Album Walkthrough: Merpire breaks down her stunning debut album, Simulation Ride
On her debut album, the Melbourne-based musician shows how far she's come in just a short amount of time.
If you've been reading Pilerats for a few years now, you might've already come across Merpire. As the solo project of Rhiannon Atkinson-Howatt, Merpire has become one of our go-to's for tender indie-pop since her arrival, with singles dating back to 2017 - which saw the release of her debut, Holding Breath - showcasing the musician's potent form of songwriting, and the rich, sonic soundscapes that often revolve around them.
In the time since, however, growth and evolution has been at the forefront of everything Merpire has released. In her lyricism and songwriting, you witness her personal growth through the stories of someone coming of age and figuring themselves out in the process of doing so (something we'll talk about more extensively in a moment), while musically, the trajectory of Merpire's sound has grown ten-fold, as she branches out into new sounds, new styles and even new projects (take her collaborative project with Feelds, Wilson's Prom, for example), taking her sound to new heights in the process of doing so.
We've had the pleasure of watching Merpire blossom into a glistening artist at the forefront of Australia's indie-pop space over the years, but in 2021, this is being taken to an entirely new level. Since the release of her single Dinosaur back in March, it seems like something has almost switched on for the musician, as she strived above the gentle indie-pop that defined her earliest introduction and welcomed new dimensions of herself as a multi-faceted musician, capturing the charisma and intimacy of her past but through a newfound lens that eyed her year ahead as her best yet.
It's something that now shines on her debut album Simulation Ride, which with its arrival last week, sees Merpire's predictably brilliant year come to fruition, as she explores the intensity of her sound and every dimension that it's shown through; Simulation Ride being a project-defining, career-encapsulation moment for Merpire where everything comes together just how it needs to. It's something you watch play out over the course of the album's 11-track duration, as her voice dances amongst a combination of shimmering indie sounds that vary from stripped back and subtle to their most empowering and gritty, each sound bolstered by Merpire's rich songwriting.
Take the album-opening Village, for example, which cries out amongst an instrumental that channels the single's blur of emotions into one of the album's most painful, yet remarkable moments. There's a power amongst a song like Village which feels reminiscent of some of music's most potent songwriters - Angel Olsen, Julia Jacklin, Mitski - and across Simulation Ride, Merpire pays tribute to them while also paving her own lane, reaching similar heights to the musicians that come before her through stories and melodies that are distinctly Merpire; built through the journey we've watched unfold over the last few years.
Across the course of Simulation Ride, you watch this journey reach the commencement of an exciting new chapter, and in a metaphorical way, Simulation Ride almost feels like the stripping of an emotive cacoon to begin that chapter; the musician stepping forward from the stories of her past, and emerging at the end of Simulation Ride more in touch with the musicianship that thrives amongst the project, and the stories that define it. It's a beautiful moment, and after years of continued evolution, Simulation Ride shows that it has all paid off.
As you can guess, the album is a deeply personal and intimate record. So, with that in mind, we're celebrating the album's release by having its creator - Merpire herself - walk us through the album's creation and themes one song at a time, breaking down the album as she goes. Take a dive into it all below, and grab tickets to her album launch this September right here.
This is one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written. In the recording, it opens with the muffled chorus of the song, an accidental discovery when recording one of the guitar parts with my incredible producer, James Seymour. The mic picked up the playback of the song through the feedback of the guitar.
In terms of lyrical inspiration, a couple of years ago I worked for Punting On The Lake in the Royal Botanic Gardens in South Yarra as a boat tour guide. There’s one island we’d pass on the route we nickname ‘Bell Bird Island’ because the bell birds pretty much own it, protecting and farming an insect called a psyllid. They have a symbiotic relationship whereby the psyllid produces a sugary coating like a cocoon that the bell birds eat as a tasty treat, while the bell birds fend off other birds eating the whole insect.
Chatting with people about this got me thinking of that old saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ and how it can ring true when nurturing a relationship. Sometimes it feels like the first couple of months of a relationship is a showing of your best qualities. I used to be so caught up in self-doubt, seeing qualities in people that I didn’t think I had that I failed to see my own qualities. I was constantly putting pressure on myself to be happier, more energetic, more sociable. I didn’t see myself as an interesting person without those things or without my music and when I was feeling tired or withdrawn I’d beat myself up about it, not feeling worthy of company and thinking I was just a boring person who happened to be a musician (and punt people around on a boat in the gardens apparently?!).
To write this song I thought of the lowest emotional point of a breakup. When you’re wondering if they’re crying as much as you and feeling as low as you are. Though not emotionally connected to this song, as in I wasn’t going through this when I wrote it, I thought of actual moments from past break-ups that I thought were both personally peculiar and also very relatable. One boyfriend I had would get up for work much earlier than me and most mornings I would wake up choking on the thick mist of spray deodorant he would apply while getting ready. I’d grow to miss it if I ever smelt the same deodorant.
Another time my brother forgot that me and my boyfriend at the time had split. He’d ask me how he was. It was such a sting that all you could do was laugh.
It’s probably the oddest song I’ve written in terms of the arrangement. There’s no chorus, just a big, full band, 3-step drop into a pre-chorus that starts on a jarring harmony and ends up resolving by the end. It's really fun to sing the “oohs and aahs” with the band live.
This is the opener to our live band set. I start it off by myself, playing my electric and then the band comes in halfway through the first verse. I get the same feeling every time we play it together of just being so excited that I get to play my own music with this incredible band. When they come in for the harmonies in the chorus, I can’t help but smile to myself. Playing with them for 45min on stage is worth the months of planning, cancelling, re-planning, stress and joy.
While Brain Cells started off as being about sticking around in a relationship when it gets tough, I have a similar sentiment when thinking of my career in music.
When I first moved to Melbourne, started making friends and met James, my producer and partner, I was intimidated by how kind, motivated and empowering this music community was. I’d never had a music community before them. Maybe because of where my self-confidence was at this time, and how much I wanted to be around them, I was worried they were going to find out sooner or later that I wasn’t worth being around. Eventually, I trusted they weren’t going anywhere and we’ve been building each other up ever since.
The chorus is also a love letter to the seemingly instant fanbase I found in Melbourne. I’ll always remember the first time I started seeing people in the audience who had no connection to me. That’s one of the best parts about playing live - seeing all these people who have been, unbeknownst to me, listening to my music.
There’s a line in the first Jurassic Park - such a classic Jurassic - where Sam Neill’s character says to the kids while they face a t-rex, in the rain, at night, “If they stay still, they can’t see you.” Their fear and wishing to be invisible in that moment is their body’s correct response in hope of avoiding danger and death. Annoyingly, through genetics, our very short time here on earth combined with a very rapid rate of environmental and cultural development, our “fight or flight” response hasn’t quite caught up to modern-day and has in fact become our internal default button. For some people (me) that default button is worn right down and our brains think there is potential danger pretty much everywhere, even the supermarket (which I guess is kind of true long-term..)
The opening lines of the song are, ‘I used to be afraid of my mind and being left alone with whatever I found. Now I’m more afraid of what I won’t find and all that’s left will end up letting you down’. It’s something that gets easier the more I practise writing for myself but at the time of this song, I was working out what kind of music I wanted to give to the world, how I wanted to present myself as an artist and how it would measure up to people. As hard as it was at the time, I’m grateful I had a slow burn of discovery to get to where I am now.
This song was fossilised in my Garageband library until James dug it up and thought it was something worth working on. We changed a single note where I sang the word “Di-no-saur” from a semitone step on “no '' to a full tone. James also wrote the chords and lyrics for the outro as well as the incredible guitar melody lines. Then, by magic, I fell in love with the song all over again once we played it with the band.
This is a grab from the song Sink In on the album. It’s a haunting, repetitive reminder from a line in Sink In - that I am loved and I am not the fear of being loved that was in my head at that time.
I wanted the production in this interlude to evoke an otherworldliness. Like you’re playing with the tuning knob to find a radio station and you’ve stumbled upon this ghostly call out for help, lost in time of past technology. I wanted the growing unpleasant distortion and watery vocals to help this. When trying to explain watery vocals in the production phase, I likened it to the bit in Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire where Harry submerges the sirens’ music box/egg into the girls’ bathroom tub to hear the sirens' song.
If anyone’s been in an emotionally abusive relationship before, they know this point post-breakup. The bit where after being stripped of your confidence as a functioning independent person, you wonder if your ex was all that bad. You question if you can do life without their opinion.
I thought about the things my ex would say if he saw my new suburb, new house, new room. Upon further introspection, I realised then that I was leaving behind all the ways he would try to cut me down and prevent me from growing into the person I knew I could be. It was the last song I ever wrote about him too.
Easy was ironically the most difficult for James and I to find the right place for in the world within the record. It was a full band song when we first started jamming on it. With such emotional lyrics, we felt like it needed to be more vulnerable. We changed the key, the tempo and the feel. We stripped it right back and recorded it live, freely with no click. James played his acoustic while I sang along. I approached it really intimately and quietly from a vocal perspective too to make it as vulnerable as possible.
You might also be able to pick up humming wine glasses in the outro that a couple of friends played in while we all sat around in our dressing gowns one night when recording some of this album at a family friends’ beach house in Anglesea, Victoria.
This is a snippet of a day waking up in a really anxious headspace and already wanting to write the day off as soon as it starts. I find ways to distract myself - go for walks, really breathe in flowers to force deep-breathing and walk back streets to avoid people. This song as a whole is pretty straight to the point of ‘I feel shit so I’m going to write a loud, strummy song to get it out’. Like writing is for many artists, this was a great catharsis to write and is to perform too.
Recently, Melbourne Indie Voices, a brilliant choir fronted by Phia and her partner Josh, got in touch to say they were covering it with the choir! I saw some snippets of the way they’d arranged it and have had some of the choir members message me to say how freeing singing this song is. Anxiety is such an isolating feeling so hearing this from people means I’ve done my job - sharing in hope of making others feel less alone in their thoughts. They’ve invited me along to a practise session soon to sing along with them. It’s going to blow my little Merp mind.
This whole album is basically the video store of my mind. If I’m really anxious, I feel like I’m watching one of those horror movies where before you’ve seen it, you’ve been told it’s disturbing and terrifying. So you’re waiting for the horror while the director has made the first 20min or so of the movie intentionally unsettling in it’s seemingly pleasantness.
If you hadn’t known it was a horror movie, you might not have felt as intensely unsettled but because you know something awful is bound to happen soon, you just feel it. That’s what being anxious during perfectly lovely, normal situations feels like. Knowing logically how unscary the current reality is and the lovelier the scene, the more the anxiety would grow as I would try to resist it.
On the flip side, I live for the movie scenes that leave you walking out of the cinema, back into the real world with a floatiness to the air around you. You almost feel like you’re still in the movie. Like a spy movie makes you feel like you’re a spy haha. Or a soundtrack lingers and you romanticise your surroundings for as long as you can. With a movie-like soundtrack as powerful as that, you can slip back into this world wherever and whenever you choose to listen to it again, creating personal movie scenes in your mind with songs attached to crushes or romantic moments past.
I’ll never forget doing this with albums such as Why Do You Swallow So Much Sleep? by Bombay Bicycle Club and Trouble Will Find Me by The National during long train rides from London to my Auntie’s place in the historical village of Berkhamsted. I have the same memory every time I hear any songs from those albums. I can’t pinpoint what it is with certain songs but we all feel it. People with Alzheimer’s I've played old jazz covers to feel it. Maybe it’s magic. These are feelings I want to evoke for people in my own songs.
There’s also a little nod to Courtney Barnett’s song Avant Gardener in this song.
Here it is, my biggest panic attack to date written into a song. It took place at my friend Mimi Gilbert’s house concert a couple of years ago. She’s just released an incredible album that everyone should listen to! I was at the beginning of this serious relationship, not knowing what to do with someone who was a genuine, caring, loving person and worrying they were going to leave me when they found out how anxious I can get. Thank goodness for therapy hey? After running out of the house and down the street, we leaned up against Mimi’s house as I sobbed to hear the rest of her set because I couldn't bear facing anyone in that state and he just held me, telling me I was safe and that he wasn’t going anywhere.
As time passed, I would sometimes go back to this chorus when I needed reminding of how far our relationship has come - “How long do I have to hear it, before it sinks in. And for how long do you have to say it before you walk away. Oh God, I hope you’ll stay.”
When I’m at a low point, friends and family kindly say ‘I wish you could see you the way I see you’, so this is who I believe they see. The Yusiimi character is me at my best. I named her Yusiimi as a play on words meaning, ‘You see me’. I imagine her to be like a Sailor Moon character fighting self-doubt crime in Pity City.
When recording this song, James and I were stuck on what to do with the breakdown before the bridge in the outro. We picked up this Wiggles toy keyboard he has and pressed one of the buttons. The melody it played just happened to be in the exact key and tempo as Yusiimi. I remember us both looking at each other in shock and being like, ‘Well, there it is.’ I actually contacted The Wiggles licensing manager to ask if it was ok for us to use it. They ok’d it!