For the last 12 years, Chloe Alison Escott has been best known as the vocalist of Tasmanian post-punk duo The Native Cats. She would often be seen on stage engaged in a postmodern kind of shoe-gazing, manipulating synthesisers on a Nintendo 3DS while bandmate Julian Teakle produced basslines in a shotgun pattern, matching the rhythmic shout of Escott’s literary-punk vocals.
But over the years, a career-spanning collection of unrecorded songs accumulated in a corner of Escott’s brain. Something seemed trite in scraping together another punk group to record and tour them – this was different material.
A strange, emboldening idea occurred to Escott: why didn’t she just pretend these songs already existed in classic, definitive form and “rerecord” them as with just a piano to hand? Escott imagined herself as John Cale in 1992 recording his live album ‘Fragments Of A Rainy Season’ – making sense of an eight-record solo career, for a one-night-only intimate piano concert.
The result: her solo debut album, ‘Stars Under Contract’, out last Friday. “I wanted the songs to have all the energy of those that already exist in full band arrangements,” Escott explains to NME over Zoom from Hobart. “If there was already ‘a definitive version’ of it, how wild would I go for a solo piano version?”
“I guess I could have already gone wherever I wanted with it anyway, ’cause this is my music and I control it,” she acknowledges. “But still, it was this odd, strange circuitous way of giving myself that permission.”
The difference between Escott and Cale’s ‘Fragments Of A Rainy Season’, of course, is that ‘Stars Under Contract’ is Escott’s reworking of songs she never recorded: a retrospective for a career she never had.
The concept led this writer to understand the album’s title as a Taylor Swift vs Scooter Braun-style up-yours gesture in the face of the music industry and its machinations. Instead, ‘Stars Under Contract’ refers to a more old fashioned contractual obligation in Old Hollywood, where movie stars were committed to acting in films by a single studio.
“I always found that so fascinating: the biggest, biggest names from that time, and how owned they were by something bigger than them,” Escott says. “Even if you think of literal stars – how distant they are and the beautiful and romantic power of the stars in the night sky – imagine them under regimented control of something.”
“It was this odd, strange circuitous way of giving myself that permission”
‘Stars Under Contract’ is a 16-track collection of abstract piano parables. Other than Escott’s ragged and theatrical voice, the only instrument heard is piano. Silence is the album’s sole other player – it creeps in under ringing piano stabs, with Escott’s words unfolding over it.
As a piano player, Escott’s influences are scattershot – John Cale, Sampha, Ben Folds Five – with the only throughline the courage to not wither under the strictures of classical music. Escott’s own instrumentals are equal parts searching and percussive. ‘Hooks In Texas’ is her piano apotheosis – the chords heard in its beginning heave under their own weight and ascend into a grind, before dissipating into the outro’s doleful ambience.
Escott had wanted to make ‘Stars Under Contract’ for years, but was only prompted to begin when she reconnected with Evelyn Ida Morris at MONA FOMA in January of this year. Morris makes a similar kind of transcendent solo piano music – “like-minded in terms of purpose,” they tell NME – and the pair are old friends.
“Chloe and I both realised things about our gender at roughly the same time, and she was the first person I told about my being non-binary. She is one of my closest and oldest friends, and I often call her on the phone, wanting to understand things about navigating the world – or vice versa,” Morris told NME in an email.
“We both come to music for the sake of being understood, we both come to music to declare things, but we are both relating to music in our own ways. That said I think we have always looked to each other at different times to check in with ‘what music is good for’.”
Escott and Morris had demoed together in Melbourne a few years prior, but it never went anywhere, as they both struggled with confidence. When they met again in January, Morris was due to move to Los Angeles in a few months’ time (a trip initially pegged around the soon-to-be-cancelled SXSW). So they booked new recording sessions for February, giving Escott a few weeks to desperately write new songs around a collection of tracks dating back as far as 13 years prior. At the time, she hadn’t sold the album to a label and had no plan of how or when to tour it, with coronavirus no more than a curious news item.
In the weeks before the tight recording window, Escott’s feelings about her voice fell into the doldrums. She felt self-conscious, even ashamed, that it was deeper than average – until she spoke to friend and singer-songwriter Ces Hotbake. Hotbake told her the retort that Karen Carpenter of The Carpenters used in response to those who probed about her lower register: “the money’s in the basement”.
“It had an extraordinary effect on me,” Escott says.
“It’s not like it’s a trans-affirming ‘everyone’s valid and everyone’s got a great voice’ kind of thing. It was just this quote that had nothing to do with my experience, but it’s such a great, fantastic line that I made it apply to myself. That’s such a cool thing to say that it actually makes me feel cool for having a voice as low as I do.”
She immediately altered and appropriated it as the basis of one of the album’s best and most recently-written songs – ‘There’s Money In The Basement’ (“There’s carpenters in heaven telling me there’s money in the basement”). By the time Escott reached the studio, Morris says, she was “absolutely assured and certain about what she wanted”.
‘Stars Under Contract’ was recorded in a single day – Escott banging out take after take with such an ease that Morris even exited the building at several points, leaving her to it. The record was mastered by Becki Whitton (who has her own solo project as Aphir) and her work, although subtle, emotionally overwhelmed Escott.
“I had never had anyone take that degree of care with my piano work. [Whitton] brought out qualities in my piano playing that I didn’t think were possible to get down on record,” she says.
Though the music is instrumentally sparse, Escott builds worlds with her language. She is a polymath, her work spanning poetry, spoken word and experimental comedy. Her lyricism on ‘Stars Under Contract’ peaks in ‘Stranger Than Death’, an adapted short story idea in which Escott envisions an author 100 years ago, unaware of any concept of transgender people, writing a piece of speculative fiction which invents them.
“The reason I imagined this idea was because it’s really difficult to think about being trans outside of the very immediate social and political discourse,” Escott explains.
“Especially being online where there’s so much talk all the time. There are firm political positions to hold, people disagree with each other. What if I knew about none of this? What if I had no frame of reference at all, and if I could just think about who I am and how I feel about myself independent of anybody else’s opinion? Even positive opinions, [held by] people who take strong trans-affirming political positions.”
‘Stars Under Contract’ is a self-professed album of contradictions, internal and external. On ‘Half Moon’, Escott presents its biggest: “I’m making plans to live forever / But I’m cultivating habits for a dizzy eulogy”. The singer hates to think of her own mortality, but is plagued by the thought that each new work will be discussed at her own funeral.
It’s a poetic quandary that Morris inadvertently untangles in an elegant description of their friend: “As a musician, she has always been a ‘lifer’ in that she most likely will keep making whatever she feels like making until she is old and grey, with a patient, inquisitive and insightful lens.”
Chloe Alison Escott’s ‘Stars Under Contract’ is out now via Chapter Music