Emma Dean Reflects on Forging A Unique Creative Path And Using The Healing Power of Music to Build Community
This is the fourth in a regular series of blog posts in which I speak with exciting artists, innovators, and entrepreneurs exploring how their creative skills have enabled them to do incredible things in their personal and professional lives.
You can find all of these interviews by searching for the tag #CreativeInnovative.
Born in Brisbane, Emma Dean is Australia's best-kept musical secret. A genre-bending powerhouse with a heavenly voice, she garners accolades and conquers the hearts of audiences and critics wherever she performs. In 2013, she lit New York's off-Broadway scene on fire and the New York Post named her “one of 10 artists to know."
Returning to Brisbane, Emma fell in love with music all over again. While her work has always been ethereal and electric, this latest phase of her career is a whole different level of musical magic - new creative collaborations, a community choir, and a business collective.
Emma Dean's many contributions to the communities in which she comes into contact are immeasurable. She is someone who lifts up and inspires others simply by embodying what it is to be a creative entrepreneur who leads with her heart.
Note: "Tall Poppy Syndrome" refers to an aspect of Australian culture where people who are seen as aspiring to excellence are targeted, resented, criticised. It is often contrasted with the way America tends to celebrate those who work hard with the dream of attaining success.
F: You have spent a lot of time in Australia, but also have worked in New York.
E: Yes, Brisbane is home. Though, I have lived in both Sydney and New York. Both of these places were vibrant and alive, but I have found I need somewhere smaller and quieter to create.
F: How did the New York scene compare to communities in Australia?
E: Both Aussies and New Yorkers are a friendly bunch. The thing I loved most about New York was the non-existence of ‘tall poppy syndrome’. If you were talented and good at what you do, people would WANT to work with you, not find a way to cut you down. What I missed about Brisbane, in particular, was space and time. Everyone in New York was so busy, juggling multiple jobs, sometimes just to get by. I missed having the space (I lived in a shoebox) and time to invite friends over to eat and jam and drink wine.
Working in New York taught me about what I didn’t want. I saw firsthand what I needed to do in order to climb the ‘ladder of success’ as an original musician and I realized I wasn’t cut out for it. So, I had to redefine what ‘success’ meant for me. I continue to redefine it’s meaning all the time, but I always come down to a few simple things: Success, to me, is to lead a rich life, full of adventure, earning a comfortable living from musical pursuits, working to create a supportive and thriving musical community, helping people find their unique creative voice, and always nurturing my own.
F: What skills served you in these different places?
E: In New York I was often asked, “So, are you any good?” As an Australian with a long history of dealing with ‘tall poppy syndrome’, my ‘humble’ answers often sparked remarks like, “Oh stop all this false modesty!” I found that really challenging. I was also told, at the age of 29 that I should lie and say I was 24. New York certainly taught me how to hustle, took me to my edges, and brought me out of my shell. I still struggle with confidence, but I do believe the experience of living in New York made me prove to myself that I am tougher than I think!
F: You have released EPs with an American label. What has it been like engaging with companies in America and Australia?
E: I had a really positive experience with Candy Rat Records in America. One of the owners – Holly - I now call my ‘US Mum’! They were very nurturing, which I think is a quality lacking in a lot of music companies these days where the emphasis is to keep churning out new material rather than nurturing and growing raw talent. Nowadays I don’t have much experience dealing with companies at all, as I am 100% independent. If I met someone who wanted to work with me, I would need to feel nurtured and safe and that they were as passionate about my work as I am.
F: Tell me a little about your background in the arts.
E: I started at a classical ballet school when I was 2 and a classical music school when I was 3. By the age of 6, I was learning classical violin and a few years later, a horrible dance teacher told my mum that my bum was too big to be a ballerina, so as much as I loved dance, an emphasis was placed strongly on music. In late primary school I began learning piano, though I was a terrible student and only wanted to write my own music rather than learn the pieces my teacher had given me! I was terribly shy growing up, so I used to lock myself away in my bedroom and compose songs, kind of like a diary entry. When I was 13, I started my first band – Halo. We performed my biggest gig to date, at The Brisbane Entertainment Centre in front of about 7000 people, when I was just 14. Band politics and hormonal teenage girls did not make for a good mix, so the band broke up a couple of years later. Though it sparked my love of singing, so I auditioned for the school musical – Little Shop Of Horrors – and got in as the lead character, Audrey. After school, I had a gap year and completed by AMus A in classical violin and then went on to audition successfully for the Queensland Conservatorium Of Music in Jazz Voice and completed my Bachelor Of Music. I have also trained with Brisbane physical theatre company, Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre, which gave me a brilliant insight and awareness of my body and made me remember how much I love to move, beautiful big bum and all!
F: Your projects often involve collaboration with other creative professionals and incorporate music with dance. What are the benefits and challenges of working this way?
E: I have tried to ‘go solo’ and I just get lonely. One of my favourite spaces is the rehearsal room, bouncing ideas off other creatives. It’s a space that can open your mind to new possibilities; things you might not have thought of before. As previously mentioned, I grew up studying dance, so movement has been an important part of my performance history. As much as I adore music, I have been equally as intrigued with the physical interpretation of it, and adore pieces with both music and movement. I suppose it is a natural progression to merge the two art forms in my work.
F: How did you decide to take your art in this direction?
E: I actually wanted to get into acting so I contacted Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre and they so bravely asked if I wanted to audition for one of their productions – The Tempest. I got the role as Arial and this is where I met my dance collaborator, Jamie Kendall. The rest is history.
F: Did this require you to take on additional training?
E: Yes! I began training with Zen Zen Zo and was in a number of their productions. I had to increase my fitness and get reacquainted with my body. It was life-changing.
F: What drives you to be a musician?
E: It is when I feel most in flow, and connected to myself and the world around me.
F: Am I correct in understanding that you have managed to make music an aspect of all of your jobs as a performer and teacher. How did you make that choice?
E: Yes, you are right! This has been the case for a number of years now, and I am blessed to have this reality. I perform, write songs, teach, arrange choir music, hold workshops and conduct my community choir – Cheep Trill. I made that choice because I’m not good at anything else. Ha ha!
F: How do you create? From where do you draw your inspiration?
E: It depends. I used to really completely on the creative force to strike me down. Then things got busy. I am sometimes part of the I Heart Songwriting Group which encourages members to write one song in an hour each week. When it comes to my arrangements, I have to be very disciplined as I’m usually on very strict deadlines.
F: When I look at your biography, I don’t know where to start, you have performed with Amanda Palmer and the Dresden Dolls, been nominated for a myriad of awards, played sold-out shows, and, above all, are known for creating moving and innovative performances. When you consider your career thus far, of what accomplishments are you most proud?
E: Starting my community choir, Cheep Trill, which is now 150 singers strong and in two locations in Brisbane; writing a vocal arrangement of You’re the Voice for John Farnham to sing with 2500 choristers, singing out about domestic violence; moving to New York and giving it a red hot go; and the work I am currently doing with my brother – our upcoming EP and Cabaret, Broken Romantics A Vicious Song Cycle…
F: How do you manage burnout/feed yourself creatively?
F: Part of the Vibrance philosophy is that some training in voice, movement, and performance gives individuals concrete and adaptable skills that enable them to excel at whatever endeavours they choose.
E: Yes, I agree! I think voice/movement/performance skills train you to listen, to adapt, to compromise, to negotiate, to work alongside other people who have similar beliefs AND different beliefs. I also think training in these ways gets you in touch with who YOU are – with your body, your mind, your soul.
F: Yes, exactly! And in your own experience, what adaptable skills have you gained through your training that you apply in other contexts?
E: My singing training has helped me with public speaking. My jazz and improvising training has helped me to create work on the fly, under pressure. My movement training has helped me to be more at peace with my own unique body. Working in performance teams has taught me how to work alongside other humans in a respectful way.
F: Then how do you set boundaries with regards to managing your personal from your creative spaces?
E: I am an incredibly private person and live alone. However, I also teach and work from home so I am constantly having to invite people into my personal space so I can work. I try to set boundaries around work times, however, this is an ongoing process for me that I am constantly refining.
F: Do you use intuition and aesthetic to help you manage this process?
I am trying to listen to my intuition more when it comes to work. I am trying to embrace Michael Leunig’s JOMO (the joy of missing out) mentality, as my tendency is to take on too much work, even if it doesn’t feel right. I think as freelance artists we get used to saying YES to everything for fear that the work will one day dry up. I’m trying to shift this and feel into my decisions more. Is it a F*** YES or just a YES?
F: Your work involves you being involved in several communities - the music community, theatre community, and wider community. What drives you to do this? What do you get out of this engagement?
E: I feel like I am mostly connected with communities I have built myself, such as Cheep Trill community choir. The reason for this is because I have never really felt like I fit in a box or been part of the music or theatre communities. Instead I have lived on the fringe of all of these worlds.
F: That's one of the incredible things about you, the entrepreneur in you creates something unique and the artist in you fills it it magic! Tell me about your community choir Cheep Trill. How did your idea to form it originate?
E: The idea was born from loneliness and a lack of community when I was living in New York. I decided I would move back home to Brisbane and I wrote a facebook status asking if anyone would be interested in joining a singing group. The next day I opened my email and facebook and had approximately one hundred inquiries. The choir has grown exponentially and we now have two locations and 150 members.
From our humble beginnings rehearsing on a verandah in Everton Park, we have expanded into two locations. This allows us to keep growing but also keep an intimate feel at rehearsals. We have a north and a south side location to also cater for people’s many a varying locations.
F: What are your proudest accomplishments?
One of my proudest moments was arranging ‘You’re The Voice’ for 2500 choristers (including Cheep Trill) to sing at a Queensland Music Festival performance, singing out about domestic violence. John Farnham made a surprise appearance and sang the arrangement with the choir. It was the only different arrangement of that song that John Farnham had ever sung.
Another proud moment was singing at Queensland Performance Arts Centre concert hall stage and ROCKING OUT! Also, seeing the female Cheep Trill members accompany Deb Conway, Clare Bowditch and a bunch of other amazing female artists at The Tivoli, singing my arrangement of Hymn To Her by Pretenders.
F: That's remarkable - and in a comparatively short time. It also strikes me that Cheep Trill integrates your skills as a composer/arranger, teacher/conductor, and singer/musician. You have been teaching private lessons for several years. What first drew you to teaching?
E: At first, it was quite simply the need to fund my art (and being a bad waitress).
F: Who do you teach?
E: I have actually quit my teaching job in 2017 because choir work was getting too busy. I was teaching beginners or people with naturally good voices but limited experience, mostly between the ages of 20-40.
F: Wow, that's really exciting! What approaches have you developed to work with choirs or individuals?
E: I put emphasis in finding my students’ unique voice and working with that, rather than teaching a particular technique or telling them how they should sound.
I try to make each lesson fun as well as informative and challenging
I value wo rds, so putting strong emphasis on story telling as well as technique
F: Describe your dream student
E: Someone hungry to learn, able to take constructive criticism, someone who practices, who listens, who is excited to try new genres and who is interested in song arrangement and writing!
F: What do you say to people who claim to “not be creative”?
E: I’d probably say ‘B******t’. Then I would try to create something with them and prove them wrong.
F: How can musical training benefit someone who doesn’t wish to be a singer or musician?
E: Listening skills, confidence, connection, storytelling, public speaking, controlling nerves and breathing, fun and play, creative release, a sense of belonging, a sense of achievement…and the list goes on.
F: What are the moments that reward you as a teacher?
E: When someone walks away from a lesson feeling happier and more connected than when they walked in. Simple.
F: In your own learning, did you have any teachers who were pivotal ? What qualities or actions made them so influential?
E: My high school music teacher, Narelle McCoy! She is a firey, passionate, highly intelligent red head and she forced me to audition for the school musical after I had been in hospital with depression. She believed in me and showed me that I could do more than I ever imagined. She was the reason I realised I could become a singer and probably the reason I had red hair for so long too!
F: What is your business? What is unique about it/them?
E: The Tiger Common is my music school. We are different because we place emphasis on community and try to connect our students as much as we can, through choir, workshops and other informal events. Our mission is to encourage creativity, human connection, self-love and respect through the magical and healing powers of music.
F: How did you get into starting your own business?
E: I had already started Cheep Trill and I was working with Tony Dean (my brother) and Corinne Buzianczuk and we were looking to ‘formalise’ what we did and include our teaching work and workshops. It was a natural progression.
F: Do you feel that there are unique challenges when ones’s business is so personal?
E: It is certainly harder to not take conflict personally when you run a heart-based business. But I have learnt that the bigger we get, the more likely it is that we will not be able to please everyone.
F: What was the toughest learning curve that you experienced?
E: The toughest thing to do so far was splitting the choir in two. We were responding to so many location requests and we thought the best idea would be to have a north and a south side location. However, many of the choristers believed this meant we were splitting up the family. Another tough learning curve was to figure out what to do when we would receive gig requests for a choir of 50 people. We have 150. We are still figuring this out!
F: What are the most useful strategies that support your business and work?
E: Honestly, the key is communication. Tony, Corinne and I have a whatsapp thread that has been invaluable and we have regular in person meetings. Knowing where all our different strengths lie has been incredible.
F: What performer skills have come in useful in your business?
E: Standing in front of a choir for two hours two nights a week and trying to teach as well as entertain is a performance in itself. My career as a performer has been invaluable!
F: Is there a tension between your career as an artist and your business?
E: Only when it comes to scheduling! In terms of the creative stuff, the business feeds into the artist stuff and vice versa! I feel more balanced than ever before because both itches are being scratched. The business also helps to take the pressure off needing to make a certain amount of money from my artistic pursuit!
F: How do you go about networking/promoting your business?
E: Word of mouth has been the most valuable thing alongside performing in front of new audiences!
F: What challenges does your business experience?
E: Community choirs have TAKEN OFF here in Brisbane (and perhaps everywhere!) which is a wonderful thing. Recently we had an experience where we had an idea to expand the business and reached out to a venue with a proposal. We didn’t hear back and then next thing we knew, an acquaintance was doing the exact idea we proposed at the same venue… This might have been a coincidence, but it took me about six months to emotionally recover. Now I keep things closer to my chest and instead of comparing our business to others, I focus on making our business the best it can be.
F: Yes! I have definitely seen that happen a few times in a city like Brisbane, unfortunately. When I get excited, I like to share or bounce ideas off others and I have to remember to stay quiet. Where do you see your business going?
E: I actually don’t want it to get much bigger, because the sense of community is lost when it gets too big. I am being contracted to do a lot of other choir work outside of Cheep Trill which is keeping me busy without disrupting the preciousness of my own choir community.
F: What is the most draining aspect of your business?
E: It involves constant, time-consuming music arranging and having to be somewhere in real time to actually make money. So there is no passive income, it’s just a bit of a long hard slog. A slog which I love and enjoy, but a slog nonetheless!
F: And how do you manage maintain your enthusiasm for this work?
E: As mentioned, I don’t manage this very well. Wine?
We didn't have nearly enough time to cover everything! I invite you to learn more about The Tiger Common, a collaboration between Emma Dean, Tony Dean, and Corinne Buzianczuk offering creative workshops, musical coaching, and the community choir Cheep Trill in order to build a community united by a love of music.
We can aid you in achieving your goals with our individualised approach and flexible sessions. Contact us: