The Influence

The wildness at the heart of Australian artist and adventurer Vali Myers is an inspiration for Jodi Phillis. By Kate Holden.

Jodi Phillis

Portrait image of a young woman with piercing eyes and a fringe cut.
Australian artist Vali Myers, and Jodi Phillis (below).
Credit: Norman Ikin (above), Tony Mott (below)

Jodi Phillis is best known for her music. She plays guitar, composes and is lead singer of indie-rock, gold record-earning band The Clouds and has released six acclaimed solo albums. She also founded and played in The Dearhunters, Roger Loves Betty and the Glamma Rays and composes for film, stage and television. Phillis paints and draws, and is preparing a second solo art exhibition for next year. The Clouds will be re-forming in 2024.

Phillis chose to speak about Vali Myers, the Australian artist, adventurer, environmental campaigner, muse and writer who lived in bohemian Paris and New York before finding a haven in Italy. She later returned to Melbourne, where she had a legendary studio in the Nicholas Building until her death in 2003.

Was it hard to decide on Vali as an influence? Is she a guiding light for you? I adore her, but not everyone knows her name.

I had to say Vali. I’m working on a project with her ex-partner, Gianni Menichetti, the poet, who lives in Positano in the place – Il Porto – that she discovered back in the ’60s. So I’ve completely immersed myself in her world now.

She was a woman, she was an environmentalist, she was all for truth and beauty and love, and all good things. Very, very beautiful. She was born in Sydney in 1930. She was very defiant and wild and creative: she didn’t tick anyone’s box, she was always her own free spirit from a young age. She started off being a dancer. She joined the Melbourne Modern Ballet Company when she was a teenager, but she was too wild for that. She was a free, wild being.

Australia was way too small and boring for her. So she hopped on a ship to Paris, and became immersed in the street life. She fell in with Jean-Paul Sartre and all kinds of really interesting people. Then she got into heroin: it was a pretty bad scene, I think. So to save her soul she left Paris and went to Italy.

She had already started being an artist, she was already drawing a lot, and she stumbled across this wild valley in Positano, just up from the sea, back against the cliffs, and there was this folly built in the 17th century, a stone summerhouse at the bottom of a giant ravine. There were waterfalls, ferns, grottoes: this beautiful scene. She became the caretaker of this land and all the creatures within it and did her artwork. She would do it by candlelight with a quill. She’d use gold leaf and watercolours and pen and ink, and they were just magical. They were real spirit paintings and drawings, of real-life stuff that was going on with her, and animals she was befriending and protecting; she was very famous for having a pet fox. She couldn’t have babies – she miscarried a few times – so this fox was like her actual baby. And all animals: she loved animals so much more than humans. Beauty was everything. And connection with nature. She was just amazing.

You first found a book of her work when you were 14…

I think her art appeals to people who are young at heart and on some wild mission to find themselves. It is a bit scary, there’s a lot of darkness in there. But yes, the embodiment of just being who she was, without filters. I thought: I want to live like that. I want to find a partner who can be with me, in that environment, in a wild, beautiful garden of Eden with animals and painting every day and singing songs. Riding horses and looking out to sea. I wanted to live like that. I’ve kind of ticked a couple of those boxes, but not a whole lot: I’m still heading for that utopia! Freedom. With all that comes with it: just pure freedom. I’m still looking for it.

And it wasn’t all roses. There’s a lot of addiction, a lot of wildness. It wasn’t an easy life at all. But it was charmed, because she did it all on her own terms.

So what’s brought you back to Vali Myers at this point of your life?

I wrote a song about her in 2018 which was a healing song. I was still dealing with the death of my mother, who died of stomach cancer, like Vali did. I’d forgotten about her for decades. But I remembered how much I was inspired by her, and I wrote this song, which was about calling up a way to be free. And a friend sent that to Gianni. He wrote back and we became friends over email. I was doing a world tour so I wanted to go there and meet him. He organised for me to play at the festival there, and I did, and just had the greatest time hanging out.

I wrote music for two of his poems while I was there, and then he and another friend, a photographer, reached out to me and asked me to write another song to one of Gianni’s poems about Winnie, Vali’s 120-year-old tortoise, who died in 2021. So we’ve started this collaboration. That song has been released as a vinyl record [the video went live last week]. Gianni recites the other poems on the other side, and there’s a book.

But what I’m really excited about is that I’m going to do an album of Gianni’s poems, all about Vali. That’s a big work in progress. We’re going to do a documentary and I’m going there in October to spend time with Gianni and write the music from Vali’s home in Positano. I’ll spend time there and channel her into the melodies. Every day I’ll walk there and be with Gianni, bring my guitar, and be 14 years old again.

You’ve had a career as a musician, in a band, as a solo artist, and as a visual artist. Vali was also about the exemplar of a woman fully expressing herself.

I feel that following her trail and keeping her alive inside me is another way to keep magic alive inside me. Not “magic” but a spirit magic; the spirit inside everything is alive when I call out to Vali. That to me is the most important thing. There are followers who make her out to be a witch, but for me she represents freedom and a woman being free. A woman being an artist and a woman following her muse.

As long as I make music and art then I’m happy. My music is dedicated to her and I’m going to express her through my melodies, but what also is inspiring is that she was a woman who sat and drew for hours and hours on end. And now I’ve become more of an artist than a musician, I’ve moved into being the person I was when I was a little child, drawing all the time. My art is not at all inspired by Vali, but being an artist is.

I just travel further down the road, trying to find out more about her and to get closer to her. And to expose her to the world, because I think we really need her.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "Jodi Phillis".

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