Melbourne’s Many Gifts
Why do some of us feel so seen by the Australians? I’m only embarrassed that I’ve taken this long to come up with that question. For me, it’s been percolating for several months, owing in no small part to the strength of Courtney Barnett’s newest record. But in the past two months, stumbling upon other bands who share Barnett’s nationality has bolstered my admiration for the amazing female talent from Down Under, and Melbourne specifically.
About two months ago, before getting a full treatment, I got an abbreviated introduction to The Mae Trio playing from the cozy comfort of Avery Brewing Company’s stage at this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It was late in their set, but I didn’t have to hear much from them to know I was already sold. The next day, I made my way to the festival’s workshop stage in Elks Park for a longer set from the band. Originally a Melbourne sister duo of Elsie and Maggie Rigby, they’ve grown to a trio with the addition of cellist Anita Hillman. Between their expertly blended harmonies, gracious wit, and, you know, their really amazing accents, they make pretty quick work of charming a crowd. I would go so far as to say they charmed their Telluride audience’s socks off, but most members of said audience were shod in the intermountain region sandals of choice: Chacos—a detail that Elsie Rigby remarked on before confessing she had been inspired to buy a pair during the festival. The footwear was the last of three things from the weekend that she cited as particularly inspiring. The first was a set from the opening day of the festival played by acoustic supergroup I’m With Her (my own obsession for whom has been documented previously on this site). The second was that each stage they played during the weekend offered a distinct, but equally pristine view of mountains surrounding the box canyon of Telluride.
I wasn’t satisfied with chalking up The Mae Trio’s striking appeal to mere talent and wit. And I found I was right to be unsatisfied. Because I later realized a third quality that brought their style home for me. Late in the set, Elsie introduced a song that’s not yet in their studio discography, nor in any recorded performances floating around the internet. In the song intro, she recounted helping a girl she was in love with move a good distance north of Melbourne. I’m tempted to say it was to Brisbane, which is an 18-hour drive from Melbourne and would at least check with the main point that the destination was a long drive away. At the end of the drive, Elsie’s partner broke up with her. The detail excited a few sympathetic exhales and cringes from the audience before Elsie quickly invited some laughter by admitting that that had been the plan all along. To me, the moment captured the sense that there is such thing as a normative, baseline sadness that’s not quite on the magnitude of grief or tragedy. It’s a sadness without fanfare, if only for the person who’s experiencing it. And that person would have you laugh it off after the initial punch. The Mae Trio aren’t the only spokespeople for this type of sadness.
It took seeing an Australian band playing a decidedly different style of music a month later to begin wondering if I had discovered a pattern. I’m talking about Camp Cope, another Melbourne trio that I had only caught the bug for in early July when they played a live studio session on the KEXP Midday Show. I tuned in online late in the set, but I knew with about as much speed and clarity as I had with The Mae Trio that I was sold on what they were doing. I looked up their upcoming shows and saw that they’d be in my town later in the month. I also noticed that the show had already been moved to a bigger venue since the original space sold out with a few months before the show to spare. There’s a wonderful irony in this logistical change that was not lost on the band.
One of the most beloved songs on Camp Cope’s 2018 record How to Socialize & Make Friends is called “The Opener.” It is the first track of the record, but that’s not what it takes its name from. It takes its name from the last lyric of the song, “Yeah, just get a female opener, that’ll fill the quota.” Before ending their sold out Rock & Roll Hotel set with that song, lead vocalist Georgia “Maq” McDonald explained that she was tired of having to address, yes, the under-representation of women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color in bands, but also, and more importantly, the underestimation of bands where those populations are represented. Maq emphasized that Camp Cope had been underestimated at every point in their trajectory. Several lines in “The Opener” reflect that, and it’s easy to imagine which lyrics were taken verbatim from real interactions they’ve had in their industry, particularly with men.
It takes no more than a quick scan of Google search results to see some of the ways Maq’s lyrics have been described: cutting and simultaneously bullshit-free and impassioned. To that list, I would add tragic but lucid, and I think my impulse to describe them as such goes back to the sadness sans fanfare that I noticed in Elsie Rigby during Telluride, but it’s also a quality I would attribute to Courtney Barnett.
I think one writer rightly described Barnett’s “self-deprecating modesty” as a virtue in a Chicago Tribune review of her new record earlier this year. It’s what gives us both unfettered access to her material, as well as a sense of invitation to transpose it onto our own experience without feeling like we’re trespassing. At the same time, I can’t think of musician who’s gotten more traction for whom the word deadpan has been thrown around as faithfully to describe their trademark vocal style. Based on these descriptions, somebody unfamiliar with Barnett’s material could be forgiven for dismissing it as indulgently bleak and cynical. But I think what I’ve keyed in on is that those types of designations usually come from a value judgment that’s grounded in an unexamined outlook wherein optimism and hope are the default.
For most of my life, I’ve struggled to understand why I don’t often feel like my experience in the world is reflected in the creative places that I look to for perspective and connection. Over time, I’ve realized that a lot of it boils down to a discrepancy in outlook. That happiness is a right and guarantee for every sentient creature is a very American attitude. That attitude, however, neglects that, for better or worse, happiness might be elusive for some people. And it’s one of many potentially elusive things. The list of compelling experiences that culture has predisposed us, many centuries over, to expect to find somewhere in the storm of our respective lives is long. Love, mentorship, friendship, intimacy, and the notion of a god are ones that come to mind. When we’re taught to expect them, we’re inevitably let down when we don’t find them. This is where I think these fierce Australian chicks are onto something.
The macabre and the melancholy nature of our experience as humans, to these Aussies, is not something to be feared, dreaded, or avoided so much as accepted as part of life with all its contradictions and ripe potential for pain and absurdity. In recent months, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my childhood memories, the prevailing sentiment of which was markedly unhappy. I used to blame myself since I figured I was the common denominator in my every life experience. But the truth is I was trying to live up to a reductive cultural standard of happiness as a given. I don’t find people for whom that’s true to be disingenuous or misguided. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that it may not be true of everyone’s experience, and to go a step further by telling people—especially when they’re young—that nothing is wrong with them if it isn’t.
For some of us, sad is our modus operandi, and we can’t help it, and these Australians get that. For my part, I’ve been glad to discover the music of The Mae Trio and Camp Cope to rally through a few months that have been tinged with a lot of doubt and disenchantment with the city I live in, and what I do for a living (which I recognize sounds suspiciously crotchety coming from a 25-year-old, so take that with a grain of salt). I happened upon the Rigby sisters at a festival I traveled to, but Camp Cope came to me, and within weeks of when I discovered them, no less. It’s a small thing, but it inclines me to put some stock in the lyric from Courtney Barnett’s new record that “the city takes pity on your injured soul.”
As it were, Courtney Barnett is also coming to where I am this week, which has inspired me to go on the record with this approximation of just how much I might owe the Australian state of Melbourne for my very wellbeing right now. The multi-talented, melancholy, made-in-Melbourne musicians named here have been the queens of my mental landscape as of late. It’s only a shame none of them are from Queensland, but perhaps that’s just as well, since it probably prevented me from making several bad puns. Anyway, the fact of these musicians’ work, and the timing of my own exposure to it is enough. To borrow from the lyrics of another Camp Cope song, “I know I’m lucky. This makes me feel better.”