Alice Skye knew she had to do it. The singer songwriter and Wergaia / Wemba Wemba woman felt compelled to record vocals in her language for the first time – on ‘Wurega Djalin’, the closing track of her second album, ‘I Feel Better But I Don’t Feel Good’.
“I wrote the song ‘Wurega Djalin’ about being the right kind of Aboriginal person for consumption,” she says. Skye sings the concluding verse in Wergaia language over feather-light piano. “Yergan gumbar yerginjan, Wurega Djalin”, she tells NME later, translates loosely to “I am searching, I am listening, I will search, to speak my tongue”.
Skye explains the song’s genesis with the apprehension of someone trying to do justice to a 50,000-year-old story: “I don’t know my Wergaia language very well. I learned words through my family every now and then and I was thinking before singing [in language], ‘it all needs to be perfect’.
“And then I arrived at a place where I was, like, anything we do is powerful, because we’re still here doing it in our way.”
The “we” she refers to is, of course, the Indigenous people of Australia, the world’s oldest civilisation. It’s the start of NAIDOC Week and Skye is slouched on her couch in a Kensington sharehouse, wearing a gold Bad Apples necklace Briggs gave her when she signed to his label in 2019. As she talks to NME over Zoom, her border collie-kelpie Gizmo sits on her lap, occasionally peering up at the screen with a “Do you mind?” look. “Lockdown was a blur, but my dog demanded I got out of the house.”
In the last year, Skye’s professional profile has grown, her voice catching the attention of The Avalanches, Midnight Oil and Moby. It’s made for a topsy turvy existence for the 25-year-old who grew up in Horsham, a muggy part of regional Victoria, where there was nothing going on but the weather. She and her neighbours would make snakes out of play-doh, throw them up on the power lines and wait for them to drop. “Last one standing won.”
“Anything we do is powerful, because we’re still here doing it in our way”
As a teen, Skye channelled a goth vibe. “I wrote a song when I was a sad and angsty 12-year-old called ‘Endless Winter’.” She caught some buzz in 2015 with her tune ‘You Are The Mountains’ and was mentored by The Stiff Gins. They helped her make her 2018 debut album, ‘Friends With Feelings,’ a dusty folk record showcasing a husky voice, aching with a vulnerability that often made it hard to know where to look. A few months later, she won a triple j Unearthed contest to perform at the National Indigenous Music Awards and toured with Emily Wurramara.
Somewhere along the way, Moby became a fan. “It was the beginning of the lockdown; I wasn’t doing a great deal,” Skye remembers. Moby’s management asked if she would sing on a track for ‘Reprise’, a collection of back catalogue remakes in an orchestral style.
“Having that come through was pretty crazy. How does he know I exist? But yes, I will sing on this song, Moby,” she says, straightening her back. She chose to sing on ‘The Great Escape’, from Moby’s 2002 album ‘18’. “I recorded the vocal here and sent it away through the internet. We never had any direct contact with Moby. When it came out I was getting messages from my friends, ‘Is this you?’”
Continuing in the topsy category, Midnight Oil tapped her to provide pipes on ‘Terror Australia’ from their mini album ‘The Makarrata Project’. Then they asked her to do something else.
“The first live shows I did out of the pandemic were in front of thousands of people at a Midnight Oil concert screaming ‘The Power and The Passion’,” she says. It was a drastic change of scenery from the solo Isol-Aid sets she’d been playing on Instagram – and also where Skye got a brief taste of the sweet life.
“Those gigs were all at wineries and leaving them can be pretty hectic. Midnight Oil would get off stage and straight into a car and we would convoy out of there. We felt like rock stars. We kept singing, ‘We’ve got a great big convoy’.”
She also later ticked off a bucket list moment by supporting The Avalanches at Sidney Myer Music Bowl. “I love being on line-ups that kind of don’t make sense for us to be in musically. Since the pandemic we’ve got to play all these big places we never would have before COVID,” she says with a sleepy smile.
Skye and her band were able to play newly recorded music at these fresh spaces. They had finished recording her second album nearly a year prior when they hunkered down from January to April 2020 at Nick Huggins’ Resting Bell studio. She linked up with childhood friends and bandmates Sam and Kane King, while Jen Cloher came on board as producer. Cloher and Skye had met at a songwriting panel they were both on, Skye having heard Cloher give a keynote speech about marginalised voices in the indie world that resonated with her.
Asked for her first impressions of Skye, Cloher says, “The thing that really stood out for me about her is the insightfulness of her lyrics; that access to her deep emotional being… and not taking herself too seriously.”
Skye, Cloher and co. cultivated a calm atmosphere in the Point Lonsdale studio. They even stayed in the same home together, which Skye compares to “some weird family holiday, but somehow less stressful”. She would cook for the band each night.
“It can be hard to get out of my own head,” Skye says, “Jen made recording fun.”
Being stuck in a place, physically and emotionally, is a running theme of ‘I Feel Better But I Don’t Feel Good’. On ‘Grand Ideas’, Skye delivers a devastating couplet: “There’s a living room inside my head / Even fictitiously it’s a fucking mess’.”
At Resting Bell, she found some order. It allowed for a space to really explore what Alice Skye could become. “We tried really ridiculous ideas and would push them as far as they can go and then be like, ‘Nahhhh.’ I feel like trying your embarrassing ideas are kind of the best,” Skye observes. “That nurturing energy makes all the difference. Recording isn’t all kittens and fluffy clouds,” says Cloher.
Made using GarageBand, lead single ‘Party Tricks’ is a heavier cut that wouldn’t sound out of place in Cloher’s oeuvre. Skye and her collaborators flex their grunge muscles for the first time, who knew she had it in her? “Always happy to surprise,” she replies. “I’ve been going through a big Silverchair and Cranberries phase.”
Lyrically, ‘Party Tricks’ is about not so much regressing as plateauing in another underwhelming relationship because, shit, that’s what feels comfortable. “I’ve learnt that lesson 25 times. I just wanted a song I could turn up really loud and wallow in. Playing live is really anxiety-inducing but ‘Party Tricks’ I can lean into.”
Does Skye find more catharsis making a song or performing it in front of people?
“I love songs that happen instantly,” Skye says. “‘Grand Ideas’ was cathartic because it was one of those songs that came together without having to think too long about it. And that’s always a nice feeling.
“With the original arrangement of ‘Grand Ideas’ I only sang the chorus twice,” she says of the jangle-pop cut. “And in the version that we released, it’s, like, a billion. That was Jen just being like, ‘You know, it’s a really good chorus.”
“The chorus was the hook,” says Cloher, mimicking the melody. “Pop music is all about repetition.” She adds, “I actually think she writes these banger pop songs hidden under the guise of a ballad. My role was to speed them up and push them forward.”
For all its poppiness, though, ‘Grand Ideas’ is still a dark one: its chorus goes, “Everything I have is too heavy to hold / Everything I do feels out of my control.” The emotional despondency gives way to humour on slow-dance number ‘Browser History’. “I didn’t realize that I was logged in to my Gmail on my friend’s computer,” Skye blushes, ruffling Gizmo’s coat. “She could see my browser history, and I’d looked up ‘How to tell if your dog feels loved’.”
Skye’s carrying a calm energy towards the next chapter in her life, even as it throws COVID curveballs her way: a co-headline tour with Elizabeth has been repeatedly postponed due to lockdowns, and September looks like the earliest their shows down the east coast will proceed.
Until then, Skye’s taking solace in the fact she’s found her voice on her second record, 10 songs she’s gotten out of her head.
And she’s on the move too, halfway through a shift to bushy Warrandyte where she’ll have a new green environment to explore with a dog that will always need walking. “I need a break from the city after all these lockdowns,” she says, “I need a tree-change.”
Alice Skye’s ‘I Feel Better But I Don’t Feel Good’ is out July 23 via Bad Apples