Introduced to NZMusician.co.nz readers in a Fresh Talent feature by Louisa Nicklin back in April/May 2017, the enigmatically-named Jaggers x Lines consists of Morgan Smillie and Eliana Gray, Dunedin friends who, despite coming from very different musical backgrounds, decided one day to make music together. A first song quickly turned into an alt-pop concept EP that, not much more than a year on, is now being followed with a 1980s/’90s tribute album called ‘Burn Cycle’. Ridge Jaggers (Smillie’s production name) and Lines (Gray provides the deeply personal lyrics) talked with Jessica Thompson Carr.
Eliana Gray and Morgan Smillie have been working together as a band only since early 2017, but their list of achievements as alt-pop act Jaggers x Lines already stretches far. This year they’ve completed a national tour, released several singles, opened for Tash Sultana in Dunedin, showcased at 2018’s Going Global Presents, and now have a debut album to be proud of.
After just a few weeks of recording together, the pair had finished an introductory EP. The sumptuous and haunting ‘Letters’ was a brief concept album, based around what Gray would say to herself and her abusers regarding past trauma.
As revealed in their early music, there is no fine line between emotion and melody, each note is as personal as an individual touch to the skin. This merging of the intimate self and their trip pop sound is what makes them special.
Though involved in choirs, drama and musical theatre as a child it never occurred to Gray, now in her late 20s, that she could be a “real” musician.
“I started learning guitar when I was 15, but a lot of my good friends at the time (who were white cis dudes) also played the guitar, and were quite a bit better than me. Because I knew that I would never be able to catch up to their level I stopped.”
She did eventually get involved in music, establishing a duo (called Terrified) with Nikolai Sim. However, it took an overseas trip for her to really catch her own sound – writing her first song in Vietnam as she revealed in a 2017 NZMusician.co.nz Fresh Talent interview with Louisa Nicklin.
Nearly a decade older than Gray, Morgan Smillie’s music career began with learning guitar at eight, his father subsequently encouraging him into making music with computer software and electronics. DJing and producing electronic music became his path. Coming from playing by ear, he recalls finding learning theory painful but greatly beneficial, the combination of theory and passion since propelling his music making.
“I was making hip hop and music on an Akai MPC 2000,” Smillie explains. “I didn’t know much about music theory until I did my music theory and composition degrees at Otago University.”
The pair have been friends for years and were perhaps destined to work together on one musical project or another, as Gray reflects.
“A few years ago the first Sylvan Esso album came out and I was listening to it on repeat. I made Morgan listen to this album heaps of times and he really liked it, so I suggested we make an album that sounded like it… We talked about that for three years. When I got back from travelling overseas Nikolai was pretty busy with his other band.”
Buoyed by the confidence of songwriting as well as singing on stage while in South East Asia, Gray confesses to feeling stagnant at the time, but yet not at all confident about starting anything new.
“At that point, music had given me so much joy, and because Terrified wasn’t happening so much anymore I got scared that it was my only creative outlet, that I couldn’t make anything else unless it was with Terrified. I still didn’t feel like a self-contained musician, I’d based my identity around what I could do creatively with Niko.
“And then one day I was feeling very creatively frustrated, I just needed to make something. I called Morgan up and we worked well together. We started creating the EP and it just blossomed from there. We work quite similarly to each other in Jaggers x Lines and Morgan’s record collection is the backbone of our band, the samples merge together so well.”
Coming from a decades-old jazzercise record the sample used in Problem Drinking makes it probably their catchiest piece despite the lyrics being considerably darker than the music. I Tried takes a sample from a 1970s intermediate school concert Smillie found recorded on vinyl. The combination of peppy, interesting sounds with intense and harrowing lyrics is one of the most powerful things about Jaggers x Lines’ music.
Released in October, their new album ‘Burn Cycle’ launches with Problem Drinking, a smile-raising mash-up of old school hip hop vibes merging with the VHS-era pop and exercise instructions. Adding further intrigue the completing rhyme of each chorus is withheld.
It’s all drum machines and vintage synth ideas, overlaid and freshened for the times with Gray’s light pop vocals.
“At the moment I use Native Instruments’ Maschine,” Smillie says. “It’s modelled off the MPC 2000XL, but it’s integrated with computer software and the DAW programme, so it’s efficient and I don’t have to re-learn the instrument. Before you could really only record out of the MPC. I’ve been using Atlas drum machine programme by my friend Algonaut, an artificial intelligence machine!”
Looking For conjures up very early Madonna, or perhaps Samantha Fox, with its simplicity, handclaps and staccato drum machine beat, while Shadow is much more funky in its synth colouration. And so ‘Burn Cycle’ progresses, each track ear-catching and all differently blended weirdo alternative pop.
Final track Losing My Breath has a Quincy Jones flavour that ties the vintage idea of the album up neatly. All in all it seems like another concept album – a loving tribute to a past, but certainly not forgotten, era of music.
Dealing mainly in the digital domain due to its clean sound and portability, Smillie on the beats while Gray croons her personal and often harrowing lyrics, Jaggers x Lines are working their way up the ladder of experience. Merging into a unique sound they push each other to deliver distinct and energetic performances, as well as learning a great deal about tour booking and managing themselves.
“Anyone can do it really. So long as you use your common sense and aren’t afraid to ask questions,” Gray reckons. “Whenever I’m confused or afraid, or think I don’t know what I’m doing, I ask my mates for advice and try and think, ‘How would I handle this situation if I was a cis hetero white dude?’ and then I try and channel that entitlement into the space.”