Jed Billington and Anna Stanton met in May of 2016. These days they are on the cusp of touring their gentle indie folk music around the country. Their budding music career is akin to a jigsaw, where the pieces fall into place in unexpected, serendipitous ways. Anna hails from the south coast of England and had seen much of the world before settling in Yamba. Jed grew up on a piggery at Nymagee and in the town of Cobar before moving to Maclean as an eleven-year-old.
Geoff Helisma digs into how their personal relationship bloomed into an unexpected musical partnership, both of which were germinated by their shared love of surfing.
Anna was celebrating her birthday at the Pacific Hotel in Yamba; she was looking for her friend, who also happened to be one of Jed’s. “I’d lived here [in Yamba] for about two or three years and had never met Jed,” Anna says. “I bumped into him and we got to talking on the dance floor.
“Yeah, we had a bit of dance,” says Jed, “and we started hanging out.”
“I was moving up to the Gold Coast and Jed was moving to Newcastle,” says Anna, “so I didn’t really want to start something that I’d have to break. But he told me he wasn’t going to go to Newcastle anymore.”
“I was still working in Yamba, but I’d drive up to see her on weekends,” says Jed.
After a month or so Jed and Anna were a couple living at Burleigh Heads.
“We became official,” says Anna, “it happened pretty fast.”
“We’d been spending quite a bit of time together and I got home one night and just told Mum, ‘I think I love Anna.’” says Jed.
“We’ve been together almost four years now and…” says Anna.
“…we’ve only had one week apart when I had to travel up the coast for work,” says Jed.
Before Jed met Anna, he’d been performing around the traps after completing a diploma of music at Grafton TAFE. “To be honest, when I first started studying music I was just out of school and just went and studied [for something to do].” But performing was a kind of accident, too. Jed was “dish-pigging” at the Pacific Hotel in 2015 and was invited to play a song one night. The pub’s manager, Tom McIntosh, heard him play and, as a result, invited Jed to perform on a regular basis. And, despite having a limited repertoire (meaning he had to repeat or elongate songs to fill in the contracted time) the bookings kept coming.
However, the demands of playing covers to appease venues were wearing thin. “When he moved up to Burleigh, he stopped all together,” says Anna. “Then he did one show at the Pacific Hotel and he hated it and he came off stage and said, ‘Nup, I’m not gigging again, I’m done with this’.”
“That was the last gig I played until we got back from overseas,” says Jed.
Meanwhile, Jed knew Anna “played a bit of guitar” and, he suspected, could sing. “She’d sing along with songs, but never sing in front of me,” says Jed. “Her friends kept telling me she was a really good singer. I was playing a few gigs here and there. I was hassling her for so long, trying to get her to sing.”
“Then Jed found some videos of me singing on my phone,” says Anna.
A catalyst called travel
“We wanted to travel a bit, so we went to Indonesia for about two months in 2017,” says Anna. “Then we went to India to see my Dad … he owns a counselling rehab there for drug and alcohol in Goa.”
“We were in India for about two weeks,” says Jed.
“And we went to England for about a month and a half and then we came back,” says Anna. “My Dad lived in South Africa and Thailand when I was growing up. We’d go there and Europe. Before I came to Australia, I did all of Asia and Indonesia on my own. But I was pretty crazy back then. I don’t think I could do it on my own now.”
Jed Laughs when asked if he’d led a sheltered life in comparison.
In Nias primarily to surf, the pair “bought a little guitar for about 20 bucks” to pass the downtime, says Jed. “When I did that last gig and didn’t want to perform anymore; that’s why I didn’t take a guitar with me. Then there were new experiences and I said, ‘I really want to get a guitar’. I’d been playing a fair bit, not singing, and then in Nias, if there weren’t any waves, there was nothing to do except drink Bintangs [beer].”
“We had a few too many beers one night and wrote the Mango Song,” says Anna about their first joint composition. “Then we started playing heaps and learning covers together. That was the first night Jed had heard me sing properly. Nias is called the mango island. There are mangoes everywhere on the side of the road.”
“We did the Mango Song on the road, [which] was just something funny and fun at the time. Then the next night we wrote On the Road, which was more directly related to the entire experience of travelling,” says Jed.
During their time in Indonesia they were “chased by a pack of probably fifty wild dogs after a night partying in [Nusa] Lembongan” while they were walking home, says Anna. “We were the only ones on the street, and we saw this dog on the side of the road; it looked like it had been hit by a car. But it hadn’t, it had been mauled by these other dogs. There was this big street fight going on with these dogs and we had to walk past it.”
“Yeah, they weren’t, like, attacking us, but they got right up and were nipping at our ankles. They were all, like, fully-wild street dogs…” says Jed.
“…it was terrifying,” Anna and Jed say in unison. “It affected us for a while,” says Jed, “but we’ve got a dog now.”
On the other hand, searching for waves and scoring was a memorable experience, too. “One day we took the moped in Nias and just drove into the jungle – no tracks or anything – just straight into the jungle,” says Anna.
“We had no idea where we were going,” says Jed.
“We found this little town of Indonesians who couldn’t speak one word of English;” says Anna, “a tiny little village [where] they chopped down coconuts, and they took us in this canoe.”
“We just showed them our surfboards,” says Jed.
“The [top of the] canoe was barely above the water.
“It was the sketchiest little river…”
“…so sketchy,” says Anna, “and then they walked us through some jungle.”
“There are Sumatran tigers there, as well, but I don’t think they are in huge numbers,” says Jed.
“There was this long beach with not one other person there. There were just these…” says Anna.
Jed chimes in: “…as far as you could see this way and as far as you could see that way, there were just A-frames [peaky waves]. We were literally in the middle of the jungle … there were no tracks … we’d only walked about five hundred metres from river.”
Next stop: Goa, India. Anna says her father’s rehab centre “is like an art rehab; he brings in musicians from around the world … like a music therapy thing there. In the rehab we just played heaps of music.”
Then it was off to England to visit Anna’s mother. “Mum’s a musician,” says Anna. “She goes to these music camps every summer. We went with her to a little hippy camp that was all about music. Heaps of folk music…”
“…really traditional folk,” says Jed.
“That’s where we did our first show, just for a bit of fun,” says Anna.
At this stage the duo had an inkling that they could work towards becoming a bona fide musical act. “Jed had his cover playlist and he’d been playing the same songs for a long time,” says Anna. “We made a pact; if we were going to play together, we wouldn’t do the same set list. In England it was learning a new set list so we could come back and gig. We went to this festival and we had my mum’s acoustic and a little ukulele. We sat on the boardwalk where people come in and out of the festival and we just played the same four songs over and over again. We were just busking, and we made four pounds.”
Jed laughs at the thought of the princely sum they earned.
“And that was my first time performing,” says Anna.
Still at the festival, something else happened that added to the inkling they’d felt the day before. “We were sitting at our tent…” says Jed.
“…playing Jason Maraz on the ukulele and…” says Anna.
“…we ended up with these people who were walking to and from the festival; we ended up with this crowd dancing to us…” says Jed.
“…a big group of rugby boys. We only did two songs because my fingers were hurting so much,” Anna chuckles.
Back in Australia they simply called themselves Anna and Jed and started playing around the Clarence Valley, trading on their “quirky and alluring arrangements of upbeat and mellow songs”. People responded and soon they were in demand and, as a result, they expanded their horizons up and down the east coast and got busy making home recordings of their own songs. “But they weren’t too good; we didn’t have the right gear,” says Anna.
“I booked a line of shows up the coast and the lady, Melissa O’Bryan, who booked us at the Sol Bar in Maroochydore, came and watched us and we had a good gig. She said her partner, Brian Goodworth, had a little home studio. He’d done Ziggy Alberts’ first album and The Dreggs, who we played our first gig within Byron Bay.”
Alberts, 25, has released five albums and tours internationally and some of his song streams on Spotify number in the tens of millions; The Dreggs are Triple J favourites – both acoustic acts cut their teeth on the Sunshine Coast.
Goodwood and O’Bryan took “us under their wings”, says Anna; “they’ve been in the industry for a long time. They help us heaps and give us advice in every way they can. Melissa books Sol Bar and gives us supports [for major touring bands]. Brian records and they get us heaps of gigs.”
“They’re giving us steps to take,” says Jed. “We’ve got quite a good following on the Sunshine Coast. A lot of people were asking us when we would have new songs out and asking us what we were doing.”
The Anna and Jed moniker has since been jettisoned and replaced with the more mysterious sounding ‘Alivan Blu’. A new single, February, and EP, Esk River, are recorded and ready for release, as the couple prepare to hit the road in the bus they’ve fitted out for the purpose.
However, that plan was thrown into disarray when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
Is it a strain being music and life partners?
Jed: We have our squabbles.
Anna: But I wouldn’t say it’s strained our music one bit.
Jed: Luckily, we’ve had squabbles over music, but it doesn’t…
Anna: Yeah, our music wouldn’t affect our relationship one little bit.
So what happens if you’re playing a gig and there are boys after Anna and girls after Jed?
Jed: It hasn’t really happened to be honest.
Anna: I think they see us as a couple.
Anna: There was the odd girl at a gig who went up to Jed and asked…
Jed: But there’s a girl who went up to you at gig. There was, like, this forty-year-old woman who offered to take you home one night…
Anna: …who tried to hit on me…?
So, you’re strong enough to get past that?
Anna: It doesn’t affect us one little bit.
We went to this festival and we had my mum’s acoustic and a little ukulele. We sat on the boardwalk where people come in and out of the festival and we just played the same four songs over and over again. We were just busking and we made four pounds.
The sunshine factor
While Jed Billington and Anna Stanton [Alivan Blu] may not have been “discovered” in a way that matches typical stereotypes, Brian Goodworth and Melissa O’Bryan have played a vital role in guiding their careers and providing good advice.
Goodworth says he and O’Bryan “share an absolute love for music and have similar tastes”.
“If you see something that you really like, it jumps out,” he says, “and that’s what Jed and Anna did. “Melissa told me about them. She said, ‘You should really have to listen and talk to these guys.’ Then she showed me an early video that they recorded in Yamba, at an auntie’s place or something; just the two of them sitting on a couch playing.
“I thought, ‘This is really good.’ It had a great feeling about it. The song was really cool; it just spoke to me.”
Is there a scene developing in Australia where that quieter, folk-type music can be played?
“Most definitely. I think lately the main initiator of that style is Ziggy Alberts … he’s developed this kind of folk with a surfing culture influence to it. A lot of these acts, like Ziggy Alberts, Kyle Lionhart and Jack Botts are spawning from a scene in Byron Bay; it’s a busking scene. It’s attracted people like The Dreggs and Anna and Jed [Alivan Blu].
“It’s been quite unbelievable. A lot of artists, that’s where they’ve got their chops from; and they’ve gone on to do home concerts. A lot of these artists are self-managed and still independent; particularly Ziggy Alberts, and he’s one of the biggest acts in Australia at the moment.
“They’ve created this whole folk scene, which is encouraging for people like Jed and Anna, The Dreggs and what have you.”
So why put in the time and effort to help these young acts?
“From Melissa’s point of view, if you nurture talent it will grow and then they’ll come back to the venue, so it’s beneficial for the venue to support good music.
“From my perspective, it’s exciting and encouraging to have the opportunity to work with people like Jed and Anna, because they’re young, early into their career and it’s good to be able to encourage them and, hopefully, give them some good direction for the future.
“It’s enjoyable, too, I guess… which is the main thing for me.”
Note: This story was penned just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Alivan Blu now has five songs on its Spotify page. All up the songs have enjoyed over 60,000 plays. The duo’s latest single, If it’s True, was released on September 18.