This week, Tāmaki Makaurau-based singer-songwriter Ilena Shadbolt released ‘Vertigo’, her third album in three years. Not only is Ilena prolific, deliberate and intelligent in her songwriting, she’s also an accomplished actress on stage and screen, and a budding filmmaker with a CV that belies her youth. NZM asked this impressive new talent to give us a rundown of the album’s opening track, the ethereal and poppy Chimera.
Chimera is a rare song for me, which is to say that it is upbeat and mostly happy! I was thinking about one of my best friends when I wrote it. The song is an ode to female friendship and the very particular kind of love it provides: the consistency, even as romantic endeavours go awry; the casual emotional and physical intimacy; the way that betrayals and secrets hurt as acutely as good times uplift.
During my early 20s many of my friendships are malleable. My friends are in different cities, or imminently moving overseas, or have drifted into other social circles. Although the time and space that separates us is elastic – perhaps I no longer see a particular person for coffee every other day – some bonds can’t help but be strong. Chimera embodies my hope that they will remain so. I have so much love for the friends I don’t see for a long time, as much as for friends I see every weekend.
‘Light up when you talk about what you love
You’re so breathless in the moment, I can’t get enough
Half my heart
You’ll go far
And this cut might bleed now but it will scar’
The complexity of close friendship is located in the image of a chimera. A chimera is a single organism made up of cells from multiple individuals. In Greek mythology, it is a fire-breathing female monster made up of a lion, a goat and a dragon. When you know and love someone for a long time, to a certain extent, you become each other. Aspects of your personality and your appearance mould themselves in another’s image. A chimera is interlaced, fantastical and disturbing– just like friendship.
‘Up at night, ‘cause though you know me most, I can’t tell you why
This isn’t easy; guilt’s necklace is heavy, and you see right through me’
Chimera touches on dark times during longstanding friendships, when time is put to the test. When someone knows you so well, it’s hard to keep anything from them. They are you. They know when you’re lying and even small betrayals are heart-breaking.
‘I’d rather be with her
Without, I feel weaker
Flitting through each wasted weekend
Passing me the speaker’
I was also thinking about the difference and value of romantic and platonic relationships. In the grand scheme of things, it is more fruitful to nurture dependable friendships than short-lived romances. A lot of the time, I’d rather be with her than chasing after a crush.
In terms of sound, I was very inspired by Entertnmnt by Oklou. The song started out as an experiment trying to emulate the tone of its bass and swooping synth melody. While listening to her and Ethel Cain, I noticed that there were a lot of fifth interval jumps in their melodies. I thought those jumps were really pretty, so I incorporated that in the pre-chorus melody (‘I’d rather be with her / Without, I feel weaker’). I wanted to make something danceable and commensurate with the adoring sentiment of the song, so I took a lot of notes from Zheani, Meth Math, Bladee’s Good Luck (Deluxe) and Sega Bodega’s Romeo.
Chimera, along with the rest of the album, was made during Auckland’s three-month lockdown at the end of 2021. So, it very much encapsulates that time period, which was relatively productive but also frenetic. I spent my time predominantly walking around Grey Lynn and trying every day to make songs. The demo and the final version weren’t very different– I like making songs spontaneously, within the given moment that inspiration struck me.
Later, I’ll add little crunchy details and tweaks. This album is a result of that time, and myself taking a year out of university to focus solely on music. It’s hard to hear, but I continuously sing ‘on, and on, and on’ with varying countermelodies. I like to think it’s a secret promise embedded in the track– that, despite what happens, this friendship will go on. I hope you like it.