Talking ‘off’ pop music with Eilish Gilligan
Nothing ticks my box like densely packed synth-pop with an edge, and one of the finest purveyors of this specific niche has been Melbourne based singer-songwriter EILISH GILLIGAN. From humble beginnings as the vocalist for alt-pop outfit Frida and live vocalist for Japanese Wallpaper, Eilish struck out on her own in 2016 with her debut solo single, ‘Here’, introducing us to a heavier and more personal sound that still retained identifiable pop characteristics. ‘The Feeling’ and ‘Creature of Habit’ followed in 2017, seeing Eilish expand her sound with more electronic elements without betraying the uniquely minimal and dark sound that worked so well on ‘Here’.
Dropped at the start of 2018, ‘S.M.F.Y’ was where she truly hit her stride. Shedding the minimal sound of her previous efforts, the track was a multi-layered synth-pop wonderland, earning her well-deserved radio plays and a spot as the Feature Artist on Triple J Unearthed. With all eyes on Eilish she didn’t disappoint, supporting Mallrat on her sold-out Aussie tour and eventually dropping what is easily her finest work yet. ‘Patterns’ showcased an evolution in her deeply personal yet inherently relatable lyrics, without sacrificing the ear-worm nature of her pop sound – a combination that proved absolutely magical.
As we get over the slump of 2018, things haven’t slowed down a bit for Eilish. She’s about to embark on a short headline tour, with an exclusive show in Sydney and two in Melbourne. Not only that, she’ll hitting up BIGSOUND in September, alongside G Flip, HANDSOME, CLYPSO, MOOKHI, SAMSARUH, NO MONO and literally so many other faves of ours that we still haven’t really recovered from the announcement. As the date for her stacked Sydney show looms closer, we sat down with Eilish Gilligan and asked some deep questions about what makes Eilish ‘Eilish’.
As a solo project, what is Eilish Gilligan?
That’s something I get asked so often, and I don’t have a definitive answer. There’s something about the Eilish Gilligan ‘project’ that’s a bit… off. And I think that’s what I’ve settled on. It’s a pop project, and the songs are pop songs, but they’re… ‘off’. They’re weird, they’re uneasy, they feel uncomfortable. They’re discussing quite morbid things, and they are very pessimistic in lots of ways. I think that weirdness and that off-ness is the thing that makes me unique. I never want to lose that; it makes me feel like I’m doing something that is special in some way, like my contribution to music in this country is unique.
Your earlier songs (‘Creature of Habit’, ‘The Feeling’) had more of that dark and morbid sound, whereas your latest releases (‘S.M.F.Y’, ‘Patterns’) are a lot brighter and more lively. Was there anything in particular that marked that shift in your music?
It wasn’t a determined, “I’m gonna make music like this now!” thing. I think I just found my groove. I feel like I’m closer in my pursuit of finding my “sound”, which I don’t think I’ll ever one hundred percent find, because once you settle on something you’re potentially neglecting what it means to be an artist. It wasn’t a marked decision to make pop music that’s so bombastic and massive sounding. I think for some reason it just fell into place, in a funny way. I think the themes of the lyrics are still just as morbid as they’ve been my entire life! I don’t think I’ll ever be an optimist, unfortunately. I try very hard to think optimistically, but I always find myself giving in to my neurosis, and I think that’s very evident, especially on ‘Patterns’, which is a fun, big sounding, massive chorus pop song, but the lyrics are – potentially – some of the most depressing I’ve ever written in my entire life because I was in such a miserable place.
What I liked about ‘Patterns’ is that it had a sense of moving forward in it as well. You’re recognising your faults, but making peace with them, in a way.
It’s a very human thing to want to find something that has resolution to it, to want to see some sense of hope in a piece of artwork. Particularly one like ‘Patterns’ that sounds like a really straightforward pop song. The thing that makes me love Patterns is that – I think it doesn’t have a sense of hope. I think it has a sense of resignation that could be mistaken for hope. The feeling I’m trying to communicate is hopelessness, of just, “Oh my god! I’m going to keep making the same mistakes over and over until I die!” Which isn’t a nice way to think, really!
What really struck me about ‘S.M.F.Y’ and ‘Patterns’ is that blend of dark and personal lyrics with that high energy, multi-layered synth-pop sound. How do you strike a balance between the two without either side becoming overbearing?
It kind of just falls into place. For some reason I’m drawn to conventional pop music when I’m listening on my own time. You know how people say you’re the concoction of the five people you spend the most time with? I feel like my music is that, but the five artists I spend the most time with, in terms of Spotify listens or something. My music is a funny amalgamation of that, and I think that’s the reason why it sounds like a pop song, because I love pop music and I love writing it. It’s a really good vessel for this project.
Just out of interest, who would be the “five artists” for Eilish Gilligan?
They change all the time. I always do the classic, “Lorde, St. Vincent, Jack Antonoff” “influences.” In terms of artists in high rotation on Spotify, it would be – Oh god! My search history was a bit funny when I opened it up in front of someone the other day. It was like, “One Direction! 5 Seconds of Summer! Niall Horan! Harry Styles!” And then it turned into, “Catfish and the Bottlemen, Amy Shark, Billie Eilish.” I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures, I think that’s stupid. As long as the art you’re consuming isn’t objectively offensive or harmful, you should be able to enjoy what you want to enjoy.
You often work alongside Gab Strum (Japanese Wallpaper) and Max Dowling (Tetrahedra): what’s the process of collaboration like with them?
I really love working with Gab and Max, because I know my project is in good hands with them, and when I walk into the studio with them, they’ll take care of this really precious thing that means a lot to me. I know I can tell them what I want to hear and what I want the result to be, and we can work together to make it a reality. No production idea I have is too crazy, which is something I really value. When I was like, “I really wanna hear the pickup strum from the guitar before the chorus,” in Patterns, and Gab was like, “Uh, o-kay!” No song is too silly or crazy, and that makes me feel really safe. It’s such a wonderful environment to work in.
On that topic of collaboration I wanted to focus on the visual aesthetic that you’ve created alongside Giulia McGauran. How did the idea for the striking animal imagery come about?
Giulia is one of my best friends, and she has this incredible mind that can see concepts finished in her head before they’re actually executed. There’s a big element of trust, not only because I love her so much, but because every single concept that we’ve worked on together has worked remarkably so, to an absolute level of detail and intrigue that I’m so proud of. The idea of the animals is something that started very organically. We met in 2015 and she was like, “Do you want to come over, and we can take some photos?” I was like, “Oh, ok! This crazy, cool lady is asking me to come over to her house!” I didn’t really know her, but she has this funny way of being the most charming person in the room. She texted me beforehand and asked, “Do you have a problem with fish?” I said, “Do you mean eating them?” I thought she was making me dinner or something. But she said, ‘No, no, I just have this idea for us to stand in the shower with you holding a fish.” I was like, “O-kay,” and she went and got this full sized pink fish from the market. I stood in the shower and held up this big pink fish in my flower crown and green dress, and it turned out amazing! From then on I’ve trusted her forever, and we have had such a wonderful time collaborating. It’s such an honour to work with her. The photos are really hyper-realistic, and I think it ties into the project really well, especially the specificity of the lyrics that I think makes the environment kind of “off.” It makes it so real that it feels a little uncomfortable.
That ‘uncanny valley’ sort of vibe?
Yeah! Like referencing Uber [in ‘S.M.F.Y’]; I think it’s a bit daggy, but it’s that real time, boring detail that makes it all the more spooky to me. I think the images really capture that real world, this weird framed moment in time that’s completely real. It’s otherworldly.
Do you have any ideas of extending that visual aesthetic to something like a music video or live visuals?
Yeah! It’s hard because we’re so proud of these photos – especially the ‘Patterns’ shoot – and we’re a bit tentative to bring it into “real world moving picture” time. I can’t wait to do a video with Giulia, and we’ve definitely been throwing the idea around for a while. It’s just a matter of money and time. It’ll definitely happen and it’ll definitely be Giulia behind the wheel, though.”
Going back a little bit, what was it like touring with Mallrat on her sold-out tour earlier in the year?
Completely heavenly! Grace is the most beautiful young lady, incredibly humble. She’s taught me a lot about the way in which I perform and write music, and also the way I live my life. She’s an incredibly grateful and kind of spiritual person, in a way. She’s very open to what the universe has in store for her, and I feel like I’m envious of that a little, because I’m a control freak, and I need to know what’s happening at all times. It was really wonderful being on tour with her, and the whole team was wonderful too. All her fans were incredible – she’s really cultivated this fan base of good people. Sold-out crowds every night but no-one was rowdy or anything like that. A huge vibe the whole time.
You’re doing your own headlining tour very soon, as well as BIGSOUND in September. Will your live show be a little different since the last time we saw you?
It actually will! I have a percussionist joining the band – I’ve never had one before, so it’s really thrilling, going from a two-piece to a three-piece. We have some decorative ideas – I just bought the dress that I think I’m going to wear on stage today. The set sounds really good, I’m really proud of it. I think these shows are gonna be the best I’ve done! That sounds like I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself but we’ve been doing a lot of rehearsals and it sounds the best we’ve ever sounded. I’m super excited.
How does it feel to be apart of the massive BIGSOUND lineup?
It feels absolutely amazing. It’s one of those things, like,”You never forget where you were when you got this piece of news,” kind of thing. I was sitting at my colleagues house at work, and I got this email saying,” Congratulations! You’ve been selected to showcase at Bigsound 2018!” That rush of, “Oh my God, I have been trying for a very long time to get that email!” So happy and excited, and humbled. I can’t wait!
Once the dust settles from your live shows, is there anything else we can expect from you this year?
I’m hoping to have a new single out before the year is over, and then even more music early next year. I have so much stuff in the pipeline, it’s almost like I have so much stuff I don’t know what to do with it! For now I’m going to be adding stuff to my private Soundcloud and biding my time a little bit.
Eilish Gilligan Tour Dates:
August 24 | World Bar, Sydney
August 26 | FReeZA Live N Local, Melbourne
August 31 | The Gasometer (Upstairs), Melbourne
September 01 | The Gasometer (Upstairs), Melbourne SOLD OUT
September 4-7 | BIGSOUND, Brisbane
INTRO BY MAX LEWIS
IMAGE BY GIULIA GIANNINI McGAURAN