lyttle, who in 2014 was arrested and charged with murdering his friend Brett Hall.
“There is a certain amount of ghostliness that he was looking for and is unique to New Zealand and its landscape.
“I really relate to that. I understand that. The push-pull between an unresolved, unknown outcome where there is truth and there is hidden and really only the people that are there know what truly happened.”
The mother of an adult daughter has another string to her bow as an accomplished professional photographer, specialising in portraits of Aotearoa musicians and writers - in recent times capturing the likes of Eleanor Catton, Catherine Chidgey and Emily Perkins. “huge heroes in their own areas”.
On her latest project, she got to meld her artistic skills - applying it to the landscape that drives her soundtrack.
I always envision the music and the visuals being intertwined in everything that I do.
"I don’t always say that out loud. Some people just listen to records and you have your own internal world.
“The Whanganui River road I found to be extremely beautiful but also there was a sense of you know, I’m a visitor. This is a very different place. I find this going on tour throughout Aotearoa. I definitely observed things people didn’t experience growing up in suburban New Zealand. There’s a community within the community and they need each other regardless of whether they like each other.”
Immersing in the bleak subject matter and landscapes of her latest project raises the spectre of mental health, and how it’s impacted on her and other artists - drawn into sharp focus by COVID’s debilitating impact on creativity.
How do you keep performing and composing when there’s so much uncertainty?
“I have an obligation to look after that now. It’s up to me if I want to have a productive life. If I choose not to deal with them, that is extremely dangerous. That goes for anybody.
“In my experience most - not all - but most artists who I deal with in any form have a delicate personality type. We are not always easy to live with. I think I can say I’m one of those people. I come across as charming .. you should talk to my family (laughs).
“I’m lucky to be on the other side of my biggest battles which happened about 15 years ago. I think the worst thing that happened in that time is the deep isolation that can happen.”
Lamb thankfully came through her toughest challenge before her relatively late journey into the artistic spotlight.
“In the past, I did need intervention - because I could not get through. I’ve had a couple of breakdowns in my past.
They’re not something I talk about in the public realm, but they absolutely happened and I’m lucky to be here.
“I’m not alone in that...
She’s remarkably candid about her own experiences and how she deals with them.
“I might be private about my little world but I’m an open book about it.
"Because that isolation is a killer I think. It takes courage …. I have had periods of years of incredibly good health and I need to remember that. It exists, it’s not all bad.
“When the dark comes, sometimes it gives me a bit of a fright. Actually, I’ve had a couple of patches in the last few years.
"I now know how to go with it and release .. and with time, it shifts.
"That’s really vital and I’ve also had to work hard not indulging those crutches that can keep us down.”
Lamb’s happy to share her own coping mechanisms and they involve her partner (fellow musician Gram Antler) and their family.
Her daughter turned 22 on the day of the podcast launch. There’s also a 19-year-old stepson, who’s left home, and a ten-year-old stepson she lives with full time.
“My biggest champions are being part of a family and before music, I have to put that side first.
“Like today, I really need to go for a fifteen-minute walk or I don’t think I will behave well. It’s as approachable as that.
“Music does it for me. Sometimes I really like listening to music that doesn't have words. So I listen to jazz and I listen to classical music a lot.”
There’s some serious synergy in the podcast project for Lamb - as she discovers paths through the soundtrack universe with award-winning film composer David Long on an APRA Aotearoa Mentorship Programme.
“You start to listen to music differently - watching a film and thinking about it from a music perspective is a totally different experience .. I called it a ‘foreboding ghost’.
“I believe I am able to do it, but I don’t always have the skills to do it. It’s about gaining practical skills, how to transfer what I already know and start where I’m at.
Working with someone who understands the band mentality - which he (Long) does from his time with the Muttonbirds - and having a home studio, which he does.”
The next challenge facing Ebony Lamb is the much-delayed release of her debut solo album, which has been recorded with a small but stellar cast.
There was a taster with the gorgeous - and yes, spooky - Take My Hands at Night with its accompanying 16 mm black and white video released late last year.
Time is not of the essence.
“I would say it’s a reflection of the current world climate and myself that I have just not actually found THE right time.
“I think it’s been frustrating and also totally okay to take quite a while.
It’s not the norm. It’s not ideal,” she laughs.
“The plan is to release the record I recorded with Bic Runga and Kody Nielson, and Gram Antler as well - it’s just the four of us on that record and they produced it. But they’re my songs .. I wrote them.”
The intent is to tour the new album, when her supporting cast are available.
“Bic’s on tour in July doing her own thing and Kodi’s on a world tour with Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Gram Antler is holding down the fort.
The gestation period is - when it’s right, it will be right.
"The plan is to release before the end of this year.”
Live music remains a passion and a driving force after the pandemic stop button earlier this decade.
Reflecting on her career to date, Lamb muses “Even if it’s small, it’s humble - I have amazing fans who come to shows. And I’ve played hundreds of shows, in the centres and all the provinces. I have loved playing all of them - I’m quite happy playing to a room full of locals, as well as playing to big crowds.
“Last year, I went on three tours - I supported Tom Cunliffe on his tour, I played a double headline with Jesse Cornelius, who’s a New Zealander living in L.A and we did a great little national tour. And then I went on a five date tour of Hawke’s Bay which was really special.
“Then I did support act stuff. I did about 15 or 16 shows in the space of about three months, after not doing much. I thought ‘Oh yeah .. still got it’ - loved it. It was a gift .. reminded me of the power of the live show.”
Lamb is at a fresh junction in her creative career, after more twists and turns than a back-country road in the lower North Island hinterland.
She’s energised by new collaborative challenges, choosing when to launch her own projects and - crucially - looking after her wellbeing and sharing that knowledge with others.
“With my mental health, I work really hard on having a stable family home so I can be radical in my art.
“That’s the plan. Not radical in myself, because that’s destructive.
I have that within me - at any point, I could self-sabotage. I’ve had to reconcile that.”