Gaining strength through love and loss: In conversation with Airling

The name AIRLING is one that conjours up feelings of weightlessness and fragility while also representing a fierce force of nature; a befitting name for the musical guise of Brisbane’s Hannah Shepherd. After several years of developing her stylistic ethos, Shepherd will finally release her debut album, Hard To Sleep, Easy To Dream, this week to eagerly awaiting fans. While her presence has always been strong, with a few solid releases and collaborating with artists like Japanese Wallpaper and #1 Dads and supporting international acts, fans will finally experience the full scope of Shepherd’s melodic strength in her first full-length release.

Peppered with spoken word tracks and a particularly stunning outro of luxe vocals and sombre piano, Hard To Sleep, Easy To Dream is layered like a cake and just as sweet. In creating a body of work to reflect her own personal stories and explore themes of life and death, Shepherd has discovered a new plane of artistic depth evident in both her songwriting and production. Her music has a distinct duality; light dreamy pop with darker undercurrents appropriate for both a good boogie or a rainy day at home. The album, especially if listened to as a whole, narrates a journey familiar for anyone who has ever felt an internal struggle to rise above. Shepherd will herald you into a place of calm, like after a big cry, and hers is a hand you hold from start to stop. The clouds part and the sun kisses your skin once more.

Hannah called me from her home in Brisbane and spoke like an old friend as we disappeared on tangents about broken phones and bikes; her effortless warmth and honesty just as endearing in her character as it is in her music. We talked about her album, making music between Brisbane and Melbourne and being a women in this ever-evolving musical landscape.

Has Brisbane been a nurturing environment for your career? Do you still feel connected to the scene there?

Yeah, definitely. I think the people that make up the Brissy scene are just so incredible and encouraging. I don’t feel that competitiveness that some people say is often around the arts and music. I just feel like there is a really supportive community here, especially with QMusic and all those kinds of things. I don’t go to gigs as much as I used to, I guess just ’cause I’m so busy, but I have the utmost respect for people who own venues and book venues here. There’s just like so many mates and beautiful people out there who help, or who promote without being asked, who really just believe in the music. There’s something cool about being a Queenslander then travelling to some of the more fast-moving cities.

Yeah, I’ve always found the same thing. I think Brisbane’s got something special a lot of people haven’t tapped into yet.

Totally. I love Melbourne as well, I spend a lot of time there because that’s where my label, Pieater, is based and that’s where I do most my recording. It’s funny that Melbourne has a crew that I always have the most ticket sales in. I feel like people in Melbourne really love their gigs and their nightlife, even if it’s during the week.

Oh, they do! There’s so many different niches here. There’s a place to see every kind of music every night of the week.

[Laughs] Yeah! It’s always too much when I’m there, I come home all exhausted. I’m like, “Ughhhhh!”

I had a listen to Hard To Sleep, Easy To Dream, your debut album. It’s incredible. You’ve been around for a while now so I imagine that this one has been in the works for a while too.

Yeah, definitely. I think I’ve been making music in this kind of contemporary sense for like six years or something. I was doing a solo thing, then I had a folk band, then I played in Emma Louise’s band for a few years and then started the Airling thing up in 2014. And when I started doing it, all I wanted to do was make an album but I wasn’t ready, I guess. The songs weren’t there but then after the first EP, they kind of just started forming. We were actually intending to make a second EP but I just kind of kept writing, and before we knew it we just had these songs and you couldn’t deny the fact that they all needed to go on a record.

So it’s been a couple of years recording it and a few years writing it all, but there’s always a bunch of songs going around in the little Airling crew, with my producers and stuff. There were a few – there were a lot – that got cut and there’s some that aren’t quite finished that didn’t have the right place on this. But yeah, it’s a massive release and it’s so exciting just to have an album. I’ve grown up listening to albums and I love full-length releases, so it’s amazing to finally have done of my own.

It all tells one particular kind of story even though they explore different themes. In your songwriting, you talk about love and pain and fear, was there a particular inspiration behind it all?

Yeah, I mean, I delved a lot into life and death and kind of tried to understand death, ’cause I’ve dealt with a bit of loss in my life. In a subtle way, the songs are kind of about love and loss, not in just a romantic sense but in an actual living or dying way. There’s some kind of heavy, or darker, songs which you probably heard. There’s some other lighter ones, which is sort of me just vibing out at home, just loving the melodies and measures and beats. There’s quite a bit of light and shade in the album I think.

Yet it all comes together so cohesively. There are three tracks on the album that are kind of like a guided meditation. They remind me of my favourite part of yoga where I get to lie down at the end.

Yeah! I was seeing a hypnotherapist for a while and that’s whose voice is on it, Peter McMahon. And he kind of guided me into a couple of trances and it was pretty pivotal for me while I was recording. Just getting to know myself and trying to keep a stable balance within myself. I think there’s something so beautiful about someone doing a guided meditational trance with you and I think that music, and an album like this, is such a musical journey that it seems right talking about these things and just being able to let go and to let love in and to be yourself. It sort of all just fit, in a weird way. 

That’s pretty special to be able to bring something so personal into your art. I was going to ask whose voice was on those tracks and thought it might of been Tom Iansek (Big Scary, #1 Dads) who you’ve worked with forever.

Nah, it wasn’t him. I just spoke to him in depth about what I was going through with this hypnotherapist and how I felt about it and we came up with the idea to see if there could be some room for that in there. Because it is a therapy, music. It’s so healing. And it seemed right.

Absolutely. You and Tom must be very musically compatible to be able to see eye to eye when comes to creative decisions.

We don’t always, but there’s an underlying trust and truth to what we’re doing. We’re kind of in a place now where we’re not afraid to say if we don’t like something or we do. I’ve learnt a lot from him and our method, our rule, is that if it feels good, it’s usually right. You don’t need to add more or change something that is already good. So that’s why there’s some really stripped back songs cause they just felt great being played like that.

The simpler the better, sometimes.

Which is often a hard thing to do, you know? As a creative or a focused person you just wanna keep going over and over and over something until it’s just right. But sometimes it’s just right in its first go or first vibe. The initial intuition you first have about something, that free feeling and just capturing that.

Did you intend your fans to listen to the album as a whole? The songs stand alone by themselves but having those guided tracks make it more conceptual, in a way…

Ultimately, I would love for it to be listened to from start to finish but I know that’s not always the way music works these days. People are buying albums and buying physical CDs less and less, so obviously the option is there and that’s the way I intended it to be experienced but at the same time, each song is its own thing and stands alone, as you said. And there’s something beautiful about that, just playing one song and focusing in on that.

You must be so excited to have that finished and also to take it on the road next month with a national tour in support of the album.

It’s gonna be awesome. We haven’t played since January when we did some support shows for AURORA. So I’m really looking forward to playing this album and shortly after that we’re doing Splendour In The Grass. It’s gonna be a bit of a whirlwind.

Splendour! That’s so exciting. What a lineup to be on.

Yeah, it’s so cool! It’s just so fun down there. I sung with #1 Dads and Japanese Wallpaper a couple of years ago, but haven’t played it as Airling since 2014.

A huge year of milestones, so far.

Yeah, it is! I’ve got a million lanyards from playing festivals but I’ve never played my album at a festival so it’s gonna be pretty cool.

I wanted to ask you, as a woman in music, how you’ve been navigating the gender imbalance conversation in the industry right now?

It’s an intricate thing, and quite complicated. I think I’ve been pretty lucky in the opportunities I’ve gotten. I just did this thing for Melbourne Music Week and its a documentary called ‘Her Sound, Her Story.’ So I got to go down and we had this big collection of women doing a gig. There was me, Vera Blue, Montaigne, Ecca Vandal, Sampa The Great, Ella Hooper, Mama Kin… just a crazy amount of beautiful female artists and it was all about women and us celebrating each other. That left me feeling pretty good about everything, you know? I know people are there making changes.

But I tend to just put a bit of tough armour on sometimes, if there’s certain things I find sexist or with the funny things that fans or haters say to you that dig into the gender thing. It can feel pretty crap. But I’m surrounded by a lot of really powerful and talented and intelligent women like Jo from Big Scary and Emma Louise and Thelma Plum. We tend to just talk things over and get a bit of perspective on things that way.

So there’s a lot of support there.

Yeah, which is the amazing thing about being a woman. I read something once like, “The most beautiful woman in the world is the one who holds up other women.” I remember thinking it was so incredible and so true and so important.

There was an incident with Thelma Plum, who I know to be a friend of yours, with a certain male musician that made the headlines, which was an example of some of the horrible misogynistic attitude we’re still dealing with.

It’s disgusting. I often feel like it got worse after that because then people start, from behind their computers, just making it waterfall into this awful thing and they don’t have any perspective. But I think it happens a lot with people in positions of power publicly and there’s trolls and haters and I’ve seen horrible things posted to even people like Rihanna. I think it’s always gonna be there, to be honest. That’s the kind of world we’re moving into with social media and it just makes it a lot easier for people to hide.

Oh, absolutely. Those damn keyboard warriors.

Oh god, they make me so angry. But also sometimes they’re so funny if you take it lightheartedly and I just feel sorry for these people, you know?

I’m probably too overly sensitive but I often wonder how people can cop that kind of criticism when it’s so unnecessarily hurtful.

I think I remember doing a video once, might’ve been a Triple J thing, and some dude was like, “Oh, I found this so difficult to masturbate to.” How is that at all relevant? I had a couple friends at the time, I think it was Thelma and her mum, being like, “Sorry about that mate, we’re praying for you,” and then something about erectile dysfunction [laughs]. It’s just ridiculous, that people can so easily find a link between music and sexualising art. And also insinuating that that was the purpose of it. It’s insulting.

I know there’s been a few instances of bookers and promoters overlooking gender diversity, or kind of shirking the responsibility they have there, but there’s some seriously awesome all-female events popping up.

Yeah! My friend Holly (Jack River) was organising Electric Lady and had a big part to play in that. So as much as there is people dealing with things the wrong way, there’s amazing people who are doing the opposite.

It almost provides the platform for ladies to rebel and rise above it all.

It sucks that we have to but its amazing that everyone has the courage and the will to do it. Have you ever heard of ‘Women Of Letters’? There’s a couple of girls who’ve been running for a number of years and it’s basically like an afternoon and they get politicians or artists or writers or journalists, all women, and there’s about five people each time it happens. And there’s a topic, and everyone writes a ten minute letter based on this topic. And the idea is that everything happens in that room, and you’re not allowed to film anything, and it’s a really beautiful experience to hear from a lot of different types of women. And they publish books every few years I think with some of the letters if they want them to be published. So I got to do that recently, and they had an author and a band manager and a blogger and one sports journalist. It was an intense and beautiful afternoon celebrating all different types of women. You should look it up!

That sounds amazing. What topic did you write about?

We did a Letter to My Unfinished Business. It was pretty intense! I was crying and so were a couple of people. The energy in the room was crazy.

I’ll definitely look into it. So imagine there is major music festival and its an all-female lineup. Who’s on your dream lineup and what does the festival look like?

Beyonce!

The Queen!

Of course. Also I love Julia Jacklin. Emma Louise and Thelma would be playing. Who else am I loving at the moment? Tracy Chapman, she could play too. I love Vera Blue. There’s a Brissy artist called O Little Sister, Lucinda is basically like a modern day Joni Mitchell. Warpaint, of course. It’d be awesome.

I imagine there’s a time in the not too distant future where it’ll happen.

Let’s make it happen, Tianna. How are we gonna pay for Beyonce?

Maybe she’ll do it out of the goodness of her heart, she does stuff like that all the time.

A girl can dream.

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Airling‘s debut album Hard To Sleep, Easy To Dream is out April 28th via Pieater. Catch Airling on her national tour at the below dates:

Fri 19 MayJive – Adelaide (TIX)
Sat 20 MayBabushka – Perth (TIX)
Sun 21 MayMojo’s Bar – Fremantle (TIX)
Fri 26 MayCivic Underground – Sydney (TIX)
Sat 27 MayBlack Bear Lodge – Brisbane (TIX)
Sat 3 JuneNorthcote Social Club – Melbourne (TIX)

Image: Dylan Pukall

Words by Tianna Harris

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