How do you go about following up an album that was internationally acclaimed, Taite Prize-nominated and widely deemed influential? That was the task for Lily West (bass/vocals), Gussie Larkin (guitar/vocals), and drummer Abe Hollingsworth. The Wellington trio, collectively known as Mermaidens, have been crafting and creating their sound since 2014, continually honing and crafting it to reflect the band’s changing sonic priorities. Amanda Mills looked them in the eyes and asked the searching questions.
The desire to record new music began while the Mermaidens trio were promoting their second album in 2018. The success of ‘Perfect Body’ was unexpected reveals Lily West.
“We never really know how our work is going to be interpreted because it is so challenging at times. So when it got a bit more critical recognition, it was really nice to know it had been received in the way we hoped it would.”
Their new album, titled ‘Look Me In The Eye’, took time to form, West and Larkin writing songs separately before bringing them to the band to develop.
“We went into it striving for a more honed-in sound… we’d been trying to refine what our sonic world is, but we also wanted to push the boundaries of what the limitations were, and what people might expect of the sound.”
The direction came from the desire to push for something she describes as “…invigorating and refreshing, and a bit new and challenging.”
Invigorating is key to describing ‘Look Me In The Eye’. Lyrically confronting with themes of power dynamics and human relationships, the music steps away from their earlier material, with shifting, morphing textures and rhythms. The trio are assertively experimenting with their sound, and it’s paying off.
“It definitely feels like we were confident enough to do it, and we know the music is a bit challenging – and challenging music doesn’t necessarily equal commercial success,” West laughs. “We just have a lot of faith and pride in what we’ve made.”
In early press coverage of ‘Look Me In The Eye’, the band have talked about a bolder thematic statement.
“I think it takes a certain level of maturity, and understanding to be able to talk about [it]… it feels important to really be considerate with what you put out there, and not just meaningless fluff.”
The commanding title comes from a line in stand-alone single You Maintain The Stain – a slice of dark alt-rock West describes as “…the most confrontational fuck-you song that we’ve ever written,” adding that she felt the lyric was really appropriate to the themes of the album.
You Maintain The Stain and its b-side, The Cut, were released independently.
“By putting them out separately, that almost brings more attention to them.”
West sees them as a prelude to the messages and themes they play with in the remainder of the album. You Maintain The Stain struck a chord, hitting #1 on the Student Radio Network charts and the NZ Alternate Airplay chart – surprising West as she and the band felt it was a real wild card song.
The album follows on from ‘Perfect Body’ with its themes of human relationships and identity. Sound refinements include dynamic sounds and textures, frequently changing rhythms and spectacular harmonies.
“As we become more mature adults, our understanding of those things changes,” West notes. “Musically, we’ve always reached beyond our ability, we wanted to really hone in on what we’ve always been trying to achieve and really pin it down. Sonically, we’re always very dissonant, and jarring at times… we wanted more punch and pep with musical elements, and to arrange songs in a way that makes the most of these riffs.”
Lyrically they are more direct.
“In previous albums and songs, we relied a lot more on metaphors and much more vague and ambiguous wording, but this time we wanted to really talk about what we were talking about, rather than leaving it so open to interpretation.”
The group played around with guitar and bass tones, using pedals to create particular, and challenging, sounds, tones West considers “really messed up.” The album’s sound has a dual nature: a surface serenity, and a seething undercurrent. She sees this juxtaposition in all their songs.
“The serene-ness, and the kind of seething wildness… we love contrasting really gentle with really harsh, and we do that a lot in the album… gentle intimate lyrics with a really aggressive pop song.”
Any message is not prescribed.
“We still want the words to form their own meanings for whoever listens to it… [we] hope those feelings could align with other people’s feelings.”
There is ambiguity too which, she says, is important in itself.
“There needs to be an ambiguity so that people can put their own stories and experiences on top of it.”
The band are especially interested to see how the album’s title is taken.
“The album name itself has two meanings to us – we wanted everything to be layered with options for interpretation… ‘look me in the eye’ could be really intimate… or it could be confrontational and almost aggressive. I feel like that illustrates it quite well.”
‘Look Me In The Eye’ has been described as “a thematic exploration of female voices,” something they all have a fascination with.
“I think people find it quite hard to talk about groups of women creatively. We found that in the press people get so confused between me and Gussie, and they really struggle that there is no frontwoman… A lot of the songs on the album have inspiration drawn from our stories, and also stories of the women in our lives, or our heroes.”
Mermaidens brought this exploration of voices to life further during album production through layering harmonies and including a chorus of voices from a girl gang of five of their friends, creating (in places) a fuller vocal sound – just one powerful moment on the album. It is also exemplified through their vocal interplay.
“Gussie’s an amazing vocalist, and she can layer harmonies like no-one else. Sometimes my voice is in the mix as well with her harmonies. I guess we really like the way our voices contrast.”
The opening song, Crying In The Office, is a strong statement with continually shifting rhythms and what West calls “an example of strange power situations” within the lyrics. Power dynamics are a predominant feature, and a theme that relates to the different kinds of power in human relationships. It is, she says, up to listeners how they interpret that.
One of the more arresting song titles is Best To Hate The Man, a slow waltz-time song intended to be a moment of reflection amongst the more upbeat songs. The title, on first glance, is provocative, but a closer reading reveals ‘the man’ to be the establishment and toxic cultures. The lyrics, rather than focusing on the negative, instead focus on women’s relationships, and how women support each other.
“I really hope that the lyrics are interpreted in that way,” West smiles. “It’s very much about female power as a community, and not as hating men!”
Initially, it was to be the album title, but the trio decided against it. As a proud creator, West finds it hard to pinpoint a favourite song on the new album, though Best To Hate The Man is a contender.
“It’s a black sheep on that album. My favourite section is the end of The Cut… that’s completely different from the rest of the song. I get a really sore neck from playing guitar, and working on computers. But also the lyric is, ‘my neck is sore, been looking over my shoulder’. It’s speaking to women’s safety in the street, and having to check your surroundings.”
With lyrics, in general, coming from a personal place for both Larkin and West, she finds it tricky to expand on their nature. She points to Larkin’s personal experiences with fighting children coming to the fore on She’s Running as an example of their lived experiences bleeding into the lyrics.
‘Look Me In The Eye’ was recorded with their longtime producer James Goldsmith, at Wellington’s Blue Barn studio.
“We are really good friends with James now, we’ve done three albums with him including this one. We felt like he was on the exact same wavelength as us on what we wanted to achieve, and how we wanted to grow the sound.”
She praises his involvement in shaping the sound, especially his work with guitar pedals, calling him a “freaky guitar tones mad genius,” and an asset for the album.
Coinciding with the album the band released their own custom ‘Moon Cycle’ guitar pedal, designed and built by amp maker Emerald Rose.
“We thought it would be really fun… there aren’t enough stories out there about women doing awesome things with gear, so we just wanted to make one happen,” West laughs. “It ties into what we’re trying to do on the album. We just really wanted there to be a cool story out there with these badass women who built amps and guitar pedals that can hopefully inspire someone else in the future, or right now.”
Giving context, she considers the pedal reflective of the sounds on the album.
“A lot of modulation and chorus and flanger, and a bit of vibrato… this pedal can do a lot, and can sound really messed up, or really beautiful and gentle. So it has this whole range, similar to the album.”
The feminine name for the pedal stuck too.
“We haven’t talked too much about it… we can make a feminist guitar pedal if we want to, dammit!” she laughs.
Mermaidens’ reputation as a powerful live act has been solidified through opening for artists like Lorde, Mac DeMarco and Sleater-Kinney, a show West describes as one of the coolest they’ve done. Still, hometown shows are a favourite.
“I think with the live show we really strive to make as much impact as we can as a three-piece, as guitar, bass and drums,” she explains. “In recordings, it’s layers of guitars, some electronic drums, or layers of drums, [layers of] harmonies… they’re two different things, which is exciting because you can come to the live show and have a different experience of the songs.
“It’s more like the feeling and energy… that we find really inspiring. We often list Warpaint, or Fugazi, or PJ Harvey as influences… it’s more because they create such strong sonic worlds… I guess that’s what our big goal is – to just sound like us.