Adalita brims with contradictions. She’s an eminent rock chick with a background in musical theatre. She’s a controlling solo artist who thrives on collaboration. And she’s a muso who enjoys the sound of silence.
The former front woman of acclaimed Melbourne grunge-rock band Magic Dirt didn’t plan on carving a career in music. “There was never, ever a thought in my head of being a musician in a band,” Adalita says. After spending her childhood in Geelong dancing in eisteddfods, she abandoned the tap shoes and taught herself guitar in her late teens. Rather than imitate others, she immediately began writing her own music. “I didn’t want to learn other people’s songs, I didn’t want to be like anybody else.”
With two distinctive solo albums behind her, she has created a unique sound. But as the winter of 2015 faded in Melbourne, Adalita has been learning another musician’s songs — those of American proto-punk icon Patti Smith.
This week as part of the Melbourne Festival, Adalita will perform Smith’s 1975 album Horses with fellow local artists Courtney Barnett, Jen Cloher and Gareth Liddiard. “It’s gonna be huge!” says Adalita.
And immediately, another unexpected incongruity is revealed: this female singer-songwriter-guitarist isn’t very familiar with the Horses album. “People constantly assume I’m a huge Patti Smith fan, it’s funny.”
After she was invited to be involved in the project, Adalita’s first thought was that Patti Smith fans would inevitably compare her to Smith.
“The temptation is to sing it like it she sings it,” she says, but her approach is more level-headed. She’ll simply rehearse thoroughly and enjoy it, rather than attempt to re-create Smith on stage. “You can’t replicate the original, there’s no point,” she says fiercely. “The more you do it your way, the better.”
She says she has learned to embrace performing covers. “I love doing covers, it’s so refreshing to walk away from my own stuff.”
As a teen experimenting with a guitar in her bedroom, making music was all about exploration and the development of her own voice. But in the years since, she’s covered many other musicians, including The Stooges with her band Magic Dirt, Madonna for Triple J’s Like a Version, and The Pretenders for Rockwiz.
Collaboration is not easy. “I like complete control,” she says, “but there’s a way to do it.” Having collaborated with co-producers, various guest musicians and other songwriters in the creation of her albums, she’s learned a lot: “So now I’m opening up a bit more to loosening the reins, letting people in, delegating”.
Adalita co-produced her second solo album, All Day Venus, with Lindsay Gravina, who also mastered her first self-titled solo record. Theirs is a “unique” working relationship. “We trust each other implicitly, we’re vibing on the same level, it’s very easy to work with Lindsay,” Adalita says. “He also pushes me to work harder.”
Gravina in turn describes Adalita as“one of our finest” musicians. He says making Venus was an “arm wrestle” but quickly adds that it was “always respectful and amicable, which is why we work well together”.
When he met her in 1992 he thought she was like a “fidgety, nervy, bespectacled young librarian” but he immediately appreciated her talent. “One of Ad’s strengths is her astonishing spontaneity.”
He recalls a series of “whirlwind” improvised vocals she recorded in the early days of Magic Dirt, to a backing track she’d never heard before. “Curiously, she doesn’t think it’s a big deal,” Gravina says.
“Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing,” she admits. “I don’t like being tamed in any way, by any force. I want to be that force.” She describes herself as “primal” and “provocative”, as one who rails against injustice and bites back when she witnesses wrongdoing.
But most of the time, she just wants to play. “I feel like a kid riding a wolf in the forest.”
She believes art shapes lives. “You’re changing the world by adding your bit to it, and it makes the world a better place. There’s so much to love about it, it’s beyond my comprehension.”
But lack of money and periods devoid of inspiration can take their toll. “You have to flick a switch and forget the bad stuff, because the worries can really stop you,” she says.
In the midst of the hard slog of creation, she reminds herself of the elation she feels when a project is completed. “I can’t wait for that moment. It takes all your being, all your energy, all that work, but it’s great.”
Later this year she will record her third solo album, but beyond that and the Horses show, the slate is blank. Without the need for anything as unspontaneous as a five-year plan, Adalita describes her future with paradox: “I live in the moment, but I do think a couple of steps ahead.”