Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking with actress and rapper Abbie Cornish. I noticed online that today is her 33rd birthday, so it seemed the perfect time to finally put up the transcript of our interview.
I first became aware of Abbie in 2004, when I was mesmerised by her performance in Somersault. I soon learned that she was from my part of the world. Abbie grew up on a Lochinvar property, about 20 minutes from where I lived in Bolwarra Heights.
Two years later I was blown away by another of her performances, that of the title character in Neil Armfield’s deeply wrenching film Candy. Hollywood took notice and a future in the American film industry was assured. I’ve remained not only an admirer of her incredible abilities as an actress, but also her choices. From the mad, heightened reality of Zack Snyder’s immensely enjoyable Sucker Punch to Martin McDonagh’s brilliant, dark and metafictional Seven Psychopaths, Abbie always appears in interesting movies.
But it was in 2007, when I became the editor of Hunter Valley based magazine Reverb, that I learned something new about Abbie. She was a rapper. My Reverb colleague, Kieran, was friends with a local hip-hop crew called Blades of Hades. Abbie was in that crew and wrote and performed with them until her professional acting career exploded. Every so often, between cinematic commitments, I would hear of Abbie popping up in Newcastle for one of their shows and again joining them on stage. I even saw her perform once when I was working as a bartender at Newcastle City Hall and Blades (they shortened their name) were ripping it up at a one-day all-ages music festival.
Jump forward about eight years. I heard Abbie was finally working on an official hip-hop release under her musical nom de plume: Dusk. So as its release approached I reached out to see if Abbie would like to discuss her new music, and soon we were having the below discussion. The interview was for a piece in The Maitland Mercury (its circulation covers Lochinvar), but space constraints meant that the majority of her quotes were omitted. I’ve been meaning to put this transcript online for months.
Abbie was lovely to interview and came across as a sensitive, spiritual soul. Her enthusiasm for her music was very apparent. And, of course, an interviewee’s desire to discuss a subject always makes for an easy conversation. We discussed her debut EP and upcoming Australian support slots with Nas.
Without any further ado, here’s my chat with Abbie Cornish.
The Nas tour starts tomorrow night, what are your feelings ahead of the tour?
I feel really excited. I feel very prepared. I feel very lucky. I’ve been in a rehearsal room here with DJ Butcher, who I engaged to do the tour with me, and it’s just been so much fun. Prepping the gig in LA was amazing, and we did a lot of long distance stuff, but just the last two days in the studio have just been such good times. I had a big twelve-hour sleep last night so I’m feeling good.
And this is the first time you will have performed the tracks off this EP live?
It will be, yeah. So the EP is a six-track EP. ‘Way Back Home’ you’ve heard. ‘Evolve’ is another track that features Jane Tyrell that I’ll release for free as well, over the next week and a half. There’ll be another track off the EP, then there’ll be another two tracks off the EP that I remixed for the live show. And then another track that myself and Butcher just came up with – just for fun.
Yeah, so they will be Dusk’s first live shows. Obviously from [age] eighteen to twenty-two I performed with Blades, but as a solo artist I haven’t performed yet.
…acting really took off for me and took me around the world, and I’ve had such a wonderful time with it. But I was missing sharing music.
Since you’ve moved overseas have you done any live performance at all? Even on the quiet?
With friends – super on the quiet. But nothing with any banners or flyers or announcements or anything. Music has always been a part of my life, since I was a kid. It’s never not been a part of my life. Because I was about eighteen to twenty-two when I was in Blades and we were performing and making albums. Then acting really took off for me and took me around the world, and I’ve had such a wonderful time with it. But I was missing sharing music. I was making music but I wasn’t sharing it, I wasn’t playing it, I wasn’t recording it, I wasn’t putting it out into the world and I thought ‘gosh, I really want to be doing that’. I really miss doing that and I wonder what it would be like to be a solo artist and just see what happened. So I embarked on that journey.
I had so much support from the hip hop community in Australia because I had grown up in the hip hop community. There were a lot of relationships with people that were still there. But then there were also all these new relationships that blossomed when I reached out, people that I didn’t grow up in the scene with but I obviously really respected and admired.
So I came to Australia about a year-and-a-half ago and spent a month just travelling around and hanging out with everyone. It was an amazing time. That’s when I recorded with the [Hilltop] Hoods, I recorded with Illy. I went over and hung out with Drapht in Perth. Just people like Mantra, and Seth Sentry, and The Herd and Jane [Tyrell]. Hermitude. Just hung out with people and spent time with people and recorded with people. Not all of those people I recorded with, just some of them. It was a really special time for me. The hip hop community is so strong in Australia. Even just getting Tom Thum [beat boxer], out of Brisbane, to do the hand style and having Butcher DJ for me – it’s a really sweet community.
When the idea of doing your solo release became a reality, was it always the plan to return to make it amongst Australians? Because there must be hip hop people in Los Angeles that you also could have worked with.
Well the very first song I worked on, ‘Evolve’, is produced by an American producer. Not essentially a hip hop producer but I produced a hip hop track with him. I saw the potential for it with him. He’s so talented and a classically trained musician. He also did the whole Halo soundtrack. He does scores for film and television. I saw the potential in him to make ‘Evolve’.
But for me it was about honouring the roots of where music really began for me and the hip hop scene here [in Oz], and the Australian music scene. Because I think music in Australia is abundant, it’s thriving, it’s got a great vibe, it’s very specific in that there is so much that has come out of Australia in terms of music. It’s a wonderful artistic and creative and vibrant community here. I wanted to go to the roots and the grounding of that and really honour that. I mean, there is no place like home. There really isn’t. So I felt it was a great place to begin this journey. And, funnily enough, it’s brought me here now to do this tour with one of the kings of hip hop [Nas]. One of the living legends of hip hop. And I get to do that in my home country. I couldn’t be any more blessed than this right now.
So you have been working on the EP for about a year and a half?
Yeah, I think about a year and a half. Sometimes it would be all I was working on. Then if I made a film it would just depend on my days off or my time off. I actually wrote one song called ‘Zombies’, which I’ll perform live, on the set of Solace. I was sitting on set and I kept hearing this song in my head, and I had this beat from Pluto, so in between takes it just had to get out of my system. In between takes I would just sit in my cast chair with my headphones on and I wrote that whole song over four days between takes.
There’s been times when I’ve been doing both [music and movies]. In New Orleans recently, where I was shooting Geostorm, I did a lot there. I worked on the website with Ben and was working on the [live] show. So for me [movies and music] are going to co-exist and I really love them co-existing. Even while I’m here I’m taking a meeting on a movie. For me, I’m hoping, because I really love music so much, this will be something that I will get to continue to do. I’m so happy to be doing it again because I missed it.
What has been your songwriting process? Do the songs start with a sample or a hook? Or do you have a notebook of lyrics that you draw from?
For me the process is quite organic, but if lyrics are bubbling out of me then I can write them on a piece of paper with music, without music or with beats that are inspiring me. On the EP, for example, I sourced demos of beats from various producers and if something inspired me I would then work with the producer on expanding it into a song. For example, ‘Evolve’ was a one-minute piece that Nathan and I then worked on expanding out into a four-and-a-half minute song. I had ideas for what the choruses would be and what the verses would be, then we would sit and build on those, then we’d write and restructure. It was an ongoing collaborative process.
With ‘Way Back Home’, Matt [Lambert aka Suffa of Hilltop Hoods] already had a beautifully constructed instrumental there. We did a little bit of structuring but it was already a very well constructed and well-made beat. It was just about me writing and bringing in the gospel singers.
Then there’s a few other tracks that were just embryos that we just built out. I would add some musicians, like a guitarist or DJ. It is nice to write for the actual song and it is nice to build it with a producer and musicians.
Was the EP recorded in different studios?
I recorded it mostly in the Hilltop Hoods’ studio. I also recorded in Dave Sitek’s studio in Los Angeles. Those were the two main homes for the album. I recorded a couple of things in Drapht’s studio and a couple of thing with Illy in Melbourne.
In terms of the lyrics, are there any recurring themes on the EP? What have you addressed?
You have ‘Evolve’ which is essentially about the evolution of what it is to be on this Earth. The human, physical nature and the spiritual connection, and where those two meet. Then you get ‘Way Back Home’, which I think you can get the subject matter of. Home is where the heart is. It doesn’t matter where you are, you can connect to what home really means within yourself or the people that you love. ‘Zombies’ is pretty dark. When you see it live, you’ll get the vibe of it. ‘Hummingbird’ is about love and ‘Stray Cat’ is about not having that moment where you know who you are or where you’re going. You’re a bit of a stray cat on the street, but then you have this feeling of getting over that and growing up and coming into yourself regardless of the life you’ve been given.
The bio on your Dusk website noticeably doesn’t mention your name or acting career. Do you want people to view your music as something separate to your life as an actress?
Yeah, that would be really nice, but it’s up to the listener and it’s up to, for example, you and whoever is writing about it and engaging with it. People are totally entitled to their own opinions and their own connection to things. So that’s cool with me, however people would like to receive this, listen to it, digest it – whatever they want to think about it is totally up to them. I’m really happy to be doing this and it means so much to me. That’s really fulfilling and I just want to share that with people. I hope people will connect to the music and get into it.
Are you planning to release a full-length album this year?
Yeah, even yesterday me and Butcher were going through tracks and found a couple that we’re going work on. So I think it’s already begun, to be honest.
Does it feel like the floodgates for this creative outlet have opened?
I think it’s like anything in life, if you put your energy and focus into it, it’s going to grow. It just is, you know?
Do you have any clear ideas about how you’d like your album to sound?
I think, for me, the EP was really about making music again. And it came from a very raw, very honest… a place where I was just making music. I was just writing and creating and having these collaborative relationships with people that were so wonderful. The album will come with a bit more consciousness. Even with Butcher yesterday I said, ‘Man, I really want to make some tracks with you that really want to make you dance and move. I want there to be this momentum and flow, but I want to be able to jam out with people, and for people to feel that when they listen to the song.’ And it was really fun. He was playing me stuff and I was jumping around the room. I think you could combine that with some really beautiful ambience and melodies, and some soulful piano and violins… that’s what moves me. In terms of beat-driven stuff, I love it when there’s a heartbeat in there, or a mood or emotion that’s the centre of the song – even if it makes you dance.