On its face, ‘Personal Hotspot’ – the second album from Melbourne synthpop outfit FERLA – isn’t a particularly romantic record. But it feels apt that NME’s discussing it on Valentine’s Day with bandleader Giuliano Ferla. He’s brutally hungover, but cracks jokes over the phone and heaps praise on his bandmates – bassist Steve Gavan, keyboardist Kate Monger and drummer Nigel Moyes.
‘Personal Hotspot’ is, as Ferla’s called it, “a love letter to the world, made up of the things that I hate about it”. He’s had plenty of inspiration, what with the ongoing global pandemic, political disarray, climate change and capitalistic greed – not to mention the devastating blows faced by the music industry of late.
The album is immersed in “the free-flowing anxiety” that’s surged through society at large in the 2020s – not just thanks to the pandemic, but “all of the trauma being caused over the past few years, whether it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan, the march on the Capitol in America, all the tension and the fraughtness…”
As Ferla puts it: “It feels like the tensile strength of society has just kind of been stretched as far as it goes.” But he’s still keen to find some gems amid the rubble, no matter how few and far between they may be.
‘Personal Hotspot’ comes three years after FERLA’s full-length debut, ‘It’s Personal’. That album, Ferla says, “was just me navel-gazing, basically – totally focusing inward on all the emotional stuff and the turmoil I was going through. I think I’d lost sight of the world around me a little bit, so ‘Personal Hotspot’ is kind of a reaction to that.”
Ferla endeavoured to up his songwriting game by looking outward more – only to be greeted by a world that “felt fucking tense”, even before COVID-19 reared its head. “It just felt like we were teetering on the edge a little bit; the world was having a little bit of a meltdown, and because of that, I was having a little bit of a meltdown. But I wanted to try and move away from being just totally inwardly focused, because my shit is not the only shit that’s happening.”
Empathy marks the deceptively groovy single ‘I See You’, on which Ferla sings: “I am plastic floating in the sea / I am the death in custody.” But he’s also only human – on ‘Violence’, he concedes he’s reached his breaking point with worldly affairs: “I can’t read the news without falling to pieces / ’Cause it’s just more of the same,” he sings. And on ‘I’m Pulling Weeds’, he wryly intones over new-agey synths: “My hip flexor is out of whack / I got six stitches and a fungal infection.”
“It feels like the tensile strength of society has been stretched as far as it goes”
Ferla doesn’t claim to hold definite answers to the myriad of questions we have about the world – he’s no prophet, he asserts, just an artist trying to keep his own spirits up. The frontman says bluntly: “I’m not Atlas, y’know? I don’t want to try to shoulder the burden of the entire world. I guess we tend to grab at whatever anchors keep us grounded. We grab at whatever strings are going to help us keep our heads above water – and music, for me, has always been one of those things.”
Ultimately, Ferla says, the point of records like ‘Personal Hotspot’ isn’t to offer concrete solutions to – or even explain coherently – the world’s ever-growing labyrinth of afflictions. Instead, he sees them as tools to help the listener make their own observations – and find some companionship along the way.
“Music has the ability to transform the moments we experience in solitude,” he opines, “and make them into something communicable to other people. And by doing that, we’re reminded that we’re not alone. Music helps us build a sense of community, because it makes us realise that we have one.”
Ferla vividly remembers the first time music made him feel so poignantly connected to his emotions. It was after watching Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi drama 12 Monkeys, a 1995 film with eerie parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein a deadly virus wipes out all but a small sect of society. It’s a taxing watch with no semblance of a happy ending, but the first song to play in its credit reel is Louis Armstrong’s uplifting classic ‘What A Wonderful World’.
“There’s this disjunction to it,” Ferla gushes, “because you’ve got these two kind of opposing emotions at play, and that just makes the song feel so much sweeter because of all the shit that came before it.”
“Music helps us build a sense of community, because it makes us realise that we have one”
That emotional contrast is what powers FERLA, who meld dark themes with bright sounds: specifically, glittery, ultra-suave ‘80s synthpop pastiche. Ferla revels in the contrast, not least because that’s where you’re most likely to find something new, something different – emotions that can only exist in the shadowy nooks of that contrast.
“You can have a love song and you can have a sad song, and they both elicit their own emotions,” he says. “But then you can have a sad love song, where the two emotions kind of intersect in the middle, and a new emotion is born as a result of it.”
He cites Paul Simon’s 1989 tune ‘Graceland’ as a prime example, raving about how “there are all these different emotions going on at the same time, and they’re all kind of intersecting in the middle to give rise to this kind of nameless, new experience. And that… That’s what fucking excites me about music.”
Writing and recording ‘Personal Hotspot’ in the short chunks of time twined around the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020, Ferla found no shortage of darkness to mine for his self-described “guilt pop” (“How many people did my people have to kill just so I could Netflix and chill?” he wonders on ‘Too Dark To See’). Making the album was an intense but cathartic process – because the lockdowns forced FERLA to stagger their stints in the studio, “every song just became so condensed and distilled with emotion”.
“Whenever I’d made albums in the past, it had always been the case that you’d go into the studio with seven days – or 10 days, or however many days you can afford – and you smash the entire album out in those days,” Ferla explains, noting that the stop-start, drawn-out process of making ‘Personal Hotspot’ allowed him to “put so much more thought into it”.
“It’s like everything is wrung out at the end, y’know? You get to the end of that three-month period, and then you get into the studio with so many more ideas and so many more emotions to empty out.”
For all its bleakness, the key emotion Ferla hopes to convey on ‘Personal Hotspot’ is hope. It’s an unapologetically dark record, but it’s held together by its underlying positivity and dry, self-deprecating humour. Perhaps it’s best summed up by the smoky, slow-burning number ‘It’s Not Enough’, on which Ferla sings: “The Uber driver told me, ‘Hope is not a strategy’ / So I said, ‘Neither is apathy,’ and so I didn’t leave a tip.”
FERLA’s ‘Personal Hotspot’ is out March 3. The band launch the album live at Northcote Social Club on March 26, tickets are out now here