Photo by Mia Mala McDonald.
Given the way it allows us to listen to the experiences of others and then overlay our own for comparison, music often offers the ideal medium in which to unpack our emotions. But while it frequently offers a window into a specific element of the human condition – hope, anger, sadness etc – it rarely delves into the complexities, contradictions and irrationalities that make up the our mental state. Sure, Courtney Barnett once sang about simultaneously wanting to go out and stay in and Kurt Vile’s ‘Peepin’ Tom’ delivered a characteristic cascade of consciousness via a stream of contrasts, but these feel like exceptions rather than the rule. Enter Totally Mild’s Her.
Songwriter Elizabeth Mitchell had it all – a loving relationship, a stable and supportive social circle, a critically acclaimed band. The manner in which she attempted to push it all away in an attempt to prove her independence (as much to herself as to anyone around her) strikes at the inexplicable, confounding decisions we make and processes we go through to an extent that will be all too familiar to most. Totally Mild’s second album turns the experience into a collection of lush pop songs that put the focus on Mitchell’s soaring, distinctive vocals and allow her to tell her assorted tales of love, hope, and the inner battle to retain a sense of individuality. From the starkly beautiful piano ballad ‘Lucky Stars’ and haunting understatement of ‘Underwater’ to the dual widescreen sweeps of ‘Pearl’ and ‘From One Another, the results are rich, accomplished and ambitious, and from the midst of a short run of London shows having not long conquered SXSW, Mitchell spoke about the record’s genesis and the extent to which it reflects her mindset during its creation.
Do you feel that the way your last album was received influenced the way you approached making Her and how do you feel your processes have changed or evolved between the two?
I think that it definitely made me more conscious of the fact that other people were going to hear it, because we were quite naïve when we were making our first album, Down Time and we treated it as an opportunity to document where we were at that time as a live band, almost with minimal production. When we started on it we were at that beautiful point where no-one really knows that you’re making a record, so you’re just doing it and it exists in that nice little bubble of the people who are making it. That still happens but there’s also this knowledge that people will probably hear it outside of our friends. I just hoped that people who liked the last record liked the new one, because I certainly didn’t want to just make the same record all over again. This time we were trying to make something that was a bit more expansive I guess.
Looking back do you think that you made the album that you initially set out to and/or wanted to?
I think so, we really wanted it to have this elaborate pop production and I think we achieved that. But it’s funny because it was written over quite a long period of time and so it didn’t really feel like I was trying to write a new album – I was just writing at a constant rate and it all worked together. I don’t really approach these things with some kind of vision of what the album would be like, I’ve never worked like that. It just sort of happens with influences coming at you all of the time. Put it this way, I don’t think I could make that record again. But I’m proud of it.
Most albums explore a certain part of the human condition but few really tackle the inner contradictions of our minds. Did you feel that you were doing something truly different, or were you purely focused on documenting your own experiences?
I’m not intending to do something different, and it would be incredibly self-important to think that my experiences could anything truly new. I do think I’m telling stories of queerness and being a woman and existing as a young person in the current political space, but it’s not an especially new thing. To be honest I don’t really write in a politically conscious way and I’m not setting out to be political, I’m just writing about my own life and inner turmoil but at the same time I do think there’s a power in claiming your own voice for what it is.
“It’s purely an album of contradictions from being an album about feeling OK to being one about not being OK…”
Do you find writing about your own experiences via such a public medium difficult, or rather view it as a necessary outlet and a form of catharsis that helps you to reflect and unpack things?
I don’t find it especially difficult, partly because I’m often not in the same emotional space when I was writing it when it comes to recording or releasing it, and that definitely helps. But at the same time there’s definitely an element of catharsis involved and I do use writing to process what’s going on in my life whether I’m writing about them at the time or taking six months to unpack it. I’m a very feelings-base person and can find it difficult to contain my emotions rather than be vulnerable and I think that that translates into my songwriting.
Do you feel that there’s something anachronistic about writing about the irrationalities and quirks of the human psyche via a medium that is expected to be cohesive and ordered and logical as music so often is?
Yeah, totally. I think it’s really weird when you’re doing the press for an album people will be all ‘sell it to us in one sentence!’ and albums don’t work like that for me – I don’t know if they work like that for anyone. Like you said, it’s purely an album of contradictions from being an album about feeling OK to being one about not being OK and as a result it’s very difficult to capture that in some kind of snappy soundbite.
One of the standout elements of the record for me is the way it mates discourse surrounding inner conflicts not only with a real musical cohesion but also this incredibly rich sound. Was that a conscious juxtaposition that you constructed into the songwriting or was it merely a by-product of trying to create the record that you wanted?
I don’t necessarily think that it’s a conscious decision. I mean I think that for me personally it does play into it because I know what the theme of the lyrics are and I know what the songs mean to me, but Zach (Schneider, guitarist) and Lehmann (Smith, bassist) approach music in a much different way to me, they’re driven towards hearing arrangements and finding ways to take a song somewhere. I don’t even know whether, when we were writing the album, they’d even have really known the themes of the lyrics and I think that it’s just something that comes from the way that we work together and how we’re a small group of people collaborating in a way that sees all kinds of influences coming together.
Having made an album documenting a difficult part of your life do you feel that the best art is driven by personal battles and the emotions and experiences that they breed?
I think for me it seems to work that way, but at the same time Her is almost a happy album for me. You’ve described it as a difficult part of my life, but as someone who lives with mental illness you’re always going experience difficult parts of your life regardless of being happy and I think that that’s one of the contradictions on the record. The album is very much about falling in love and all of the exciting silly things that come with that, along with the stability. But it’s also about the pull that my own sad brain tugs at me to destroy all of those things and the way it tries to stop me enjoying the good things. Those difficult moments are inextricable from making art for me – but at the same time I wouldn’t want to stay sick or unhappy purely in order to make things because that’s quite dangerous. It’s bullshit, that whole attitude and I think it’s so silly.
Having been well-received Stateside and beyond as well as domestically, have you been surprised at how universally the record has connected with people or was it always a hope or expectation?
There definitely wasn’t an expectation, and I think it would be silly – especially in Australia – to release an album and just expect people to connect with it when there’s so much amazing music over there, even just in Melbourne. So I always have this enormous joy to receive press or to have people come to shows overseas and already know songs, or even connect with songs for the first time at a show. There’s also the fact that when you write about relationships and emotions, there’s a certain truth that everyone experiences those things and so people will understand at least a portion of what you’re talking about.
It’s cool when people get it but it’s also cool when people misinterpret them and make them whatever they want them to be. My favourite is on a track off our first record called ‘The Next Day’, and there’s a lyric that says “you told me I was beautiful like I’d never heard it before” and someone thought that it was really romantic, like I was being told it in a way that I’d never heard it before and they thought it was lovely. But really someone said that to me expecting that no-one had ever said that to me before, because I wasn’t that beautiful but they thought that I was. I like that, the way that songs can become transformed in the hands of someone else.
If you had to choose one thing, above all else, the people took away from the album – be that a message or a sensation – what would that be?
I’d hope that it provides some kind of comfort, I think, and shares the concept that happiness isn’t necessarily a goal that we’re going to reach and everything will be OK. We’re always driven to be well, or happy or more in love and while people are interpreting this record as dark or melancholy I think that it’s more about how you can be happy and chronically depressed at the same time. That might not necessarily make sense, but life can definitely be good and bad at the same time and I think that that’s the main message of the record.