Anita, please tell us your story! How did you get to where you are today?
In art and music – I have played, painted and drawn since I was a kid. I wasn’t particularly gifted but I loved it deeply and never attached one definitive end point to the process, so it allowed me to keep making. I feel the same way now.
Storytelling is another thing all together though – whilst I’ve honed my craft in the aforementioned, I always knew I was meant to tell a story (may have even gotten me in trouble as an imaginative kid!). All my pursuits are grounded in this one world I tell stories from, which is why I feel so passionate about the multidisciplinary aspect of my life.
What does a day in the life of Anita Lester look like?
I run most mornings by the beach in St Kilda and once the space is clear, I’ll usually focus in on a practice. Sometimes I’ll write, sometimes I’ll make music, a lot of the time I’ll paint.
I also run an art school which takes up a large portion of every day. My studio is above the school, so I am much of the time there spinning pretty plates and navigating being an artist and having a job.
My partner and I will almost always spend evenings together cooking and talking and watching films. But days are hardly the same.
Please tell us about your upcoming performance as part of When Women Speak Of War?
I’d written a poem/verse called Gold. It was a conversation about a women in my family who died during the Holocaust. She wanted to be some Renaissance woman – singing and dancing and making. Her life and dreams were stolen from her in the most violent and senseless way. I have always felt this push to make and it feels bigger than my body at times. Gold is about a conversation with her from my world to hers. I sing to her. She sings to me. We sing together. That’s honestly how it feels for me to sing – like I’m being possessed by memories that are sometimes not even my own.
Have you had to overcome any challenges or adversity in your career, and if so, how did you approach them?
Indeed I have. Especially in my music career. I have been through a very common but very sad battle with a label that halted my work for in excess of seven years. I was banned from America. I’ve had a bit of a rough ride being an older woman who has felt much of the time misunderstood and forced into a mould that is beyond my capabilities. I am proud that I’ve not left experiences embittered, but rather driven to do things for the right reasons.
A mistake I made early on when working with industry representatives was that I felt I was owed something. It couldn’t be further from how I feel now, but it took a while to see that no one cares more about your art than you and there is something so beautiful and liberating about that for me.
What advice would you give someone just starting out in music who would like to pursue a career like yours?
Because I am equal parts a painter, musician and storyteller, I would say that the space had not yet been defined. It should be an exciting proposition for an artist to break their own ground. It’s hard but creative and cultural revolution is the beginning of something that is yet to exist.
I would also mention that putting deadlines and parameters around your work is essential and approaching the end result with no expectation is crucial.
If you could work alongside an Australian artist that you have yet to work with, which artist would that be and in what capacity?
Nick Cave is my dream collaboration. I feel like we come from the same planet.
What advice would you give to your younger self, say 5-10 years?
Stay calm, don’t tell everyone your plans, protect your work from the world and your own expectations.
I would also say that you should lean into the fear of the unknown and the resistance to change. That’s where all the good shit lives.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the course of the pandemic?
My life has totally changed. I think I was holding on to this idea that you had to appear a certain way to be taken seriously. I know now that being honest is the best way to be in art (and, of course, in this world).
My personal mantra has kind of been ‘Not right, not wrong – only effective and ineffective’. It applies to so much of life.
What professional achievement are you most proud of?
I have a few.
I am proud of a film I made called Noch Am Leben. It felt much like the process of singing – being inhabited by the ghosts.
I am proud of my recent painting works, including a collection of art I have made with a Yiddish creative collective called Di Farborgene Khalyastre (The Hidden Gang). Carrying the torch for the murdered poets and artists.
I am also proud of my musical evolution and the crescendo late last year at Chapel Off Chapel, where I was able to see my live vision come to life.
Do you have any activities that you do for self-care that are non-negotiable?
Definitely exercise. Definitely eating well and not indulging in substances. I’m fairly clean and I do it not only for my body, but for my brain. The difference in a clean life to clear art is night and day if you neglect yourself.
I also write.
What is your big picture career goal?
I’d love to be a first to set up a new game. A woman over 35, with kids and a family, making high quality art in multiple forms that open people up to themselves, the world and what we can’t know.
Not too much, right?
If you could time travel and see any artist from any time perform live, who would it be and why?
This is an awesome question. Let’s stick to music because I would love to meet certain writers and painters.
I think seeing the Doors play would be amazing. The Beatles. Woodstock artists. But I’ll stick to what I really want, and that is to see Leonard Cohen play in Tel Aviv in 1972. I would also like to meet him after if that is indeed part of the simulation. Maybe even seduce him a little and get a mention.
What does 2022 hold for you? Anything exciting you can tell us about?
In the spirit of not sharing – what I can say is that there is much to show but I shaln’t say more than; album, art, film.
What is your go-to karaoke song?
I don’t love karaoke, but if I’d have to choose, probably something from the ’90s like Boy Is Mine. Or if I’m feeling it, Black Velvet.
Anita Lester is appearing at FOJAM as part of When Women Speak Of War on Thursday 28 April. Head here for more information.