From their inception, singer Heather Riley and guitarist Jono Tooke have followed one guiding principle when it comes to their band Cry Club: be honest.
Their debut album ‘God I’m Such A Mess’, out last Friday, is a deeply autobiographical work. Written and recorded slowly over the past three years, it lays meditations on mental health, boundaries, insecurities, heartbreak and personal space out on the table with a vulnerability that’s turned out to be one of their greatest strengths.
“Our entire point is trying to connect to people,” Tooke tells NME over Zoom. “If we’re not representing ourselves as honestly as we can, we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and to our audience.”
“I can have a lot of problems communicating sometimes, I can be very scattered and confused,” says Riley. “So if we can find a way to say it really directly, it helps me be more upfront about how I’m feeling. It’s therapeutic.”
‘God I’m Such A Mess’ also documents the personal and creative journey Tooke and Riley have been on together since meeting as students – acting for Riley, music for Tooke – on a flight to a university-organised trip to Japan in 2014, immediately bonding through a mutual interest in the tender, offbeat animated series Over The Garden Wall. A few years later, Riley shouted into the void for people to join their “Siouxsie And The Banshees/The Cure cover band”, and Cry Club was formed.
“From the start, we had the same goals, we had the same ideas, and we wanted the same things,” Riley says.
“Being able to bring in whatever we’re interested in at the moment, even if it’s super left-of-field – we’re both very much on the same page.”
Since then, Cry Club have carved a niche as one of the more idiosyncratic emerging acts in Australia, with a sound that gloriously resists easy categorisation. The duo’s debut album oscillates between the abrasive noise-rock of tracks like ‘Dissolve’ and buoyant, sparkling pop gems like ‘Obvious’ and ‘Quit’.
It’s all tied together by producer Gab Strum – aka Japanese Wallpaper – who is used to variety: He’s collaborated with the likes of Mallrat and Allday, remixed everyone from Charli XCX to Death Cab for Cutie and released his own albums of lush dream pop.
“If someone sees the album cover and thinks, ‘That might be a little too camp for me’, it probably is!” – Cry Club’s Jono Tooke
The same drive for authenticity that underpins Cry Club’s songwriting carries through in the way the band represent themselves visually. From early on, they’ve heavily interwoven the sonic with the aesthetic, both heavily indebted to camp and colour. Take the album art for ‘God I’m Such A Mess’, where the duo are styled as Victorian-era dandies complete with vibrant beehive wigs; Riley serves their own disembodied head on a plate.
It’s about as subtle as a brick, but none of it comes from a place of calculated gimmickry. The platonic ideal of authenticity in the songwriting space often translates to stripped-down, sparse songwriting and a no-frills appearance. But for Cry Club, those “frills”, sonic or otherwise, are just them being themselves. Importantly, it serves as an entry – or exit – point for listeners.
“We try and be incredibly clear about who we are, and what you can expect from us,” Tooke says. “If someone sees the album cover and thinks, ‘That might be a little too camp for me’, it probably is! Don’t bother. The record’s for someone else.”
For Riley, who is non-binary, it’s also an outlet for them to articulate who they are and actualise their gender expression.“It’s about being able to be the person I want to be, and the presentation I want to have,” they say. “No one can be like, ‘Oh, hang on, that’s really camp’, because we’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s the point’. If you’re owning it and just being as fully yourself as you can, no one can take that away from you.”
And so theatrics and flamboyance go hand-in-hand with the sincerity and directness with which Cry Club write songs.
“I think it’s really cool, because you can be both of those things. I thought I’d never be able to be a Freddie Mercury or a Gerard Way if I couldn’t [also] be very poetic with my lyrics, but I’ve just never been that person. If you go too far removed, I think it’s hard to relate and be honest with people.”
Nowhere on ‘God I’m Such A Mess’ is this more evident than its blistering opener, ‘DFTM’. An acronym for ‘Don’t Fucking Touch Me’, it’s an incendiary and assertive burst of galvanistic glam-punk, prompted by Riley’s experiences of having their personal space disrespected.
Its frankness and urgency quickly caught attention; though it was released only early last year, it’s resonated among fans and is arguably the band’s most popular song. Riley says it was written out of frustration with discourses around sexual harassment and violence that were centred around preserving the feelings of perpetrators.
Harassment should not be handled with kid gloves, Riley says. “We have to be direct [about toxic behaviour], because people piss around it so much.
“It’s always framed around not upsetting this person who is hurting you. Why? It’s just like, you don’t have to touch me. Don’t touch me! I hate it. How much more clear can I be?”
“It’s our job to create a space that we want to see and also build that in every part of what we do” – Cry Club’s Heather Riley
Since the release of ‘DFTM’, Cry Club have heard countless stories from fans who’ve related to and felt empowered by the song in all manner of ways – from utilising it in drag performances to walking home at night with it blaring from headphones.
It’s a tentpole point in the band’s live sets, a moment of both collective exhaustion and resistance. At a time when it’s so easy for music to feel like a one-way transaction, Tooke and Riley want to prioritise conversation and dialogue with their audience. Over the last three years, they’ve been dedicated to building a passionate community around their music, a fanbase that has largely been built the traditional way: playing between 50 and 60 shows a year.
Relentlessly touring with only a handful of singles to their name, the band play powerhouse live shows – high-energy, theatrical performances – that have not only stunned critics, but earned Cry Club the kind of relationship with their audience where fans feel as much a part of the project as they do. To wit, many of the songs on ‘God I’m Such A Mess’ were intimately familiar to listeners well before a tracklist was ever revealed.
“For what we want to do, which is the punish of gigs 24/7, you need to have that level of rapport with their fans,” Riley says. “You need to have the people that want to see you, want to support you, are invested in you as people and who feel safe around you.”
The vocalist feels a duty of care towards their audience – particularly when it comes to fostering the kind of community they wish they could have had when they were younger. “It’s our job to create a space that we want to see and also build that in every part of what we do.”
Cry Club need that kind of relationship as much as they want it for their audience. If ‘God I’m Such A Mess’ has a mission statement, it’s to allow yourself to feel your feelings and express yourself in the way that feels right to you – something that happens if you’re confident there’ll be someone to understand and respond with warmth on the other end.
“With songs like ‘Nine Of Swords’, you couldn’t be that vulnerable with people who weren’t receptive to it, who don’t feel the same way and can give that same energy back to you,” Riley points out.
“Music, a lot of it is telling stories and connecting to people who feel the same way that you do. It’s a very human thing. I’m not good at anything else so I want to just do this for as long as I can and as much as I can. If you don’t have those people there, there’s no point.”
‘God I’m Such A Mess’ arrives after a year that has, like many other artists, disrupted major plans for the band. The summer bushfires of 2020 and the pandemic axed a slew of big festival slots, including Falls Festival and Splendour In The Grass. Cry Club’s album was originally supposed to be released in May, and they’re not able to play shows, which have long been the band’s calling card. The duo jokingly refer to it as the “Cry Club curse”, but they’ve been taking it all in stride.
Tooke and Riley have just begun to emerge out of the months-long lockdown in their adopted home of Melbourne. Over the past few months, they’ve been spending most days working on new Cry Club material. Amid the stress of the pandemic, creating together has been one of their only constants, a safe and comfortable joy. Their resolve and friendship remain rock solid.
“The blessing and the curse of being in a band is that – especially as you do more and more stuff – you kind of go through everything that you can go through as a person,” laughs Tooke.
“It’s like this little time-compressing thing where everything fantastic and bad happens in a shorter period of time. I think going through that has resulted in us being able to be clearer with one another, and to know that regardless of what the fuck happens, we’ll be fine, because we’ve fucked up everything else before.”
Cry Club’s ‘God I’m Such A Mess’ is out now