Hatchie stepped onstage in Melbourne the day dancing came back. The city’s Footloose COVID rules were repealed just hours before Harriette Pilbeam and her band took over the Night Cat in February, the singer swaying at the front as lasers flashed around her.
“It took a while for me to get used to being the front person,” Pilbeam will tell NME later. “I went on YouTube to watch live videos of other singers to figure out how much I wanted to do – I don’t want to dance. I don’t want to jump up and down and get really crazy. But how do I find the halfway point?”
That sweet spot appeared to be somewhere between Gwen Stefani and a mic-grasping Julian Casablancas. The music, meanwhile, could convince you Kylie Minogue was an inch away from collaborating with Ride in the ’90s. And Pilbeam has ditched not only the bass guitar, but the baggy band t-shirts, too. Wearing all black, standing at the front of a 360-degree platform, she looked like a true frontwoman.
In Melbourne, Hatchie gave the widescreen pop of her sophomore record ‘Giving The World Away’ its live debut. The room felt too small for these songs: New single ‘Quicksand’, co-written with Olivia Rodrigo collaborator Dan Nigro, sounded like arena pop; ‘The Rhythm’’s trip-hop synthesiser is so loud, it landed like a beautiful migraine. Less than a year ago, Hatchie wondered whether her music career was over. So when Pilbeam crooned “I never felt so good with the lights on” – on the revelatory opening track of ‘Giving The World Away’ – it was a sensual statement of triumph and self-actualisation. Hatchie is here to stay.
The 28-year-old Pilbeam talks to NME on Zoom three days later from a bare room in her temporary Brisbane home. She’s in the process of moving to Los Angeles – to be in the United States, where she can be closer to her management and her US label Secretly Canadian, and where Hatchie’s music has caught on more than at home.
“Australia’s audience is a lot more into festivals, dance music, and DJs. For some reason, I don’t click with that audience,” she says. “I always thought the UK if anywhere would be where it would maybe connect a bit more, because they’ve got that really dense history of shoegaze and dream pop. But um, I don’t know if maybe they’ve had their fill.”
“I love music that’s like a wall of sound where you can’t even tell where everything’s coming from”
Not that Pilbeam expected Hatchie to take off, period. She recalls the project’s humble origins: “It was 2017 or 16. I was really dissatisfied with my life, really unhappy working a crappy hospitality job during this uni degree I felt really lost in. I had a lot of time to myself at home alone, where I was just practicing. I wanted to get better at guitar. And I just started writing.”
One of the sketches she worked on was ‘Try’, a dream-pop gem built on a foggy guitar drone and a bubbly synthesizer. Pilbeam uploaded it to triple j Unearthed on her birthday, and the tastemaking radio behemoth wrote an article about it and played it on the main station. That week, she got 20 to 30 emails from radio presenters, managers, lawyers, publishers and labels. One of them, Jake Snell, became her manager; one single later, her idol Robin Guthrie was in touch to remix her music.
Pilbeam hastily put together a band with her then-boyfriend, now-husband and longtime creative collaborator Joe Agius to tour Hatchie’s debut EP ‘Sugar & Spice’, the bank of songs she’d been preparing in private for years. In 2019, she released her debut album ‘Keepsake’, a collection whose potent nostalgia and breezy lyrics helped launch Hatchie tours of the US and UK.
Hatchie’s rise was “instant and then continuous”, as Pilbeam put it. “It was definitely a rollercoaster. It was all good things for ages, which I think is what made it so difficult to deal with everything coming to a halt in 2020.”
Pilbeam had seen in that fateful year deep in work for ‘Giving The World Away’. She had finally decided to try co-writing after urging from her publisher, label, manager and pretty much “everyone”. “I held off from doing it for a while because I just wanted to feel really confident in my own abilities before I stepped into that space,” she says. “I can clam up in collaborative zones.”
In February, Pilbeam and Agius flew to LA, where they hooked two big fish: Jorge Elbrecht and Dan Nigro. Nigro had worked with Caroline Polachek, which told Pilbeam he could blend alternative and pop cultures. And Elbrecht’s occultic visual art told her he could help make her music go deeper, making him a prime choice for producer and co-writer of ‘Giving The World Away’. Their work together at Future Classic studios would become the opening tracks ‘Lights On’ and ‘This Enchanted’.
The two songs were meant to be a manifesto for a new vision of Hatchie: one that had “elements of ’90s house – not super different, but a little more light; more carefree rather than so emotional and dense,” Pilbeam says.
That density was initially what drew Pilbeam to shoegaze. Introduced to My Bloody Valentine as a 21-year-old who was struggling with writing and sharing lyrics, she connected to the band because of their emphasis on sound rather than words; she later fell hard for the otherworldly melodies and harmonies of Cocteau Twins.
“I remember saying in the beginning, ‘I really don’t want to pigeonhole myself’… And then I felt like I did that to myself, because I was so set on being this exact, distinct mix of shoegaze, pop and dream pop”
“I love music that’s like a wall of sound where you can’t even tell where everything’s coming from,” Pilbeam enthuses. “And you can’t tell what’s making a sound, whether it’s a synth or guitar or vacuum cleaner – or a balloon being squeezed… It was just this whole world of music that I hadn’t heard.”
But after the success of ‘Keepsake’, Pilbeam felt hemmed in by her sound rather than liberated by it.
“I remember saying in interviews in the beginning, ‘I really don’t want to pigeonhole myself. I don’t want to back myself into a corner’,” she says. “And then I felt like I did that to myself, because I was so set on being this exact, distinct mix of shoegaze, pop and dream pop. I put a lot of pressure on myself to maintain that with the record.”
That pressure was one reason why Pilbeam was afraid her fanbase wouldn’t like ‘Quicksand’, one of the biggest left-turns on ‘Giving The World Away’. In 2018, NME dubbed Hatchie “the Aussie dream-pop auteur joining the dots between Cocteau Twins and Carly Rae Jepsen” – and there’s no better song to discern the latter influence than ‘Quicksand’. Initially a demo called ‘Can’t Wait’, the song had vague lyrics but a melody that was too catchy to bin. So Pilbeam and Agius took it to Dan Nigro, who had yet to catapult to producer stardom as the primary collaborator of Olivia Rodrigo.
There it underwent the traditional pop process of a committee of musical minds taking a promising tune and turning it into a dart directly into the pleasure centre of the brain. But Pilbeam decided against releasing it as the first single for fear of alienating fans, and when it did finally drop in January, she self-consciously promised there was still plenty of shoegaze and dream-pop on the album.
A month after the release of ‘Quicksand’, though, Pilbeam is more eager to wash her hands of genre hang-ups. “I’m trying to let go of all that now, and let go of the expectations that I’ve set for myself and realise that most people don’t care. They just want whatever you’re putting out, and they just like it regardless. And most people don’t think that hard about what genre a song is.”
Whatever Hatchie puts out, whether it be straight-up shoegaze or indie-approved pop, it’s likely to find an ardent audience. If you follow Pilbeam on Twitter, you’ll soon notice her stans: young fans creating post-ironic memes begging others to stream Hatchie. Though the conversation around pop culture social media followings has mainly revolved around titans like BTS, Nicki Minaj or Taylor Swift, those dynamics similarly fuel the fandoms of indie favourites like Mitski, Phoebe Bridgers – and now, Hatchie.
“Stans love anticipation,” Pilbeam sagely observes. “An album announcement and the lead-up to it are where Twitter stans thrive and get the most excited, so I think it’s hilarious.” She retweets everything she sees, and is “very appreciative at this stage”.
Pilbeam leaned especially on her fans’ support during the height of the pandemic. In October 2020, she launched a Patreon page, which helped “make everything feel real still when I was struggling to believe Hatchie would continue”. A top-tier monthly subscriber, or “Hatchling”, could access a permanent Discord chat with Pilbeam, receive a personal thank you over Zoom and a meet and greet.
“It taught me how dedicated a lot of people are and that maybe I should be more optimistic,” Pilbeam says of her Patreon experience. “That it is possible to still have a career and make at least somewhat of a living off of music, even if you’re not kicking all the massive goals like playing certain size rooms and releasing albums.”
Some of those goals evaporated for Hatchie in 2020 after their fruitful Los Angeles trip. Pilbeam and Agius used their studio budget to buy gear and rode out lockdown from their home in Brisbane, sandwiched between a neighbour who nurtured a pandemic interest in woodworking and a house that was being renovated into a block of units.
“I just had zero confidence in my own choices. I was just like: ‘Am I ever going to be happy? Am I ever going to be satisfied? Is anything ever going to feel like enough?’”
The album’s connection to the outside world came from Denver, Colorado where Elbrecht had enlisted Beach House percussionist James Barone to play drums for Hatchie. His recordings came back consistently unorthodox, but refreshing. ‘Thinking Of’, for instance, was sent without any direction, and came back defined by its rhythm, a Brazilian cuíca drum and bongos cascading underneath (“They definitely got a bit weird,” Agius tells NME in a separate interview).
Back in Brisbane, Pilbeam was “going a bit loopy”. She was recording her vocals at night – not the time she works best – and the cabin fever was taking what was at that point an adventurous, poppy record into a more insular space – and Pilbeam’s lyrics in a darker direction. On ‘Quicksand’, for instance, she sings: “I’m trying, but what’s the use in trying / When all I’m left with is disillusionment”.
That line is “definitely an accurate representation of how I was feeling in 2020” – and even before COVID struck, Pilbeam says. “When we first started touring, I really struggled and wasn’t sure if I was built for it. I was like, ‘Man, this is really fucking hard’. Especially when you’re playing a lot of shows that no one’s coming to overseas, and even in Australia.”
The confused self-worth this created in the young musician surged again in 2020 when she wasn’t touring.
“I felt I couldn’t trust my own feelings; I couldn’t just trust my gut and go with stuff,” she says. “It wasn’t just in relation to music, it was everything… I just had zero confidence in my own choices. I was just like: ‘Am I ever going to be happy? Am I ever going to be satisfied? Is anything ever going to feel like enough?’”
Pilbeam’s anguish deepened in what she calls an online culture of “toxic positivity”. “I just felt so ungrateful and so guilty for not being happy all the time,” she sighs. “I was not extremely happy about everything in my life – and I just realised that that’s not very realistic.
“It’s the same with friendships – any friendship that is worth having is worth putting work into, and you’re not always going to be best friends… It’s not realistic for things to be easy, and to come quickly.”
Pilbeam knew years ago that she wanted to challenge herself on lyrics, a longtime insecurity of hers. So she worked harder on her writing than ever before, tweaking her lyrics for weeks to make them more than just a foil for her melodies. ‘Giving The World Away’ takes us into her emotional psyche: “What if what drew us together / Triggers our demise?” she wonders on the title track, while she soothes herself on the empathetic ‘Take My Hand’: “You don’t have to change… the crux you see as weakness is your friend.”
“I really wanted to make up for lost time by covering topics I hadn’t covered before, things that have affected me since I was a kid,” she says.
“‘Take My Hand’ is really a song written to myself about my self-hatred, body issues and self-esteem issues I’ve had since primary school. I just felt like I was doing a disservice to myself by not covering those topics that had been plaguing me for so long.
“I want to continue to pursue that because for my own sake, I think it’s good to have a record of that, and not pretend it’s not an issue for me. Because it is.”
When Pilbeam looks back on 2020, it “wasn’t too bad” from an artistic standpoint. “At least I was able to focus on doing the record, and just kept thinking that it’d be over in six months.” She got a job selling skincare products at The Body Shop, thinking it would be short-term. Agius did more graphic design and video editing instead of music. What was really difficult was 2021, Pilbeam says, “when it was just the same thing all over again”. She began wondering what she would do if music was no longer a viable career for her.
“I just felt like I was doing a disservice to myself by not covering those topics that had been plaguing me for so long”
“I’m not above [working in retail], but it definitely made my music career seem even less real,” she says. “I[’d] only just stopped working hospitality jobs two or three years ago. It felt like I’d only just started getting into [music] as a quote unquote career. That timing was an extra hard slap in the face.”
In May, Pilbeam will return to North America to start rebuilding the dream she thought might be dead. Kickstarting a tour in Washington DC on Pilbeam’s birthday and cramming 14 states into 23 days, Hatchie will be swept right back into the whirlwind that began with a simple Unearthed upload and unceremoniously paused with the pandemic.
Agius hopes they get to flesh out their joint vision for the Hatchie band along the way: one that expands beyond the insular creation of ‘Giving The World Away’ with a live band and more co-writers.
“Next album we are definitely getting a studio for a month to take our sweet-ass time and enjoy every aspect,” he says. “‘Giving The World Away’ was a bit of a blur. We didn’t even take that many photos. It almost feels like it didn’t happen.”
One photo might be enough: The record’s cover, featuring a winged Pilbeam looking up to the sky, is a shot taken from the music video for ‘This Enchanted’, directed by Agius. A reference to Juliet Capulet on the balcony in Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo & Juliet, it puts Hatchie in crisp focus. It’s where she belongs.
Hatchie’s ‘Giving The World Away’ will be released on April 22 via Secretly and Ivy League Records