Former Hellions vocalist and guitarist Matthew “Wob” Gravolin has today unveiled the debut record from his new project Agnes Manners.
What began as a folder filled with tracks not quite right for the Hellions sound, soon blossomed into Fantasia Famish – a rich tapestry of songs, varying in tone and style, light and shade , all anchored by Gravolin’s deeply honest songwriting.
“The writing and recording of Fantasia Famish was a rite of passage in every way,” explains Gravolin. “It’s the sound of me falling in love while grieving the loss of my father, it’s the airing of long-hoarded grievances with pompous people and trends, it’s a celebration of my femininity and the realisation of its power. It is an admission of addiction and of guilt, it is the changing of a name and a catalyst for change.”
As a special treat for Music Feeds, Agnes Manners frontman Matthew Gravolin has taken us through the new album, track by track. Have a read (and a listen) below.
‘Evergreen’ went through many structural, lyrical and melodic changes before reaching the place of tropical romance I had envisioned. The song is about surrendering to love and letting it change you – Shane (Edwards, producer) and I started to find musical and lyrical congruence by taking a Gospel route and ended up in flower-child Americana territory – definitely a first for me. Early on in the writing process, I sent a voice memo of the chorus to my brother-in-law Duane (ex-Heroes For Hire) and he said he could hear a change in chords and vocal melody – he recorded his idea and sent it to me, this idea became the falsetto vocal/chord change that you hear in the final chorus. The bassline in verse 2 is my favourite of the record, I spent the better part of a night on that part alone.
As Long as You’re Mine
‘As Long as You’re Mine’ began as a paean to my partner Charlotte, who features in the middle eight and final chorus of the song. I built the verses around the feeling of hope that the chorus gave me. ALAYM was a rather ordinary ballad until Shane and I stumbled across some drum loops that gave the songs its 90’s R&B feel and galvanised us into recording a more energetic vocal performance. The saxophone part was also built out of a loop – Shane cut it up and reassembled it whilst I was out eating dinner one night. I freaked the fuck out when I came back.
Sincerity In Retrograde
‘Sincerity in Retrograde’ is my favourite song on the album. It is a two-movement satire on pop culture that’s embittered, sarcastic and sincere in turns. It’s the most heavily orchestrated song I’ve written to date and the first song I’ve written that features a chorus without vocal. It was founded upon a traditional-sounding folk chord progression (inspired by repeated listens of Randy Newmans earlier works) and I made a test of widening the scope of it as far as I could. I wrote the string and horn parts in a midi program and because we couldn’t afford to have other instrumentalists perform on the album, the orchestral parts were brought to life with Spitfires ‘Hans Zimmer Strings’ plug-in (an incredibly versatile and nuanced program that samples the performance of 344 string players in Londons Lyndhurst Hall.)
Our thanks and praise go to Mr. Alex Lamy for humanising the instrumentation even further, he paid close attention to each detail and the outcome was incredibly authentic. This was the first song I sang on and it helped set the vocal tone for the rest of the recording. One of my favourite moments of the album is the sample of the audience reeling in shock that plays after the words “so lighten up, you morbid fuck”
For several months and in many places, I kept notes about how I was feeling about the world and my place in it after my fathers passing. Once the music came to me, I arranged the notes in chronological sequence and made verses of the excerpts that frightened me to say aloud. I hoped that by being as honest as possible, I could rid myself of the discomfort I was feeling.
I took what I had written over to John’s (Floreani, Trophy Eyes) place and we made a night of tightening it up together – I owe the beautiful chorus of this song to John. The recording of this song was perhaps the most fluid of the album, the tranquil nature of the song kept us comfortable and the slide guitar part that follows the words “get some drinks, head to the park and take some mushrooms” in ‘Brilliant Blue’ was a spur of the moment idea that came from Shane. It still delights me to hear it, it does a good job of putting the listener in that moment.
This was a part I had written long ago whilst composing the Hellions’ track ‘Harsh Light’. I had originally envisioned it to be a contemplative reprise in the vein of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Lovestoned / I Think She Knows’. The idea didn’t end up making it onto the record but my affection for the part never dimmed, I kept listening to the iPhone recording of the idea trying to think of how best to use the idea in the new context of Agnes Manners. I liked the rawness of that recording and was unsure that it would translate if I were to recreate it, so we ended up just using the iPhone recording as it was.
Spiced Plum and Cherry
The title of ‘Spiced Plum and Cherry’ was conceived whilst reading the back label of the wine bottle I was drinking while composing the song, I wanted a working title that elucidated the mood of the moment and the reclusive tone of the music. I envisioned a clawed hand brandishing a wine glass by the bowl, I contemplated that image and the character behind the hand and went from there – it’s the first song I’ve written where the lyrics are informed by the title and not the other way around. It ended up as a sort of meditation on the shadow self.
The string-focused bridge at 2:38 was an afterthought I had the day before we began recording the song. I spent that evening trying to compose what I could hear in my head and we brought it to life the next day. I made a new friend called Flora Von Zitzewitz during the recording process and she was kind enough to translate the chorus lyric into French and sing the outro for me – her performance really solidified the eerie vibe I was after. The scrambled and pitch-shifted voice at the end is my own – the reading is taken from Romeo’s dialogue with the Apothecary nearing the end of Romeo & Juliet. SPAC was originally intended to be a stand-alone track until I was midway through writing it’s successor ‘Sydney’ – once I discovered that the songs shared the same key, I got to work on connecting them.
‘Sydney’ is one of the few pocket-rockets of the record, coming in at only 2 minutes. I wanted the song to feel something like a Disney composition, so it is primarily string and piano-based. A trio of flutes ended up replacing what was originally intended to be a lead guitar movement which really solidified that vibe. John kicks off the tempo change/rock bit in the way that only he can – he made musical and lyrical contributions to the song when I was writing in Melbourne so it made sense for him to join me on the track when he arrived at Karma Sound Studios to do some writing of his own while I was making the Agnes Manners album.
During that trip, I ambled down to a beach after a night at the bar to try and get a voice recording of sea sounds to put in one of the songs. I had too much to drink and I ended up vomiting – I forgot that the voice memo was still recording all the while. I revisited the recording the next day and salvaged the sound of me being sick over the sounds of waves. I had to cut out the retching, splashing and spitting sounds that were overly abrasive or unlistenable and the result can be heard at the end of ‘Sydney’. Although admittedly a bit uncouth, I feel that it suits the lyrical content of the song. It’s about a particularly excessive time in my life before I made the move from Sydney to Melbourne. Paranoia and shame are the operant themes, written from a perspective that felt very real and frightening at the time.
The Young Man and The Seed
I felt that there needed to be some affirmation of life at this point in of the album’s sequence after the exorcism of negative emotion that makes up the four tracks preceding it. ‘The Young Man and The Seed’ focuses on life lessons taught to me by my father, a rumination upon what he has left behind for me. This song began whilst tinkering with an acoustic guitar in my mother’s house. It came together very quickly – I had the general structure of it laid down within the night which is a rarity for me. It often takes a few months for me to get to that point with a song. Shane got a Coldplay vibe from the chorus melody and played in a lead guitar part to match. This song serves as a nod forward to ‘The Old Man and The Sea’, the emotional climax of the record.
‘Forest Swing’ was originally written for Hellions, it was a favourite of mine but the band was divided in our opinions of it. The theme remained very important to me so I revised and completed it for Fantasia Famish, Charlotte’s participation is a device of androgyny – a female voice melding with mine was necessary in articulating the song’s message: “We can make a mother of a man, I am both your brother and your sister.”
The translation from Hellions to Agnes styling was more difficult than I had anticipated, vocally. I couldn’t do justice to the spirited rapped introduction that I had written for Dre so we replaced it with a spoken poetry verse, which was a first for me. Charlotte blew me away with her raspy delivery of the second verse. The impassioned quality calls to mind an early Brody Dalle verse. Hearing the playback of us screaming together at the end of the middle eight was a gooseflesh-inducing pleasure.
I started writing this one after hearing about Mac Miller’s death. I had just fallen in love with his album Swimming, so this came as devastating news. It angered me to read that the media constantly referred to him as Ariana Grande’s ex-boyfriend rather than calling him by his name. It was a shameless and irreverent clickbait tool. I found it disgusting that it was employed even after Mac’s death. The reservoir of resentment I have reserved for modern celebrity has bled into my songwriting, most glaringly in this track and ‘Sincerity In Retrograde’. This song ended up focusing on the lack of distinction between people that are famous for mastering their craft and the glut of people that are just famous for being famous.
The hi-hat/snare shuffle in the choruses is my favourite drum part of this record. The scrambled and pitch-shifted Romeo & Juliet reading that appears during the conclusion of ‘Spiced Plum and Cherry’ continues during the middle eight of ‘Worship ‘(also a part originally intended for Hellions’ ‘Rue’)
The Old Man and The Sea
Of all twelve pieces, this song took the longest to compose. It started with a simple chord progression and vocal melody that Duane had written, he liked it but was unsure of what to do with it – I was enamoured of the melody and fawned and gushed over it until Duane succumbed to my sycophancy and gifted it to me. I made ten verses out of that vocal melody and chord progression, adding orchestral accompaniment and minor variations to the top line as I went. I spent a small eternity rearranging the stanzas and compressing it all.
The speech at the end of ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ is taken from a video recording of my father’s funeral. It was spoken by my childhood neighbour and a lifelong friend of my father, Frank Nasso.
This was the last piece composed. I went to John’s place for the third and final time to get his take on this one a few weeks before leaving to record Fantasia Famish in Thailand. This is a lyrical favourite and an obvious album-closer.
‘Mangosteen Foothills’ was pretty bare in comparison to the others – I had only the guitar and vocal parts written. Shane wrote the bass, drums and organ parts for this one. The end of ‘Mangosteen Foothills’ features a surreptitiously recorded conversation between two of my American friends, Alex and Pat. Alex was having this beautiful real-time epiphany and I had to capture it – the next day, with some embarrassment, I had to confess to recording him speak in order to get his permission to use it. I feel so lucky to have been privy to this conversation and I couldn’t have conceived of a more perfectly human way to end the album.