Contemporary pop music is dark. The Weeknd allegorised cocaine in his nu-disco hit Can’t Feel My Face. The mysterious Brisbane singer/songwriter Airling, aka Hannah Shepherd, too, has captivated listeners with her shadowy, subliminal electro-soul.
“I feel like people respond to what’s authentic – or I do at least – and this world is not always happiness and romance and lust,” Shepherd says. “It is dark and it’s ugly sometimes. That’s just life.”
Shepherd was previously the co-lead vocalist and keyboardist in the indie band Charlie Mayfair, which split at the end of 2012. She launched Airling after randomly meeting Big Scary’s Tom Iansek on the road. Shepherd initially sang on the album About Face from Iansek’s cult side-project #1 Dads. She’d then share some of her own electronic experiments with him. This led to her signing to Big Scary’s Melbourne-based label Pieater. In 2014 Shepherd presented the stunning EP Love Gracefully, showcasing the spacey Ouroboros. Last year she collaborated on Japanese Wallpaper’s Forces, accompanying the chillwaver at select gigs when he supported M83 in May. She also aired Stallin’ – a departure from her earlier forays with its urban groove.
Now, Shepherd is back with the slinky shuffle Move Me – the first sample of an album she’s been recording alongside Iansek, even while he was plotting Big Scary’s Animal. And Airling is embarking on a mini-tour. Beyond that, she’ll be joining the classy billing of Her Sound, Her Story: A Celebration Of Women In Music on the opening night of Melbourne Music Week. Music Feeds caught up with Shepherd to get the lowdown on her new material and activities.
MF: You have this new single, Move Me, now. I love that you work with Tom Iansek because what he does with you is so different to anything else he does, so you have your own unique alchemy. But what can you say about it?
HS: Well, I think it’s weird because, when we released it, for the first time I felt pretty peaceful. I wasn’t really anxious at all about it all coming out. I don’t think nervous is the right word, but you’re just a bit apprehensive about how it’s all gonna go. But, with this song, I think because it’s the first track from this album that I’ve been wanting to make basically since I knew albums existed (laughs), it just felt like a really exciting move forward towards actually releasing this album. I remember recording a demo of this track, just with some beats at home and the melody, and showing Tom Iansek, and Tom being like, “This is so cool.” I kinda showed him as a joke – I was like, “Here’s something I’m working on.” And he was like, “This is amazing – what do you mean this is a joke?” I was like, “Oh, I don’t know – I’ve just been playing around at home and having heaps of fun.”
He loved it. I think that started just opening me up to feeling free and writing like that – and sometimes that is the best way to create. So, yeah, I think that started the flood of songs that I started writing for this album. It’s funny because Tom and I both love this song and so does Graham [Ritchie] who we work with – not for any particular reason other than it just feels really good.
MF: Where are you at with the album?
HS: We’re still working on it. I’ve been writing and we’ve been working on it for maybe a year-and-a-half or something like that. It’s not completely done yet, but we’re in the kind of final stages of it – so that is pretty exciting. It doesn’t feel quite real, but also it feels like the most fulfilling thing I’ve done yet with my life – so that’s always a good thing (laughs).
MF: I was reading some commentaries on your earlier singles and I’m really surprised how almost every writer hears your music differently – some people will call you ‘alt-soul’, some people call you ‘electro-pop’. It’s really subjective. How do you feel you’re developing your sound?
HS: Just firstly, I think that the beautiful and also polarising thing about art is that everybody sees it subjectively. So I might envision myself as something and then everybody else sees it as something completely different. I don’t think that I consciously try to change the way that I’m sounding, or the way that I’m writing, but just more as a person I’m constantly evolving. I’m constantly listening to different things, I’m writing about different things, because of my life experiences and because of the creative things that I’m looking at and listening to. I feel like, with this album, I had a lot inside of me that was pretty sad and pretty dark and that naturally came out.
But then I also had this thirst to try different things musically. Move Me is one of those [songs] where it was always a bit funner, but in a dark way, I guess, which is typical of my personality. I am a seemingly pretty fun person, but then there’s a big darkness inside me. I think I just wanted to be taken more seriously, but also in a very calm and simple way (laughs). But I think there’s something really powerful to me about sadness or taking a really dark moment and being able to create something beautiful from that. Beauty from that is obviously in the eye of the beholder, as we said, but it feels like a release and it also can be affirmative and can be fulfilling and can be healing – through myself for creating it, but also hopefully for other people.
MF: Are you mainly working with Tom on the album or are you working with others as well?
HS: Just Tom, yeah – well, Tom is producing it and then our friend Graham Ritchie, who also plays in my live band and Japanese Wallpaper’s live band and HOLY HOLY’s live band. So it’s kinda the three of us who created this album.
MF: How did you even hook up with Tom, because you were in a whole different city?
HS: Actually, I used to play in the band for Emma Louise, so for a few years I toured with her. While we were in the States playing South By Southwest and stuff, we played a showcase that Big Scary were playing. So I met Tom and Jo [Syme] and then the manager Tom [Fraser] and we all just hung out heaps and had a couple of party nights and shared a couple of rides. Then, after that, Tom and I always talked about writing together – that was the first thing, that it was like, “Let’s write a song together.” He gave me a call one day and said, “Hey Han, do you wanna come and sing some harmonies on this new #1 Dads album that I’m making?” I was like, “Yeah, cool.” That was the last one that came out [2014’s About Face]. I sang on about six or something of those tracks and just did harmonies and stuff like this. That’s when I first showed Tom Iansek my first couple of songs that I’d been writing. So it all started in Austin, Texas.
MF: It’s so weird – it was so remote!
HS: I know – it’s so weird. But I imagine my life if that didn’t happen – and I can’t imagine it, do you know what I mean?
MF: What sort of music do you enjoy listening to? Are you one of those artists who shuts themselves off from music when creating? Or do you seek it out?
HS: I tend to be a little bit too much in my own head about things. So I will listen to stuff, but almost surfacely sometimes. Generally, the radio station I listen to in my car is ABC Classic ’cause it feels calming to me. I actually just like a completely removed genre from what I make. I love that ’cause it’s a breath of fresh air [amid] living and breathing this kinda music. But a good album or a good song or an artist can sometimes be the most inspiring thing to listen to – and not obviously in an influential way. I can listen to something that’s completely removed from what I would wanna make, but it makes me feel so grateful to be in the same realm as this other expression that’s coming out. So I listen to a lot of music but, to be honest, I don’t directly listen to stuff and then make music. I tend to stay away from that because I’ve found that instincts are often a lot more powerful than stimulants.
MF: You’ve got some cool dates coming up – you’ve got the tour, but also the Melbourne Music Week event Her Sound, Her Story. What can we look forward to?
HS: I’m just so excited to play again and to show people these songs that I’ve been making for the album. Then the MMW one, I did a photo shoot and an interview, like a documentary interview, with the girls [organisers Michelle Grace Hunder and Claudia Sangiorgi Dalimore], months and months ago and so it’s been a long time coming with all this stuff. But there’s people like Montaigne and Julia Stone and Mama Kin all involved in this and it’s just beautiful to be in that company (laughs). If I told my 16-year-old self that that would even be possible, she wouldn’t believe that…
MF: You’re still based in Brisbane. Have you thought of relocating to Melbourne or Sydney?
HS: Yeah, I mean, Melbourne is sort of my second home, I guess – I spend a lot of time there with my manager and also with Tom ‘Scary’ and stuff. So I’ve thought about moving there. But I have a labrador here, Molly. She’s my best friend. She’s 15 now and I need to be with her. Also, it’s a bit cruel to move a dog like that, that’s that old. I’m just lucky that I can keep hanging out with her and stuff. I think eventually one day I will live in Melbourne, at least for a little bit. But I’m pretty happy. I love my own space as much as I love being around people. I really love being alone. I think that sometimes if I lived in a faster, happening city like Sydney or Melbourne, it might not be good for my soul ’cause I would probably get caught up in that.
Airling is currently touring off the back of her latest single Move Me. Full details and tickets info available from her website.