Grief, honesty and where to from here: Getting to know Exhibitionist

EXHIBITIONIST introduced herself just a few months ago through her debut single ‘Hands’, with the song’s captivating, neoteric sound quickly illuminating her in the Australian music scene. In the short time since its release, Exhibitionist has already cascaded into the spotlight of up-and-coming artists, resulting in her recent signing with Future Classic.

The maestro behind the magic is Sydney based multi-instrumentalist Kirsty Tickle. Although she has been deeply embedded in the music industry for several years, Kirsty has more recently been found coagulating idiosyncratic sounds with fellow virtuoso Jonathan Boulet in their striking noise duo, Party Dozen.

Kirsty’s new artistic identity as Exhibitionist is an expansion for her sui generis songwriting, exploring electronic terrains to discover a new latent persona. This new project has been described as the antidote to Party Dozen’s incendiary aural affront, radiating a vulnerability and chilling elegance that is not quite flaunted in PD’s boisterous wall of sound.

Both projects played multiple showcases across at this year’s BIGSOUND, with Exhibitionist also being supported by a live backing band alongside her producer and Party Dozen companion, Jonathan Boulet.

After an undoubtedly hectic week, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Kirsty and inadvertently having a heart-to-heart where we learnt more about her trek to self-discovery, emotional influences and the unique production processes that are the integral life-force behind Exhibitionist’s music.

How has BIGSOUND been for you? I heard you were at BODY TYPE yesterday, and your sister Mel is in HOLIDAY PARTY, so I imagine you would have seen them too?

I did, and Holiday Party performed so well! The sound was unfortunately not on their side, but their second gig was apparently amazing. It just wasn’t very loud even though it was a huge system, but you could tell that they were performing well and Mel’s voice is just incredible – she can sing that girl! I think they were pretty determined the next night to have it sound really good.

And how are your energy levels doing? You’ve done showcases with both Exhibitionist and PARTY DOZEN – you must be a bit knackered?

I am feeling okay; I have been napping lots. I actually lost my voice last weekend completely, I didn’t talk for two days! I got laryngitis and my vocal chords felt really strained, so it was only last night that I felt like they were getting better. The first showcase was really challenging for the singing aspect of Exhibitionist. It was actually fairly stressful, I really love to speak, so spending two days not talking was hard for me, but I did it because I knew it was important. I’ve done BIGSOUNDs before and I know it’s really fun to party with everyone, but I knew I had to be responsible [laughs].

Sometimes it pays off! Up until this year’s BIGSOUND, I’d most recently seen you play saxophone with The John Steel Singers, going back a few years. Since then, you’ve been doing your awesome noise stuff with Party Dozen and recently brought out an album with that as well. What led to this new character with Exhibitionist? It is quite different from these other projects.

I actually grew up playing in indie bands, never as the lead singer though, it was backing vocals and keys mostly. I played with Little Scout for a long time and also Skinny Jean back in the day and I had some friends who wanted more saxophone in their music. That was great because sax is an instrument I can play quite well, so playing with The John Steel Singers was so much fun. It was a really, really good time.

Last year, we were doing a lot of Party Dozen stuff, but I still really loved “songs”. I love writing songs and I love pop music. Party Dozen actually has a lot of pop sensibilities, which I think is probably why people have grasped onto it more than a different sort of noise project perhaps… It’s not completely alien I think, even though it’s wild, it’s still got some structure to it.

I started Exhibitionist at the end of last year, I just sat down and started writing. I was going through some really tumultuous personal things and just used Exhibitionist as a massive outlet to basically deal with those feelings.

Wow.

Yeah… So this year ended a seven-year relationship, which is pretty full on. We are still best buds and making a lot of music together, but it’s been a really crazy time and Exhibitionist really helped me get through a lot of those feelings.

Yeah, wow. That’s a big shift.

Yeah, it’s a big life shift. Thankfully we’ve both been really adult about it and we both thought, “If we didn’t stop this now, we might end up losing our friendship and what’s more important to both of us right now?” It is a loss though… Losing a lover is a loss and your feelings in dealing with that is quite a journey to undertake.

There is a whole grieving process to it, even if it affects people to different extremities.

Yeah, definitely. I think we’ve been really lucky that our music and careers have been doing so well, we’ve been able to focus on that aspect of our relationship a lot more, which has saved us from feeling too down about the lost love.

I feel very fortunate that we can still be friends and collaborators and we still have the same groups of friends, it’s not forced any of our mates to pick a side or anything like that. We’ve both been very respectful to one another and I think that’s really important.

But, yeah… That’s how Exhibitionist started. I wrote ‘Hands’ when I just really did not know how to process the emotions that I was feeling; feeling like I didn’t want to be in this thing but I didn’t know why I didn’t want to be in it. I felt like I was going out a lot and partying a lot with a lot of different people because I was just trying to escape my own inevitability that this thing was about to change.

Yeah… That’s…  I don’t really have a good response to that.

 [Laughs] I decided I was going to be really honest with you in this interview today.

[Laughs] Yes! I love the honesty. That is so relatable and also ,people don’t talk about stuff in that way. It’s sugar-coated or it’s a little bit different, it’s not always a true expression of how we deal with it. Most of the time it makes people come across looking a lot less vulnerable than the situation usually is, so it’s nice when people are actually really honest about it. That’s one of the reasons I really love ‘Hands’. I still get goosebumps when I listen to it! You have this lovely raw, natural vocal tone and you’re singing about something that’s really humble and honest, but then it’s juxtaposed with these really synthesised, almost dystopian sorts of sounds, and in other ways it’s… Well I’m definitely not comparing you Kanye, but it is a little bit like that. When you first hear something and think, “That’s making me feel a little uncomfortable because that’s not what I’m used to hearing as something that’s supposed to be pleasant, but I also like that it’s making me feel that little bit of unsettled-ness.”

I think ‘unsettled’ is a really great word to use for ‘Hands’ as well, because the lyrical content is just coming from a place of feeling very vulnerable and unsettled. Feeling a bit of self-blame and then vulnerability in being able to open up to new people and having an openness with yourself where you can allow yourself to have different relationships with different people and not feel like you’re just going to fuck everything up in your life if you do that. Relationships move and evolve and you do have connections with people, and that’s alright.

Totally, you’re allowed to be human and have a response to that. On the surface, people could reasonably assume that some of your production processes with ‘Hands’ are in the more conventional lines as what would normally be used for electronic songwriting and production, but that’s not at all what you do…?

No, no, no! That’s not what we do: we make every single sample; everything is recorded live. I think you have to be really careful about how you talk about this stuff, especially in the electronic music world. That’s not a judgment on my behalf, but it’s not how I grew up. I can’t use Ableton, I can’t use all these things that a lot of electronic artists do and have skills behind, so for me it’s more, “If I can play it, I can record it.” So everything is recorded live; I’ve played everything except the drums, Jonno plays all the drums. Actually, I let Jonno play a little bit of saxophone as well on the EP, which he was very stoked about!

Even though you only released ‘Hands’ a few months ago, you’ve already received a whole lot of awesome accolades and recently just signed to Future Classic as well, which is very exciting!

Yes! I am so excited; they are the best dudes. They’re just very genuine people who really love music and are really interested in the long game as well, and I’m really appreciative of that.

I had put ‘Hands’ out with TEEF, Tommy Faith who now works for Unearthed, and TEEF is actually going to be a co-releaser on this first EP. That was really important to me. When Future Classic approached me, I said it sounded really great but let’s keep TEEF involved because Tommy put ‘Hands’ out just because he loved the track. I didn’t want to start off by jumping ships… I think that’s a really bad way to start off a new project and you need to respect the fact that people have believed in you and worked hard for you already, so any way you can make it work for everyone is a good thing.

Were you expecting such an incredible response from ‘Hands’?

No! I thought the song was special when I wrote it, but not in the way that it’s been received. There’s obviously something that resonates, however. I think I’ve been very lucky that maybe there hasn’t been something vulnerable like that for a little bit. When it was released, it was a little bit left of centre and there’s some funny sounds in it that aren’t necessarily pop sounds.

I really can’t wait to see what happens in the next 12 months. Although I say I’ve been lucky, I have worked really hard on my music this year and I feel like that’s the first time I can really say that. I’ve spent a lot sleepless nights writing and a lot of time in the studio while working full time as well and just trying really hard to make it happen. Like, dipping into my bank account for video clips and all that stuff because I believe in the project and in that song. And I have the most beautiful friends that help me with everything! Like, yesterday we got together before a show and recorded a string quartet for one of the tracks on the EP. Shem Allen arranged the strings parts, he is just such a genius. When I started writing Exhibitionist stuff, he was the first person I sent every song to – to gauge what he thought about it.

You have really tapped into this unique and distinct tone, and it feels like there’s room for something like that right now. There’s a lot of people making music but it’s really difficult to achieve a unique identity that hasn’t already been a little bit covered. One of the reasons ‘Hands’ got such a good reception is because no one has heard a song like that and it’s really special. In captivating so many people, we’ve recently seen these remixes from THRUPENCE and WILLARIS. K who have taken it into their own writing styles, with Thrupence’s being a very organic approach-

Yeah it’s so classy! It’s very beautiful, and… yeah I think classy is the right word for it. It’s just beautiful form and dry vocals, he asked for the dry vocal stems so he could get all the reverb of it. And then Jack’s one, Willaris. K’s one… It’s a banger! And I finally got to meet him! We’ve played a couple shows together but we kept missing each other. He’s such a lovely, lovely dude.

So what’s next for Exhibitionist now? You mentioned before that you’d done some tracking while you were here in Brisbane, does this mean you have some new tunes on the way?

Yes! I am actually releasing another single in the next couple of weeks, and we’re doing the video clip filming next weekend. We are going to release that and then in about a month release the EP, so it’s not far away at all – it’s very exciting!

Hell yeah! So would we have heard the other songs on the EP during your showcases here at BIGSOUND?

Yeah, you would have heard all of them. It’s still such a new project. The hardest thing about playing live is that I couldn’t do it for a long time because we didn’t have enough songs! We’d booked in for this Volumes set in Sydney, but we still had to finish another two songs. I was like “shit, I’ve got play a 30-minute set”, and it’s hard work when you’re not in a band and you’ve got to write everything. You can’t just jam stuff out, you have to make sure that the ideas are good and that all the samples are good enough to play live and mixed well and all that stuff. I’m sort of slowly coming to the realisation that I’m still writing and recording, and now I’m starting to play live and there’s always something to do. There’s no downtime! It’s a cycle: you’re either playing shows or you’re recording or you’re writing. With the EP coming out, I’ve got to have enough songs to play a 40-minute set by November or else it’s going to be a really short set, so that’s the next two months sorted.

That says a lot for your songwriting abilities, as well: If you’re thinking, “My first song is doing really well, but shit, people want to hear more of it. I better get some things out in a very short period of time.” They are all really good songs, it’s not like you’re trying to fill the gaps here to make up the record.

Definitely! That was really important to me, to ensure that every song has merit and is different as well. I haven’t tried to recreate ‘Hands’ in any of the songs, everything has it’s own vibe and place in my musical mind. The state that I was in emotionally when I wrote ‘Hands’, I don’t want to be there again, so I don’t think I can recreate the same thing. I wouldn’t want to. Emotionally, it was not a fun time. Some of the songs I’m writing now are a lot different because I’m really happy now and it’s a very different experience, and taking those vibes into the new songs is really satisfying to me. It’s not coming from a place where I’m just beside myself and not knowing what to do with my life.

Well now you know!

Now I know! I feel really positive about this project and I’m really excited to work hard with EXHIBITIONIST and see where it goes.

Photo by JOSEPH CRACKETT/ONLY ODD for Purple Sneakers

Words by FREYA DINESEN

LISTEN TO MORE NEW MUSIC HERE

SEE ALSO

FIVE THINGS WE LEARNT AT BIGSOUND 2017
SHE’S ‘HANDS’ DOWN A STELLAR EXHIBITIONIST
EXHIBITIONIST’S ‘HANDS’ GETS TWO STELLAR REMIXES FROM THRUPENCE & WILLARIS K

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Ex-con(servatorium) music nerd sharing some cents.