Catharsis > Catastrophe
2020 was a really shit year. Somebody ate a bat and the world shut down. Relationships ended, families were kept apart. The deepest chasm of Covid lockdowns, however, brought us the launch of Sydney band Sweetie (made up of Lily Keenan, Rikki Clark, Lucy Warriner & Janae Beer). Focusing on catharsis instead of catastrophe, the group released their debut single Boundary Queen in September via Blossom Rot Records. To nobody that has ever seen the band play live’s surprise, it was a hit. Has early success lead to an increase in pressure?
RC – “I think the pressure comes off a bit”
LW – “Yeah, I don’t give a fuck…
…Just kidding. I don’t think there’s more pressure, no.”
LK – “It’s validating, but I suppose we never started this project with success as the aim. Like we’ve all got other jobs and other passions as well. We love doing this, and we’re super committed, but it’s also not something that we’re gonna die on our swords for. I guess it always comes back to the point that we started from nothing and everything we achieve from now is huge. We will be happy with whatever.”
JB – “It’s good to be here.”
LK – “I think a year ago, we were like if we just play 1 gig, we’re gonna be happy. Just one show with a real audience. And since then, anything else that happens on top of that we’re like, whoa, crazy.”
JB – “I’m pretty proud of us. It’s been a really epic response. A lot of support. It’s very encouraging. It’s kind of nice to come out of lockdown going like sick, cool, people are backing this. Let’s go do it and have fucking fun.”
Some people reading this will have come out of lockdown having found peace in the solitude. Enjoying the time to look inwards and slow down for a few months. Others will have struggled with the imposition and interference to their normal lives. How does a band that’s come out of the gates racing, playing shows all over Sydney and growing with confidence and grandeur each time adapt to the shift?
LW – “Lily was sending demos every day. She just wouldn’t stop writing songs which was insane. We’d all just be playing along with the recordings at home. But to be honest, we really just want to be in the room together making as much noise as we can and like just going ham.”
LK – “We had our first post-lockdown practice this week and it was sick.”
RC – “It felt…”
JB – “…Perfect.”
RC – “I thought everything sounded so good after like, not doing anything for four months. I was expecting to be so crap. There were definitely a few moments where we forgot heaps, but somehow we kind of just kept going. Trying and failing so hard but the vibe was definitely there. If we can’t remember how to do something, we’ll just forget it and that’s OK.”
For a band still very much in their infancy, it would have been understandable if Sweetie lost focus in what they were doing in the time apart. Keenan & Clark are self-admitted beginner musicians, teaching themselves as they go by writing & performing. This adaptive learning process, similar to that of many pioneering punk bands from 1970’s London, has become core not just to Sweetie’s attitude, but to their sound.
RC – “It’s definitely a learning process. Especially now that we’ve released music. I’m pretty proud of the songs as they are, ’cause they feel quite raw. But there is so much room moving forward. I want to do new things but I don’t know if I really want to revisit old ones and change them too much.”
LK – “The idea that you have to be amazing to be noticed is busted. The whole point of this project was to just like, stop caring what everyone else thought or whatever and I wanted us to do it our way and to take control over our own project. Rik and I have never played instruments and I think there’s a real energy there.
It no longer matters that the songs are simple structurally or whatever. It’s about how excited we were and still are about even being out, expressing ourselves like this. It’s a new way of expressing ourselves creatively.”
JB – “Yeah, I agree. Coming from playing other bands, having that process of writing new stuff together, that’s what establishes you and that becomes your foundation and you kind of just fall in love with that. You can never really perfect something. So you kind of just have to fall in love with the imperfections.”
RC – “Yeah I feel like Sweetie timing is a perfect example of that. When we came to recording, we realised that all of our songs change tempos like six or seven times because we naturally speed up as we get excited, and then every chorus is faster than every verse, but every second verse is a little bit faster than the verse before it. But then, when we actually played things to a click, we hated it. It sucked. It’s better with bad timing throughout.”
LK – “I feel like we’re now writing more and more for the live performances. Because we’ve had a year’s worth of experience playing together. Sweetie is us embracing our flaws and turning them into our strengths. And I do think one of our strengths is live energy and how much we vibe off each other as well.”
Capturing this live energy can be a difficult task for bands recording for the first time. Was this the case for Sweetie?
JB – “On some songs, yes, but I wouldn’t say all of them. A couple of them are definitely more built for a live show, and that was really challenging. But then there were a few that, I think, translated fairly smoothly into a recording situation. And actually kind of grew a little bit from that experience. There were some that we had to pay more attention to whilst recording, and they actually became better from that experience.”
RC – “Definitely, I think paying attention to recording forced us to notice all of the parts that were unfinished or improvised on stage. We really had to put a lot of thought into composition. It was great having Al there for that as well ’cause he’s such a great producer. He was a great influence on our decisions. In composition especially. We threw a lot of stuff at a lot of songs and sometimes we had to take a lot of stuff out to make it more balanced.”
Helpfully, they had the experienced Alistair Wright (Cloud Control / Vlossom) producing these early sessions. Wright’s understanding of the band’s vision, coupled with his willingness to experiment and mix multiple recording methods helped harness the energy that radiates from a Sweetie gig and produce a perfectly balanced sound.
LK – “I’m just like the eternal organiser and I kind of planned everything to death before recording. I was really trying to figure out how to best approach it and Al’s response was basically just that there should be no approach and we should treat every song differently according to what it needed. Some songs we did to a click and some songs we did, like Blind Spot, all together, entirely live.
Some songs we recorded in pieces and stitched together and then others we did layer by layer or instrument by instrument so the whole EP has got all these different approaches and Al was great because there was never anything wrong, or any wrong approach. We could try anything and you could suggest anything and he was always open to it. But then at the same time he would know when to make suggestions that would steer us in the right direction.”
LW – “But he never made suggestions that were so far left field either. He just totally got us as a band and knew what we would like. It was really nice having that “fifth brain” on board that hadn’t been playing the songs already for six months and had clear eyes looking at it.”
LK – “Someone that we all respect as an artist too. Because we all grew up listening to Cloud Control, and he was there, just totally on board with all these positive ideas.”
LW – I think I held it together really well when we were there, but I was fangirling so hard the whole time. ’cause I was like Oh my God. We’re recording with Al from Cloud Control. This is insane.”
JB – “It was very cool.”
LK – “I’m high-fiving teenage me so hard right now.”
Although this was Sweetie’s first time recording as a band, Warriner, Keenan & Beer have experience playing in other groups which undoubtedly gave them confidence throughout the process.
LW – “I’ve played in bands where everything was just absolutely chaotic. Coming into Sweetie, everything is so well organised and well structured. In my last band, Uhm, Georgia and I both got dumped in the same week and then spent two weeks writing like 8 songs together and then got our friends involved, one of whom was Georgia’s ex that had just dumped her.
So it was just this whole shambles. But yeah I definitely learned a lot from it. This song writing process was very interesting. We were just so loose. And we were like whatever, we don’t need structure and then go to Sweetie, where we need structure but we’re gonna make it really fucking weird and experimental. And it was also so intentional and has so much more passion.”
LK – “For me, joining 2 bands (Megafauna & Sweetie) almost at the same time and learning my instrument as I was in those two bands and as they grew up was a really interesting experience and I feel like while the two bands are like very separate and different stylistically, we’re old friends, and I learnt heaps about songwriting from Tess, who drums in The Buoys, and her approach. Her approach to workshopping songs is really inspiring. She’s constantly questioning and challenging little things and trying to find new ways to improve and I really respected that. It’s possible, even though creative workshopping can be pretty fraught, but it’s possible to do that in a way that everyone feels supported and heard, and that’s something that’s really important to me”
If you’ve read any of the recent press on Sweetie, or turned on FBI radio at any point in the last month, one phrase you’ll be familiar with is “devo country punk”…
LK – “It’s a bit of a personal joke that goes back to how the band was started. I was just so devo and to remedy that, started learning guitar and Rik was learning drums also in a devo time. We were both pretty devo, and so it was kind of a joke about that. Then it sort of stuck and I think it also illustrates that we don’t really fit in one specific genre. We kind of jumped in between a few.”
RC – “I think part of that is because, for me personally, I didn’t know enough about music to be able to follow along with the genre anyway. I was just so useless it was like this is just what I can play today. Do you like it? Good. Deal with it. Right.”
LW – “It’s so funny. It’s like such a weird mix of genres as well, but I do feel like whenever we jam, we all encapsulate those three genres so perfectly. I don’t know how we do it, but it just makes sense.”
RC – “I’d love to get some pedal steel guitar in one of our songs. That would be really great.”
JB – “As we all get more comfortable with each other and with our instruments, I guess like becoming more familiar. It’ll be cool to see what we come up with through quite a raw jam. We haven’t really tried that yet. Just to see what comes out of it. It could be disco, who knows.”
LK – “Yeah I would love to bring in some synth action at some point too. Maybe like more of a psych-vibe. Just whack “psych” or “space” on the end of devo country punk.”
And just like that, “Sweetie’s Devo country punk space disco” was born.
LW – “That’s a huge vibe. I’m so into that. Wow.”
Recently signed to Blossom Rot Records, the band has nothing but love for their new mentors and partners, Natalie Pavlovich and Sophie McComish.
LK – “They’re amazing.”
JB – “Blah (I think that was an excited noise?) Amazing”
RC – “Amazing. Like I have never felt like this before. They’re fucking rad.”
LW – “So good. I constantly feel like I’m being hugged by them. They’re so supportive.”
RC – “So supportive. They’re great. So they’re two women who’ve been in bands for a lot longer than us and have been working in the industry and been around, you know, been around the tracks for a lot longer than us. It’s so good to have that I feel so supported by them because of their female perspective. They have such an encyclopaedic knowledge of how to get around as female musicians and absolutely kick goals and be on top of your shit. But also like not to be pressured into working with creeps or even just people who are inefficient and time wasters. They’re just so on top of it. And I feel like they’re a great influence for us.”
LK – “Yeah, once again, we also just fangirl so hard for their bands.”
RC – “Yeah, Oh my God.”
LK – “They hustled so hard behind the Boundary Queen release and I would say that all the attention it got was thanks to their hard work.”
Sweetie’s debut single, Boundary Queen, was released back in September to critical acclaim. The influence and female perspective that McComish & Pavlovich provided, as Clark put it “to get around as female musicians and absolutely kick goals and be on top of your shit” was priceless.
LK – “The female perspective is 100% the focus of the writing. And it comes back to why we even started the band in the first place. Sweetie was born out of a shift, personally for me, while COVID was kicking off and the whole world was going to crap. The idea for Sweetie was to make music as a way to re-empower yourself. I wanted to write the music that represented the kind of person that I wanted to be. And I wanted to write music that was about strength and also vulnerability. It was about being okay with not being okay. About being a woman who is both flawed and also strong.
I guess that’s been a lot of the existential musing that I’ve done over the past few years. Like how can you be all the things that the world wants a woman to be? How can you be powerful but also lovable and soft? How can you stand up for yourself, but also for everybody else? Sweetie is a collection of all those things. And powerful because of it.”
The positive energy behind the writing of Sweetie’s first two singles is infectious. Keenan masterfully capitalises on rock bottom. Choosing to use the situation as a creative boost and positive influence.
LK – “Yeah, seriously, get dumped. It’s the best thing you can do for your creative career.”
JB – “Yeah, I think that’s quite a universal move, right? From heartbreak comes some good shit!”
LK – “I think also like you know, being part of the music scene as a spectator and just watching so many shows and loving it was such an influence. There’s so many artists that we love and support. But at the same time, we were thinking, wouldn’t it be amazing to go to more shows that have all women.
You know, part of what we’re trying to do is carve out a space for young people to see more women on stage. That was a big thing for me. I watched a bajillion shows in my life, and I want to see more women just rocking out.”
JB – “Yeah, there’s so many awesome women who are here to make music.”
RC – “Dead Witch definitely. Obviously The Buoys“
LK – “Megafauna“
LW – “Body Type. They really paved the way in Sydney I reckon.”
LK – “We’re in a very little pocket here in Sydney, but internationally a big inspo for us is Goat Girl from the UK. Also I think it’s important that they don’t necessarily promote themselves as an all female band. It’s more just about being a band, who happens to not be all men, and like let’s normalise that you know?”
For a group so down to earth and happy-go-lucky with their approach, the empowering nature of their early success is nothing but positive. Today the band released their second single, Blind Spot.
LK – “This is the first song that came out of the learning guitar project, and it’s pretty much a Ground Zero breakup song. It’s one of our most devo songs. But it’s still, somehow, I don’t know, it’s still kind of happy? It was written when I didn’t really know how to play guitar and when I was incredibly sad. But then it became this sort of song, that Sweetie built on the back of, into an entire sound. So it was, sort of like the song that started it all for us.”
JB – “As a listener and bass player on the song, I feel like it’s sad and you can feel the emotion behind it. But it also feels like a huge relief comes from that sadness at the same time. Which is really uplifting. Something good coming out of all the shit.”
LK – “Yeah, it was like the first moment of externalising the sadness and turning it into this amazing music project that’s now brought us so much joy. It’s got everyone singing. We all pile in. It’s like a full, beautiful coven of women lifting you up.”
Sweetie have unwittingly given us all a lesson on how positivity can get you out of your darkest moments. How to make the most of rock bottom and turn a situation in your favour. As Beer put it herself, “From heartbreak comes the good shit. Now let’s have some fucking fun.”