Martyn Pepperell talks to Girlboss about the transition from Christchurch to Wellington â and from musicâs blog-era to its playlist-era.
Itâs a warm Tuesday evening. Inside a warehouse practice space in Newtown, Wellington, Lucy Botting, the lead songwriter of breezy guitar-pop band Girlboss and her bandmates â Darian Woods, Douglas Kelly, and Olivia Campion â are joking around, and explaining a bit of what led to their dreamy debut EP Body Con, released earlier this year by boutique local label Ball of Wax. In the same spirit as Bottingâs first Girlboss song âMiss Doubtfire,â a low-key SoundCloud cut that popped up on prominent music blog Gorilla Vs. Bear in 2016, the five songs on Body Con trade on faded Polaroid nostalgia, understated pop-culture in-jokes, and wistful introspection, all underpinned by a sturdy inner strength.
âWhen I started thinking about playing music again, Iâd just started working full-time as an early childhood teacher,â reflects Botting. âI didnât really know it at the time because I was new to it, but in my first job, I was the brunt of a lot of workplace bullying. Iâd come home feeling shit, listen to music, and feel like Iâd transcended.â
Having just jumped onto the streaming revolution, she was revelling in the ever-growing Spotify music library. âI was listening to people like Chastity Belt, Jessica Lee Mayfield, and Cocteau Twins,â she says. âDarian was living overseas, and we used to make Spotify playlists for each other.â
Although she was already an experienced singer and keyboard player,Â BottingÂ was learning guitar and began recording demos. She came across the term Girlboss, liked its assertive connotations, and used it as an alias when she uploaded âMiss Doubtfireâ. Not long afterwards, Woods returned to Wellington from the US, where heâd spent the last two years completing his masters in public policy at UC Berkeley and interning for NPR. Excited byÂ Bottingâs music, he offered to help expand it into a band.
Botting noticed that her old buddy Josh Burgessâ buzzing dream-pop band Yumi Zouma had a Wellington show coming up at Cuba Streetâs San Fran venue. âI messaged Josh, and asked if I could open,â she says.Â Burgess had sent the âMiss Doubtfireâ demo to Gorilla Vs. Bear, so she figured heâd be receptive. âHe said yes, so we pulled together a band in three weeks.âÂ Opening for Yumi Zouma was a gateway to more support slots, shows around the country, and eventually, proper studio recordings tracked over a day in Auckland by one ofÂ Â BottingâsÂ cousins.
Due to the mundane, frustrating realities of day-to-day life (i.e. having to fit music in around full-time work) things were a little bit stop-start for Girlboss, but when you listen to their recordings or see them play live, itâs smooth sailing. Itâs smooth because theyâre experienced â Girlboss is the second timeÂ BottingÂ and Woods have played music together.
Although they live in Wellington, theyâre both originally from Christchurch. Last decade, Woods was part of a semi-anonymous, somewhat notorious indie music gossip blog that did a great job of entertaining and infuriating the garden cityâs underground. âA few people werenât happy with us at the time,â Woods admits chuckling. âAll Iâll say is this: we were getting seven hundred hits a week.â
One day in 2008, he approachedÂ BottingÂ on the street. âThat was one of the first ways we became intertwined,âÂ BottingÂ says. At the time Woods was transitioning the blog into street fashion. âDarian saw me on the street, asked to take a photo of me and wrote some shit about me âŠÂ Iâd just come from my job as a dishwasher, so I wasnât even wearing anything good.â
Blogging wasnât the only online endeavourÂ WoodsÂ was engaged in â he also started the Wikipedia page for journalist Steve Braunias, editor of the Spinoff Review of Books. âThatâs a tidbit for you,â he says with a wry grin.
Botting andÂ WoodsÂ dated for a number of years and began making experimental pop music together as Wet Wings. They quickly became an antipodean outpost act in a loose international grouping of bands and solo artists often described with terms like chillwave, glo-fi, and hypnagogic pop. It was a very 21st-century style of internet music which drank deeply from the practitionersâ fading memories of the now retro 1980s/1990s music, film, television, fashion, and technology theyâd loved as children. âI had a VHS recording of The Sound of Music that I used to watch all the time as a kid,âÂ BottingÂ remembers. âThe best part of watching it was always the adverts because it was recorded off the television in 1989; the TV3 logo looked so different then. When I was older, I worked in video stores and spent a shit ton of time watching movie trailers on repeat. Theyâre potentially part of my pop culture references.â Â
Many of the acts associated with this scene-not-scene, which included the likes of James Ferarro, Pocahaunted, Sun Araw, and Emeralds, were initially supported online by a network of music blogs like 20 Great Jazz Funks, Chocolate Bobka, Friendship Bracelet, the aforementioned Gorilla Vs. Bear, and Rose Quartz, a blog run by a group of New Zealanders. âBlogs meant a lot more then than they do now,âÂ WoodsÂ remembers. âThis was pre-Spotify,âÂ BottingÂ adds.
As things progressed, Pitchfork unveiled a short-lived blog aggregator project called Altered Zones, that unified 14 so of these niche blogs under one more accessible newsfeed. Rose Quartz and Gorilla Vs. Bear both posted and wrote about Wet Wings music. The online coverage helped them develop a niche profile and partner up with labels like Infinity Tapes, La Station Radar, Atelier Ciseaux, and Aucklandâs Lil Chief Records to release an EP, an album, and a mini-album.
Things werenât only happening for them online, though. Alongside their internet buzz, a big part of the Wet Wings experience played out within the local DIY and all-ages music scenes Botting andÂ WoodsÂ had their initial musical epiphanies in. âWe saw Grouper play twice in Christchurch,âÂ BottingÂ says. âWe also saw The Evens and Calvin Johnson play in a small venue to forty so people,â Woods adds.
âIt was a really nice community and environment,âÂ BottingÂ continues. âPeople were drawn to it for that reason. It wasnât just about fun; it was about having a break from normal Christchurch shit like racism and conservatism.â
Outside of Wet Wings, the local bands of the time included Sleepy Age (Burgessâ pre-Yumi Zouma project), T54, Tiger Tones, Bang Bang Eche, Shocking Pinks, Mt Pleasant, and Von Klap. Wet Wings played shows alongside many of them. One time in Auckland, a young Chelsea Jade, then known as Watercolours, supported them at a show. âCan you believe that?âÂ WoodsÂ laughs. âWhat a role reversal!â
Just before the February 2011 Christchurch earthquakes,Â BottingÂ andÂ WoodsÂ moved to Wellington, where they continued to pursue their musical pursuits. Three years later, they put Wet Wins on ice whenÂ WoodsÂ headed overseas in 2014.Â
In 2018, with Botting leading the songwriting process, Girlboss sees them reunited creatively, but within a whole new musical landscape. Youtuber users leave comments on the video for âFourFiveSecondsâ by Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney saying âThis Paul McCartney guy might have some potential.â Rappers post doctored Instagrams of themselves running numbers on fake Spotify charts. Emerging EDM producers fret that their career might be tanking if they get less than 200 likes on a photo, and everyone worries about getting on the right playlists. Girlboss arenât immune to this either. âWeâre on four playlists,âÂ WoodsÂ says. âItâs all about playlists now,âÂ BottingÂ adds.
I mention that the playlist thing can be deceptive. Sometimes a song clocks up numbers because of its placement, but that doesnât necessarily translate into the act gaining more fans. âItâs still easy to tell who is actually doing well though,â Woods says. âYou go to the artist, check their monthly listens, and check how many people actually follow them. Local bands like Mermaidens are doing well because their ratio of people who listen and follow is really high, but other people are just on playlists, and people arenât following them.â
I ask Woods to reflect on how this is making people think about and engage with music.
âItâs bad,â he admits.
âItâs bad,âÂ BottingÂ agrees with a laugh. âHeâs obsessing.â
Itâs not what you want to be worrying about as a musician, but it is a reality, one Girlboss are navigating the best they can, while still coming up with gold.
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