Moaning Lisa: “If you’re really popular right now, does that mean you’re timeless?”

NME talks to the Canberra-raised band about their debut album ‘Something Like This But Not This’, which challenges you to face the tough stuff and come out stronger

“We’re very intense people,” laughs Moaning Lisa singer and guitarist Charlie Versegi. It’s not something the band will need to spell out once their album ‘Something Like This But Not This’ touches down in the world a few weeks from now. The Canberra band’s debut is a blisteringly honest record that unabashedly urges you to go through it – whatever it may be – be honest about the experience, and come out stronger.

‘Something Like This But Not This’ comes five years after Moaning Lisa’s formation in Canberra in 2016. Within a week of their first practices as a full band, their original drummer booked their first gig at now-defunct venue Phoenix, where they’d play countless times over the next two years in the capital’s tight-knit musical landscape.

In 2018, Moaning Lisa came under a bright public spotlight when they released ‘Carrie’ (Brownstein, of course) – a refreshingly unambiguous ode to women-loving-women that name-drops Annie Clark and Courtney Barnett. Arriving one month after marriage equality was legalised in Australia, ‘Carrie (I Want A Girl)’ struck a chord among listeners, unintentionally becoming a queer anthem in the aftermath of a vicious anti-equality campaign and the indignity of having 20million people vote on the legitimacy of your partnerships.

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“I think people needed it, and I think that’s why it did so well,” Versegi says. “At a time when everyone was very ambiguous and kind of vague, sitting on the fence. ‘I don’t want to be offensive. I’m not homophobic but…’, that sort of thing.”

The end of 2018 also saw the band collectively relocate to Melbourne, moving into a house together to get their bearings. Fast forward almost three years and Versegi, bassist Hayley Manwaring and drummer Hayden Fritzlaff still live together (the band are rounded out by lead guitarist Ellen Chan).

“I feel like we’ve all really flourished as individuals in Melbourne in a way that we probably couldn’t have if we stayed in Canberra,” Versegi says. “It’s been really great to just move away and try a different environment.”

It was in this new environment, flushed with the success of ‘Carrie’ and its subsequent EP, that Moaning Lisa went through a trying 2019.

“We tried a bunch of stuff that just didn’t work,” recalls Versegi. “We put a lot of money into certain things and felt pretty disillusioned with the whole process of being a band. We went to a producer who was supposed to be the best of the best, we spent a lot of money on it and we just did not like the experience.”

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After a tour supporting DZ Deathrays, Moaning Lisa planned to drop a single and then embark on their own headline run immediately after. “Whether we were ready to record and release a single, it kind of didn’t matter. It was just in the plan,” Manwaring says. “But when we were recording, it felt forced.” They did still release the single, ‘Take You Out’, and played a handful of shows in support.

“The positive side is that from that experience, we are so much more confident. We trust ourselves,” Versegi explains. “I don’t give a fuck who you’ve worked with, what it says on paper, how much you cost. If I don’t mesh well with you and you don’t share my vision, I don’t want to work with you. We know ourselves so much more now, but 2019 was a bit of a write-off.”

“I experienced it and I’ve put it out into the world and it exists, but it exists outside of me… You can learn from it so much more”

That self-knowledge is palpable on ‘Something Like This’, an album that lovingly embraces both its alt-rock and shoegaze influences – “it’s ’90s grunge for people in therapy,” Versegi jokes – and thrillingly weird sonic flourishes that are all Moaning Lisa’s own. There’s an overarching push and pull between heady, hooky fuzz-pop (‘Something’ and ‘Inadequacy’) and the grittier stuff: the severe ‘Working Still’ or the seething noise-punk belter ‘Bike Riding’, which sees Versegi wryly sneer useless life advice (“You should just try to stop being sad all the time”) over discordant guitar chords.

Like Sleater-Kinney and the Breeders before them, Moaning Lisa savour the frequent left-turns and tension that brims beneath the surface. “To draw something out and not give a resolve straight away, that’s what I love about music,” Manwaring says. “I think musical people tend to have more patience and want to experience that tension, like it’s a horror movie. And then four minutes later – it’s so rewarding.”

‘Something Like This’ was recorded first in Sydney with producer Ben Moore, then in Melbourne with friend and frequent collaborator Calum ‘Candy’ Newton. The hasty switch in location was forced by the pandemic, but the band say they wouldn’t have had it any other way. “All of us were really excited when we were told, ‘Yes, you can do an album now,’ because we were like, yes, we can have a sprawling five-and-a-half minute version of ‘Bike Riding’ that’s the same way we play it live,” Versegi says.

“It’s wanting to capture the live setting because as much as it sounds interesting and it’s challenging and it’s cool, it’s fucking fun to play – to get heaps of feedback and to just throw your guitar around.”

“I’m much more interested in the couple of people in the corner who are really into it than people who will forget about it tomorrow”

Where the songs on ‘Something Like This’ negotiate the poles of restraint and turbulence, Versegi’s lyrics are in a tug-of-war between measured introspection and an impulse for brutal forthrightness. In her songs, she looks intently back on old aches, confronting anxieties and self-doubt with a bracing frankness.

I have hearts stitched in my sleeve / I spent too much of my childhood pleasing people who didn’t listen to me,” are the first words sung on opener ‘Cold Water’, an early indication of the album’s guiding message – you have to acknowledge where your shit came from, but you can’t stay stuck in it. You also have to accept that you might fuck up along the way: “My greatest mistake is one I’ve yet to make / It is one I’ll always dread,” Versegi sings on ‘Inadequacy’.

“Every song that I’ve written lyrically has come from a place of experience,” Versegi explains. “They’re all real things that happened. When I can put it into a song, I can put it away and that’s where it lives now.

“It’s not the unhealthy mechanism a lot of people employ of compartmentalising and shoving things down.” Instead, she prefers to let the wound breathe. “I experienced it and I’ve put it out into the world and it exists, but it exists outside of me. It gives it so much more power. You can learn from it so much more.”

On penultimate track ‘Fussy’, Versegi holds a mirror up to the lofty, near-impossible expectations we develop within relationships. It culminates in a deeply relatable refrain: “It’s got to be perfect from the first time.”

The same could not be said of ‘Something Like This’, an an album that took Moaning Lisa a long time to figure out. It’s not the easily consumable entertainment prioritised by the algorithm and favoured by our shortening attention spans; it’s a tremendously cohesive, at-times challenging body of work that seems proudly unlikely to spawn, say, fleeting TikTok gold.

“It’s very on trend to be on trend, but these things change overnight,” Manwaring remarks. “The way the algorithms work, the way people interact with social media, it changes so rapidly. If you’re really, really popular right now, does that mean you’re timeless?”

“You’ve got to just trust that there’s going to be people” for whom the album resonates, Versegi says. “If the four of us find meaning from it, surely someone else does… I don’t know if it’s just because I’m a bit older now, but I’m much more interested in the couple of people in the corner who are really into it than people who will forget about it tomorrow. I think that’s really what we hold onto.”

And what do Moaning Lisa hope their fans will hold onto after they listen to ‘Something Like This’? The tough stuff – “You have to sit in it. Stop avoiding it,” Versegi says.

Manwaring agrees: “If you’re hurting, if you have something going on psychologically… it’s not your fault, but you have to be accountable for how you are with yourself and to others. You’ve got to know yourself, and you can’t avoid that hard stuff.”

When she finishes listening to the album, Versegi says, she feels an immense sense of relief – like a weight has been lifted. She suggests that might just be because she wrote the songs herself, but it’s as cathartic an experience for the listener than the songwriter. The commitment to vulnerability on ‘Something Like This But Not This’ makes it an album by intense people for intense people. The only thing left to do is take its advice: grapple with the hard stuff, lean right in, and figure out how to grow from it.

Moaning Lisa’s ‘Something Like This But Not This’ is out October 8

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