Rising up with fervor from a whirlwind of lockdowns, break-ups, and grief comes the Sydney based guitar pop four-piece Sweetie. We caught up with the band to find out more about the making of their debut EP and their experiences as a new band launching straight out of chaos.
A band rapidly ticking off significant career achievements within their first two years of forming, Sweetie are quickly carving out their place as a must-see act amongst Sydney’s talent-rich underground scene. Consisting of guitarist-vocalist Lily Keenan, guitarist Lucy Warriner, bassist Janae Beer, and drummer Rikki Clark, Sweetie formed at the start of the pandemic in 2020, which saw them propelled into lockdowns in between rehearsing and playing their first string of gigs. Despite facing such disheartening obstacles, the four emerged stronger in both friendship and material, ending 2021 with finishing the recording of their commanding debut EP, Collision, and a bunch of shows under their belt. Sweetie was founded on the shared goal of proving that being a musical "genius" is not a requirement to create — the only member of the band who had been playing their instrument prior to formation was Warriner. This may come as a surprise to some, as the band seems to have already refined their own distinct blend of emotional indie post-punk, a genre they have labeled "devo country punk" (devo as in "devastated," not the legendary weirdo art punks).
Two months ago, Sweetie released Collision through Blossom Rot Records, a growing female-focused, DIY label founded by Nathalie Pavlovic of Dianas and Sophie McComish of Body Type. Collision is an incredibly strong and confident debut, and a fine dosage of vibrant hook-laden guitar pop tangled with country-tinged post-punk. The album kicks off with the haunting vocal track "Start Here" — a striding, infectious indie-punk journey filled with melodic basslines, jangly guitars and unforgettable hooks that document the internal processes triggered by unwanted change. On the track, "Boundary Queen," subtle country twang is married with a compelling groove and an unreserved, punk attitude. In contrast to the urgent energy of the latter, "Negative Image" is an ominous, brooding track that crawls along, gathering suspense and fulfilling its build with vocal layers and big, cinematic drums. The band released a dark, western-style music video for "Negative Image," directed by Keenan and Clark, that perfectly encapsulates the moodiness of the song. It's difficult to ignore the intriguing and unsettling sense of foreboding that flows in many forms across the EP, represented in striking visual format by "Negative Image" music video and the EP's single artworks.
To help us take a dive further into Collision, we caught up with Sweetie to find out more about the making of the EP and their experiences as a new band launching straight out of chaos.
Paperface Zine: What are the origins of Sweetie. When did you form and did you have a vision when coming together? Also were any of you in any other musical projects prior?
Sweetie: Sweetie was born out of three breakups, two deaths, an abortion, a global pandemic and a car crash. No one got hurt (in the car crash) but that domino series of events did make us realize that life is too short not to do exactly what you want. Rikki and Lily were both complete beginner musicians, we were literally learning our instruments as we wrote songs. Janae is an experienced drummer from the bands Babey and Real Love but had never played bass before. Lucy is a killer guitarist who joined us from our sister band, Megafauna, which also started around the same time.
PZ: What does a typical Sweetie recording session look like?
S: Everyone is typically about 20 minutes late. Someone brings coffee. We spend at least an hour trying to get everything working and Lily and Lucy ask each other if they have any picks cause they've both lost all theirs. We all do a vocal warm up together and Rikki tells Lily she sounds like a dog whining when she hits high notes. Janae has forgotten her pedals. Lily takes a business call. Every track take ends with someone saying "sick" into the microphone. At the end of the day we all go to the pub.
PZ: As a band, how do you think you've developed since your formation?
S: We're learning our strengths as a collective. The writing process is becoming more collaborative as it develops in our live rehearsals rather than from demos. Vocal layering is something we are exploring more within songs. We're interested in incorporating non-verbal vocal pieces which is a step away from early songs that were very narrative based, although you can hear the beginnings of these ideas woven through our first EP. We're also all a lot closer friends than when we started, which means we're more comfortable pushing each other to try new things. We're experimenting with swapping instruments, or playing our instruments "wrong." When we started Sweetie, we were so aware of our limits as a band without much technical experience. Now we're leaning into that as a creative point of difference.
PZ: What inspires your songwriting and how do your original ideas develop into songs?
Lily Keenan: Conceptually, I'm interested in exploring power. This first body of work focuses primarily on self-empowerment through acceptance. It was a time in my life when I felt very raw and ripped open. I didn't know how to process the feelings of rage, sadness and vulnerability that I was going through. For me, songs usually start as a collection of words in my phone or scribbled notes, and the melody and chords come later. Externalizing and embracing these ugly thoughts became like therapy for me. In those early days, I was also developing Sweetie as a performative alter-ego. "Sweetie" is the woman I wanted to be, someone who is powerful because of, not despite, her flaws. There's a sense of defiance and strength in these songs that I was really trying to write into existence for my own mental survival. In a way, it actually worked (!) and as I move beyond that dark place, our newer songs are more about looking outward, about exploring Power with a capital P which might mean divinity or bliss or maybe it means sex. I'm also interested in exploring how surrender and submission can be equally empowering, and feminist in a different kind of way.
PZ: You released the debut EP through the growing female-focused DIY label Blossom Rot Records. What do you admire most working with Nat and Soph?
S: Nat and Soph are very established musicians who we've admired for years. We look up to their bands (Dianas and Body Type) which were both a big inspiration when starting Sweetie. So when they emailed us to see if we wanted to be part of their new female-focused label, the answer was unanimously "hell yes." They've got a lot of insights and wisdom from their own experiences in the music industry. We love the ethos of Blossom Rot Records which is to support diverse bands and celebrate individual artistry. Every step of the way they've been cheering us on, we feel very nurtured by them. They keep telling us to break the rules and just do what we want which is so unpretentious and refreshing in an industry which can take itself really seriously. Basically, we trust them with our lives.
PZ: They really are one of the best labels right now! So take me through the two weekends you recorded your debut EP. When and where did you record it and what was the experience like?
S: Recording was broken up over six days across March and April in 2021. We recorded with Alister Wright (Cloud Control, Vlossom, Goddess911) in his makeshift garage studio by the sea about an hour south of Sydney. Recording with Al was the best experience. It was such a privilege to work with someone whose music we respect so deeply. We all grew up listening to Cloud Control. He was constantly upbeat and encouraging, which was important cause we were very nervous about recording for the first time. He made the whole experience so fun, and was really great at hearing our intention and staying true to our vision, while also giving us tools to help our songs grow and become better. The set up was very DIY, we recorded drums in a tent in the garage that was built out of hoodies, blankets and pegs. We also didn't have any percussive instruments so we improvised by whacking empty tins of coconut milk and running a drumstick along a metal drain and the wooden slats of one of Al's drawers.
PZ: What's the signigance to the title?
S: The EP is named Collision after the car crash that Rikki and Lily had at the end of 2019. It happened around the inception of Sweetie so it's sort of became this symbolic moment, both the peak moment of the chaos in the time as well as this auspicious break point: a new beginning. Looking back now at this collection of songs, there is definitely this theme of "picking up the pieces." Like, what do you do when you wake up one morning and your life is different? Every song is a piece of the process that comes after an unwanted change: grief, anger, frustration, bargaining, contradiction, revenge, self-doubt and then eventually… acceptance and hope. Starting and ending the EP with only vocals was very intentional. The first track, "Start Here," begins with Lily singing alone, and in the final moments of the closing track, "Lesson," she is joined by 15 women. That is very symbolic of what starting this project was all about.
PZ: Were there any songs on this release that turned out way different than their initial idea?
S: The third track, "Orbiting," was a song that took the longest for us to embrace. It was a real love-hate relationship in the early days of jamming it, but it really came together when recording. We tracked the whole thing in under three hours. We really saw Lily explore her vocal expression in this song. Watching her sing and almost break down each take was amazing. There's a bunch of vocal sounds mixed down really low in the outro which is all of us yelling and whooping in the garage at about 11:00 pm that night. We thought this song was going to be more or less the "throw away" track, but surprisingly it's become one of our favorites. Also "Negative Image" originally had a more stripped-back sound. Under Al's guidance it became much more cinematic. Adding violin (Bronte Murray) and synth (Ben Mulheron) created this gothic, moody, western vibe that we love. Our favourite little moment of this track is Lucy's creepy whistling in the second bridge.
PZ: What has it been like translating these tracks live and navigating the Sydney music scene?
S: Our first six months of shows were to seated/masked crowds in between Covid lockdowns. Two years later, we are playing to big, sweaty dancing crowds so that feels extra euphoric. We are really lucky that in the Sydney music scene there are lots of all-female or female-led/non-cis male bands that have been out there doing the good work and paving the way ahead of us. Bands like Body Type, Sunscreen and The Buoys gave us lots of advice and support when we started out in Sydney and they helped us navigate a scene that is traditionally male dominated, but definitely less so with every passing year. Even since we've started, so many femme-centric bands have popped up, like Warren, Bliss, Misso, Midwife Crisis, etc. We feel that amongst other bands, booking agents and Sydney fans generally there's a real thirst for more diversity in live music lineups. It's a wonderful movement to be part of.
PZ: What are you looking forward to performing at the Lost Paradise festival at the end of December 2022?
S: We're going to try and copy Haim at Glastonbury and all hit a bunch of tom drums together at the start of the set. Lily really wants to crowd surf but she's not sure how to make that happen in a cool, nonchalant way. We will play some new songs that are much more performative and experimental which is always the most exciting for us. And we are gonna wear some outrageous fezzo outfits.
Collision is out now through Blossom Rot Records.