Hatchie on pop, shoegaze, and new album Keepsake
We speak to Harriette Pilbeam, aka Hatchie, about Kylie Minogue, working across multiple genres, and her debut album Keepsake
When she picks up the phone, Brisbane singer-songwriter Harriette Pilbeam, who performs under the moniker Hatchie, is a month into supporting indie duo Girlpool on their North American tour. Despite relentlessly playing shows and travelling across a patchwork of US states, her chipper voice is suspiciously devoid of the slightest trace of fatigue. Even before we've wrapped our head around this inexplicable tolerance for tiredness, it soon becomes clear that Pilbeam is someone that will belie all of our preconceptions.
Throughout our crackly transatlantic WhatsApp call, her answers are strikingly straight to the point. We say striking because the Harriette Pilbeam talking to us about her songwriting process seems a million miles from the idea of her that the languid lyrics and wistful cadences of musical alias Hatchie conjure up. Yet it would be foolish to identify Pilbeam too closely with her music, not just with the knowledge that art and artist are separate entities, but because her sound is constantly changing at a fundamental level.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on debut album Keepsake, a record that splices together industrial, new wave and synth-pop against cascading guitars, working in a markedly different tenor to 2018’s more unitary EP, Sugar & Spice. The discrepancies between the two works, far from being incidental, are part of a deliberate strategy on Pilbeam’s part as she plans her forwards trajectory. "I took it upon myself to expand and try out different things on this album as I wanted to keep things open from the get-go and allow myself to have opportunities to try out new sounds in the future. I think there’s plenty of bands that have one particular sound for years and it works for them, but for me I would just get so bored of it and stuck."
It comes as no surprise, then, that Pilbeam is keen to distance herself from early associations with shoegaze: "To be honest I’m surprised people still relate my music to shoegaze. There’s definitely songs where I understand why people are making that connection, but I feel like I’ve moved away from that a little bit. I feel like it’s ultimately dream pop, which I know is still in the same kind of umbrella." Yet the categorisation continues to stick, no doubt fuelled by the fact that Cocteau Twins co-founder Robin Guthrie has not only declared himself a fan but even provided a remix for Sugar & Spice track Sure. However, Pilbeam’s musical inspirations are far further reaching than ethereal indie rock. Her sound is unabashedly hybrid and, a far cry from any musical purists out there, she’s not ashamed of the poppier antecedents audible in her catchy hooks.
In fact, for someone with so much currency in the alternative music scene, she’s surprisingly open about the impact that pop stars like Carly Rae Jepsen and fellow Aussie Kylie Minogue have had on her sound. While music buffs can be quick to write off pop as vapid or mass-produced, the scene is infinitely more nuanced than they give it credit for. "I think there’s still a whole world of pop that’s very clean cut and doing what it’s always done, but there’s definitely a section of it that’s super experimental and has always been that way. They both co-exist and the world of pop is constantly changing – even if there’s always going to be that same pop music being regurgitated out, in a good or a bad way."
Pilbeam's enthusiasm for Kylie, for example, is largely down to the fact she "did a lot of experimentation in the 90s and 00s" – something which even her most fairweather fans can confirm. With the likes of 1997’s Impossible Princess, an album that somehow brings together both Britpop and electronic influences, you can’t deny that Kylie hasn’t been afraid to stray from the formula of cut and dried bubblegum pop. Kylie’s decade-spanning career has had an incredible longevity thanks to her essential mutability, a shared quality with other divas like Cher or Madonna.
Ultimately, it seems that Pilbeam’s ambitions are to transcend genre distinctions, and not be too closely defined by a specific scene or sound. As she puts it: "I think that genres will be obsolete to some extent soon. There’s already so many genre-spanning artists and I really admire that and that’s definitely something I want to do – whether it’s because I’m making lots of different kinds of music at one time or because each album covers a different base. It’s something I’m very interested in and would love to play a part of."
Curiously, however, this desire to embrace new and different sounds regardless of genre feels oddly out of step with the emotional timbre of her latest project. While a spirit of innovation can be clearly heard at a production level and in terms of genre, there’s an ironic tension on her debut album between these elements and the lyrics, which seem tinged with a personal nostalgia. As Pilbeam elaborates, the album title Keepsake distills much of the album’s thematic content. "'Keepsake' is a lyric in one of the songs – I say it in the outro to Kiss the Stars. I just thought that it was a really nice word that encapsulates a lot of the ideas on the album about nostalgia and intimacy and wanting to hold onto something."
An homage to missed romantic potential, lead track Without a Blush consolidates the theme, with wistful laments like 'You and me, we were destined to fall apart / Can you believe it's been three years since the start?' The backwards look of the lyrics, so at odds with the forward-thinking approach to musicality, is not just an anomaly but rather a symptom of the creative method, with the songs on the album being written over a period of up to three years.
As Pilbeam explains, the process of creating the album was a long-running lyrical trial and error, by which she accumulated a brimming bank of material: "I wrote all the songs on it over maybe a year or two. There are some that are as old as the EP songs, so about three years old. I didn’t really have a plan and I had heaps and heaps of songs that I whittled down to six that I was really happy with. Then I wrote a few more, kind of keeping in mind to fill in the gaps between the different songs and link them together."
The period that this process spans is no doubt particularly fruitful for Pilbeam to draw from, given that it charts the take-off of her career and her progression towards her mid-20s. As she explains, however, the lyrics pull from an even wider reaching pool of personal experience: "[Keepsake] covers a lot of things I’ve seen and done and heard over the last four years of my life and even feelings I was having as a teenager. It’s kind of like making up for lost time and bringing up to date with the current mental and personal state I’m in now."
Pilbeam has channeled years of creativity into this project – and it doesn’t disappoint. However, the concern is that, as for most artists, her second album will prove somewhat trickier, with the need to draw out a similarly substantial body of work from a much shorter period of time. Yet, as we finish up our conversation she shares how much she’s ready to launch back into working on fresh music: "I’m really excited to already get back into writing. We finished the album in December and I’m itching to start work on new stuff." Her words shining with enthusiasm, we can't wait to hear how she delivers on this next challenge.
Keepsake is released on 21 Jun via Heavenly Recordings