HANDSOME’s queer outlaw pop goes cinematic on new EP ‘BLAME’: “It feels iconic for the moment”

The Sydney artist talks her past musical life as Caitlin Park, why she loves thinking of her new project as a “conundrum” and the ambitious “queeroic” short film accompanying her EP

Five years ago, Caitlin McGregor debuted her musical project HANDSOME. The glitchy, melodic warmth of first single ‘Late Night Ball Game’ confirmed the arrival of a promising newcomer to the scene – except McGregor was far from a rookie.

For nearly a decade, she made music under the name Caitlin Park, touring Australia extensively and releasing two studio albums of a sound more closely linked to folktronica and singer-songwriter types of the time. After her 2014 album ‘The Stranger’, McGregor effectively abandoned the moniker.

Though still affectionately known as “CP” to friends, McGregor puts that change of stage names down to “a huge amount of personal growth”. “I think fondly of Caitlin Park, but by that stage I felt like I was finally discovering who I really was,” she explains. “I was surrounded by a group of people that really inspired me to be as authentic as possible. Caitlin Park was always kind of built on a character, which is something that I couldn’t really shake.

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“With HANDSOME, I wanted to concrete my own authenticity – and to me, the best way to do that was to butterfly into something new.”

“There’s so much fucking drama in my music”

After five years of HANDSOME, McGregor can say that the name change gave her a new lease on life as a creative. “Artists have this amazing opportunity to change completely, whenever they want,” she muses. “As human beings, we don’t always get that – so why not take it when it comes to you?”

This sense of continual development and ever-present change is certainly a huge part of ‘BLAME’. It’s McGregor’s second EP as HANDSOME, but it’s more than a mere collection of songs: McGregor has developed, directed and starred in an accompanying short film soundtracked by three of its songs.

Following McGregor’s outlaw protagonist who begins a whirlwind romance while trying to outrun rivals seeking revenge on her, the “queeroic” film is described as a showcase of “the power of camaraderie” that seeks to “dismantle the generational gaps between queer understanding”. It’s elaborate and easily the most ambitious project McGregor has ever undertaken in her career thus far.

HANDSOME aka Caitlin McGregor
HANDSOME. Credit: Dominique Berns

None of that was on McGregor’s mind, though, when she was writing the EP’s title track – at least, not at first. She was “putting together these elements of human behaviour – of blame and of shame,” she says. Those themes are immediately apparent from lines like “Could be a threat or a danger / Could find a way to muddy your mind / With the click of my tongue” and the telling refrain: “Put your injustice on us”.

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McGregor saw the short film “as an opportunity to be really creative on a narrative level, and to turn it into something that feels iconic for the moment. Music is this thing that really creates this canon of where you were when you listened to it for the first time, or that moment that you felt impacted by it. By taking the EP to that film level, I saw the opportunity in creating some conversations as to what ‘BLAME’ is about.”

She notes that there is an “obvious” queer reading of the title track – indeed, the song stemmed from a snide homophobic remark McGregor received while out to dinner with friends – but also that the song’s meaning can reach beyond that.

“When you whittle it down, it really is just about what impact you create when you shame someone,” she says. “That can happen in any sense, whether it’s racial or ageist or whatever have you. What you’re essentially doing is taking your own self-doubt and pinning it to someone else – and there’s so much damage that can be done from that. You can destroy someone’s entire sense of being just [with] one comment.”

The ‘BLAME’ EP expands on the sound established on HANDSOME’s debut EP, 2018’s ‘No Hat No Play’. Its lyrical vulnerability works in tandem with an assertive musical confidence, which sees McGregor further experiment with using her voice as an instrument. Whether she’s creating loops, using AutoTune or even pitching her voice down, there’s an intriguing contrast between the personal nature of McGregor’s words with the artifice of her vocal manipulation.

“There’s a song on the first EP called ‘Save Some Love’, and I got a lot of questions as to who was featured on it,” says McGregor. “It was actually me! My voice was just dropped down a few octaves. I’m really drawn to the idea of HANDSOME being a conundrum for some people. I think an artist can really shape their own journey of self-expression, and manipulating my vocals is part of that for me. It’s an experiment of gender fluidity, in a way.”

After receiving a Music Backers grant from American Express to make the film, McGregor began forging what she described as the visual “world” of the three EP tracks: the title track, ‘Royally’ and ‘Back To My Vice’. As the concept was formulated, McGregor even wrote an accompanying script for the 16-minute film that she later scrapped, in order to let the songs and the film literally speak for themselves. Despite some “devastating” and “inevitable” postponements, the film was shot in six days. “I look at what we achieved and I wouldn’t change anything,” McGregor says.

The ‘BLAME’ EP certainly lends itself greatly to a cinematic treatment – after all, as McGregor says with a knowing laugh, “there’s so much fucking drama in my music”, from the synth orchestration of the title track to the vast soundscapes of ‘Royally’ which was co-produced by Kučka. Shot in the Australian outback, the film features impressive shots of a Mad Max-style wasteland. “I’ve always wanted to make a video in the desert,” says McGregor. “The Australian landscape is such an amazing thing, and I don’t feel like many of us get to ever really experience it”.

Prior to the EP’s release, McGregor will release the final video for ‘Back To My Vice’ – a song she describes as “knowing how I felt before I felt it”. “I played this song to my friend Shan, who I’m really close with,” McGregor explains. “They were immediately like, ‘this is really fucking sad’. I was like, ‘is it?’ When I listened to it properly, I immediately understood what they meant – and what I meant. It’s a total farewell song. I was really proud that I had the ability as a creative person for the art to say the thing before I actually knew it.”

“An artist can shape their own journey of self-expression, and manipulating my vocals is part of that for me. It’s an experiment of gender fluidity”

McGregor will launch the EP with both a screening of the short film and a live show. The latter, taking place as part of Vivid Sydney, will help realise the world established in the former, McGregor hopes. “We’re creating an environment that will make people feel like they’re stepping on set – into this private place,” she teases.

“We’ve got two dancers bringing the show to life, who are amazing people that really know how to move. They get to play the characters that kind of develop through the EP – somebody who is inflicted with shame, and somebody who is free. We’re really going to utilise the space to tell that part of the story.”

HANDSOME’S ‘BLAME’ EP is out this Friday via Dot Dash. The ‘BLAME’ live show will take place on June 10 at the National Art School’s Cell Block Theatre ‒ find tickets and more info here

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