The breakup album is a defining moment in many artists’ careers: Bob Dylan had ‘Blood on the Tracks’, Bruce Springsteen had ‘Tunnel of Love’, Joni Mitchell had ‘Blue’. The emotional journey of heartbreak is prime songwriting fodder – anger, confusion, frustration, hurt and eventual healing all ripe for exploring through the universal language of music.
Charlie Collins’ second solo album, ‘Undone’, follows in this grand tradition, tracking the dissolution of her decade-long marriage to former Tigertown bandmate Chris Collins. The record moves through the stages of grief, from bargaining (“though I’ve made up my mind, could you stay for a while?” she pleads on opener ‘Lovers to Strangers’) to self-blame (‘Fuck It’) to acceptance (“I’m feeling that it’s better that we’re not together now,” she sings on the album’s final track).
“I wanted to talk about everything,” the Sydney-based musician says. “When you are feeling so much hurt and so much pain, it just all comes out. There are songs on the record that I literally didn’t even know if I could finish because I was just bawling my eyes out – I couldn’t even breathe properly.”
These songs are so deeply intimate that Collins didn’t even intend for some of them to reach an audience. “‘November’ was a song that I never even thought people would hear because it’s so personal,” she says. It’s one of the album’s softest moments – a raw, piano-led ballad, on which she sings, “I still cry to all our songs even though I’m moving on.”
“It was kind of just a song to myself, but now it’s on the album. I don’t overthink and it just all comes out – it’s just personal therapy, really.”
“There are songs on the record that I literally didn’t even know if I could finish because I was just bawling my eyes out – I couldn’t even breathe properly”
Though we’re talking about difficult feelings, Collins is upbeat and affable, punctuating her thoughtful answers with laughter and jokes. This Zoom chat feels a lot like debriefing a break-up with a close friend, which is exactly the impact she wants the record to have.
“It’s a really nice thing – a beautiful, sad thing – when you go through a heartbreak, or a break-up, it feels like somehow you’re alone, and the world is ending and no one can possibly understand how you’re feeling,” she muses. “But when you play it live or people hear it and they relate, you don’t feel alone and someone else is actually feeling this. It’s a really special thing to find that, being in that pain.”
Much like the process of healing, the making of ‘Undone’ did not follow a linear trajectory. The record’s first iteration was completed two years ago, right as the pandemic took hold around the globe. “It was nice to be shut off from the world and really allow myself to be immersed in the heartbreak and verbally express that in musical form,” Collins says.
But upon reflection, Collins realised that while she liked the album she’d made, it wasn’t the album she needed it to be. “The more I listened to it, the more I just felt like I needed to unpack,” she says. “I could have easily put a lot of this stuff in the third record, but it was this chapter and I felt like the story was incomplete.”
So she got back to work with the help of collaborators including Gabriel Strum (Japanese Wallpaper), Xavier Dunn and Jarryd James, and created the version of ‘Undone’ that will be unleashed on the world this month. “I’m so glad I did, because I had so much more to get out,” she says. “I got the chance to really really dig deeper and grab all the last little dregs out.
“When I listened to the record I have now, it just felt right. Now I feel like I can finally close this chapter in my life and start a new one.”
‘Undone’ isn’t solely about Collins’ divorce – it also touches on relationships that followed, creating a kaleidoscopic view of love found, lost and found again. To make it even more intricate (and a little bit meta), both her ex-husband and an ex-boyfriend, Mitch Sexty, played a part in the album’s creation. The former contributed production, and the latter vocals and electric guitar on several tracks. Collins’ former spouse’s only condition was that he didn’t produce a song written about him.
“It’s very Fleetwood Mac of me,” Collins laughs. “I’m such a fan [of my ex-husband] – I respect him completely as an artist and his musical brain. When I wrote ‘Undone’, I was thinking of who I wanted to produce it, and Chris was the first person – it’s totally up his alley. I sent him my vocals and acoustic guitar, and he created this whole beautiful, magical world around it.
“I love it and it’s so nice, after being married for 10 years and spending so much time with each other, that we can still be on amicable grounds and create together, and respect each other.”
“I never went in wanting to sound like something… it all just came out like a big, beautiful vomit”
Collins’ 2019 debut solo album, ‘Snowpine’, was produced entirely by her ex-husband. On ‘Undone’, she takes the production reins herself on two tracks. “It’s scary when you have to trust your own ideas, but it was a thing I wanted to do – I wanted to be hands on and have a bit more control over how it sounded,” she says. “It’s a feeling of just trusting yourself, musically… That was like a little high-five to myself.”
Sonically, ‘Undone’ explores new ground for the artist. ‘Snowpine’ was influenced by Collins’ upbringing in Australia’s country music capital, Tamworth, receiving an ARIA nomination for Best Country Album. The new record steers away from alt-country and towards the rock world: the angular guitar work on ‘Backseat Valentine’ recalls early Interpol, and ‘Just My Luck’, on which Collins mourns a potential relationship exploding over mismatched expectations, is an urgent pop-rock earworm.
“It really just came out – the music supported the songs, and whatever I was playing was just what was the right thing to play,” Collins says. “I never went in wanting to sound like something… it all just came out like a big, beautiful vomit.”
Like so many other musicians, Collins has been missing the opportunity to play live locally over the last two years. She’s recently returned from a stint in London, where she supported fellow Sydneysiders Gang of Youths on tour. A positive rapid antigen test the day before the tour started meant that she missed the first handful of dates, but Collins opened for the band’s last three shows, taking to the stage solo in front of a 5,000-strong crowd.
“I was so nervous because I hadn’t played in ages,” she admits. “The Gangs boys are like my brothers, and I didn’t want to let them down… I was really nervous, but as soon as you’re on stage and you open your mouth and play, it’s like everything’s going to be OK.”
Now that she’s back in Australia and live music has returned, Collins is looking forward to finally taking her new songs out on the road at home. She’s also started writing her next record – but now that the heartbreak is over, what will the songs be about?
“There just might be a lot more love songs,” she smiles coyly. “It’s weird to not be sad.”
Charlie Collins’ ‘Undone’ is out April 29 via Island Records Australia/UMA