'The Future Is Pending': Self-Portraits Of Melbourne Musicians In Lockdown

Isolation self-portraits of Melbourne musicians in their second lockdown.

The phrase “first to shut down, last to open up” has been repeated many times by music industry folk since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and it hasn’t become any less true. While parts of Australia have begun to open up to limited-capacity live music for popular acts, Melbourne’s musicians have been placed back into the anti-collaborative hell of a second lockdown. Without being too obvious, this is very bad news for the music capital, and Australian music more broadly.

When the federal government failed to produce meaningful support for the country’s musicians during the first lockdown, the focus turned to charity. In Australia, that was led by the music crisis charity Support Act, funded through a myriad of initiatives including the (ongoing) livestream music festival Isol-Aid. Some artists tried to view the situation as a creative stimulant, making music via Zoom, email or stripping back. Many others chose to use it as an unplanned but well-earned break, after years of relentless touring and recording.

But the same collective resilience and fervour is not in the air for Melbourne’s second lockdown. Many have forgotten what lockdown means for Victorian artists who have slipped through the cracks of Jobkeeper, or are excluded from the often-prohibitive arts grant process. MTV Australia asked a number of Melbourne’s musicians to send in their own isolation self-portrait from their home music space, and checked in with how they’re coping, creatively or otherwise. Some expressed despair, while others hoped the Australian music industry’s more toxic practises might change upon its return.

Gareth Liddiard (Tropical Fuck Storm, The Drones)

How are you feeling about Victoria's lockdown the second time around? 

Shit. 

What has kept you going through lockdown and isolation? 

Benzos, booze, recording, boredom, Jobkeeper and exercise. We're in the country so we can get out and go for bush walks and enjoy a bit of space. I'd hate to be stuck in a sharehouse in the city with a bunch of people I can't stand.  

How has the recording of the third TFS album been coming along during lockdown? Does anything about this time creatively inspire you?

Recording is going pretty slow because with all the lockdowns we're not allowed to get together much. It’s a drag. It’s not very inspiring.  

Months on from the beginning of the pandemic, how are you feeling about the future of live music in Melbourne?

I don't really know. Who knows what will happen. We're fucked if we can't play gigs anymore or travel anymore. I'll have to turn to sex work to survive. That's great news for everyone else but it's going to be a lot of work for me. A lot of hand washing. 

Sarah Mary Chadwick

How are you feeling about Victoria's lockdown the second time around? 

This lockdown has been more difficult, but my dog is getting fit as fuck. It was great to see friends during the brief intermission so I’m trying to do more walks and stuff with them during the day. I’ve been trying to figure out what would be the hardest age to be right now, but my lack of motivation is preventing me from coming up with any even vaguely interesting ideas. 

What has kept you going through lockdown and isolation?

Boyfriend, dog, wine, cooking, friends, sunshine, pop music. In that order.

Have you been working creatively? What inspires you in lockdown, if anything?

I was supposed to be touring a lot this year so I recorded my next album (out later in the year) towards the end of 2019, as I wrongly assumed I would not have much at home writing time. The fact that I’m an album ahead of myself coupled with the fact that I’m generally productive and also a slight resentment towards an instruction to be creative means I have been doing zero. It’s not unusual for me tho, I work quickly when I do so I’m used to periods of inactivity. This time it just happened to coincide with a pandemic and no live shows. I do miss playing live a lot! I’ve always enjoyed it.

Months on from the beginning of the pandemic, how are you feeling about the future of live music in Melbourne?   

Ha I’m sure it will be fine. Change is good I think. I suppose it will look different but honestly I have no idea. I have had times of having issues with being a musician and essentially just helping venues flog alcohol to punters. So maybe that will be reframed. Maybe performance will be considered a bit special again. Maybe taking risks creatively will be more of an imperative. Or maybe it will stay the same and people will continue to not know the lineup of festivals and just go to get high.

Banoffee

How are you feeling about Victoria's lockdown the second time around?

To be honest, I'm very over lockdown. I understand why it needs to happen but of course as a musician I am watching any chance of work go down the drain. I feel that as a workforce we have been completely forgotten about, with $450million going into film in Australia, music seems to be work that hasn't been evaluated correctly. 

I'm doing my best to stay positive but I'm sure if you asked musicians and said "tell it to me straight, without worrying about it seeming like you don't care about other political issues" they'd say – well... my career is over. LOL. 

What has kept you going through lockdown and isolation? 

The idea that I'll survive and come out saying "I didn't quit. Even when everyone told me to". I think success is the best revenge, and COVID right now is enemy number one.

Have you been working creatively? What inspires you in lockdown, if anything? 

I get inspired by films mainly. I'm trying to watch as much good TV and film as possible, as it’s an easily consumable art that helps me stay focused. I've been writing a lot in a journal and then using that as a starting point for songs. It's also a great time to pick up new instruments and skills so I've been doing a lot of online learning of different programs and brushing up on my guitar skills again. 

Months on from the beginning of the pandemic, how are you feeling about the future of live music in Melbourne?

I think that once COVID is under control then Melbourne will be needing some musical relief and I have hope that it'll help artists get back on their feet. However I'm unsure of when that will be. Right now I'm trying to work out what the next revenue and way of getting music out is, it’s gonna be there. When streaming became a thing touring was our revenue, digital concerts don't seem to making a big dent in terms of an enjoyable way to consume art, so I'm racking my brains as to what it may be!

Jade Imagine

How are you feeling about Victoria's lockdown the second time around? 

To be honest I think we’re all feeling it in a big way at the moment. I’ve found it quite hard to keep a positive mindset, on the best of days. But hey, things will pick up soon. I feel grateful that I've got a roof over my head and food on my table, things could definitely be worse, and they are a lot worse for many other people.

What has kept you going through lockdown and isolation? 

Keeping the daily routine simple and keeping my expectations of myself in check. Cooking good food, getting out and going for a run or a long walk. Movies, books, things you can escape into (proving just how important art is, especially in times like this!). I feel like it’s taken me quite a while to carve out a rhythm for my days in iso. 

You get to a point where you’re like THAT'S ENOUGH! I gotta DO SOMETHING! That’s usually when I stop sulking and get out and go for a run or pick up the phone and call my sister or mum or something. It’s important to not put any pressure on yourself to hit the same benchmarks you usually would in pre-pandemic life. Setting simple goals that you know you can achieve will have a flow on effect into your coming days and weeks. 

That’s all you can hope for really. Anything else right now is a bonus.

Have you been working creatively? What inspires you in lockdown, if anything?

Luckily, just before the first lockdown happened in March, my band and I went to the coast and wrote quite a lot of new stuff, so I know there’s some things to pick up when the time comes. Admittedly, it is difficult to feel inspired to do anything creative when you can’t do all the usual things that you would do to feed yourself artistically. Usually around this time of year I’ll always escape the Melbourne winter for at least a few weeks for a coastal break and a reset, but obviously that’s not gonna happen any time soon!

I have been struggling pretty badly with writer's block lately and was making myself feel pretty shit about the fact that I wasn’t trying harder. Especially whenever I hear that other people have been making records, writing, getting fit and all that… there’s a real pressure on artists to PROCESS all this shit and turn it into something beautiful and full of wonder and enlightenment but hell, sometimes you just don’t feel like it and you gotta be okay with that! I’ve had my moments where i’ve acted like a stroppy little child who’s chucked a tantrum and thrown their pens and paper on the floor because they don’t wanna draw right now! 

Months on from the beginning of the pandemic, how are you feeling about the future of music in Melbourne?

Four months!? So insane. Spending this much time by yourself, I think it’s inevitable at a certain point you begin to ask yourself the bigger, deeper questions about what the hell you're doing in life and what’s gonna happen after all this. It’s quite unsettling not knowing the future of our music careers – or anything – right now. Not being able to make plans is probably the weirdest bit of it all. Sadly, it’s not a new concept for people in the music industry to not know how their future in the industry is going to pan out, where their next paycheck will come from, etc. 

Even before the pandemic I knew of people who have been struggling financially for a very long time and it’s not as if the money isn’t there, it just isn’t getting to the right people AKA the ARTISTS (looking at you, all streaming services)…I know that the Melbourne music scene will be okay because all of the people who live here are so resilient, but wouldn't it be good if there was a commitment to provide more support from the government, not just through the pandemic, but long term? 

All that said, sometimes you just gotta be like “fuck it, we’ll be right.”

Sweet Whirl

How are you feeling about the Victorian lockdown the second time around? 

During the first lockdown, when it all began in March, I had no interest in being creative. There was no space for reflection; all my attention was on the news, the daily unfolding of events here and overseas. I joined twitter in earnest, refreshed The Guardian several times a day.

Then as restrictions eased, and the BLM movement started to gain serious traction in the US, I again felt no compulsion to explain my corner of the world – and truth be told I had very little “inner world” at this point. I was monitoring history as it was unfolding, mainly on Twitter.

Have you been working creatively? What inspires you in lockdown, if anything?

It was while I was savouring the high from my promising “Perfect Tinder Date” that I had one of those three-day bursts of creative concentration, and wrote a song that had meaning, a bittersweet chorus, a melodic bop. I tried to extend that energy a few days further, to finish off other scraps of song, but the desire wasn’t there.

What has kept you going through lockdown and isolation?

Looking back, I’d say I was walking in the spot of sunshine you sometimes get under a sky heavy with rain. And now the rains have returned, the lockdowns are back, movement forward is restricted and the future is pending. I’m feeding myself on literature, barely listening to music, and getting world news from my housemate, COVID updates from my mother.

Months on from the beginning of the pandemic, how are you feeling about the future of live music in Melbourne?   

Well, the music scene will return, creativity is like a mould or fungus that grows on a society every moment it pauses; it will never die off completely but it might grow back differently. There’s been a lot to process both politically and personally, there have been shifts in priority from all this enforced introspection.

The spectacle of “success” aka a lucrative career in music (LOL) seems more than ever to be the spectral carrot I, personally, outwardly, dangle in front of myself to justify the amount of work and aspiration and risk I take in allotting so much time and importance to music and making it. But I know, as I’ve inwardly known all along, that it was never about that spectacle of Success – to quote Gillian Welch – “we’re gonna do it anyway/even if it doesn’t pay”.

Sui Zhen

How are you feeling about the Victorian lockdown the second time around? 

Honestly, I am finding this second lockdown pretty challenging. This year has passed without clear markers of time and it feels easy to get lost in the days. In some ways though I do feel like I know what to do and what to expect of myself this time around so I am hoping I can find more focus. My father’s partner is in intensive care at the moment (non-COVID related) which is contributing to the permeating grief that has plagued 2020 so far. A grief for how things once were. It’s making me reflect upon all the routines and activities I usually do throughout the week that help me to feel like myself. In that way, I am more realistic about how many of those things I can expect to do within a lockdown day.

What has kept you going through lockdown and isolation? 

Broadly, some of the things that have kept me going are; exercise & movement, stream of consciousness writing, conversations with friends and family, music for listening and music as a practical activity (without a goal in mind), connecting to whatever nature I can and trying to get perspective through doing something different. I’ve been learning new recipes or even just cooking as an activity so I get a sense of accomplishment at times when I can’t find focus for creative projects or work. 

I’ve been doing Yoga daily and that has been helping a lot. When I don’t do it, I feel more distracted and my mood falls flat. I found this YouTuber called SarahBeth and she has a very soothing voice and her instruction and pace is super accessible. I highly recommend it. I’ve been trying to keep up mini HIIT workouts every second day, just to really exert myself physically. I become so restless and lethargic if I sit at my desk all day. 

Have you been working creatively? What inspires you in lockdown, if anything?

That is a good question. Inspiration is hard to sustain. It comes to me in fleeting moments. And these moments usually come after reaching some kind of acceptance with the way the world is, and by looking back through my recent work and connecting with the journey I was on before all of this. I started my monthly NTS Radio show just at the beginning of the pandemic and that has made me listen deeply to new (or newly discovered) music each month to be able to put a good show together. It’s been keeping me progressing with my thoughts on music and away from stagnation which is really positive. Additionally I have kept up part-time remote work with Art Processors as their Sound & Music supervisor, and that has taken me on rabbit holes into ethnomusicology and made me engage in diverse sounds.

The things that have not flowed easily is my next Sui Zhen album, which I have had draft recordings for, for over a year or more now. My creative process for Sui Zhen projects has been a bit stunted as I’ve been adjusting to the reality that my plans for the next 12-24 months are no longer possible. I was hoping to tour Losing, Linda internationally and was granted a US visa for 3 years, and now I am not sure I’ll want to use it even if things do settle down. 

Months on from the beginning of the pandemic, how are you feeling about the future of music in Melbourne?

I feel like Melbournians are incredibly industrious and adaptable people, particularly the younger generations that have grown up in parallel to social media but this is a challenging time and it will have long term impacts on the broader community around the music scenes as well. Venues, festivals and special events that Melbourne is known for have been halted. And what is Melbourne without those things? A lot of artists’ who depended on live show income have been hit really hard. I’m curious to know how everyone’s coping.

I hold hope that a new kind of music scene will emerge from this. Perhaps it will become more personal too as the broader music industry itself cannot function in the same way that it used to. I hope we see a rise of DIY culture and people expressing themselves and prioritising the art above the more capitalist mode of operating. Because now more than ever it feels like we need to see stories and hear music that reflects the experiences we’re living through.

The answers to the questions have been shortened for space.  

This article was written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaMartJourn

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