Running Out Of Time with Romanie
On her debut record, ‘Are We There Yet?,’ singer-songwriter Romanie puts her introspections to rollicking indie rock, making for some uncommonly catchy self-reflection
Image credit: Marcus Colbyn
Romanie has arrived — and it’s been a long, weird trip.
The Melbourne-based, Belgium-born singer-songwriter has burst forth with one of the best debuts of the year, but you’d probably have no idea if you asked her about it. “I've always been such an impostor,” she excitedly admits. “I’d never say I was proud of myself, but I said it in an interview the other day… I said, ‘I'm really proud of this album,’ and I was like, ‘Whoa, I’ve never said this before!’” The road to Are We There Yet?, her 12-track collection of confessional indie rock, has been unpredictable, winding, and very, very long. “For me, it was done like two years ago, and now it's just… out there,” she says with a disbelieving pause. “It's so strange!”
You’d almost think Romanie was getting used to the strange, given the way her year has turned out. She’s worked a small handful of jobs, navigated a sudden health scare (she’s fine), dropped single after shining single, released six music videos, played a stage in her distant hometown, gigged around the UK, and opened for 10CC — the very same — at their recent Victorian shows. Now, a handful of months later, her face is pasted to walls across the city, advertising her new album and upcoming record launch at Northcote Social. “There's 100,” she quips of the eye-catching promos. “I paid for it, so I knew it was coming,” she says with a laugh, “[but] it's so strange!”
Life is nothing if not unpredictable, and Are We There Yet? shows Romanie grappling with the onslaught. Album opener The World Is Ending and We Know It paints a romantic estrangement with the finality of the apocalypse, balancing the sorrow of loss with the fear of an uncertain future. These two poles — one in the past, the other in the future — anchor Romanie’s abiding fascination with time, the way it heals, hurts, lingers, and always seems to be running out.
“Oh my god, this year,” she says, exasperated. “I thought like, ‘Oh, I'm gonna leave the 27 Club and everything's gonna be chill,” but 28 has just been the most turbulent year of my life!” It makes sense that Romanie’s music is so temporally minded: the process of songwriting, itself meditative and introspective, provides a rare moment of reflection. “I really wanted to have a song that started with just me,” she says of The World Is Ending and We Know It, “showcasing that the album is about Romanie. As much as it is about a band, it's also about myself.”
The solitary bookends recall the stripped-back sound of her debut EP, Little Big Steps, spotlighting the strength of her songwriting while contrasting with the record’s own unique identity. She credits the sound to producer Alex O’Gorman, a longtime Angie McMahon collaborator, who met her mission with enthusiasm. “I’ve really, really wanted to do something like this for so long, and working with Gormie, he was really like, ‘what do you want to do?’” Gormie’s enthusiasm for Romanie’s expanding sound saw him bring in a host of collaborators, old and new, to help furnish the rock-ready arrangements.
“On the record, Gormie plays bass, I play most of the guitars, and we got Adam [Heath], my previous guitarist, in for a few days,” she recalls. “Lachie [O’Kane], who also plays for Angie [McMahon], played drums. Hamish [Patrick], who produced ‘Anthony’, also plays on ‘Anthony,’ and other Hamish [Mitchell] plays on ‘The Punch’... it was just friends of Gormie’s who were around at the time and then just majorly contributed to the record, which is so special.”
Image credit: Marcus Colbyn
The result is unmistakably a leap forward, with Are We There Yet? pushing Romanie’s still-sharpening pen into some fresh spaces. On Hallucinating, the endlessly catchy chorus comes borne on a wall of sound, fuzzy electrics humming atop tinkering kitchen-sink percussion. Pills for Everything is more spacious, with Romanie’s voice leading into a more tempered instrumental stroll. Then there’s The Punch, a standout single co-written with Kate Davis, which i littered with beautiful harmonies, restless electronics, and some of the most compelling beats on the LP.
There’s no shortage of acclaim, but Romanie’s not one to check on her laurels. “One of my best friends sat me down and she's like, ‘You need to print all these things off that you're achieving, because you're gonna just keep pushing forward,” she admits. “I'm aware of it now… I feel like I'm always looking at the next thing, which is good in the sense that it makes you work really hard, but it also sets you up for failure.” You can’t stop to smell the flowers if you don’t stop by the garden, and you won’t stop if you don’t consciously make the choice. “I'm really trying to be a little bit more down to earth,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe I'm gonna have to get off my dream cloud at some point!”
That dream cloud — plans, hopes, ambitions — is perhaps best seen in Romanie’s spate of music videos, addendums and enriching companions to her music. A not-so-secret cinephile, Romanie’s referenced her love of film on both Anthony, named for Anthony Hopkins’ emotive turn in The Father, and Nomadland, named for Chloé Zhao’s raw cinematic expedition across America. The only reason Are We There Yet? has just seven music videos is she couldn’t make quite as many as she’d have liked.
“I had five videos for the EP, as well,” she says, referring to clips such as Stranger In My Skin, Fake Friends, and I’m Anything But Myself Around You. Those videos mirror their musical inspirations, each being small-scale affairs that bristle with intimacy and enthusiasm. This time around, Romanie’s music is again reflected in the increasing ambition of the visuals. “I really wanted to do a video for every song on this album as well, but it just costs so much money if you want to do it professionally.” The video for Are We There Yet?, a dreamy mannequin-staffed desert cruise, was facilitated by a partnership between Triple J Unearthed and NIDA. “I met so many cool people on that shoot, and just brainstorming with the director was phenomenal,” she lauds. “I'd love to get into like film music as well… it’s just so special.”
That interest in film music — the art of scoring a story — speaks to Romanie’s interest in creating real spaces to complement her films. “I love having videos with songs because it's just I think so visually,” she adds. “I really want to create a world per song.” In a twist of fate, a local initiative from Fantastic Film Festival presented a perfect opportunity for the visually-minded musician. “The Nomadland and Pills for Everything videos, I didn't have any hand in that,” she explains. “I uploaded the songs to Music Video Blind Date, and then two creatives made a video for me. When I first saw Nomadland, I was like, 'Oh my god, this is the complete opposite of what I meant with this song,' but it's so cool because I saw something very spacious in my visual mind and then Brandy made a video in an escape room.” That claustrophobic science-fiction odyssey was a far cry from the original inspiration, but lent a whole new lease on Romanie’s composition. “I was just like, ‘Oh my god, this is actually so cool,’ and it made me think about my songs a bit more.”
That’s not to say there’s a lack of thought behind the tracks: at times, Are We There Yet? is an intimate and painful journey to the centre of Romanie herself. “I think I mostly write songs to process things… as I'm writing things, it's kind of like a journal,” she explains, her inspirations stoking a quick songwriting response. “Sometimes I'll write things obviously exaggerated for the music, but they kind of make more sense in my head afterward… sometimes I feel like I'm predicting how I'm going to react to something.” The subconscious, simmering underneath, is given sly and surprising expression. “I feel like because I live so fast… I'm always busy doing something, and then I don't really have time to think. With music, I feel like I'm actually forcing myself to sit down.” She ponders it for a moment, talking herself through a new thought: “maybe I'm feeling restless at the moment because I'm not writing, and I feel so business-driven and financial all the time… maybe I should just sit down and write!”
It’s hard to know if that’s actual self-help or more fast living, but at any rate, Romanie’s adjusted to her own breakneck pace. “You're catching me on a good day,” she admits. “I feel like yesterday I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don't know what's gonna happen, I don't know if anyone's gonna come to my show,’ but today I'm like, ‘Actually, I know my closest friends will be there, and anyone else is a bonus.” It ebbs and flows, and Romanie describes it as “a whirlwind.” The uncertainty that runs through tracks like Fortune Teller, Are We There Yet? and Panic Attacks for Breakfast is no less potent having been explored. “I've gotten some amazing wins, but I was actually speaking to someone, and I was like, 'Fuck, success is not like only going up, it's still falling down. I've hit some hurdles already, and I'm just like 'fuck!'" It’s not about overcoming the unpredictable future, but finding liberation where once was dread.
Romanie’s arrival answers the titular question with a refutation: "where is it that I’m expecting to be?". The journey is unending, the destination ever-changing, and the present well worth celebrating. “This album, I am so proud of it,” she tells me. “Gormie was posing with all his records from this year, and he was like a proud dad. I feel very lucky that I got to do that — not everyone in the world can make a debut album, and I feel very grateful.”
The same is true of headlining a show at Northcote Social, a goal Romanie's been working towards for a long time. “I love the creation, and it's so special,” she says of time spent in the studio, “but the live aspect, just connecting with other people… I love the energy in the room when you play a song that’s so emotional, and seeing people connect to it. It's something special, it leaves an impression.” It’s a function of not only the music, but the community that surrounds it, as Romanie reflects on the tight-knit Melbourne scene she calls home. “I'm so lucky to have so many friends who love music, it's so special. I only moved here four years ago… I don't know what I did to deserve such wholesome people around!”
“I like when people do something different in a live setting,” she explains. “Genesis Owusu is such a different vibe… the fact that he can be so versatile, both on the record and in the live setting, is what you want as an artist.”