Merpire's debut album Simulation Ride is out now! We caught up with the musician to chat about the release and so much more.
Image: Nick Mckk
Emerging Aussie singer Merpire has unveiled her dreamy debut album, Simulation Ride. The collection of songs sees the singer document her own experiences living with anxiety, soundtracked by shimmering indie-pop soundscapes.
The musical project of Rhiannon Atkinson-Howatt, Merpire's debut record brings observational and conversational lyricism, with each track serving as a different VHS tape from the video store in her mind. With songs to soundtrack everything from rom-coms to horror films, the album was produced, engineered and mixed by James Seymour.
Simulation Ride is out now! Read our interview with Merpire below.
Could you tell us a bit about how you began your musical journey, and your background in music? I’ve got a childhood VHS of me at 2 yrs old singing about the toy car I’m on. Years later I started writing songs in the change rooms at high school, then played in cover bands when I left school. A pub rock band playing Bon Jovi, Pink!, Whitney Houston haha and also a jazz band playing Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra. I was in those bands for about 11 years, writing my own music at the same time. I started playing my own songs in cafes and bars around Sydney in my early 20s. Also a couple of times in London and Berlin when on holidays and itching to play.
I found it really difficult to release my first song, Holding Breath. I kept waiting for the right time to put it out. Turns out I just had to do it to get the momentum going. Since then I’ve been writing music as a catharsis for inner-turmoil with oftentimes a positive reflection of what I’m learning about being a human. I like to write music for daydreams and made-up movie scenes. In a recorded and live setting, I’m all about dynamics. Honing in on sweet, quiet moments as well as huge guitars, synths, walls of sound and belted singing notes. As a band we do whatever it takes to evoke the emotion expressed lyrically and instrumentally. With my producer James who’s also in my band, we write parts for each instrument that can intertwine and support one another. James is a genius at making tasty sonic moments in songs that might only happen once or twice and add another texture in the form of tension or release.
We’re loving your new track Village! The song conceptually navigates self-doubt, comparing yourself to others and the realisation that you can’t be everything for someone else. What prompted you to explore these ideas on the track?
Thank you!! It wasn’t hard to explore this as an idea for a song as I was living it in real time. I was going through probably the most anxious time in my life at the beginning of this relationship which I’m still in now. I’d moved to a new city - Melbourne, formed a band and started a new relationship all within three months. Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself very fortunate but I guess my anxieties and self-doubt were responding to this with “Hey, you know you’re not worth all of this good stuff right?” With the help of a psychologist, I started to develop a more positive relationship with anxiety, accepting myself and being kinder to myself. Writing songs about it helps so much. It takes it out of my brain which in turn helps to take the fear and isolation out of it. Without the anxiety I do sometimes feel, I wouldn’t write the songs I do and be sensitive to certain things the way I am. I was also working at the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne at the time, taking people on punting tours around the lake. It was a really unique experience to be surrounded by and talk about the flora and fauna - another way to get out of my head. That’s how the idea for the comparison of bell miners (birds) and psyllids (insects) to human relationships came together. Witnessing their reliance upon their network to keep each other alive and thriving was like a light bulb in my head. It really does take a village to nurture a relationship, romantic or otherwise.
You've also dropped a great visual for the track! The clip captures the idea that not everything is as it appears when you’re an outsider looking in. Can you walk us through your process when it came to conceptualising the clip for Village and how involved are you with the development of the visuals?
Thank you again! Yeah, while the songs are being produced I’m thinking about the visuals to go with. Colours, themes, moods. I’m a big believer in Pinterest boards and have one for each song as well as the album as a whole. The clip for Village was definitely the easiest video from start to finish. Being just post lockdown, I just wanted to get my band over and see them beyond a screen. My house is perfectly set up for us to have executed getting the shots of each room from the outside. Each room my band members were in represents a different house, so the house as a whole becomes the village. They all had a different colour, a different life. The colours match the colours of the “Feeiing Monsters” from the clip Nick Mckk and I did for another song on the album, ‘Heavy Feeling’. Having worked on four videos together now Nick Mckk and I know how to work to each others strengths and ideas. He’s the best! When we all end up in the same room at the end, jamming together with the lights flashing different colours, it’s supposed to represent what can be created musically and visually when you put a bunch of like-minded people together. The end of the clip finishes with just me in my bedroom again. This is a reflection of me daydreaming about playing with my band again while we were all in lockdown.
How important are the visuals to you when it comes to portraying the stories and themes present on the songs?
So very important. I think if I was told that I wouldn’t have any say in what my songs looked like it would feel like one of my senses being taken away. The music and visuals go hand in hand, always. I spend most of my time dreaming up movie scenes when listening to other people’s music and always writing down ideas, making Pinterest boards to do the same for my own music. It’s something that’s taken years to develop as my confidence keeps gorwing, as common themes across songs on the album get stitched together and as I’ve found incredible people to work within visuals - Nick Mckk, rcstills and Grace Goodwin who helps with the stage/set design.
What’s one line from the song you find at times could be stuck in your head? Or a line that you come back to?
From Village there’s a line where I say, ‘You are a living sugar refinery. I am a species, addicted’ This idea came from the fact that Bell miner birds harvest a sugary coating like a cocoon that psyllids produce. The Bell miners are 100% addicted to this sugar hit. Their farming of psyllids is actually quite destructive to our environment. It’s also a reference to when you can’t get enough of someone - they’re like a sugar hit.
You’ve also just released your debut album Simulation Ride, which you describe as an “album about finding positivity in anxiety”. How important was it for you to use this track as a vehicle to document this theme? Village is one of my favourite songs I’ve written to date. Being such an important turning point in my personal life when writing this song, it feels like one of the most freeing songs for me on the record. It’s vulnerable, delicate and powerful all at once. With the help of everyone involved, it’s more than I could hope for.
Were there any parts that you found particularly difficult when creating the record, being so personal and showcasing your own life and thoughts to the world? Like many of us, I look to the lyrics in other artists’ songs to remind me I’m not alone in certain thoughts around self-doubt, self-destruction, depression. We all feel it from time to time. With music being the way I also express this, it means so much to me that my music can be a vehicle for others. Ironically, the most difficult song was probably ‘Easy’. This song is about an abusive past relationship. It was tough to hear that song again and again for a while. Every time I play it on stage I go right back to how much it hurt, like it’s fresh all over again but I think that’s important to maintain that connection. In some ways I’m glad it is this way. There’s been times I’ve looked to my own songs to help feel less fearful and anxious. For instance, when I’ve had low self esteem around being enough for my partner, I’ve sung this line from ‘Village’ quietly to myself “Sometimes what you need you can’t get from me” to remind myself that I’ve already dealt with that. It’s just old feelings popping up.
Could you talk us through your creative process when writing and recording this collection of songs? It’s a bit of a rag doll album. There’s songs that are a few years old that have been reworked, like Dinosaur and there are songs that were only a couple of months old when I decided to make them into an album, like Heavy Feeling. I love that this album is a representation of my experiences and growth over the past few years. There’s hardships, love, food, heartbreak, friendships, movies. Like an audible scrapbook. It’s also a representation of the growth and self-development in my production skills and communicating production ideas whilst working alongside James. We bonded quickly musically and the more we recorded together, the more I trusted his input and the braver I became to speak up about my own ideas and what I did and didn’t want/like.
Generally, I write the melody, lyrics and chords on guitar then show James and we build the production around them from there. James has helped out on arrangements in a couple of songs and he actually wrote the outro in Dinosaur. We recorded most of it at his parents house in his Mum’s sewing room, some of it in Anglesea in Victoria at a family friends’ beach house and some of it at Small Time in Brunswick where we both work. Having that lack of pressure, multiple spaces and the luxury of time meant opportunities for organic ideas and situations to pop up. For instance, in Easy you might be able to pick up wine glasses ringing in the background towards the end. Some friends stayed a night in the beach house in Anglesea when we were recording. We showed them some songs from the album while we were drinking wine and the volume of wine in the glass one of our friends had just happened to be the exact pitch of the key in the song. So of course we put that in.
How did the album evolve and change as you were creating it, and were there any tracks left on the cutting room floor that you think might have a life in the future?
I didn’t actually realise how many songs I was writing about dealing with anxiety until I pulled all the lyrics apart. I didn’t realise how much of it was a self-care release. There’s a toy Wiggles keyboard in the closing track, Yusiimi. Again, pressing this button played a melody that just happened to be the exact pitch and tempo as this song. It was exactly what we needed for the bridge. There was a good year or so between some of the recordings before we decided it was going to be an album. During this time, James had developed his skills further as a producer and listening to those older recordings showed how he’d improved certain skills or just developed his ear or taste. So we went back and re-recorded some parts.
Easy probably changed the most. It took a while for us to find its ultimate place in the world on the record. We changed the key, the tempo and the feel. It was a full band song when we first started playing it as a band. With such emotional lyrics, we felt like it needed to be more vulnerable. So we stripped it right back and recorded it live, freely with no click with James playing his acoustic and me singing along. I approached it really intimately and quietly from a vocal perspective too to make it as vulnerable as possible. Surprisingly, there were probably only a couple of songs left on the cutting room floor. That’s not to say I haven’t written a whole bunch more since then. I’m already working on album number two if I’m honest. The creative process doesn’t stop for release plans! hehe
Which three songs off the record would you pick to play to someone who had never heard your music, to make them an instant fan?
I like this question. I’d have to play three songs that show the most variety in my work. They would be Village, Easy and Yusiimi.
Australia has a diverse and vibrant music scene, who are some of your favourite Aussie acts and why?
Oh my goodness there are just so many!!! Knowing a bunch personally only makes that list longer too. If I just had to pick a few though… RAT!hammock are probably my favourite Australian band and have been for a couple of years now. Since the first time I heard them when I moved to Melbourne, I was completely drawn into everything about their music - the lyrics, the cleverness in the melodies and guitar lines, the chord choices. Their songs stop me in my tracks every time. They’re also 4 of the loveliest friends I know. Middle Kids - again for cleverness, ear-worm hooks and I think they’re really pushing what Australian indie/pop/rock music is about. I also love that the last time I saw them play, Hannah the lead singer/songwriter was jumping around on stage heavily pregnant. In an industry where women over the age of 25 or having kids are quickly shoved to the side, it was seriously awesome seeing her not giving an f about that. They’re proof that we’re here doing our thing and doing it well. Hannah Blackburn - this woman’s music is the meaning of haunting and moving. She stills any room she plays in. Methyl Ethel - Again, pushing that Australian sound to the edge. They’re whack, let’s be honest and they’re incredible musicians and performers. Asha Jefferies - she writes incredibly sophisticated songs. I don’t know how she comes up with the melodies she does, but she does. Obscura Hail - It seems I’m very attracted to clever and unpredictable music because these wonderfully eccentric people are that again. I love the effects they put on their vocals, synths, drums, guitars too. Sean and Tamara up front remind me of Tim Burton characters too. I really want Tim to write them into his next movie.
Will fans be able to catch you on tour again anytime soon? Pending the state of our country, YES YES YES!!! I’m currently planning a really special, small album tour to be announced the day the album comes out - July 23. I’ve got a bunch of creative mates involved to make it undoubtedly the best show I’ve ever played. I know it. I cannot wait.
Mitski, Angel Olsen, Japanese Breakfast, St Vincent
Album that has had the most impact on you?
That’s hard!! Probably Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness for deep, dark, honest songwriting. St Vincent for production and whackness, The National’s High Violet for ultimate feeling daydreaming.
How do you define your musical style in 3 words?
Mood-bending movie soundtrack.
Best song of 2021 so far?
Save Good Boy - Japanese Breakfast.
If you could create the soundtrack for any film, which one would it be? I’ve always wanted to make a soundtrack for a horror film. I think I’d go a tv show instead for this question - The Haunting Of Hill House.
Hannah Montana or Miley Cyrus? Miley Cyrus.
Album you would listen to on repeat on a road trip? Sucker Supreme - Rosie Tucker.
First concert you went to?
Big Day Out 2004 babyyyyyy! (Metallica, The Strokes, Basement Jaxx, The Blakc Eyed Peas!) Huge.
Best concert you have been to?
The Flaming Lips, Foxygen and Phantogram NYE party in San Francisco.
First album you ever bought? Probably Honey to the B by Billie Piper.
If you were a Spice Girl, what would your spice nickname be? Sensitive Spice! Or Chip Spice (I love chips).
Guilty music pleasure? Red Hot Chili Peppers.
If you could support any artist on tour, who would it be? Ah, so many.. Based on how moved and inspired I’d be after every one of their shows and the kind of tours they go on, rooms and festivals they play, Big Thief.
An artist you think has had the most influence on the music industry.
I thought about this question for so long.. I’m still not sure I’ve given the right answer but for the modern music industry, maybe Billie Eillish. Her and her brother really showed you can do it all from home with minimal gear. There’s obviously a lot of luck and work and who knows what behind the scenes but it’s cool to see how far she’s come.
What advice would your current self give your future self, for a year from now? This is a really nice question. I would say ‘Stop right now and remember that you RELEASED AN ALBUM DURING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC! You’re doing enough. Don’t let others stand in the way of what you want for your music goals. You are enough. Be kind to yourself. Believe in your process and keep dreaming those dreams!
The moment you knew you wanted to be a musician? The first time I wrote my own song.