RNZ’s Jana Whitta talks to Sydney post-punk band Mere Women about their new album and women’s experiences over generations.
Sydney based post-punk outfit Mere Women make loud music that takes you on a journey through big open spaces. Their third album Big Skies was released on Poison City last year, receiving critical acclaim from the Herald Sun and Rolling Stone, and was nominated for Album of the Year at the FBI Radio SMAC Awards.
Singer Amy Wilson and bassist Trisch Roberts discuss writing music, isolation and challenges with RNZ’s Jana Whitta, ahead of their New Zealand shows this week.
Jana Whitta: So Mere Women you’ve had a few lineup changes haven’t you? You’ve got a new drummer and you’ve got Trisch on bass as well?
Amy Wilson: Yeah, Trisch has been with us for a while now, before that we were a three-piece. Flyn our guitarist always wanted bass and I just didn’t want to deal with another person, because it’s hard enough dealing with three big personalities, but he convinced us, and it was the best thing we ever did. Without Trisch we wouldn’t have made Big Skies, it would have been a completely different album.
Since then our drummer Kat had another kid and decided to let Mere Women go. It was really sad but we’ve been working with Mac for the last year now and we’ve been writing new tunes and he’s an incredible drummer so we’re really lucky to have him.
The rhythm section has always sounded amazing, but particularly with Trisch on bass. Her basslines have completely changed the rhythm section. Kat is an amazing drummer as well, so it actually came as surprise to me when I realised that there was a new drummer.
Trisch Roberts: Oh that’s so interesting, that’s really funny. I’d known the band for a while, I’d played previously in a band called No Art, and we’d played many shows together. It was also a different time as well when Amy, Kat and I would often find that we were the only women on a particular line up, so we got to know each other well early on. Musically it was a challenge, and an exciting one, but socially it was seamless match for all of us, which was very pleasant.
On your press release, it says: “Big Skies explores themes of women’s experiences over generations, and the simultaneous isolation and confinement felt by many women living in regional communities.” Is that referring to indigenous, Aboriginal communities? Where is that statement coming from?
AW: That statement comes from a time when I was living in far west NSW in a very regional area, and I was working for a not-for-profit out there, I worked with a lot of indigenous women and non-indigenous women and artists, and I spent a lot of time talking with these women, and I really never understood how hard it is that area of Australia – it’s an impossible place to grow things and access services, there are so many hardships. But within that setting, there’s also this extreme sense of freedom and space that people have. I’ve always been fascinated with those ideas because my family were originally from regional NSW and I’ve always had a very strong connection with my grandmother who was brought up on farm, and the album just kind of happened to be about that because of where I was living and the things I was thinking about and the types of people I was meeting when I was writing those lyrics.
In terms of the music scene and being the only women on lineups, is that any kind of comparison to what you were feeling for the women in those communities, I mean I know it’s completely different but, is there any kind of, ‘Oh, that can relate to how isolating it is often being a women in music’?
TR: I think it was really interesting from my point of view, when Amy was coming up with a lot of these ideas had started to germinate in isolation, and then bringing them back into a very different, very specific context. And I think the musical writing, and thematically as well, there’s a lot of that tension, and that’s really fascinating to me.
Production-wise Big Skies is a really big sounding record – I see why it’s called Big Skies – there are references to Steve Albini and big room sounds. Is that something you went into deliberately? Did you choose the engineer or producer to get that sound?
AW: We recorded with Tim Carr, who we’ve recorded everything with actually. He’s our guy. I think the reason this record sounds so ‘big’ is because of Trisch. I think it’s just made such a difference. It’s changed the way we wrote to an extent. We would always drop in little bits of bass on the previous recordings, but to have Trisch’s skill and the tone of her bass, it makes it so much bigger than it would be otherwise. And we were trying to create that feeling of space that we hadn’t created in previous albums because of the themes in the album, so that was a conscious effort as well.
It sounds to me that you’re screaming out from a distance?
AW: Absolutely that is that feeling of desperation and isolation that we wanted to achieve on the recording. The way we did that in a studio is, we used room mics for vocals. ‘Curse’ for example, we did that with a room mic and in one take, just trying to make things as seem like they’re real and urgent, not overdoing things, not doing things too many times because then it loses any kind spark.
I wanted to ask about your songwriting, Amy. There’s a lot of repetition: one line, next line, then rinse repeat. What’s your songwriting style like and why do you use repetition?
AW: The songwriting style is very collaborative for the song as a whole. In terms of lyrics, I write a lot of lyrics, and then I never like to say too many things. The way I try to live my life and write anything is to achieve what I wanna achieve in as little words as possible. And I find that when I’m saying too many words, I’m losing what the message is supposed to be. I think when a phrase encapsulates a mood or a feeling or an idea so wholly, it should be repeated, and I think it’s also that post-punk style of repetition. So it’s a genre thing as well, but it’s also how I’m wired.
Otherwise with your writing style, and I’m sure you get this all the time but, references, to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Siouxsie Sioux…
AW: Oh here we go… (all laugh). No, I love it. It’s interesting because it’s not something that I emulated. I remember my old boss when I was in my early 20’s was like, “You sound like Siouxsie Sioux,” and I went and listened to her and was like “Oh, interesting”. So yeah I think there must be something in our voices that just matches and I’m so happy to be compared to that, it’s just a coincidence I think.
Your label Poison City labelmates Camp Cope were recently in New Zealand, and they’re often speaking about the same issues about being women in music, so how is it being on that label and releasing music through them?
AW: It’s been really great, they took us on at a time when we were trying to find our place and who could release our music, they’re just so warm and inviting and supportive, and I just thought they’d just release one of our records and be done with us, but it’s not like that at all, it’s really grown into a long relationship now, I’m still just so stoked that they want to continue working with us and that they’ll support the work that we’re doing in whatever way they can.
You’re playing in Auckland at Whammy Bar, with Carb on Carb and Polyester, and then in Wellington at San Fran with Mermaidens. How did you go about choosing your support?
TR: It’s such a pleasure to play with all of these bands for different reasons, Mermaidens I’ve had the pleasure of playing with before, and been followed them for a really long time, I think they create really beautiful textures, they’re really evocative in what they do, and I’m really excited for that.
AW: Carb on Carb seems to spend most their lives travelling around the world and good on them for that, they’re a phenomenal band I have so much love and respect for Nicole so that was a no-brainer.
TR: Yeah, Carb on Carb are a band that we’ve been watching play for maybe 10 years? A really long time, it’s like we’re playing with friends. And Mermaidens, I’m loving what they‘re doing and I haven’t seen them play yet so I’m really looking forward to it.
Mere Women play Whammy Bar in Auckland on Thursday 14th June with Carb on Carb and Polyester, and San Fran in Wellington on Saturday 16th June with Mermaidens.
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