In April 2021, Simona Castricum thought she would never be able to write another song. A friend’s death had left her in a desperate place. For Castricum, her own body guided the way back.
“One day, I just sat at the drum machine and slowed everything down,” the electro-post-punk stalwart tells NME. “I was like: ‘I don’t think I could write a song at 120 or 140 BPM. I really want to slow this down and really tune into what my body is trying to tell me’.”
So the singer-songwriter located her own heartbeat and channelled its rhythm into ‘Grateful for the Heartache’ – the sinewy swansong to her new album, ‘SINK’. As the first track written after the death of her friend and SaD bandmate, Daphne Campf, its lyrics are raw: “Now the ghost of you I’ll always love.”
“I just wanted to write something at the speed of my heart rather than the speed of techno or the speed of Belgian new beat, which was what I usually do,” she says. “It was 96 BPM for my heart.”
Another heartbeat opens and closes the track ‘Whomst?’, this time as a heart rate monitor softly pulsating at 62 beats per minute (BPM). “It’s a base resting heart rate,” says Castricum. “A cry from the abyss where everything stops.”
‘SINK’, out now, is a devastating record that peaks in anthemic, techno-goth; and dives into instrumental abysses of silence, reverb and longing. It’s a gentle flutter of life in a skeleton of calcified techno.
Life materialises in other parts of the album, too. It comes through with Castricum’s burning lyrical questions: “Can we lean into belonging? / Can we lean into our love?”, “How can we follow? / How can we stand?” and “So what was my life? / So what was my love like?”. Each question, paired with a steady drum hit or infectious synth riff, articulates a turbulent time for Castricum.
Castricum says making music in 2021, flanked by lockdowns, loss and relationship breakdowns, allowed her to explore a “stream of consciousness that is about multiple truths.”
Castricum’s presence has rippled throughout inner-city Naarm/Melbourne for years. She was a rusted-on broadcaster at the cult community radio station 3RRR and kicked off her DJ career in the ‘90s, quickly garnering a reputation for her dexterous mixing at well-loved haunts, such as The Gasometer and Hugs & Kisses. And she’s a research fellow at University of Melbourne, where she explores queer and trans futures in architecture, music, the public realm and civic life.
When DJing or performing live, Castricum often takes to the stage wearing her signature dark lipstick, black elastic headband and a leather skirt – a suit of armour heralding her war cries. In the middle of an unapologetically staunch set at Golden Plains 2022, she told the crowd with defiant rage: “This is a track for all you trans and non-binary people out there who have ever been hassled by a TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist].” (Castricum is a trans woman herself).
Castricum is speaking to NME over Zoom from her Naarm apartment with a makeup-free face and wearing a faded black Nike hoodie. There’s drizzle, and she’s just ordered a burger while watching “Collingwood beat Fremantle by 100 points.” A cigarette headache is an unfortunate reminder of celebrating ‘SINK’’s release with a live performance at 3RRR the night before.
“I just wanted to write something at the speed of my heart”
‘SINK’ was originally written as a live performance. Castricum and the multi-disciplinary artist Carla Zimbler were commissioned by contemporary performance space Arts House to create a cross-disciplinary show that would “construct a percussive and visual exploration of queer spatial production in hostile urban environments,” says the organisation’s website.
The pair toured the work, which included an ornate chandelier and beguiling lyricless instrumentals, across Australia from 2021–2023. The lyrics came later: “I was able to write the lyrics for ‘SINK’ over the period of a year,” she says. “It presented an abstract place to bear witness to two relationships I’d lost all under very different circumstances. As the words came it helped me break a cycle, to find a better place.”
When it came to immortalising the work onto a record, the two-piece musical group m8riarchy provided backing vocals. Sound engineer and producer Nao Anzai (who has worked with Mildlife and Missy Higgins) produced it.
“Through the process of [making] this record, when I found music really difficult to write, I started to find my relationship with music changing,” she says. “I’ve quit DJing and I stopped broadcasting on 3RRR because I just found it really difficult to come up with lists of music. I became really exhausted and really fatigued.”
But she wanted to double down on her capacity to write. “I’ve always been a songwriter, and I get sick of walking into places, and people saying ‘this is Simona, she’s a DJ,’ and I’m just like ‘I’m a musician!’,” she stammers. “I’ve released four albums and another three albums on top of that under different monikers over 20 years. I want to be seen as a songwriter and a musician and a drummer and an average singer.”
‘SINK’ is divided in two halves. The first contains solemn tracks that plumb the depths of despair: ‘Lean into Belonging’, ‘TBC’, ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Whomst?’. Think ‘80s post-punk that crawls with heady basslines and ruinous imagery.
The record’s second side is suited to the dancefloor: ‘Chaise’, ‘Limited Edition’, ‘Sky’ and ‘Grateful for the Heartache’. NME mentions to Castricum this side features moments best described by rave-theory writer McKenzie Wark: “After wearing the self down to a bare nub, time to go home.” She agrees, laughing. While bleak, the songs buzz with energy reminiscent of the dopamine rush experienced after a mammoth club stint.
Castricum says honesty has been the key to crafting the record, pointing to the diaristic track ‘Sky’ as an example. It lyrically darts between vignettes of lovelorn late-night scenes: “lipstick-love drawn on the mirror” and “drugs that once brought such connection.”
“I was able to write the lyrics for ‘SINK’ over the period of a year… as the words came it helped me break a cycle, to find a better place”
Being this transparent about her innermost thoughts and fears has been “frightening”. “It’s a very difficult album to talk about,” Castricum says. Just as she’s about to reveal another part of the story she rewinds, saying: “I don’t know if I can talk about it.”
Asked if she has found the answers to the questions on ‘SINK’, Castricum shakes her head. “No, no, no, no, I haven’t,” she says, before referencing lyrics from ‘TCB’, the album’s third track: “‘How do we know of a way to move on / From ways in your life that have hurt you so long?’.”
‘SINK’ is a body of work not only about survival, but about the resilience required to live alongside life’s unknowable mysteries.
“[‘SINK’] tells a story. But it is also about self-reflection and introspection, going places within yourself that are very frightening, and revealing the multiple truths of life. Sometimes it’s difficult to get through that, but then all of a sudden, you find something,” Castricum explains. “[I found] a perspective, my truth.”
If this story raises issues for you, you can reach LifeLine 24 hours a day seven days a week by dialling 13 11 14. Beyond Blue and headspace offer comprehensive mental health support services nationwide.