"Don't force your first album." A candid conversation with Airling on her debut album

"Don't force your first album." A candid conversation with Airling on her debut album

We chat to the Brisbane-based musician about her Hard To Sleep, Easy To Dream, collaborating, and her upcoming national tour.

When discussing the music of Brisbane-based artist Hannah Shepherd - better known under the alias of Airling - many words come to light. Beautiful. Elegant. Charming. Soothing. All these adjectives have been thrown around her since she emerged on triple j Unearthed in 2014, and will no doubt continue for the rest of her career. Her just-released debut album Hard To Sleep, Easy To Dream combines all these aural tones and flavours and more, shaping the most refined and varying release of her work under the Airling name thus far. From the dizzying Take Care Of You to the concluding piano chord in the album-closing ballad Roma Rose, Airling's debut is one of the best to arrive out of Australia's bustling indie-electronic scene this year, setting a new standard for all those yet to come. Fresh off the album's release and with a national tour with Jack Grace in her sights (dates at the end of this article), we caught up with Airling to talk about the emotions and stories that shaped the record, the art of collaborating, and more.

Congratulations on the release of your debut album! Can you give us some insight into the processes and time behind the album’s creation?

Thank you so much! It's been in the making for the past couple of years; with writing the tracks and then the actual recording and tracking of them. We did some of the recordings in Brisbane and most of it in Melbourne. I wrote a lot of the initial bones and vibe of the songs at home on my upright piano or with synths and looping beats. Then, if it was something that myself and my producers were digging, we'd flesh it out or sometimes write new sections or arrangements. One of the songs, Shut the Light Out, I wrote in New York while I spent a month living in Brooklyn. A Day In the Park started in the studio after I walked in on Tom [Iansek] playing the piano riff.

The album was written by yourself, Tom Iansek from #1 Dads and Graham Ritchie, and includes collaborations with Emma Louise and Fractures (amongst others), what are some of the benefits of collaborating with other musicians in your eyes?

I think different people bring out different colours in one another. Tom and Graham especially have allowed me to push against fears or flaws I may have had, and you end up discovering strengths that you didn't know you had. Some musicians focus on different aspects as well, whether that be the lyrics, or the chord progressions or the production techniques. I'm keen to explore more collabs in the near future too!

One collaboration that is particularly interesting is Far Away, which features Emma Louise. How did this partnership come about? What was the experience of working with someone like Emma like?

Em is a great friend of mine and she started writing this song and sent me a recording saying she had me in mind to sing it. I haven’t ever had anyone write a song for me so it felt like the most amazing gift a friend could dream up for me. We finished writing it together and she ended up singing harmonies on the track as well. I played in Em’s band for a few years and we haven’t sung together for a while, but there’s this beauty and ease when we’re together. We always say that each other’s voices are like a warm blanket for the other ones.

Across the album’s 14 tracks, it seems like the record touches on quite a few different personal topics and emotions – are there any particular stories or moments in your life which influenced the album’s creation and lyrics?

There are countless experiences and stories which have shaped the songs on the album. One stand out was a strange week full of shambles in New York when I hurt someone I love, lost my passport and my bag. I locked myself away in my room in the dark for days trying to make sense of it all. And out came Shut the Light Out which I guess is a song which explores guilt and forgiveness.

My mum died when I was a teenager and I was holding her as she passed away so there are moments on the album and specific songs that really channel her and that heartbreaking experience. I Am Just a Body, Bloodshot Blue and Roma Rose in particular. 

Someone special boys who I fell in love with (not naming any names!) made a big impact on me and those emotions feature strongly on some of the more love/lust laced tracks, like Give Me All You Got, Not A Fighter and Take Care Of You.

What are some of the influences behind the creation of the album?

There were so many musical influences, like James Blake, James Vincent McMorrow, Sufjan Stevens, Solange, D'Angelo etc. Also, I try to always be reading a novel, as I've found that this can really open up your language and vocab as well as keeping your mind open. I was super inspired by Patti Smith's book Just Kids. The world is an interesting place full of beauty and flaws and observing these things really stimulates my creativity. The world doesn't wait for you and this realisation often pushed me to grab hold of opportunities and kicked me into gear during times when I felt as if I was just watching it go by. 

Given it is your first LP, and you’ve been releasing music for a few years now – what’s the biggest takeaway/lesson learned from the experience?

That's a tricky one as there really have been so many lessons learned over the making of this record. Biggest ones for me: don't force your first album. Just write, write and write some more and yours songs will let you know once you're ready for it. And try not to over complicate things. Or in other words, don't fix what ain't broke. If it feels good, just let it be and let it breathe.

The album comes with an accompanying tour, which kicks off in Adelaide this month. How do you plan on translating Hard to Sleep, Easy to Dream into a live setting? Has the live show changed since you last came around for a headline tour?

We spend so much time, thought and care to create the soundscape with my music that I love to closely recreate that in a live setting. I'll be touring with my two band mates, Christopher Port and Graham Ritchie, and between the three of us, we are able to sing, play or trigger all of the elements on the album. The main difference since the last time I toured are the songs. I think I was only playing a few of the tracks on the album, but this time I'm going to play most of the songs off the album on this tour as well as some golden oldies. When I play, I love to be present, and my favourite shows are those when I walk away feeling connected to the humans in the room. I'm hoping that this tour will be a moving experience for myself and for the audience. 

The album tour is supported by Jack Grace, is this a support act that you individually picked? Are there any other Australian artists you’ve been listening to lately?

I adore Jack Grace's music and he is also a legend, so I really wanted him to come on tour with me. It makes the adventure that much better and is inspiring hearing music you love being played before you hit the stage. My drummer and label mate Christopher Port also plays in Jack's band so it was just a perfect match.

I'm loving Julia Jacklin at the moment. She's an earnest poet and lyricist, and her voice is like smooth silk. As well, the latest Big Scary album is gold. 

Releasing your debut album is a pretty big goal-tick I would think, so now that it’s out there what do you have your sights on next?

Massive goal tick! I can't wait to make another record, so I'm starting to explore my writing again and see what's flowing out. We've got a set at Splendour in the grass coming up, and I haven't played there since 3 years ago when I won the unearthed spot. I've got my heart set on slaying that show!


Fri 19 May | Jive, Adelaide

Sat 20 May | Babushka, Perth

Sun 21 May | Mojo’s Bar, Fremantle

Fri 26 May | Civic Underground, Sydney

Sat 27 May | Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane

Sat 3 June | Northcote Social Club, Melbourne

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