How queerness and Winona Ryder shaped HANDSOME's debut EP, No Hat No Play

How queerness and Winona Ryder shaped HANDSOME's debut EP, No Hat No Play

With Joyride jumping in to help out, we unpack the inner themes of HANDSOME's debut EP one track at a time.

Header photo by Anna Hay.

This time last year, the Australian LGBTQI community was in the midst of the same-sex marriage plebiscite, a long and exhaustive few months which affected the community so intensely that even now, a year later, the evidence of its existence is still strife - through mental health issues, long-winded political disagreements, homophobia - both casual and severe - and what not else. In turn, as these lows always do in culture, this time influenced a lot of incredible art, queer art specifically. The increasing presence and influence of queer musicians across Australia over the last twelve months are one of the more obvious signs, with a range of artists across multiple genres rising throughout the last year with messages of self-acceptance, self-love, resilience and persistence in hard times. Take Cub Sport, for example, whose singles O Lord and Chasin' soundtracked both the highs and lows of Tim Nelson and Sam Netterfield's relationship, while their most recent single, Hawaiian Party, has become an international hit thanks to its Dolan Brothers-starring video clip.

The list doesn't end there. It's an extensive and ever-growing bunch of talented Australians who seem to one-up each other on every release, sharing messages from their communities with the greater world - something that HANDSOME aims to do with her own EP, No Hat No Play. Released through Dot Dash Recordings, No Hat No Play is a five-track adventure into the world of HANDSOME that expands on her previous project Caitlin Park, with the Sydney-sider enlisting guests and friends such as Joyride and DMA's' Jonny Took for a celebration of everything she's about. "I feel like the world is having a moment of celebrating one’s self-expression - it is powerful at this time to be yourself, and I guess this also comes at a time when I know myself," she says on the EP. "It took time for me to know who was, and now it's here, I want to do whatever I can to encourage and support others to be brave and proud of who they are through my music."

Through feature singles such as Late Night Ball Game - whose video followed a diverse group of people (all queer, and all Caitlin's real-life friends and family) 'coming out' and helping each other in the process - and Save Some Love - one of our personal favourite singles of the year thus far, HANDSOME is able to share her own personal experiences with hope and acceptance, lending a hand (and a voice) to those who otherwise, don't have one in times of need or struggle. This, plus for reasons you're about to find out, makes No Hat No Play not just a great introduction into the world of HANDSOME both sound-wise and theme-wise, but also an incredibly important one - cementing her place as a next-generational artist amongst Australia's ever-growing and continually impressive electronic scene.

With the full EP out now - get it HERE - and an east-coast finishing off with a pair of launch shows in Sydney and Melbourne this October (deets and tickets at the end of this article), we walked through No Hat No Play with HANDSOME herself, detailing the inner themes, influences and creation of the EP one track at a time - from the percussive and bubbly anthem of acceptance Save Some Love, right through to the warm and comforting close, WILDS. Stream the EP below, and dive into her words underneath that.

First, however, let's go to Joyride - who shares some words on his experiences with Caitlin and the journey they've taken to No Hat No Play.

Her knowledge of current music is unparalleled
A forward-thinking producer
Never shies away from a little bender
Does it all seamlessly, from music to artwork to vids to press to merch
Stunning singer!!!
Officially the most inspiring person I work with tbh
Makes me better at what I do, just by sitting in the room
Everyone should buy her music

- Joyride.

You mention that some of the songs on the EP have been in the works for years. Can you tell us about the road to the EP to get it where it is today?

So over the last couple of years, I was releasing music with the project under my own name, Caitlin Park. I was in the works of making my third album under that project and I wanted to make something fresh sounding and new. I felt like I was boxed into an acoustic kind of fashion, while I wanted to take it into an electronic world. There were so many elements that made me want to do this – the music I was listening to, the clubs and events that I went to, the friends that I started making and so on. All these things really impact the way you listen to music and I think I just started listening to electronic music and R&B music a lot more, and realised that it’s the next adventure I wanted to take.

I got to this stage in music where I wanted to do something new and fresh. All this change was happening in my life and I felt like I understood myself and my confidence a lot more, so I thought a completely new project made sense with this. One of the main catalysts of it all was a friend of mine, who throws a party in Sydney called Heaps Gay. It’s an all-inclusive party and it’s amazing - people from all walks of life and sexuality go there. I went to this party and I was there until 6 AM, which is when my partner and I went back to my house and huddled around the heater trying to keep warm. There, we read about the Orlando Shooting - which had at the time just happened. It was a moment that impacted a lot of us – especially on that night. We had just come from a queer party ourselves, and then getting back to find a hate-fuelled mass shooting had happened at a queer space? It was a scary moment, and it made me think that I’m not making music that impacts the people that I want to impact, and I’m not making music that says what I want to say. From that moment I was like – "that needs to change, and I want to make music that says what I want to say politically, while also impacting people’s lives and making people feel something and encourages them to be themselves."

Sonically, it came from the music I was listening to and all that, but also it came from working with Joyride - who co-wrote Late Night Ball Game which was the first chapter of HANDSOME which came out last year and the new single, No Cowards. That, and also the development of new software and stuff right? I feel like there’s a lot of little idiosyncrasies in my music that will always be there. Like, I love pop music and I love electronic, but I really love that stuff when it's a little bit left of centre and it makes audiences think more. These are the things that really float my boat, and that's really where it all began.

Onto to the title - No Hat No Play. You mention that it's taken from the phrase we're all familiar with, but how it comes with this notion or agenda that the older generations know better. This is what the EP is said to be centred around - tackling and processing this. Do you mind expanding on that?

It all comes down to the idea that the EP is about celebrating self-expression, and that's what I want HANDSOME to be about and that's what I want people to associate that with. All of that spans into this idea that if you're a young person and you're told the rules and you're told who to be, how will you ever get to fruition of self-expression? How will you ever acquaint to the person that you're supposed to be if you're constantly told who you are? That's kind of the main essence of the EP, which I'm super proud of because I think it really introduces the project wholeheartedly.

No Hat No Play is something that resonated with me because the funny thing about the rule is that it's offered to children who are very young, but it's also offering them the incentive to take that responsibility into their own hands. So, like, if you don't bring a hat to school, you can't play. It's one of the first rules that we're given as kids in Australia specifically that gives the first step into taking responsibility for your own shit. I'm not gonna lie though, I really liked saying No Hat No Play out loud. But I also think that there are so many different facets to it that you can take it with. I think that the queer community has always been associated with this strong idea of play - dance and partying, basically - and all of those go hand in hand, but basically, all in all, it just suggests that if you don't follow the rules, you can't play the game.

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Photo by Anna Hay.

Save Some Love is the first song on the EP, and it comes with the lesson of self-love and self-appreciation, which is something the whole EP is centred around. That said, it's dedicated to your cousin, right?

Officially, the video was, yeah. He actually took his own life after the song was written. But now, the dedication of the song and the video is definitely to him.

This is obviously an incredibly personal thing to cover - whether it's through the song or the video. Are you afraid of being too... vulnerable or open with your music and writing about topics like this? Or is it something that you want to bring more of and see more of in music in general?

These days, I feel like there's an expectation of that openness, you know? Making a great record with amazing videos and artwork and all those things is just the tip of the iceberg these days I think. But no, I'm not afraid of it all. My experience of making music in previous lives - with Caitlin Park - I always had a wall up as an artist and I really didn't give much away. I think that there's an element to giving yourself away a little bit and being that vulnerable person that people really relate to, because they see that you are scaling everything back to them and so it's okay for them to feel that way when they listen to your music, and that's okay for it to be impactful on them the way that it is to me. I guess there's an element of being afraid of it to a point, but I think personally knowing fans and getting to know people that love your music is super important to me.

The way I interpreted Save Some Love, especially knowing your queerness and how much it plays a part in your music and your art, I got the impression that it was about looking after yourself and the community as a whole, especially coming back off the -

- off the plebiscite.

Yeah, exactly.

Yeah, I mean music is always interpreted by the listener the way they interpret it, right? But I think off the back of Late Night Ball Game and going into Save Some Love, it definitely played a part. Interestingly, one of the people that I know Late Night Ball Game impacted so much is this guy called Jonny Seymour who runs a party in Sydney.

One of the Stereogamous guys right?

Yeah, he's kind of this pinnacle person in the queer community of our country - hugely in Sydney - and he was super affected by the plebiscite. That's the way that he reacted to Save Some Love and Late Night Ball Game too - he felt they were songs that resonated with the community and also resonated how everybody was feeling, because I think as much as the media or anyone can talk about how that impacted our community, if you're not a part of that community, you'll never know how that felt.

These songs speak volumes, and it also comes from a queer person. It's like yeah, "I fucking get that?" You know? I think when it comes to queerness it's like, we've always been a part of art - queerness play a huge part in art and it always has been - but the fact that people are now starting to make music and art that literally directs itself at the queer experience, it's mind-blowing the way that it can make you feel. On television, there might be a queer storyline where two girls are suddenly interested in each other and not only do they sleep together but they fall in love, and you see the queer people in the room - their body language changes. I think that's the thing that really seemed to resonate. It was coming from somebody who had been a part of the queer experience and was super affected by what happened with the plebiscite and super affected by watching all of my friends be afraid and cower and feel shit for like a huge amount of the time.

There's obviously a lot of music you've made over the past few years, for HANDSOME specifically or for other projects. What drew you to Save Some Love to open the first EP?

Because Save Some Love is about self-love, I think it was an important way to start the first body of work. As I mentioned before, I really want to make sure that people recognise this project as a celebration of self-expression and self-love and both of those go so hand in hand - like you can not separate the two. Also, I guess there's something I always thought was arresting about the tempo and also the way it kind of starts. But I think mainly, it was the way it sounds, what it means and how it sort of really births the projects the way it should.

I also will add to that, that I sent the masters to Joyride and I was like "what should the EP start with? and he was like "dude, Save Some Love straight up." So it was a couple of different driving forces.

No Cowards is the second song on the EP and you mentioned that it was co-written by Joyride. What's your collaborational relationship with Joyride? What draws you to him as somebody you should work with?

So many things. I met Rowan a long, long time ago. He came into a cafe that I was working in and he recognised me from a really bad, blurry press shot when I put my first song up, and we stayed friends from there and never worked together - but I think we've always revered each other's work. Rowan is the most gentle and friendly man that I know and he is so giving and encouraging and all of those things, but I think down to the nitty gritty, he's a really great pop writer and he's great with sounds and so quick with production. I am really good at other things - not those things.

So I guess what drew me to work with him, was not just that we cared really deeply about each other's work and think that each other are wonderful, but also that we both offer something that each other don't - our strengths are not the same. He's really good at finding that synths and putting that together, while I'm really good at being like "we should take that string sample and cut it up and turn it into a beat." But I also think that we write quite similarly. We really like gospel vocal layers. We really love layering our work out and we're quite similar on a melody level. There are many different reasons why, but those are just a few I guess.

What is the single about in your eyes?

It originally started as a song that was written to an ex-partner of mine. It was musing on the fact that when you split up with somebody, both of you go through this phase where you pretend you don't care about each other. I feel like that's, down to its essence, a really cowardly move. It was kind of written about that, but I think it's sort of amalgamated into different ways of - in the sense of talking about No Hat No Play in general - the idea of ignoring truths and the elation that you can feel when you accept a truth and just move on. I think that also comes down to the idea of parents accepting that their kids are queer. I don't think it's a cowardice act to find it hard to accept certain things about your children, but I do think it's a cowardice act to turn your back on them. The word 'coward' is a strong word that hardly ever gets used. I think it originates from the idea of turning your back on your platoon in a war sense, but I think that speaks volumes about many things. I mean, if you want to put it into context, especially in a queer community context, Malcolm Turnbull turning up to Mardi Gras every year and then holding the plebiscite? That's a cowardice act. Somebody that says one thing to your face and says something else behind your back, that's a cowardly move. I think there are many different ways that you can interpret it, but I think the main message is just saying "dude, just accept it - move on and you'll feel better about it. Don't be that person basically."

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Photo by Cole Bennetts.

So the next song is Late Night Ball Game - the one that kicked it all off. It talks about revealing secrets to people close to you using the example of coming out. You mentioned that it's a song real close to your heart. How was that experience for you, if you don't mind me asking?

It was really amazing. Not that I've ever been a closeted person, but it was really great to have that all out the table and it was really amazing to experience it with my parents, for example. It was really amazing to be able to go back to them with these stories and explain to them how in the video, this subtle thing happens and that's what that means, and my parents go all like "oh my god!" Riding that wave with my friends really close by, which is a huge part of Late Night Ball Game is about - how proud I am to be surrounded by the people I am surrounded by. That's the reason why a lot of the video has features non-acting friends of mine.

Late Night Ball Game started off as a love letter to a friend of mine who came out as trans, and I couldn't believe the way that he carried himself when it all went down. He basically told none of us, and then just sent us all an email which said: "I need you to read this and tell me what you think." It was the letter to his Mum that he was about to send her and I just had no idea. I think there's such a power in the queer community and there's such a power in coming out, because we as queer people are forced to really look at who we are and have to be proud of that, and I think that that's such a powerful thing. It's not something that everybody has to do. That in itself - forcing us to have to do that - is a real awakening experience. So, Late Night Ball Game was kind of based around that story. The basketball scene in the video is what kind of opens that up.

There's a scene in the video where the mother is screaming on the phone, and then it opens up and there are all these old people screaming at the phone - featuring, by the way, my parents and quite a few of their friends. It was a really interesting thing to experience that with my immediate community, but also the extended queer community. I was getting messages from people around Australia, especially around the plebiscite, and the fact that it made them feel powerful was amazing. Then I was getting messages from people internationally, like in the States and the UK and Sweden, saying "thank you for articulating this." I was just like, "What?!" It was really amazing, and it was really great to go through a bit of it with my parents as well and really see the difference in how people can react to things when you just really sit down and tell them how it is. It's confronting as well, you know? It's confronting to ever think that you would make someone feel that scared.

Yeah, it's crazy how much art can reach out to people and affect them - even on the other side of the world. Like, seeing artists like Troye Sivan and Cub Sport - their Twitter mentions are absolutely full of people - teenagers especially - being like "hey! I came out because of your song" and all that. It's wild the effects that much can have on people - even if it's an incredibly personal track just for your own sake.

It's really incredible. It can be life changing. I think it depends on the way that the music's written, for example, like Alex The Astronaut's song [Not Worth Hiding]... there's not much drama in it, you know? It's just simply like, "Just be yourself - it's all good. You can be that person." There is such a power in that - taking the drama out of it completely. But yeah, I was really taken aback by the way that it seemed to impact people. The messages that I was getting were just so revealing as well, like people really felt like they could be vulnerable with me without even knowing who I was or with no back catalogue to even look at. It was eye-opening, that's for damn sure.

The video for the single, which we've already sort of touched on, explored this topic too, and you mentioned before that all the central characters in the clip are queer themselves, even if they're not traditional actors and actresses. We're living sort of in a time now where it seems almost monthly, maybe even weekly, there's news about a queer character on a TV show or movie being played by a straight person - one of the more recent ones being Disney, who just announced that the first openly queer character in a Disney movie is going to be played by a straight male - which always seems to cause a bit of an uproar amongst the community. How important is that representation for you - how important is that having queer characters played by queer people?

First and foremost, I feel like acting is acting - if you're great at it and you get the part, well that's a thing. But - and a huge but - that can't happen until queer people are being hired left, right and centre, and have the same visibility. It's just as simple as that. I mean, it's the same idea that somebody of a different race can't play a different race. Just the idea that Hollywood or anyone could think that that could become a norm is just not okay, because visibility for all of these minorities - minorities that have had their visibility taken away - there's always going to be uproar about that and it's always not going to be right until it's made right.

With all of the videos that I've made, all of the people in that video would've been queer. It means a lot to me because as I was saying before, HANDSOME is all about being in the queer experience and I don't want to be the kind of person that isn't speaking truth about that. Not that anybody in the clips that I'm making are really trying to make it as an actor and it's not that I'm paying them big bucks, but it's just, basically, if I'm making music about authenticity, it needs to be like that in every sense. The only thing that I wish to experience and jump into more for the next projects is really working with more queer people in the background when it comes to making the music, directors, all of those visual aesthetics - that's something that I need to delve into more-so for the next projects in the midst of trying to meet more people in that respect.

Now especially, it seems a lot easier to have that representation in every aspect. Especially over the past 12 months or so, there's been such an explosion of queer artists.

I know, and it's so exciting hey? Queer is more visible than ever, and it's so amazing. I love being a part of my own 'private gang' that not everyone's a part of, which I think everybody kind of does, but at the same time welcome to the party! It's really great that everyone is starting to accept that not only on a normal level, but people are excited about it. We've always been amazing.

Onto TV Set. This track has a real gospel R&B sound to it, especially in comparison to the rest of the EP. You mentioned that you find a lot of inspiration in R&B music, what artists are you looking at this realm?

My favourite record of 2017 was SZA's CTRL. I love that record so much - I can't even express to you how much I love that record. I haven't been impacted by something like that the way I had in a long time. Also, shout out to Aldous Harding. She put out a fabulous record as well. That kind of melody writing - like, artists such as Oscar Key Sung or even going back to Aretha, RIP. I've always loved soul music and R&B. I love Curtis Mayfield. I used to play the saxophone so I've always kind of been a jazz fan. I think new Australian R&B, definitely from Melbourne with artists like Fortunes. or Sui Zhen or Banoffee, are almost floating on a wave of R&B in the background. That kind of stuff is really exciting for me.

TV Set started off as a more conceptual track for an older project which was about memory, and so there's like a little click sound in the track which is actually three different recordings of the sound of a disposable camera. That's how it started, but I think it really fits in with the idea of the song, which is about somebody that was once in your life that you miss really dearly and questioning, well, why? I know that we stopped being friends for this reason, but like maybe we should meet up again and try again or be friends again? Maybe we've changed, went totally better people? But then you meet up with them and be like, "oh my god, I can totally remember why we weren't friends anymore - I really don't want to know you at all!" That feeling of the letting go and feeling kind of powerful in the letting go process.

And continuing on from the inspiration side of things, the EP is built on this electronic backbone but then there are elements of your R&B, those pop elements and your indie elements to it. Not even within the realm of music but also film, television, and just general art, what else were you consuming and getting influenced by during the making of No Hat No Play?

I was watching a lot of Netflix which probably had nothing to do with much. First and foremost, everything that I do is centred around generally film and the soundtrack that comes out of that. So for this EP, whether it's aesthetically or just generally having that kind of thing in mind, the artwork and videos were centred around different films that Winona Ryder had been in. For example, the front cover of Late Night Ball Game and some of the other shots that were used in the car kind of loosely based around a couple of films. For No Hat No Play, the covers of the songs had their own photographs which are sort-of same-same, but it follows a narrative. One, for example, was Heathers, which was a film made in the 90s with Winona Ryder as the main character. Another was Night On Earth.

I liked the idea of following the path of that late-80s and 90s school interactions. I think that's something that really influences me. I remember when I watched Empire Records when I was in year four or five and I feel like that part of my life - all those films, aesthetics and even the music - has always been an influence for me. Another good one would be like, kid crushes you have in school. There's a romance about it that I just can't let go.

So the EP closes with WILDS. Can you tell us a little bit about this song and where it came from?

While I was recording and finishing off a lot of the songs from the EP, I put myself to a challenge of trying to write a new song while I was doing that. I was away for nine days and I was recording for seven of them with an engineer named Sam Brumby. For two days he left me by myself, and so I challenged myself to write a song. WILDS came out of that, and it's written about my partner currently - who is amazing - and she's on the front cover of No Hat No Play with me. Basically, I thought it was a really nice way to end it because it's all about warmth, and if you're going from Save Some Love, the first track, to the final track, WILDS, it's the full circle of accepting and loving who you are. Also, in that respect, being able to project that onto people around you. It's just really warm and cozy.

You mentioned that in a general sense, you want the EP to be an introduction to the world of HANDSOME. What do you want people to take away from the project as a whole?

I want people to be challenged. Whether that's challenging themselves or thinking about the way that they look after or deal with the people around them. Whether that is the way the queer community look after each other or the way that straight people look after their queer friends and so on. I also want this to really impact younger people, but people that haven't gotten to the stage where they really know who they are, or maybe it's bubbling in the surface and they're terrified of what that is. Maybe it's so far off that they feel a bit lost. I'm hoping it's something that will impact people enough to feel free, to be that person they want to be and to feel like that they're surrounded by people that will look after them. Everyone deserves to be loved, I guess.

There's also a part of me that really wants HANDSOME to make people feel really excited and proud to be a part of something so special. That's a huge part of being okay with being vulnerable with people because I want people to make sure that they know they can trust me in that sense. I'm willing to reveal all of this stuff about myself, and it's okay to step into that vulnerability.

HANDSOME's debut EP, No Hat No Play, is out now via Dot Dash Recordings / Remote Control.

handsome no hat no play album

Tour Dates (tickets HERE):

Fri 12th October - Red Rattler, Sydney (w/ Sam Bluer, Flower Boy, Kid Heron + Stereogamous (DJ Set))
Thu 18th October - The Old Bar, Melbourne (w/ Sam Bluer + Greyon)