Heather Mac returns two decades after Ella Mental

Heather Mac, the iconic former frontwoman of Ella Mental, has returned from the world of corporate training and theatre to her first love: writing songs and making music.

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 02 – 03 April 2011.

Heather Mac returns two decades after Ella Mental

To pinpoint the birthplace of a music album is a complicated thing. “Within” might have been born when Heather Mac was forced to lie flat for days, recovering from a spinal operation. Or from the moment when Ella Mental disbanded and she parted ways with the co-founder of the band, her one time husband, Tim Parr. Or, perhaps, from snippets of melody or lyric that intruded into her working life as she forged a career developing employee wellness and HIV management programmes for the Clicks Group. The genesis may have been in the constant, back-of-the-mind niggling of some truly great songs penned with long-standing collaborators like Edi Niederlander and Mark Harris, or with her other, short-lived groups, like The Brills and The Tasty Free Radicals. Another point of departure may have been the inspirations of living in Ireland, or a spiritual search-for-self undertaken in Brazil.  “Within” is a combination of all of these moments of birth and rebirth and, indeed, marks a rebirth of sorts for one of South Africa’s most talented vocalists and frontwomen.

“When I was working in the corporate world, at Musica and at Clicks, people would see me doing a small show and say, ‘Why aren’t you recording these songs?’ I’d tell them that I would, but I never did, and it was only when I had to lie flat on my back, after a series of operations on my spine, that I gained a perspective on that,” says Mac from her home in Kalk Bay. “There were the thoughts of what has gone before and, the question of what had been holding me back, or stopping me before. Of course, after the operations, there was the realisation that there is no time like now, and that we need to move to make things happen, or lose the moments where we can. It was one of those corny ‘wake-up calls’ that one gets, where I realised I was so lucky that I managed to get through that and, after I started being able to walk properly again, and not live with constant pain, it was about the liberation of those songs.”

The material on “Within” – titles like “Autumn” and “A Green World” give a hint as to the collection’s melding of the intimately personal and the anthemically public – spans a gestation of twenty years. “There are songs that never got recorded for Warner that were composed while living in Ireland, and there are new songs that give a good indication of where my music is now,” explains Mac. “Some are a call to action – a call for alertness and awareness and how we need to take care of everything, and of one another. There’s a song, ‘She Said’, that I’ve played to old record exec friends of mine and they’ve said, ‘You can’t play that, people will think the album is just for single women!’ I just told them, ‘Hello, Oprah has made a career and a fortune out of that’. But, actually it’s a song inspired by the story of Tina Turner and the unbelievable challenges of the abusive relationship she was in with Ike Turner, and inspired by the many friends I have who are bringing up their children single-handedly – and are doing a marvellous job of it.”

One song – the only piece not composed by Mac herself – harks back to the history of Ella Mental. “There’s a song in there by Robbie Robb, a bit of a tribute to the times when Ella Mental did a double-hander with them at a seedy old club in Hillbrow called the Summit, with two drummers on stage…” Pin-pointing the significance of a rock band born in South Africa’s turbulent past, especially when their music and performance was, arguably, ahead of its time, is a fraught undertaking. Born in the country’s turbulent 1980s, Ella Mental drew as much from the world’s of theatre and art as they did from a musical idiom. They redefined what was expected of the clashing creativity that merged pop and rock, and then blazed a trail for their eager fans to follow. Probably best remembered for hits like “Pressure” and “See Yourself (Clowns)” (both on the 1984 debut, “Uncomplicated Dreams”) and a sterling performance at the seminal “Concert In The Park” in 1985 in the face of personal loss, they had some songs banned by the apartheid government, and left the country in search of international success. Eventually, after tireless stints in Ireland, they were signed to Warner Brothers in London and then moved to Los Angeles to record an international debut which enjoyed a release in both those countries in 1989, as well as in Australia and across Europe – but not in South Africa. Ella Mental disbanded in 1992, and the band’s founders, Mac and Tim Parr, who had also been married for much of the band’s existence, went their separate ways.

“I guess you could say I was on a long sabbatical, being away, going to Brazil, and then working as a marketing executive,” she says. “In the corporate world, I tried very hard to hang onto the creativity but I found that, because I invest a lot of myself in everything I do, that deep investment meant that any other channels for creativity were… not dried up, but there wasn’t the time or the space to truly explore them,” says Mac. Now, she has assembled a star South African cast – including her guitar playing partner, Mark Harris, long-standing collaborators Edi Niederlander and Tonia Selley, ex-husband Tim Parr, ex-Bright Blue bassist Ian Cohen and violin-player Terence Scarr amongst others to create “Within”.

“Lying on my back, I had what I guess you could call reflections at zero degrees,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘How do I express who I am, and why I’ve got to this point?’ I’m hoping there’s a deeply human experience beyond our separate experiences, that binds these songs and the music. There are songs that respond to dealing with the death of a friend, or heartbreak, or other personal issues. But there are songs that are celebrations of life. The newer material shows where I am tending to now in my music, and they are about spirituality, in a way. About seeking within, and finding the possibilities of how we can make connections beyond just the circle of friends that we have – connections with nature and an aspect of spirit. They also mirror the experiences that gave me the courage and strength to leave the corporate world and heed the deep calling to get back to creative roots.”

Heather Mac launches “Within” at a one-night-only performance on Saturday 9 April at the Baxter Theatre (9pm, R100, tickets at Computicket.com, or R200 with CD (launch price). See HeatherMac.co.za for details, lyrics and song histories, and the new video for “Autumn”. Ella Mental fans can seek out the RetroFresh CD version of “Uncomplicated Dreams”, re-released in 2002 with bonus tracks, including “See Yourself (Clowns)”, performed live at Concert In The Park in 1985.

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 02 – 03 April 2011. Find out more on Tonight.co.za

Please click here for more info on Heather Mac’s album launch.