Martyn Pepperell talks to Girlboss about the transition from Christchurch to Wellington – and from music’s blog-era to its playlist-era.
It’s a warm Tuesday evening. Inside a warehouse practice space in Newtown, Wellington, Lucy Botting, the lead songwriter of breezy guitar-pop band Girlboss and her bandmates – Darian Woods, Douglas Kelly, and Olivia Campion – are joking around, and explaining a bit of what led to their dreamy debut EP Body Con, released earlier this year by boutique local label Ball of Wax. In the same spirit as Botting’s first Girlboss song ‘Miss Doubtfire,’ a low-key SoundCloud cut that popped up on prominent music blog Gorilla Vs. Bear in 2016, the five songs on Body Con trade on faded Polaroid nostalgia, understated pop-culture in-jokes, and wistful introspection, all underpinned by a sturdy inner strength.
“When I started thinking about playing music again, I’d just started working full-time as an early childhood teacher,” reflects Botting. “I didn’t really know it at the time because I was new to it, but in my first job, I was the brunt of a lot of workplace bullying. I’d come home feeling shit, listen to music, and feel like I’d transcended.”
Having just jumped onto the streaming revolution, she was revelling in the ever-growing Spotify music library. “I was listening to people like Chastity Belt, Jessica Lee Mayfield, and Cocteau Twins,” she says. “Darian was living overseas, and we used to make Spotify playlists for each other.”
Although she was already an experienced singer and keyboard player, Botting was learning guitar and began recording demos. She came across the term Girlboss, liked its assertive connotations, and used it as an alias when she uploaded ‘Miss Doubtfire’. Not long afterwards, Woods returned to Wellington from the US, where he’d spent the last two years completing his masters in public policy at UC Berkeley and interning for NPR. Excited by Botting’s music, he offered to help expand it into a band.
Botting noticed that her old buddy Josh Burgess’ buzzing dream-pop band Yumi Zouma had a Wellington show coming up at Cuba Street’s San Fran venue. “I messaged Josh, and asked if I could open,” she says. Burgess had sent the ‘Miss Doubtfire’ demo to Gorilla Vs. Bear, so she figured he’d be receptive. “He said yes, so we pulled together a band in three weeks.” Opening for Yumi Zouma was a gateway to more support slots, shows around the country, and eventually, proper studio recordings tracked over a day in Auckland by one of Botting’s cousins.
Due to the mundane, frustrating realities of day-to-day life (i.e. having to fit music in around full-time work) things were a little bit stop-start for Girlboss, but when you listen to their recordings or see them play live, it’s smooth sailing. It’s smooth because they’re experienced – Girlboss is the second time Botting and Woods have played music together.
Although they live in Wellington, they’re both originally from Christchurch. Last decade, Woods was part of a semi-anonymous, somewhat notorious indie music gossip blog that did a great job of entertaining and infuriating the garden city’s underground. “A few people weren’t happy with us at the time,” Woods admits chuckling. “All I’ll say is this: we were getting seven hundred hits a week.”
One day in 2008, he approached Botting on the street. “That was one of the first ways we became intertwined,” Botting says. At the time Woods was transitioning the blog into street fashion. “Darian saw me on the street, asked to take a photo of me and wrote some shit about me … I’d just come from my job as a dishwasher, so I wasn’t even wearing anything good.”
Blogging wasn’t the only online endeavour Woods was engaged in – he also started the Wikipedia page for journalist Steve Braunias, editor of the Spinoff Review of Books. “That’s a tidbit for you,” he says with a wry grin.
Botting and Woods dated for a number of years and began making experimental pop music together as Wet Wings. They quickly became an antipodean outpost act in a loose international grouping of bands and solo artists often described with terms like chillwave, glo-fi, and hypnagogic pop. It was a very 21st-century style of internet music which drank deeply from the practitioners’ fading memories of the now retro 1980s/1990s music, film, television, fashion, and technology they’d loved as children. “I had a VHS recording of The Sound of Music that I used to watch all the time as a kid,” Botting remembers. “The best part of watching it was always the adverts because it was recorded off the television in 1989; the TV3 logo looked so different then. When I was older, I worked in video stores and spent a shit ton of time watching movie trailers on repeat. They’re potentially part of my pop culture references.”
Many of the acts associated with this scene-not-scene, which included the likes of James Ferarro, Pocahaunted, Sun Araw, and Emeralds, were initially supported online by a network of music blogs like 20 Great Jazz Funks, Chocolate Bobka, Friendship Bracelet, the aforementioned Gorilla Vs. Bear, and Rose Quartz, a blog run by a group of New Zealanders. “Blogs meant a lot more then than they do now,” Woods remembers. “This was pre-Spotify,” Botting adds.
As things progressed, Pitchfork unveiled a short-lived blog aggregator project called Altered Zones, that unified 14 so of these niche blogs under one more accessible newsfeed. Rose Quartz and Gorilla Vs. Bear both posted and wrote about Wet Wings music. The online coverage helped them develop a niche profile and partner up with labels like Infinity Tapes, La Station Radar, Atelier Ciseaux, and Auckland’s Lil Chief Records to release an EP, an album, and a mini-album.
Things weren’t only happening for them online, though. Alongside their internet buzz, a big part of the Wet Wings experience played out within the local DIY and all-ages music scenes Botting and Woods had their initial musical epiphanies in. “We saw Grouper play twice in Christchurch,” Botting says. “We also saw The Evens and Calvin Johnson play in a small venue to forty so people,” Woods adds.
“It was a really nice community and environment,” Botting continues. “People were drawn to it for that reason. It wasn’t just about fun; it was about having a break from normal Christchurch shit like racism and conservatism.”
Outside of Wet Wings, the local bands of the time included Sleepy Age (Burgess’ pre-Yumi Zouma project), T54, Tiger Tones, Bang Bang Eche, Shocking Pinks, Mt Pleasant, and Von Klap. Wet Wings played shows alongside many of them. One time in Auckland, a young Chelsea Jade, then known as Watercolours, supported them at a show. “Can you believe that?” Woods laughs. “What a role reversal!”
Just before the February 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, Botting and Woods moved to Wellington, where they continued to pursue their musical pursuits. Three years later, they put Wet Wins on ice when Woods headed overseas in 2014.
In 2018, with Botting leading the songwriting process, Girlboss sees them reunited creatively, but within a whole new musical landscape. Youtuber users leave comments on the video for ‘FourFiveSeconds’ by Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney saying “This Paul McCartney guy might have some potential.” Rappers post doctored Instagrams of themselves running numbers on fake Spotify charts. Emerging EDM producers fret that their career might be tanking if they get less than 200 likes on a photo, and everyone worries about getting on the right playlists. Girlboss aren’t immune to this either. “We’re on four playlists,” Woods says. “It’s all about playlists now,” Botting adds.
I mention that the playlist thing can be deceptive. Sometimes a song clocks up numbers because of its placement, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into the act gaining more fans. “It’s still easy to tell who is actually doing well though,” Woods says. “You go to the artist, check their monthly listens, and check how many people actually follow them. Local bands like Mermaidens are doing well because their ratio of people who listen and follow is really high, but other people are just on playlists, and people aren’t following them.”
I ask Woods to reflect on how this is making people think about and engage with music.
“It’s bad,” he admits.
“It’s bad,” Botting agrees with a laugh. “He’s obsessing.”
It’s not what you want to be worrying about as a musician, but it is a reality, one Girlboss are navigating the best they can, while still coming up with gold.
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