Fusing hallucinatory art pop and ethereal synth-pop, Modal Melodies, the newly founded duo of Jake Robertson and Violetta Del Conte-Race, talk us through the 13-track voyage of their debut album and what led to the creation of their dazzling sonic universe.
Two of Melbourne underground scene's most prolific musicians, Jake Robertson (Alien Nosejob, Smarts, Ausmuteants) and Violetta Del Conte-Race (Primo!, The Glass Picture, The Shifters) teamed up after a loose chat at Geelong's annual Jerkfest in early 2021, where they made plans to help each other complete some unfinished demos they had shelved. After a few emails back and forth through lockdown, they were finally able to be in the same room together and structure their ideas — Del Conte-Race added her vocals from home and Robertson mixed them into their sessions. Six to eight months passed and the duo's sonic explorations mutated and matured into their self-titled debut album that pushes both of their styles into new directions. Released through Anti Fade Records, the 13-track album is carefully curated with its blanket of shimmering synth-pop grooves and cruising new wave impulses. It's really a gorgeous album with all earnestness, zigzagging in directions with its ear for space and balance — the hyperactive "The Sun" is driven by its aleatory synth settings and Robertson's fiery guitar streaks, while the shadowy "Standing Still" is built around a lonesome disco beat and Del Conte-Race's gentle lines.
We caught up with Robertson and Del Conte-Race, who talk us through the 13-track voyage of their debut album and what led to the creation of their dazzling sonic universe.
Paperface Zine: Take me through that conversation you two had at last year's Jerkfest. Jake, this was right before you released your HC45-2 EP.
Jake Robertson: I think I blabbed on about an idea to record a series of different releases with friends, each one collaborative and different. I noticed and admired how Vio understood the importance of space in music, which is something I struggle with. Vio was the first and only person I asked to do the collabs with.
Violetta Del Conte-Race: I remember Jake saying he had an idea to ask a few friends to write songs with him, and it seemed like such a fun idea to collaborate. For me, it was a pleasant surprise that he asked, and it was also good timing because I had been wanting to try something new with making songs.
PFZ: What made you both want to work together to complete some unfinished demos? What do you admire about each other musically?
VDCR: When Jake asked me to collaborate, I didn't really have to think about it! I think just from seeing Jake play in various bands over the years, I'd always admired his guitar playing and singing, and had listened a lot to the Alien Nosejob album Various Fads and Technological Achievements which is still a fave! And also of course from chatting to him at shows, I knew he would be a great person to work with. I think I was also curious to see what would happen if we tried to write some songs together.
PFZ: Was there a specific vision you two had when collaborating naturally turned into Modal Melodies? I read you don't have plans to play this project live, how come?
JR: When I approached Vio to make music together, I was playing live a lot and not writing much. Making the no live rule, meant we both had more time to write and record. That said, nothing is set in stone. We might do it live eventually. VDCR: I would say we never directly talked about a specific vision, but I think we communicated through the process of working on songs and talking about ideas. Also experimenting and improvising was key, so I think all in all it was pretty natural.
PFZ: Where did the name come from?
JR: One of the first demos I had was the song "Changing Lights," which was originally called "Modal Melodies." I wrote the song on paper first, using my limited knowledge of modal music theory. When Vio sang over it, she suggested naming the band that instead, which I was into. There are lots of major / minor changes in these songs, so it makes sense VDCR: I also really liked how "modal" is a music term, but it's also a type of fabric, and a type of verb which expresses the speaker's point of view — which seemed fitting for a collaborative project.
PFZ: How did the recording process to Modal Melodies differ to both of your other projects? Also, Jake did this new venture eventually bleed into the recording of the latest Alien Nosejob LP, Paint it Clear? And Violetta, did this project influence any future work with your bands?
VDCR: We recorded everything ourselves, which I hadn't done at that point, except very basic home demos. Through the process of recording Modal Melodies, learnt a lot of practical skills and saw more of the possibilities of home recording. Around the same time of recording our album, I also started recording with my friend Lucy for another project, The Glass Picture, which we did ourselves at home. I think working on those recordings felt more possible after and during the Modal Melodies recordings. JR: From memory the first time Vio came over, I already had the final mix of Paint It Clear. Some of the songs on Modal Melodies were written for a now defunct ANJ album.
PFZ: What was it like communicating with each other during lockdown during the recording?
JR: It was great! We would either send each other songs we'd been listening to or send each other songs we were working on. It was a very creative and productive way of doing it. VDCR: Agree! It was very inspiring and hopeful to be working on stuff and talking about music.
PFZ: This new self-titled album is such a fine slice of serene ambience and studio-only synth pop. Lay on me some musical influences for this new project.
JR: We each listed maybe 5 songs to be influenced by. I'm pretty sure I sent over stuff like Robert Rental, Karen Marks, Cannanes, and Anna Domino. VDCR: We have sent each other heaps of music over the past year, it's been great. Some faves are Saada Bonaire, Deux, Poly Styrene, Anadol, and Michael Rother. PFZ: Given the experimentation across the new album, were there any songs on this release that turned out way different than their initial idea? Were there any that really surprised you?
JR: Every embryonic demo that I was stuck on for months that I sent to Vio, came back the next day with new life and a fantastic unexpected hook or melody. It's the most collaborative music I've ever made, so it was full of surprises for me especially. VDCR: I think one of the reasons this project has been so much fun was that the whole process was surprising! Because it was all new and we had no set plans or approach, it felt like we could try out any ideas we had and find a way to make it work. Each song changed and took on its own personality as we worked on it, which made me realize how much an idea could be developed and expanded on together.
PFZ: How did you approach the songwriting on the new album and how did your original ideas for the tracks develop? JR: Lots of it was done without the other person hearing, at each other's homes, but a bunch was also done in my room where we plugged in instruments, improvised and cut out the bits we didn't like.
VDCR: We wrote a few different ways, but I think most often we sent an unfinished idea as a phone recording or a demo and then added something we felt would work! Then we could respond in turn to that addition. I really enjoyed the improv / cut and paste techniques we used as well. PFZ: What was the feeling like after finishing the album?
JR: It seriously came together so quickly I'm not even sure. I know that we went out and had cocktails the day "Occupants" was released. Spicy Margaritas. VDCR: Yeah I can't really remember when we decided the recordings were finished, but once the artwork was done I felt like the album was complete. Loved those margaritas! PFZ: Who did the cover art? It's just a great representation of the tracks!
VDCR: The cover art is an oil painting I made with Modal Melodies in mind. It depicts sheet music and other objects like fabric, shoes, ribbon. I have since given it to Jake as a really belated birthday present! PFZ: Anything else you want to add?
JR: It was so much fun, we're already working on another :).
Modal Melodies is out now through Anti Fade Records.
Stream the new album below.