Despite having debuted with their break-up album, Grawlixes ’ journey seems to be nowhere near an end, as Sam Vegar reports. The former Dunedin duo of Penelope Esplin and Robin Cederman are now both living in Wellington, where they have been working on a second album and an expanded band format.
“I went to an art class, Robin was the nude model. So I have these drawings of Robin, before we met face to face. Then, he came for a practice to see if he would work for the band (Sunley Band), and he walked in and he went, ‘Hi I’m Robin’, and I really wanted to say, ‘Hi, I’ve seen you naked.’”
Penelope Esplin is reminiscing, amid mutual laughter, on early official and not-so official encounters between herself and guitarist Robin Cederman, the two faces of Dunedin-bred, now Wellington-based duo Grawlixes.
Esplin’s musical beginnings lay with the piano, as did Cederman’s, but it wasn’t until the obscure accordion caught her attention that she started playing in a band.
“One of my friends had an accordion and I really wanted to buy one. He said, ‘Don’t buy an accordion, just borrow mine, as long as you play in my band,’ so I did it and I joined my first band as a result – Sunley Band.”
Her talent was evidently loud and clear, as it wasn’t long until she was asked to join another Dunedin act, The Prophet Hens, as a backing vocalist. Cederman, who these days teaches drums to primary school students, later joined the same bands.
“Sunley was my first band. It was my first taste of music after university. If Pen had said, ‘I’ve seen you naked,’ I probably would have been intimidated out of the room!”
No such embarrassed fleeing occurred, and the two had now ‘officially’ met. It is no secret that Gawlixes grew from Esplin and Cederman’s romantic relationship – and eventual break-up – but the band is now as steady as ever, with the release of debut album ‘Set Free’, centred all around the topic of their relationship, hopes, difficulties and everything in between.
“We were living together, we were both playing in bands and it just sort of happened, fairly casually. Two years later we recorded the album, so it’s not like we were unbelievably certain about it, but it did go nicely. It was nice to veer into it,” explains Cederman of Grawlixes’ formation.
“We kind of started writing songs on the weekend, you know Robin on guitar and then I’d do a melody line,” Esplin adds.
Asked to do an open mic night they performed two.
“I remember being quite overwhelmed by the response, there were 12 people there, you know, but having people genuinely enjoy what you do was a great surprise,” Cederman admits.
“We would play a couple of songs at some shows, and then we’d play some more songs, write some more music then start playing more shows. We ended up getting asked to join French For Rabbits for a show, and Brooke asked us to join her to tour over Europe. It happened quickly,” says Esplin.
So she quickly studied the French For Rabbits’ bass lines, Cederman the guitar parts, and they joined Brooke Singer on tour throughout Europe. Shortly after returning, the couple finished recording ‘Set Free’.
“We were most the way through recording the album, and just struggling to finish it amidst the chaos [after coming back from Europe], so we managed to do that then broke up shortly after,” Cederman reflects.
Their album is a gorgeous, organic compilation of folk and indie songs. Alex Vaatstra added violin while the pair played all other instruments, keeping to an authentic acoustic feel. The music is heartfelt in every way. ‘Our seeds of doubt became hideous sprouts,’ Cederman laments, his voice heavy with resignation, while Esplin’s cooed bvs dreamily alleviate the sadness of I’ll Get Dressed Up For You.
“The reason it sounded the way it sounds is we wanted to honour the live thing – just the guitar and accordion and two voices. We had toyed with the idea of doing it with a band, but when we had some rehearsals with drummers and bass players it didn’t feel right to us. It felt like we were diluting the essence of the band, so we decided to do it all ourselves, apart from the violin,” explains Cederman.
Clearly however, ‘Set Free’ didn’t come without some struggle on the relationship and recording fronts.
“It should have only taken three weeks, maybe a couple months. We went through horrendous problems with gear. It was miraculously bad luck – we only had three or four microphones, and only one electric guitar,” he continues.
“We had tuning problems with my accordion as well,” adds Esplin. “It turned out that the person who tuned my accordion had tuned half of it to one pitch and the other half to another pitch. It’s a very bizarre instrument. It’s beautiful but very weird, and almost impossible to tune.”
“Us as a relationship as well, like the tense-ness of how things were going influenced the recording process,” Cederman again. “There were days when we would be trying to record this one line then we would get into a fight, then we’d try it again the next day. We got through it and we recorded the album, and it’s definitely a snapshot of a moment of time for us.”
“So we broke up, we left the bands (Sunley Band and The Prophet Hens), we left the city, and now we’ve continued to play in Grawlixes together,” they both explain of the current situation.
Grawlixes’ journey seems not to be near any demise, with many more stories and ideas surely yet to tell. Having both (separately) relocated to Wellington, a second “kind of denser” album is indeed in the works.
“Some songs are specifically inspired by the relationship, but we are broadening a little bit. It was all one sort of thing on the first album and now it’s going to be two or three different things. Songs about home ownership, social anxiety, politics. They’re things we relate to,” the pair explain together.
Also now on the cards is an expanded band, with bass and drums being used for their second album.
“The more we practice around other people, the more we get to have fun with one another. It creates a new dynamic. The more we can steer clear of the duo thing, the better for us.”