‘Romantic Notions’, the fourth album from Sydney post-punks Mere Women, confronts its listeners with a question about the nature of “romance” itself. We tend to think of romance, broadly speaking, in its simplest and most wholesome terms – a rose-tinted equivalence with love and fulfilment. But what of the word’s more sinister connotations? That is, the romanticising? If romantic notions are ultimately just that, how do we come to terms with the way they shape how we move through the world?
That tension forms much of the new record’s conceptual background. ‘Romantic Notions’ is not an easy listen, as it focuses on the coercion, obsessive love and controlling behaviour faced by women throughout time, and interrogates the way idealism can become a coping mechanism in otherwise fraught circumstances.
“That term ‘romantic notions’, for me, it’s really double-edged,” explains singer and keyboardist Amy Wilson. “It’s really beautiful, and it sounds so lovely, but it’s also quite a naive state to be in, I think. It can be quite disempowering to live in a dream world of romantic notions.”
Wilson’s songwriting is direct, economical, and plays a lot with repetition and motif. It’s a style well-suited to an album like this one, where lyrics are presented as intimate internal monologue. On album track ‘As You Please’, against a wave of discordant guitars and frenetic rhythms, she repeatedly sings, “Take what you want as you please / I’ll wear my heart on my sleeve”, a crescendo that epitomises the desperation, yearning and quiet hope that underpins ‘Romantic Notions’.
Women’s lived experiences have long informed Wilson’s songwriting. They were particularly influential on Mere Women’s previous album, 2017’s ‘Big Skies’, written largely while Wilson was living in regional NSW. Exploring the expectations placed on women of her grandmother’s generation, along with the experiences of women in remote communities, the record juxtaposed its spacious textures with lyrics about being penned in and held back by tradition. ‘Romantic Notions’ – which is out this Friday – continues to examine those themes, with Wilson drawing heavily on her generational family history.
“This record was kind of brought about by my family, and particularly my grandmother, who recently gave me a whole stack of her mother’s diaries. And they’re amazing to read – how intensely she felt about everything, and how she was held back and mistreated by people around her, but she still held onto these really romantic ideals about how her life should be and would be.”
“‘Romantic notions’ sounds so lovely, but it’s also quite a naive state to be in”
Given its subject matter, Wilson says it’s the most personally connected she’s felt to a Mere Women album, the closest to home she’s ever written. NME asks what it was like delving into such personal content, and about the kind of responsibility that comes with communicating stories like the ones Wilson does on ‘Romantic Notions’.
“I get obsessed with certain things, and it goes over and over and over in my mind,” Wilson says. She pauses.
“It’s really complex, because I look at people in my family, especially women of older generations – I see all the things that they struggled with, how hard it’s been for them to find their identity, to find their way in the world independently of whoever their partners were. For me, I feel so lucky. There’s still challenges, of course, but these stories have affected how I’ve turned out as well. I feel so honoured and privileged that they’ve been able to share those stories with me, and I just want to be able to pass them on.”
‘Romantic Notions’ is Mere Women’s most accessible and cohesive record, the culmination of the 11 years spent finding their identity. It’s a refined version of what they’ve always done best: pairing urgent, angular guitars with atmospheric soundscapes, propulsive rhythms with Wilson’s Siouxsie Sioux-esque vocals. While ‘Big Skies’ was an album full of masterful performances, ‘Romantic Notions’ feels more focused on the band locking in with each other, each part in service of the song.
That may be due in some part due to the conditions in which the songs on ‘Romantic Notions’ first came together. Much of the album was written in a rustic house on the Hawkesbury River shared by Wilson, guitarist Flyn McKinnirey and bassist Trisch Roberts. An hour out of Sydney, it takes driving through national park for 15 minutes to get to the small town the house is located.
The trio – along with drummer Mac Archibald, who makes his recorded debut with the band on ‘Romantic Notions’ – crafted a huge deal of the record collaboratively, all crammed together in the house’s living room.
“It was really nice to not be in a studio in the city at 9pm on a Thursday night, trying to jam,” Wilson says. “We’d spend the whole day or the whole weekend just hanging out and playing, having lots of tea and coffee breaks and diving into the river when we felt like it.
“It was just such a different way to write a record than we’d been used to in the past. This was a way less isolating experience, even though we’re still in a remote sort of place. We could all easily be together.”
Wilson formed Mere Women back in 2010 alongside McKinnirey and drummer Katrina Byrne, who played with the band up until 2017. Debut singles ‘Sun Rising’ and ‘Waves’, released shortly after the band’s formation, were stark no-wave cuts that commanded attention in the makeshift warehouse venues the band emerged from.
Following on from members’ previous acts like Ohana and Little A, Mere Women became a distinctive figure in Australia’s underground punk scene, finding their peers more through a shared DIY ethos than similarities in genre. Debut album ’Old Life’ arrived in 2012, with its follow-up ‘Your Town’ two years later. Roberts joined in 2016, and Archibald after the release of ‘Big Skies’ in 2017.
Throughout the decade, across a handful of records and lineup changes, they found a home in the community fostered by the likes of inner west institutions like Black Wire Records and the Red Rattler, along with Beatdisc in Western Sydney. They were part of a sea of fiercely independent bands creating esoteric music, by and for the small niche who passionately championed it.
“I love playing live, and it’s such an important part of my life. And I knew that, but you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone”
In 2021, things look different. Black Wire’s physical store and venue on Parramatta Road in Annandale, where the band regularly performed and rehearsed, has been gone for a few years – leaving a gap that has yet to be filled. Similar venues have had to weather the impacts of the pandemic over the last year, and the small, intimate shows that bands like Mere Women found an audience in were stopped dead in their tracks. While the band’s recorded output is captivating listening, they’ve always thrived most in a live context.
“I miss it so much,” Wilson says mournfully. “It’s like a piece of me is missing. I love playing live, and it’s such an important part of my life. And I knew that, but you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
Though shows in Sydney have been able to safely return in recent months, the way they’ve been able to take place feels somewhat incongruous with the kind of community Mere Women emerged from. Large venues capable of hosting seated, socially-distanced shows may have begun to recover, but the impact on small, community-oriented spaces remains yet to be fully seen. Wilson says that while they haven’t found the right setup just yet, they’re planning on eventually touring ‘Romantic Notions’, excited at the prospect of bringing these urgent, visceral songs to a sweaty room once more.
‘Romantic Notions’ is out March 5 on Poison City Records