Interview: Howlite’s Alison Thom on dramatic new single “Orchestra”

Currently looking ahead to Canadian Music Week, Melbourne group Howlite are excited. The release of their newest single “Orchestra” has further positioned the band as ones to watch this year and as we find out from songwriter and vocalist Alison Thom, their journey of bringing “Orchestra” to life was one anchored with emotional weight.

Congratulations on “Orchestra”! Understandably, there’s solid emotional weight behind this song – do you find it difficult to put yourselves, as writers, into sometimes vulnerable places when making music?

Absolutely! A lot of songs I’ve written in the past have been deeply autobiographical, confessional – very Julien Baker, and I found myself really struggling to perform them because I felt so vulnerable and weighed down by the emotion of them. I still write personal songs but for me it’s been about finding a middle ground where I can still process my emotions through writing, but have the theme be broad enough to be able to enjoy the song in itself as we perform it, and allow people to make their own interpretations.

I think there will always be an element of vulnerability though with anything you create and share with another person, because you’re sharing something personal in a space where you can’t control their reaction. I’m learning to be okay with it.

With “Orchestra” – has the final result on record matched the initial vision you had for the song?

I think so, yes. The song had sat around as a demo for years, not quite finished but not bad enough to throw away, so it was always a matter of establishing what I wanted from the song. I always envisioned choirs and symphonic arrangements, like a tidal wave of music smacking you in the head. The song is about feeling very small in context of someone else.

What was the most important element of this creative process that still sticks out as being a significant moment for you (if there was one)? Were there any breakthrough moments of creativity in studio that you weren’t expecting to have?

I think just relinquishing control of my songs, and allowing other people to help arrange and participate in recording was useful. Our engineer/producer Tyson Fish at Alamo Studios has been amazing, he has an ability to hear a song and decide what needs to change, what is missing and how to push it to the next level.

As a songwriter, I leave most of my stuff 80% finished and then get bored or stressed and move on to something easier, rather than fixing the problem, so it was great to sit down and be forced to finally finish something, and then walk away from it for good.

What have you learned about yourself as a songwriter through the making of this song (and any new music you’ve been working on since)?

I am getting better at learning how to serve the song – which means sometimes removing the verse with great lyrics because it’s too long, or doesn’t fit the meaning of the song, or forcing myself to come up with a better chorus even though I want to go watch Netflix and eat chips. I’m pushing myself to be more interesting, to not do the same thing over again, to explore new sounds.

When writing songs, where does your mind go to first for inspiration?

Myself! I am the person I know best, and I have an extensive back catalogue of neuroses, embarrassing moments, awful decisions and fears to exploit. After that, I exploit my friends and family, their stories and situations, and then stuff like books or movies I’ve liked, stories or fables I think would be interesting. I like reinterpreting stuff. I’m writing one at the moment about the painting Olympia by Manet, which is the first instance of a nude female gazing directly at the viewer, instead of shyly looking away. I like the confidence and power that it infers.

What is the rest of 2018 looking like for you?

We’ve been [at The Tote] all April just jamming in the front room; the Tote are so supportive of local music and it’s been a blast. We’re off to Canadian Music Week in Toronto to play a few showcases, and then it’s back to the studio to finish EP Number 2.

With a lot of conversation in the music industry at present surrounding the treatment of women in a personal and professional capacity, how crucial do you think music is for us as not only a platform of expression, but avenue of escape from the negativity?

I am a feminist, and I believe the industry should be a safe and equal space for everyone. It’s definitely become a very complex time to be a woman in the industry, but at the same time it’s exciting to be present at a time when so many wonderful women and gender diverse people are making music, and so many opportunities are opening up for us as a result.

I am in a privileged position of being a white, cis woman in a band of white cis males and I’m aware of it, so I try to utilise my position by letting people tell their own stories and listening to their struggles, instead of trying to speak for them. Music has always been not only an escape but a way of processing negativity for me, and of course I think it’s crucial that it remains so for myself and others.

I have met shitty people in the industry, and I have met wonderful people. That’s just the world. You just have to keep making music.

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