Singer/ Songwriter and Composer Anoushka Lucas speaks to Theatrefullstop about working on Ché Walker’s The Etienne Sisters!

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The Etienne Sisters sets to warm up the Theatre Royal Stratford East Stage this autumn. Written and directed by acclaimed playwright Ché Walker, the drama also features a musical component. The songs featured however would no be made possible without the assistance of a composer and songwriter. Cue both Sheila Atim and Anoushka Lucas, who have teamed up with Walker to create a musical landscape in which the characters inhabit. Ahead of The Etienne Sister‘s debut in Sepetember, Theatrefullstop were lucky enough to speak to singer/songwriter Anoushka Lucas about collaborating with Walker once again, her approach to writing songs for the production and gives advice to aspiring singer/songwriters!

Hi Anoushka, The Etienne Sisters is set to show at Theatre Royal Stratford East in September, how are you feeling ahead of the first show?

I’m feeling really excited and a bit nervous. We’re lucky to have assembled a very talented cast, and I’m really looking forward to watching them bring the words and music to life in front of a real live audience.

As songwriter and composer of the show, do you continually make edits of songs throughout the run?

I try to avoid changing the actual songs too late in the day, but sometimes you get into a room and realise that someone has more to say in one song, or conversely that a character is over-egging a point, so yes… if it’s clear something doesn’t work I’ll happily rework it. Where the music does change a lot is in the underscoring – I don’t tend to write that before we go into rehearsals, so a lot of the latter half of rehearsals is spent figuring out what needs to go where under the dialogue. We have award-winning jazz pianist Nikki Yeoh on board in this production, so I’ll definitely be working with her to find space for some improvising within the show.

The production witnesses yourself collaborating with writer and director Chè Walker once again, after the success of last year’s show, Klook’s Last Stand. How does the collaborative process work?

Usually I just get a ping in my inbox at about 2am, and it’s Chè saying “I had this idea” and attached is a whole script that he’s just written on the sly. I read through it and look out for the character or the song that grabs me- and then I’ll sit at my piano and start noodling until something good happens, and we go from there. Past a certain point, we try to get into a room and rope talented friends into reading or singing it out loud, so we can see if we’ve got something. It’s a very organic process working with Chè, he’s hugely supportive and our musical tastes are closely aligned so all in all it’s a pretty fun process.

When did you first decide that you wanted to become a singer?

I’m not sure I ever consciously decided to become a singer. I went off to university and read modern languages, which was great, and at the end of the degree when all the job fairs happened I realised that I didn’t want to do anything that was on offer so I just kept doing what I was already doing and I’m still pretending it’s a job.

Had you imagined that you would be writing songs for theatre productions in your career?

No but I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to. Working in theatre is totally different to being a jobbing musician, there’s a structure and a way of working that I really respect, and it’s a whole different experience to write for a character rather than for yourself.

How did you approach writing songs for The Etienne Sisters?

We agreed early on that the music would be very simple and stripped back – just piano and voice, so most of all it was about getting the voices of each character right. Sheila Atim wrote all of one character’s songs – Tree – and I focused on the other two, then we worked together on harmonising the group pieces. I was quite informed by female jazz, blues and country singers of the 20th century – a lot of powerful and mournful voices from Mavis Staples through to Gillian Welch.

How do you feel when you hear a cast member singing one of your songs for the first time?

Very lucky. It’s always a little nerve-wracking when you hand it over, but Allyson Ava Brown, Nina Toussaint-White and Jennifer Saayeng are great singers so it’s a pleasure to work with them and then watch how they all start to inhabit their songs. If I’m doing my job right, they don’t feel like “my” songs by the time to show goes up.

From page to stage, how long did it take for songs to be completed?

Years! I think Chè sent through the first few scenes to me in 2013 and since then we’ve grabbed days here and there to flesh it out – but in the meantime we had Klook on, and we both had other projects on the go. It wasn’t until Theatre Royal Stratford East brought us in for a workshop last year that we were able to find the time to finish a full draft of the show.

What advice would you give to aspiring singers and songwriters?

Go out and gig as much as you can. Learn how to put a set together, learn how to stand on a stage and be ok there. Surround yourself with excellent musicians, and when you like what they’re doing try and find out what it is. Listen to the music you know you love as much as you want but look out for the good new stuff too. Also it’s the age old cliché – but there’s no point standing on a stage singing something you think is rubbish. Do the stuff that fits you.

Interview by Lucy Basaba.

The Etienne Sisters will be showing at Theatre Royal Stratford East from Thursday 10th September until Saturday 3rd October. For more information on the production, visit here…

Enter our competition to win a pair of tickets to the show here…

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