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(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

BooksOctober 29, 2023

The creative alchemy of musician and photographer Ebony Lamb

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

Camera-shy books editor Claire Mabey talks to the acclaimed musician and creator of the best author portraits around.

Ebony Lamb calls me the day before. She reminds me to eat, to have a few outfits ready, to do my hair the way that’s most comfortable (though listening between the lines I’m pretty sure she’s really saying, “be sure to actually do your hair”). Lamb is good like that: gentle but insistent; casual but precise. She also reminds me that having a photograph taken can be draining, that you have to confront your mortal self. I tell her that this is beginning to sound like a therapy session. “It is!” she laughs. 

Many readers might know Lamb not as a photographer, but instead as one of Aotearoa’s most beguiling singer-songwriters. I first encountered her in 2015 when her band Eb & Sparrow performed at the Northland arts festival I was working on. On the drive between Tauranga and Kerikeri (and back again) I listened to their eponymous album on repeat. Every listen was like walking down through Rivendell, into an atmosphere that’s kind of otherworldly, a little unsettling, and so beautiful you don’t want to leave. There wasn’t a voice in Aotearoa then, and still isn’t now, like Ebony Lamb’s. She reminds me of Roy Orbison, exquisite but melancholy; and Martha Wainwright, textured and majestic; there’s Marlon and Aldous and Adrian Lenker in there too.

But for Lamb, photography came first. While still at secondary school, she worked on a photography project that she says probably saved her life. She spent hours upon hours in the dark room at Taikura Steiner school in Hastings, learning how photography was an alchemical blend of documentation, artistic vision, skill, and psychology. The artform revealed itself to be a physical practice that, thanks to an encouraging teacher, anchored Lamb to a school that she would otherwise have been happy to have left. 

This early and foundational experience of developing an art practice came into play in 2010 when Lamb, now living in Wellington, began to make music in a similar, organic, experimental way. The musicians in the alternative folk and Americana scene fueled and supported her creatively at that time. Bands like The Eastern, known for their social justice campaigning through music, and artists with acutely poetic songwriting like Aldous Harding, Steve Abel, Marlon Williams, Tiny Ruins and Nadia Reid. Reid, in particular, remains a strong supporter as the founder and director of the boutique record label, Slow Time Records, that Lamb is signed to. 

The band that formed in Wellington, Eb & Sparrow, recorded albums and toured, worked incredibly hard. They put any leftover income straight back into making music. They received five-star reviews and won a dedicated fanbase over the decade they were together. But, as all artists know, trying to sustain a music career in New Zealand is not easy. 

“Photography is less taxing on my body and my economic life,” she says. Lamb came back to the practice when she attended The Photo School, based out of Raumati Beach and run by Mel Phillips (it’s since closed but had some of Wellington’s best photographers go through its doors). “It had full analogue practices that pushed into the digital world, a practical course that really got you thinking and making,” said Lamb. Since then, Lamb’s creative and financial worlds have ebbed and flowed between photography and music.

Right now, Lamb is getting ready to share her eponymous debut album with audiences across Aotearoa. An enormous undertaking, and happening so soon that I’m beginning to feel guilty that she’s here with me. Kirsten McDougall, a friend of Lamb’s and another author to have had the ‘Lamb treatment’, tells me she’s seen how hard she works on her music career. “I don’t think she rests much.” 

Kirsten McDougall’s favourite picture of her by Ebony Lamb.

Lamb is photographing me because for seven years I’ve been marvelling at the unceasingly compelling, quietly glamorous Ebony Lamb author photos that have poured into my inbox (mostly associated with books from Te Herenga Waka University Press). I want to know how she does it, and whether she can do it to this decidedly camera-avoidant person. I do not enjoy the concentrated focus of a photographer. I was the child that hid behind cousins, or allowed my mind to escape my body, leaving my dead eyes to stare into the camera lens; and am the adult that is still wary of saying cheese.

Lamb’s run of iconic author portraits began in 2018 when friend, artist, activist and poet, Sam Duckor-Jones asked her to take his photo for his debut poetry collection, People from the Pit Stand Up (Te Herenga Waka University Press; called Victoria University Press at the time). “I was at the tail-end of (though still firmly inside) my blending into the background phase,” says Duckor-Jones, who was looking for an alternative to the standard black and white, poet-looks-depressed photo. Lamb came over to his house and they went for a walk in the paddock. “By the end of that afternoon,” he says, “I felt like a supermodel.” 

‘I felt like a supermodel.’ Sam Duckor-Jones by Ebony Lamb.

Kirsten McDougall, the Press’s publicist at the time, more than loved the shots: “They were, to use a publisher’s blurb adjective, astounding. They captured many essences of Sam. I mean, the dude’s photogenic, but this was something else.” From there, McDougall resolved to hire Lamb as often as possible. It was that steady work with authors, and an early commission from another friend, Mark Amery (who needed a photographer to document his Urban Dream Brokerage projects) that established Ebony Lamb as a photographer, as well as a singer-songwriter. A shoot with fellow photographer Kate MacPherson turned her onto the transformational possibilities of portrait photography. “I looked like me. So I know what it is to be photographed in a way that enhances your creative world, your very self. It changes your life.”

Ebony Lamb by Kate MacPherson. “I looked like myself.”

When Lamb arrives at my house, her camera in hand, looking impossibly energetic, and youthful, considering the epic work and parenting loads she’s juggling, I’m anxiously scrambling to iron a dress, attempt some make-up, and tidy the house. Lamb likes to start the process in the author’s home. She says it helps with the nerves. Authors, she says, are often incredibly quiet, buckled up, nothing like they are in a group of people or on stage when you can’t get them to be quiet. Sometimes, she says, she can see the pain in their eyes, even white hot fear. 

Jane Arthur, whose Ebony Lamb portrait has always struck me as uncannily Jane (more Jane than Jane) says that Lamb got her at one of her “peak-neurotic times of life” but that she took it “completely in her stride”. Arthur describes Lamb as “a compassionate and perfect human to be photographing other creative humans”. 

Jane Arthur by Ebony Lamb. ‘More Jane than Jane.’

After about half an hour I’ve begun to thaw to the way Lamb talks about her love for bodies, for faces, and for shapes. Everyone,” Lamb tells me while looking me straight in the eye, “is beautiful.” You can tell Lamb’s EQ is off the charts. Every anxiety is gently lessened, every story she tells is designed to make you feel more at ease. For example, she tells me about photographing Eleanor Catton: how Catton had expressed a newfound celebration and love of her body since having a baby; and then how they laughed on the precarious road down to Banks Peninsula, when Lamb confessed she was scared of killing the Booker-Prize winner in a car accident and Catton replied that the book would probably sell much better if she did. I can tell such stories are designed to distract me as much as entertain me, but she never avoids or deflects from awkward questions or nervous chatter. Lamb is an exceptional listener. 

She learned to listen at school where dyslexia made reading difficult and frustrating. She forced herself to read her first book, Roald Dahl’s memoir, Boy, at the age of 12. So it’s not the books she’s here for so much as the conversation which she absorbs through her work and friendships, and with a voracious appetite for podcasts. 

Eleanor Catton by Ebony Lamb.

The pandemic took a huge toll on Lamb, as it did the entire music industry. Over those few years,she would have completed three tours instead of none, and would have put out two albums in her own name. It’s hard for those outside of the industry to understand how much of a loss those years were. Nor to understand how much work, and how much financial risk, goes into writing and producing an album; creating music videos; releasing, publicising and touring the music. 

“But people need it,” she says. In 2022 Lamb did a five-date Aotearoa tour with Jess Cornelius which received rapturous responses from audiences who had been starved of the kind of sultry, intimate, warm, ethereal experience that Lamb and Cornelius specialise in. Even with the heft of what it takes to make this kind of high-quality art and live performance happen, Lamb is excited for her impending tour. She also loves her album. I love it too. That heart-breaking voice leads up and down a sonic landscape that feels more contemporary, less country than her previous albums (with Eb & Sparrow). The track ‘Brother Get Me Home’ has me suspended in a trance, my head half treading over the moody, changeable sands of the Kāpiti Coast, where Lamb lives. 

It wasn’t until she went to a songwriting workshop with Bic Runga and Kody Nielson (“geniuses”) that she could see the potential in what she’d written. “They really believed I had something good,” says Lamb. “Bic has a real way of honouring other people’s work. She feels it deeply.” Runga and Nielson believed in the songs so much that they ended up producing the album. The tracks were recorded in Runga and Nielson’s Auckland studio (Nielson mixed and mastered), with additional parts recorded in Lamb’s home studio with long-time collaborator (and partner) Gram Antler, who she talks of often and lovingly as the first to listen to, and help her troubleshoot, her music (the single ‘My daughter, my sister, my son’ is dedicated to him). “I can get a song to an 8, then Gram helps me shift the melody, or get an extra note, or help with the chord progression, so I can get to that last bit.”

Gram Antler and Ebony Lamb.

Lamb consistently names and pays homage to the people who have supported and uplifted her work. Nadia Reid was one of the first artist-friends to pay her for her photography (“I always find it’s the ones who have the least to give who actually pay me”) and who, Lamb says, truly understands and cares about artists. She credits musician Delaney Davidson (also a producer and artist, among other things) for showing her how to utilise multiple art forms and flex between them, in order to survive. She is currently working with acclaimed musician David Long in an mentorship programme that she says is feeding her creatively. 

We come to the end of our shoot. I’ve even done an outfit change and am not exhausted in the way I thought I would be. Instead I’m energised, and while not feeling like a supermodel I’m definitely happy to have experienced the Ebony Lamb method: her quick, creative eye; the deep listening; the ready humour. I feel like we’ve been playing. That together with shape, clothes, a body and light we’ve created something artistic that has nothing to do with marketing, or publishing, or books.

Claire Mabey by Ebony Lamb.

Ebony Lamb is currently touring her first solo album, Ebony Lamb. Tour information and tickets are online here. You can purchase the album directly at Bandcamp, and on vinyl at your local indie music store.

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