Babitha: rising alt-country artist looking to the ‘Brighter Side Of Blue’

From the coastal suburb of Bellambi to the Western Plains of Kerrs Creek, Babitha’s refreshing blend of country, indie and folk reflects an openness to experimentation – and willingness to have fun

There’s no questioning Babitha’s country credentials. The singer-songwriter – real name Imogen Grist – is speaking to NME from her hometown of Kerrs Creek, a town on the Western Plains of New South Wales. We’re chatting via Instagram’s call function, of all things, because there’s WiFi but no phone reception. “I am literally sitting in my childhood bedroom,” she says. “We had a stressful morning out here, there was black stuff coming out of the taps – but we fixed it.”

Grist used to be based in Sydney, and when asked what brought her back to her hometown, is is quick to quip: “Finding a rental in Sydney? In this economy? Having said that, we’re spending so much on petrol going back and forth for gigs, I don’t think we’re breaking even. It’s tough!”

Grist is, nevertheless, in high spirits. No wonder: we’re days away from the release of her debut record, ‘Brighter Side Of Blue’. A blend of cosmic country, kaleidoscopic indie and sun-kissed folk-rock, the album’s emotive and endearing songwriting belies the relative inexperience of its creator.

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Babitha
Credit: Marcus Gordon

“I didn’t really start seriously until probably 2019,” she explains. “I’d always grown up playing guitar and sang in choir at school, though I never really felt like I had the technical chops. When I moved to Sydney, I met a lot of friends that were in bands and produced music. As time went on, I just really fell in love with singing again. I was like, ‘All you want to do is this. No one gives a fuck what you do, just just give it a go’. Giving myself permission in that way really made it feel like there was nothing to lose.”

Soon, Grist had a steady group of musicians bringing her songs to life – including Body Type’s Cecil Coleman on drums, Skeleten’s Russell Fitzgibbon on bass, lead guitarist Alexi Grivas and pedal steel player Jy-Perry Banks. Each member of the collective has made extracurricular contributions to the album: Banks co-wrote second single ‘Night and Day’ and Fitzgibbon co-produced the whole LP alongside Grist and former Cloud Control bassist Doug Wright. It might be Grist’s face on the album cover, but she will be the first to tell you that it took a village to get her on there in the first place.

Babitha
Credit: Marcus Gordon

“I think it’s really pushed my fears of collaborating out the window,” says Grist of putting the ensemble together. “These are all musicians that I am so inspired by. There’s a huge amount of trust and respect. When it comes to decision making or sharing, I really value their feedback. They’re so encouraging, as well. It really helps drive everything forward.”

Babitha’s debut EP, 2021’s ‘Through The Light’, was recorded in a friend’s garage over two days. ‘Brighter Side Of Blue’, though, was forged across a series of sessions at Stranded Recording Studios in Bellambi, a suburb in Northern Illawarra. In fact, ‘Brighter Side Of Blue’ was the first full-length album to ever be recorded in the studio, helmed by Cody Munro Moore and Bowen Shakallis.

“I’m glad that I played around in so many different territories. It’s important to have fun – that was my mantra the whole way through”

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There, Grist and co. captured an album that intends to pay homage to her songwriting heroes while simultaneously shaping what the Babitha project sounds like. When name-checking the album’s musical and lyrical inspirations, Grist cites classic artists such as Bob Dylan, the Pretenders and Townes Van Zandt, but also points to more modern acts like Big Thief, Weyes Blood and Cate Le Bon. “At the time of writing the album, I was drawn to songwriters who had a knack of saying a lot with a little,” she says. “I love an idiomatic approach to lyrics, with the perfect blend of earnestness and apathy.”

To borrow an apt phrase, ‘Brighter Side Of Blue’ prides itself on being a little bit country and a little bit rock’n’roll. Strikingly versatile, Grist’s vibrato-heavy vocals are weaved between drum machines, spaghetti-western guitar licks and subtle bursts of percussion – sometimes even within the same song. “I feel like this album is more of an experiment,” says Grist when asked to describe its sound.

“Writing became a way for me to explore different styles and play around with different kinds of songwriting techniques. I’m really still trying to find who I am and the sound I want to make. But I think it’s something that I want to continue developing over time anyway.” Grist does admit, though, that the diverse nature of the album was initially cause for concern when she first listened back to it: “I was scared they wouldn’t fit together,” she confesses.

“After some time passed, it was quite nice to sit back and see it as a piece of a big diary. I’m glad that I played around in so many different territories. It’s important to have fun – that was my mantra the whole way through. Don’t be too serious about it. Don’t get hung up on it being this very clear, concise piece of music. Just have fun. Whatever comes out, comes out.”

Grist points to the closing track ‘Fade Away’ as an example of her ever-evolving approach to songwriting. “That’s literally the first song I ever wrote for Babitha,” she says. “It’s gone through many different versions, different lyrics, different styles. It took a long, flying journey – and now, on the album, it feels like it’s finally landed. It’s really exciting that the final song is actually the first I was working on. It’s so nice to see where it’s ended up. It’s been a very good lesson in patience.”

The album’s title track, meanwhile, is a misty-eyed number about silver linings and hope against hope. Grist recites her favourite lines from the track, which exemplify the overall heart and spirit of the album: “I found you in a dream / Things were better than they seem / Everyone was singing / My ears, they are still ringing / Say you’ll keep on pushing through / To see the brighter side of blue.

“I get all my inspiration from quite a dark, emo side of myself. To hear it come out the other end is almost like I’m giving myself advice – like a really wise old mother”

“It’s about looking to the brighter side of depression; the brighter side of darkness,” says Grist – adding that its title thematically tessellated with the rest of the songs. “I think this album marks the end of a tricky chapter – not just in my life, but a lot of people; basically the world collectively,” she says. “It just felt right to go with that.

“Many of these songs were written and recorded during volatile times, either emotionally or externally. In spite of that I can see there’s a constant thread of optimism when I go through the lyrics now. I think life is bittersweet and full of contradictions, so I wanted to capture that duality – the light and dark.”

Babitha
Credit: Marcus Gordon

Does Grist herself strive to find the brighter side of blue in her own life? Is she an inherent optimist? The question gives Grist pause. She takes a breath and replies: “Yeah, I think so. When I go through all these songs, they’ve all got these positive messages and are really hopeful in their phrasing. It’s interesting, because I get all my inspiration from quite a dark, emo side of myself. To hear it come out the other end is almost like I’m giving myself advice – like a really wise old mother or something.”

In a period where the blues have been deeper and darker than potentially ever before, Grist has made a point of finding time to reflect on her values and what she wants out of making music. “For me, it all comes back to the ability to play music with my friends,” she concludes. “I’ve made even more friends just through playing gigs. It’s brought me a whole new way of interacting with people, which I really love. I constantly remind myself to go back to that, and not get disillusioned with the state of the world. That’s the brighter side of blue, right there.”

Babitha’s ‘Brighter Side Of Blue’ is out January 20 via Spunk! Records/Virgin Music Australia

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