Merpire: “The songs I’ve been writing wouldn’t be there without the anxiety that I feel”

The Melbourne indie pop artist on her unflinchingly vulnerable debut album ‘Simulation Ride’

When Rhiannon Atkinson-Howatt was five or six years old, she woke up to the sound of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and burst into tears. Her dad was blaring it while he vacuumed in the lounge, and Robert Plant’s wailing was loud, scary and confusing. But she was also intrigued. “I remember being like, ‘This is music? I’ve just been listening to the Spice Girls!’” she grins. Soon, she would learn about the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac (who, she was delighted to learn, had a song called ‘Rhiannon’). It was the start of something.

Atkinson-Howatt, 32, is now better known as Merpire. Those plugged into the Melbourne indie scene will know the name, but those who don’t will be charmed by her debut album, ‘Simulation Ride’, a moving and impressive collection of indie pop that dropped last Friday.

Originally from Sydney, Atkinson-Howatt began writing songs in high school, but soon found herself unfulfilled working and performing in a local cafe. “I felt like there was this gap between ‘I’m playing in a cafe’ and ‘I wanna make this a career’,” she says. A turning point came when she won the 2015 Telstra Road to Discovery competition; a few years later, she made the move to Melbourne in search of a more dedicated music scene.

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“[I have] a natural tendency to stay in my comfort zone, so I had to force myself to do something drastic,” she recounts. The community she found in Melbourne changed everything. “I hadn’t really come across so many musicians who are so keen to see each other genuinely do well. I was like, ‘This is some kind of music person heaven that I’ve just been lucky enough to stumble upon’.”

“When I get back in that old headspace, I will hum those songs in my head. Just to remind myself: ‘You’ve dealt with this. This is okay’”

Her biggest stroke of luck was meeting James Seymour, who would become both her regular producer and romantic partner. The pair took their time working on ‘Simulation Ride’, recording at various locations over the span of a year, including a makeshift setup in the sewing room of Seymour’s parents’ house. They pulled from influences like Mitski, Soccer Mommy and Perfume Genius, but Atkinson-Howatt brings a sincerity that’s entirely her own.

That’s largely due to her lyrics, with which she unflinchingly unpacks some of her toughest emotions. “When you’re an anxious person, it’s really hard to be vulnerable and say what’s going on in your head. I write to get that off my mind,” she explains. Songs like ‘Lately’ and ‘Easy’ revisit past breakups, while in others, she learns how to feel secure in her current relationship.

On ‘Village’, for example, she frees herself from the pressure of being perfect for another person, recognising: “It takes a village to love you”. “Getting with James was a journey of trying to believe in myself,” she says. “‘Village’ is about me trying to be everyone to him. You feel like you have to maintain this ultimate self for the whole relationship, which is exhausting.” She learned only later that their differences were complementary strengths. “It’s like the yin and the yang: I calm him down, and he gets me out of the house.”

Atkinson-Howatt honestly charts this learning process across the record, a refreshing move in a culture that expects us to find a soulmate and instantly feel content. “I’m learning recently how amazing it is when two people can be together for a long time,” she says. “It’s kind of a miracle when you go through all this stuff on opposite ends of a life, and then meet someone else, and it works.”

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We also hear Atkinson-Howatt battle social anxiety, which she has worked on in therapy over the last few years. On ‘Heavy Feeling’, she details every worry over the course of a day about what friends are saying about her and what strangers are thinking of her. But the final chorus, where she simply repeats, “I’ve got a heavy feeling” over equally heavy guitars, is a perfect cathartic release.

“I thought ‘I’m not sure if it’s gonna go on the album, it’s too simple’,” says Atkinson-Howatt. “But then when I recorded it with James and we decided for me to really belt out the last two choruses with the walls of guitar, it changed, and I was like, ‘Oh, wait’. It’s just this big release of, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a heavy feeling! Who else is with me?’”

It’s incredibly empowering to listen to, but for Atkinson-Howatt, just the ability to turn her darkest moments into music has been a gift. “It’s like writing it down in a book and then closing it, and being like, ‘Cool, I’ve dealt with that’,” she says. “Writing songs like ‘Village’ and ‘Heavy Feeling’ – they’re there to help other people who might be feeling similarly, but [also, when] I get back in that old headspace, I will hum those songs in my head. Just to remind myself: ‘You’ve dealt with this. This is okay.’

“The more I speak up about ideas and the more positivity I get from sharing, the easier it becomes every time”

“The thing I’ve worked most on is changing the idea that anxiety’s negative, and trying to think about all the ways it’s been positive in my life. The songs I’ve been writing wouldn’t be there without the anxiety that I feel.”

Atkinson-Howatt has channelled the confidence it’s given her into more facets of her career. For instance, she co-directed the music video for ‘Dinosaur’, taking charge of its horror-film depiction of anxiety. “I think it’s in my nature to not push myself too far in fear of failing, so the last few years I’ve really tried to push beyond that,” she says. “It’s like exposure therapy. The more I speak up about ideas and the more positivity I get from sharing, the easier it becomes every time.”

And when the pandemic hit just as she was finishing the album, she had an idea that would prove immensely positive: ISOL-AID, the free Instagram-based livestream ‘festival’ that, for its first event, featured almost 80 artists over a weekend. It kept alive the community that Atkinson-Howatt loves so much. “It was just the shock and devastation of being locked down and losing so many gigs,” she says. “It was a way for us to all grieve together, and the best way artists grieve is to make and share music.”

Almost immediately, the event – which she made a reality alongside Emily Ulman and Shannen Egan – attracted media attention. Though it’s still running now, after three editions Atkinson-Howatt decided to step back from ISOL-AID and protect her mental health, leaving Ulman in charge. “It was really hard to step away from building that. But it was good in the end, because I learnt how much I wanted to have on my plate versus how much I thought I should have.”

Now, she’s focusing on the release of ‘Simulation Ride’ – and on not stressing out too much. She’s been learning to skateboard, and giving herself a break. After all, she can finally let go of the album; once the soundtrack of her life, it can now be the soundtrack of someone else’s. “I would be so happy if someone messaged me and was like, ‘I’ve just been on the train listening to ‘Village’, daydreaming about this person I have a huge crush on.’ That would just be the best,” she smiles. That heavy feeling of hers – it’s lighter now.

Merpire’s ‘Simulation Ride’ is out now via ADA

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