For Christchurch musician Mousey, 2020 should have been a breakout year. But through all the disruption, she’s still finding new ways to keep moving forward.
Sarena Close joins me on Zoom in her PJs. Her husband, Chris, is pottering around their suburban home in the background. If you didn’t know better, you’d never guess that the relaxed and unassuming Cantabrian at the other end of the call is currently enjoying an avalanche of momentum in New Zealand’s indie pop scene, her schedule crammed with hectic tour planning and mixing sessions for her upcoming second album.
Close hasn’t always been known as Mousey, the carelessly cool singer-songwriter now garnering acclaim across the country. An experienced musician, she spent three years at Christchurch’s jazz school and cut her live performance teeth in the city’s covers scene before realising that in order to feel creatively fulfilled, she’d need to plot a different path.
When I suggest that it takes guts to leave behind a potentially lucrative scene for one where success is harder to come by, Close admits the decision was difficult. Regardless, she’s adamant that it was one that regardless she needed to make. “I think the covers thing was really hard to walk away from because of the money – the money is so good. But I knew I was destroying myself. I knew that I hated it. And I hated that it was music-related.”
Close would go on to play in a number of Christchurch bands, performing her own songs and those of her friends – among those groups an early project of Lukas Mayo, now better known as Pickle Darling. But even when Close wasn’t playing covers, there was still an itch that she couldn’t quite scratch.
“I felt very caged by other people’s tastes in the band. I guess it was during a stage where we were all kind of figuring out who we were, and what we liked – and it turned out we all liked very different things.”
Close decided she should steer the ship herself. The result was Mousey, a project which saw near-immediate success, her breakout single ‘Extreme Highs’ shooting a meteoric trajectory to land on the shortlist for the 2019 Silver Scroll Award. But although it may have seemed surprising from the outside, she saw the nomination as validation for years of hard work.
“I was like: “OK, I’m not crazy, I actually do have something to offer”. So I guess, yes, I totally was expecting to do well, and I still do.”
The playful creativity she found in working as Mousey shone through on her debut solo album, Lemon Law. Now in the process of working on its follow-up – currently titled My Friends – Close notes that the artistic freedom she found from working under her own direction has given her more room to experiment.
“It means that I can control everything. My next album could just be me and a glockenspiel. We can just play with textures, rather than being locked into that “band sound”. We even recorded my friend. She’s got stomach issues, and her tummy was making weird noises.”
Not many musicians will go so far as to sample IBS, but in speaking with Close it’s obvious that she feels strongly about going against the grain – both in how she creates and in how she navigates life as a professional artist. “When I go to Auckland or something, it feels like it’s very industry-focused. But in Christchurch, there’s not really much of that here. So we just kinda do whatever we want.”
For Close, who grew up in nearby Rangiora, the South Island city has offered an ideal environment for her musical journey. “I’ve loved growing here, it’s been the perfect place,” she says. “It’s more to do with my friend group here… we all support each other. We all encourage each other to move forward in the direction that we’re going, independently.”
But dancing along the margins of the mainstream comes with a certain risk. Musical success nowadays is often gauged by online engagement, and without that self-marketing aptitude, many artists slip through the cracks of the industry. Close admits that it’s not her strong suit, lamenting that it’s even an expectation these days.
“I feel a lot of pressure with music videos and social media and stuff, where I feel like the weight would be off if it was me in a band. But it’s just me. I know that my Instagram followers are not high, and that will affect the festivals that I’ll get to play.”
That extra focus on marketing and maintaining an online presence has been exacerbated even more by the Covid-19 pandemic, the isolation forcing artists and audiences alike to depend on technology more than ever. Social media has become our default method of sharing and consuming content, and this pressure can be disenfranchising for smaller artists like Close.
“I would just hope that we would move more towards [prioritising] people’s actual skills and talents, but it seems like we’re moving further away.” She’s also critical of how this dynamic can sometimes filter through to the creative process. “You can smell it on music so easily, when someone’s just writing something to be successful.”
But among the potential pitfalls of a Covid-stricken industry, Close says she also found certain peaks in the pockets of New Zealand’s nationwide lockdowns – namely that it gave her a lot more time to write. And once things opened up again, with audiences just as keen as artists to experience live music in real life again, her shows mostly sold out.
It’s obvious that behind Close’s easy demeanour lies an indomitable spirit, and that it’s allowed her to thrive artistically in conditions that would discourage many. Through the stress, sadness and fatigue of the past year, she’s worked to find silver linings wherever possible. And now, with her second album on the way, that work looks set to pay off.
Mousey’s sophomore album is due for release in early 2022. This content, like that record, was produced with the support of NZ on Air.
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