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Pop CultureSeptember 14, 2019

‘It was insane, but I had to do it’: Miss June on mixing music and medicine

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Miss June’s Bad Luck Party was recorded literally between hospital shifts, and their summer schedule includes both festival dates and their frontwoman’s graduation from medical school. We sat down with the band to ask just how, exactly, they’ve survived so far.

The first years of life for Tāmaki Makaurau pop-punk quartet Miss June have been more difficult than most. With the band’s formation coming near exactly as bandleader Annabel Liddell commenced a six-year medical degree, they’ve had to do the groundwork of building both a following and a musical portfolio all while their chief songwriter undertook a course of study that, even on its own, is notorious for its crushing, all-consuming grind.

All things considered, then, they’ve done alright from it. Despite their output to this point consisting of just 2015’s Matriarchy EP and a handful of loose singles (roughly one for each year of their life), they’ve managed multiple international tours, and earlier this year were added to the artist roster of discerning New York label Frenchkiss Records.  

With last week seeing the international release of their first full-length album Bad Luck Party, and on the eve of a two-month tour across Australia, Europe and North America, we caught up with Liddell and guitarist James Park at the offices of their local label Sony to discuss the path to this point, their varying approaches to the Miss June project, and whether there’s anything they would’ve done differently. 

So the Matriarchy EP came out four years ago, and outside of a few singles you haven’t really dropped anything larger since. How long was the process behind this album?

Annabel Liddell: It’s been probably three years. I think after Matriarchy we toured that pretty heavily for two years probably, then started working on the album three years ago. We did the tracking maybe across a year with Tom Healy and Olly Harmer from The Lab, and really in that year of tracking, probably what we kept was just drums and bass. And then the next two years was spent with Tom in his small room at The Lab, just doing all the guitars, vocals, synths, all the fucking around.

Did you always envision it taking this long? 

James Park: We just took our time. We didn’t want any constraints, we wanted to do something we were proud of. Some of the songs we finished a year or two years ago, but it’d take us another year just mixing it, you know? Trying to get the right mix, and trying to get everything perfect.

A: I don’t think I envisioned it taking this long, but at the same time, timing is important. And for me, I definitely wanted to finish my studies before we released it. So that kind of gave me a little bit of a timeframe in my mind, and also allowed us some room for error and experimentation. Which ended up being kind of vital to the recording process. We were such a young band when we started recording it, we kind of had to go through a lot to figure out how we record. 

J: Yeah, the recording process is so different to the writing process, so different to the playing process, and in Miss June we try a lot of things on stage… we’ve got to road test our songs, at least to some degree, and that’s just a long process obviously. But it’s an honest process, I feel. 

Listening to this album compared to Matriarchy, it does feel more direct to me. Like it feels like you’re singing about more specific situations, more specific circumstances. Is that the case?

A: With Matriarchy, a lot of the songs I wrote when I was about 17 and sat on for years, before I even met these guys. So Matriarchy was really more of a conduit for us as a band to be able to tour and play and release music, as opposed to it being the real, like, staple of who we were. This album was far more collaborative, which is why musically it’s a lot more developed. And then lyrically, you’re right, it does touch on a lot more personal things, and a lot more of my adulthood.

J: And it does come just with the development of our songwriting. Like Annabel’s developed as a songwriter, she’s just become a better songwriter. She’s much more comfortable in the process, which is why you get such honest views. It feels pointed, but I feel it’s exactly the same to me–

A: I even feel like Matriarchy’s more pointed.

I thought it was interesting that in ‘Anomaly’, the second verse is basically the Serenity Prayer, because that song feels to me lyrically like an exercise in recovery – like you’re trying to process things that have happened, trying to put them in context or examine them outside of context. Is that a fair read?

A: Funnily enough, the quote in the second verse of ‘Anomaly’ I read in a Calvin and Hobbes book … Calvin got grounded, and he’s talking to Hobbes like, “You know what I wish for? The strength to change what I can and the ability to acknowledge what I can’t,” and I was just like, “Oh my GOD.” 

I was really struggling at the time with moving on from a friendship, and trying to figure out what I could do and what was out of my control, and I think that quote just resonated with me. And it may feel reflective in the sense of listening to it on a record, but for me it’s like every time I play that song, although at the time it was about one specific situation, it goes through so many iterations in my life, just continuously.

So I mean I wish I had the hindsight to look at it and be like, “Oh, I’ve contextualised that and I feel nothing over it.” But unfortunately – as a Taurus – that’s just not who I am. I will never forget and never let go of most things, and those songs are just kind of a picture of catharsis. It’s quite funny, because I feel like you’ve listened to the record and it’s come across as quite purposeful, whereas that’s such the opposite of how I write lyrics. Like often the way I write lyrics, we’ll be playing as a band, and I’ll sing it into the microphone, and that’s what it is.

Do you feel like catharsis is your main reason for writing then?

A: Yep.

Do you think that’s true of the band as a whole?

J: I think it is, but I don’t think about it that way. Like I don’t need performing to feel like therapy. I’m like, “Let’s just do it baby.”

A: I think for me it’s extremely cathartic, but more than that, we genuinely enjoy ourselves on stage. We’ve never been like, “OK, let’s get on stage and try to look like The Strokes. Let’s puff a ciggy and look really cool and sexy.” We’re just trying to be ourselves and enjoy ourselves. Because I think when you do that, it gives other people the freedom to enjoy themselves. 

Is that something that gets fed back to you, that people have said they’ve experienced from your show?

A: Yeah. I get the most beautiful messages sometimes. With ‘Twitch’ I’ve had people tell me it’s helped them to deal with friends going through mental health issues – at our most recent gig, I had a group of consultant doctors come up to me and say that they love ‘Twitch’, because it’s really relatable to things we experience in the hospital. That’s what I wish for in our music. I’m not trying to make a song that you can bop your head along to while you mix a drink, I’m trying to make music that makes you feel something. 

J: Maybe I’m selfish, but my favourite thing is that people always come up to me and are like, “You’re always having fun on stage, it looks like you genuinely love being up there.” That’s my favourite thing, because, like, at the end of the day it’s all I think music should be and all I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to have fun with my friends. If I could play video games full time, I would. If I could just play Magic the Gathering, I would. I’m not even joking about that.

A: That’s definitely who you are, but I never really did it for fun, I did it because I felt like I had to. I had no other choice. 

Do you feel like having the live performance be something that’s intended to be quite fun makes it easier for you to go out and perform that catharsis?

A: Sometimes it is quite painful to perform … it really is difficult to sing certain things and say certain things. That’s my biggest fear with releasing this album, not that it’s going to flop. It’s more of a fear that someone’s going to hear me. It’s terrifying. But I don’t know how the fuck else to make music.

You mentioned, Annabel, that you didn’t want the record to be out before you finished studying, but how hard has it been having both processes exist in concert? Have you had to compartmentalise your life?

A: It’s the hardest I have ever worked in my entire life. I would be doing ward rounds, and in between patients I’d be emailing people about Miss June. I would be going to the studio in my lunch breaks to do vocal takes, then coming back to the hospital, then going back to the studio afterwards to do mixing sessions. We were playing gigs, then I’d go and do a night shift after that in the birthing wards, and deliver babies. It was just insane, but I just felt like I had to do it. 

I remember telling my mum when I was 13 or 14, “Look, I think I’m going to drop out of school mum, I just really want to make music full time.” And she was like, “OK, sweet. So you’re going to have to start paying me rent, and you don’t have your license or anything, so I don’t know how you’re going to get to the gigs. And how are you going to afford the equipment? And what are you going to do in 10 years time?” And I was just like, “Fuck.” She always supported me, but she always made sure I was realistic. And I think the thing she taught me from a very young age was just to respect the brain that you have, because that is all that you’ll ever have. 

And my medical education has been the biggest privilege of my entire life. I just feel so lucky to have done it, and it was all worth it, but there were definitely about five years there where I was managing this band all on my own. Booking all our tours, doing all of our promotion and marketing. I mean now we have a team of people who do all that, but I did that on my own for years. I remember I was in my rural GP placement, and I was calling James on the phone and I was just crying everyday. 

J: We were pretty bad.

A: You guys were terrible.  They’ve really stepped up though. We had a band meeting and I told them, like, “I’m going to burn out if you guys don’t step up.” And they really have. 

Because you’re so used to working under this intense pressure, now that you’ve finished med school and the album’s out – and with the added resource that you now have from your labels – is that like a huge relief? Does it feel like anything changes now?

A: It’s been amazing having the resources and the support, and it’s validating having a team of people being like, “We believe in what you’re doing, and we support what you’re doing,” but in terms of work? No. And I still get emails from university everyday, like, “Hey, coming to be a doctor any time soon?” And it’s stressful! I wish I could do both at the same time, but you just can’t.

When I was rostered on to start my house officer job, I was rostered on Christmas Day, New Years night. People don’t stop getting sick because it’s Christmas, or because your band’s playing a festival. And it’s really important to be present when you’re there, but I think that’s what I realised that I couldn’t do. It’s not necessarily that I couldn’t do the work, it’s that I knew that if I didn’t do the music thing now, then I wouldn’t be able to be fully present in that job. Because it’d always be in the back of my head.

Do you think that medicine is something you’ll eventually go back to?

A: Yes. I have every intention to. I’ve taken the long and difficult road in all aspects of my life, but I really hope it pays off. It’s paid off with Miss June.


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