Photo: Mermaidens' Gussie Larkin, Abe Hollingsworth and Lily West, photographed by Frances Carter
Hypnotic and psychedelic are words that are often used to describe Wellington-band Mermaidens, a perfect summation of their strangely beautiful melodic psyche-rock. But record label Flying Nun describes their sound at its dreamiest best: “a coastal stroll along haunted shorelines, with reverb-washed guitars playing entangled riff-based melodies”.
The trio - co-lead singer/guitarist Gussie Larkin, co-lead singer/bass player Lily West and drummer Abe Hollingsworth - are also one of the most effortlessly stylish bands in Aotearoa, with a penchant for colour and retro-tinged vibes.
Today the band releases new single Soft Energy, recorded at The Surgery and produced by Samuel Flynn Scott of The Phoenix Foundation, with an appropriately colourfully dark music video that we are excited to premiere here on Ensemble. Directed by Gussie, the video features a giant clamshell, plenty of sparkle and an “Abba-worthy Top of the Pops-inspired band scene”; so, perfectly Mermaidenian.
They soon head off on a nationwide tour to support the new single (tonight’s first show in Palmerston North was cancelled because of alert level changes), playing in Christchurch, Dunedin, Oamaru, Auckland and Napier.
They’re also bringing their music festival Mermgrown to Tāmaki Makaurau on March 20, following a sell-out in Wellington last month. This line-up includes the band alongside Kane Strang, Phoebe Rings, Leaping Tiger, K M T P and David Feauai-Afaese’s project LEAO, across three stages at Whammy, Wine Cellar and Backroom. Fun! (You can buy tickets here)
Ahead of the Soft Energy tour and release, Gussie and Lily talked to us about vulnerability, fashion and typography.
WATCH: Soft Energy by Mermaidens:
What is ‘soft energy’? Both the song, and the idea of it.
Gussie: In a way, Soft Energy is about big egos. I was thinking about people who put on a tough, detached exterior that I can tell isn’t doing them any good. I think in creative industries this kind of energy is everywhere. I’m not judging the person, and I know that that brutal, bluntness comes from a place of insecurity - of which we creatives have in swathes. The song asks the person to show their vulnerabilities, to be raw and honest, as that is the thing that will impress me the most.
What sparked you to write the song? Was there a specific instance?
Gussie: When I reflect on it now, I think it’s a response to my experiences with some (usually male) humans in the music industry who put up big, tough, impenetrable walls. Sometimes people feel the need to rise above others in a really defiant way, and in the words of Shania Twain - That don’t impress me much.
I think musicians often feel like they have to be completely resilient and in control - I know I certainly do. The idea of 'soft energy' is a reflection of that too - can we lean into our vulnerabilities and admit our weaknesses?
Tell me about the Soft Energy music video?
Gussie: I started with the idea of ‘softness’. I dreamed about creating a pink fur-covered room, a giant pillow fort, eating elaborate soft-serve ice cream and having the three of us emerging out of a foam-pit. But when you’ve got one day to shoot and you’re spending most of the budget on 16mm film, you have to hold back a little. So we took some of those ideas and mixed them in with an ABBA-worthy Top of the Pops-inspired band scene.
The cherry on top was a giant clamshell which was made by Ella Bates-Hermans and Grace Acheson, who created the amazing life-sized costumes in The Phoenix Foundation’s Landline video, of which I was the art director.
I think this is the most Mermaidens video we’ve made. It’s retro-inspired, it’s a little tongue-in-cheek and I think (I hope) we’ve struck the delicate balance between badass and glamorous!
I love this idea of embracing softness and vulnerability. In a roundabout way it reminds me of conversations I have had with Emily from Ruby/Liam and Anj and Rach from Twenty-seven Names - about being considered ‘cute’ vs. ‘cool’, and how playfulness in design/fashion is often dismissed as girlish and silly and therefore not as serious. But also no longer being embarrassed about embracing that. I’m interested to know if you’ve had similar chats or experiences, particularly in the music world?
Lily: I think as a band we have made vulnerability and playfulness our strengths. I can’t recall us deciding this, I think it’s just who we are as a team. A big part of songwriting is having Soft Energy and being exposed - we’re lucky to have each other to make us feel strong when we share tender ideas.
Play and silliness is also really important to our songwriting, but also how we approach everything we do as a band - like, how about we make a guitar pedal; what about our own festival!?
Obviously being able to gather and go to concerts or events is a huge privilege and freedom that we are so lucky to have here in Aotearoa - so it’s particularly cool to see events/festivals like Mermgrown happening! Can you tell me about that - why did you decide to do it, and what’s the vibe you are hoping to capture?
Lily: Yes, we thank our lucky stars everyday that we can still make plans in Aotearoa! We love to host a party and we love to push ourselves - so organising our dream festival seemed like our kind of project. I’m pretty sure, like so much stuff we do, the idea came from joking around with silly ideas.
In a way, it’s an exciting time for music, without international acts on line-ups, NZ artists can have their much deserved time in the spotlight. We really hope that Mermgrown inspires others to put on their own small festivals and DIY events too!
I’ve heard your band aesthetic described a few ways but no one has really been able to capture it. How would you describe it? And how, I suppose, ‘deliberate’ is this?
Gussie: It’s deliberate for sure, but I guess we have an intuitive sense of what works for us. I think our aesthetic has evolved along with the music in a pretty organic way, and we’ve hardly ever been stuck for visual ideas. Having illustrated our posters, album art and merch from the beginning (eight years ago!), Lily plays a huge part in our aesthetic, and I feel very lucky to have her.
What role does fashion - or do clothes - play in the band? Whether it’s for videos or when performing or visuals.
Gussie: The three of us have quite different personal styles, but we all have a big love for colour. Our music often has a colour associated with it too.
For our last album Look Me in the Eye, the colour was red, so naturally Lily and I had matching red dresses, Abe found this amazing red jumpsuit while we were on tour. I think being in a band is the best opportunity to create your own visual world, so we’re milking that for all that it’s worth.
And what role does it play for you personally?
Lily: Fashion and clothes are so important for me as space to explore presentation and gender. I love that I can be buxom and fancy in a Penny Sage or Twenty-seven Names dress one day and then more masc in a vintage suit the next. Fashion can be identity affirming, but also a great space to experiment.
Gussie: This is cheesy but I feel most powerful when I’m on stage, and if I’m wearing a badass hot pink suit that enhances the whole experience.
Your videos are always so cool and stylised but never in a way that’s pretentious or overdone. Can you tell me about the process you go through when developing these videos and concepts?
Gussie: Thank you. I watch a lot of movies to get those creative juices flowin’. I love ‘70s/’80s B-grade films. At the moment I’m obsessed with Italian horror films, and so is Ezra Simons who shot the Soft Energy video.
What I love about these films is that they try to be serious and cool, but the execution is just so bad and dated that they turn out really hilarious. It’s a thread that has run through quite a few Mermaidens videos. We want our sense of humour to come through even when the music is dark and dissonant.
Your use of typography is also insanely good and I know this is something Lily works on a lot across her design work. Can you tell me about the typography and design of the Mermgrown and Soft Energy tour posters?
Lily: That’s very kind! I feel like I don’t know about proper design rules so am always just playing around till I find something that feels good.
My intention for the design for Mermgrown was to give a clean, big festival feel to this relatively small DIY event. The Soft Energy tour and single art was fun to do - to take this ‘Soft Energy’ concept and develop it into a graphic. I mixed retro and contemporary type and icons with a pink fur backdrop, it just felt right!
What are your favourite fonts right now?
I’m visiting Wellington for a weekend - where would you take me?
Lily: Road trip out to The Dowse - the gallery has awesome exhibition design and there are excellent op-shops in Pito-one and Lower Hutt. Then drinks and dinner at Mason in Newtown.
Gussie: Go to David N White gallery. It’s a treasure trove of strange and wonderful things, just be prepared to rummage. Bread is important to me and my fave Welly loaf is the polenta sourdough from Leeds St Bakery. How very millennial of me.
What have you been listening to / watching / reading / following lately?
Gussie: Lily gave me Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado which I loved, and I’ve just devoured every book by Ottessa Moshfegh. I’m obsessed with Mourn’s album from last year, it’s called Self Worth.
Lily: I second that on the Mourn album!