“I’m not trying to make something that’s completely in the moment, so that you put it on and it’s current in some sort of sensational way,” says Zoe Randall of Luluc, speaking softly but with a broad Australian twang. “It’s not definitely not gimmicky stuff, which means that it won’t resonate with people who want the going trends or what’s happening in music.”
“The thing for me is that I want to make rewarding music that you can listen to indefinitely, again and again. That’s my benchmark,” she continues. “And I hope we can achieve that, because the records that I love and that resonate with me are the records that I’ve been listening to forever. So I really, that’s kind of what I want, to make rewarding and rich music that you can get something out of and that doesn’t feel time specific.”
Randall’s latest album, with Luluc partner Steve Hassett, is serene and minimal, with soothing echoes of 1960s folk icons like Joni Mitchell and Vashti Bunyan. She comes from rural Upotipotpon, a hundred miles northeast of Melbourne, Australia, and she grew up on a farm, close to nature and best friends with animals.
“We had cattle and sheep on the farm and some domestic animals around the house,” she recalls. “It’s a bit of a wonderland when you’re a child, just getting to be outside and play with animals. You learn a lot about nature and life. You make very strong connections with animals as well as people. It’s a blissful life.”
Blissful, at least, until you hit your preteens and start to think about what you want to do with your life. “Even when I was younger, there were aspects of the small town atmosphere and sometimes attitudes that I found pretty limiting and pretty frustrating, so I was quite pleased to get out of there and explore places where the ideas might have been. Not that I didn’t connect with people and have some fantastic friendships there, but at a very young age, I had a really strong sense that I wanted to go elsewhere,” she says.
Randall did go elsewhere, finally, getting up her courage to try music only after her father died just over a decade ago. “I kept avoiding songwriting in a way, doing other things and being a bit nervous to try,” she remembers. “After he passed away, I thought, well, really people and music are the most important things in my life. I think I will try to dedicate myself to it.”
Luluc’s first album, Dear Hamlyn, was a tribute to Randall’s father. Asked if it were hard to sing those very personal songs now, so long after the fact, Randall says no. “It feels like a wonderful way to pay tribute to the people I loved and now though it’s all past. And, you know, it’s part of life that we all experience, by putting them into songs, by creating songs and putting them into music and making records out of them, you can create something that’s enjoyable for people,” she explains.
Different Skill Sets
Randall and Hassett are both native Australians, but their partnership didn’t start until the pair met in Edinburgh at a folk music festival, introduced by Randall’s London cousins. “When we met it was very clear that we had similar tastes and understandings and inclinations around music,” Randall remembers. Later, back in Australia, they worked on the songs that became Dear Hamlyn. Randall says that Hassett can spot the flaws in her nascent songs at 100 paces.
“We have quite distinct skill sets. I focus more on the songwriting. I pretty much write the basis of the songs, the lyrics and the general musical structure,” she says. “Then I’ll go to Steve who has much better musical skills than I do. I’m able to show him ideas that I come up with and he’ll very cleverly pinpoint some aspect that’s not working, and I know it’s working, but I’m not able to express why. It’s really helpful.”
Hassett also brought a full set of engineering and production skills to the partnership. He mixed both the first album and a second EP. He was going to produce Passerby as well, until the two of them started hanging out with the National.
Randall says that she first met Matt Berninger through her filmmaker friend Craig Charland, who worked with the band on their documentary Mistaken For Strangers, and before that, on the closing credits song for the film Win Win. Charland invited Berninger, Randall, and Hassett to a party in Melbourne one summer, just as the Luluc duo were contemplating a move to New York City. Berninger called later about a possible sublet, and the two ended up moving in one floor above Aaron Dessner. It was a three-story building with a finished roof, so the original plan was to record the next Luluc album on the roof. Then Dessner heard some demos and offered to help. The three of them ended up recording in Dessner’s studio in the garage.
“Within five minutes we knew we had very similar tastes and very similar attitudes to what we were doing,” says Randall. “It very quickly became clear that Aaron’s ideas producing the album worked closely with what we wanted to do and yeah, it made the whole process a lot easier. It was quite remarkable.”
Randall says she can hear traces of the National’s sound on Passerby, but only in ways that fit her music. “That was what was so great about Aaron,” she confides, “He didn’t come in with a kind of production sound that he wanted. He was really listening to the songs and really responding to them. I feel like the additions that he made are rich and layered and really suit the songs, and I really love what he did.”
For instance, “Early Night” was demo’d as an acoustic folk picking song. “But there was something about the lyrical content that had a sort of trance-like atmosphere, so when we started working on it, Aaron wanted to pull out the guitar and see how it sounded,” Randall says. “Aaron started layering in some guitar sounds. I love how it evokes the dusk and the looming darkness, these kind of pinging sounds. So we’re really happy with that one and it’s going to be fun to do it live.”
Musically, Randall cites influences like Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Simon and Garfunkel, and Francois Hardy, all clear forerunners in her unruffled, gently melancholy folk sound. Still, there’s an edge in her lyrics that slices through the calm, a precision and fascination with wordplay. The closer you listen, the more urbane and sophisticated she sounds.
Randall says she’s more influenced by writers and poets than by musicians, tending especially to the classics. Right now, she’s thinking about Dickens and how he sketches characters in a few well-chosen lines; you can see a little of that influence in “Passerby”, but she’d like to work on it some more in her next album. She’s also been reading Rules for the Dance by the poet Mary Oliver. “Even though I haven’t written poetry or read a lot of poetry, I found her writing about how to write poetry and really helpful to the lyric process.”
In Passerby, Randall found herself fascinated by double meanings, that is words that might conventionally lead to one idea but also suggest another. She says it was partly a reflection of her living in New York.
“New York City is so layered and rich and there’s so much here and so many people that you can’t get a very strong foothold. It’s constantly evolving and constantly changing and it feels alive,” she says. “There’s something about that sort of fluidity and consciousness and change and history and suffering and difficulty.”
She was writing “Tangled Heart”, thinking about all that complexity and history, when she made a slight substitution. The line that had read “You find some history behind every pane,” now ended with the word “pain.” “That seemed to speak to that history of struggle and ambition in the city,” she says. “So once I saw that, I started looking for it everywhere, and I saw there were quite a few ways for that double or even triple meaning to come through, even in a song that’s essentially about living and trying to make it.”
I Don’t Feel Held Back
Luluc’s Passerby is a quiet, subtle album, one that gains hold slowly, rather than slapping you in the face. I ask Randall if she feels like its simplicity, its almost complete lack of gimmicks is holding her and Hassett back. “I don’t know. I don’t feel held back,” she says.
“I think there are measures of success and critical acclaim and all that kind of thing, but I think that personally, the time that I feel successful is really when the record is complete,” she adds. “Really the whole process is about writing the songs and listening to them and paying attention to them and making sure that you honor and respect the ideas. So that process is incredibly painstaking and rewarding and challenging. But by the time it’s done, it’s done. Obviously we hope people enjoy and listen to our songs. But I feel like we’re succeeding when we respect the ideas that we have.”
Randall also wants her albums to flow smoothly, as a whole, without the kind of gotcha moments that can capture short-term attention. Asked if she has a favorite moment in Passerby, she pauses for a long time before saying, “Nope. Because it’s a complete piece. That’s always the real challenge. I really want to make records. So, you know, I think, I’m just very ... by the time we got the masters, I was very happy because I feel like all the songs fit together and it’s a whole piece.”
“I think in a great song you don’t have a sense of a particular trend or fashion. There are many albums and artists that I can listen to and enjoy, and I don’t have a sense of their process or what they’re trying to achieve. It’s such a complete sound and atmosphere and intent that you get encapsulated by it. So you get to that place or that atmosphere and go on the journey that they’ve created. And that’s incredibly powerful,” she says. “Bridge Over Troubled Water was one of the first albums that I ever got, and still to this day, those songs are completely transportive, and they endure and are rich, and the sense of time passing is almost irrelevant. They speak to a sense of human experience that crosses time and boundaries.”