From Sydney bedrooms to GRAMMY nominations: The rise and rise of Mansionair
After an extensive run of singles, the Sydney three-piece finally welcome Shadowboxer, their debut album.
Header photo and in-article photos by Jess Gleeson.
It’s hard to find an Australian act with a glow-up comparable to Mansionair. Over the last five years, the Sydney three-piece are practically unidentifiable to what they were as a band in 2014. They’ve transformed from a collection of three friends creating music in bedroom studios and sprawling living rooms across Sydney, seeking that triple j attention they’d eventually discover in their break-out single Hold Me Down, to where they are now – GRAMMY nominations, Coachella performances, ARIA-charting singles and so on.
It does make sense, however. In the time since Hold Me Down, the trio have been working what’s perhaps easiest explained as the ‘throw it at the wall and see what sticks’ method, experimenting on what’s become ‘the Mansionair sound’ and shading it with mannerisms and subtleties that have kept every single since feeling refreshing and something new. They’re firm believes in quality over quantity, releasing only a single or two a year to keep themselves recognised in a quickly-turning industry known for its short attention spans, but not enough for people to get sick of them, or constantly wanting more – and, as expected, it’s worked.
In the road to their debut album Shadowboxer – released today via Liberation Records – Mansionair have strived, going from strength to strength as they refine their sound and aural personality to the slick, hit-making machine they are today. Astronaut (About Your Love) is lush with its bright synth melodies and layering vocals, yet simultaneously intricate and gentle, especially through its subtle percussive layer that rattles underneath. Violet City welcomed something cinematic, with expansive melodies meeting another crooning vocal that swells alongside its synth, while Technicolour offered a take on Mansionair’s electro-pop built around organic instrumentation; the raw percussion, rising vocals and addictive guitar melodies meeting the traits that characterise their previous work.
Your typical album highlights would perhaps stop there, but Shadowboxer is a record that grows stronger as it does longer. There’s Falling’s indie-pop crescendo, bulging and swelling as it continues, to the tender moments of reflection that mark the album’s latter half like Harlem, which encapsulates “that feeling of turning away, facing the sun” and reflecting on life’s beautiful moments. Shadowboxer in its most simple explanation is an album that condenses Mansionair’s tried-and-tested brilliance into a tidy package – a sixteen-track, hour-long spanning one at that, but one doesn’t feel frail or fatigued when the track number exceeds the standard ten-track format.
“Shadowboxer is about acknowledging that we are often our own opponent and learning to accept our inner shadows – the ones we try so hard to ignore,” the band say on the album, written across living rooms, garages and studios throughout Sydney before being finished in a Californian cabin amongst the mountains. “It’s a record about deciding to lif our gaze from the darkness and acknowledge the light that shapes us,” they continue. “It bookends our first years of discovering who we are and what we wanted Mansionair to be as we pushed through insecurities, uncertainties and moments of relief. It’s as much a diary of our first three years working together as friends as it is about making every mistake possible together.”
Balancing complexity with delicacy and vulnerability with strength, Shadowboxer closes a chapter for Mansionair filled with success. Astronaut went gold, their collaboration with ODESZA Line of Sight was nominated for ‘Best Dance Recording’ at the 2018 GRAMMY Awards, they’ve played every festival under the sun – Laneway the most recent – with more to come in 2019, including a slot as one of the handful of Australian artists playing a Coachella stage this April. They’ve charted on the Billboard charts and on release, Shadowboxer is bound to chart on the ARIA charts too.
The only question that stands is where do Mansionair go from here?
(the answer is up – and up, and up, and up.)
So first of all, I wanted to talk about sort of the time leading up to the album, because Mansionair have obviously been around for quite a while – it’s been like five years or so since you started releasing under the name?
But Shadowboxer is the first album. Was there anything that sort of prompted you three to be like “hey, we should move into the album format now?” Or did it just feel like the natural progression after all the singles?
I think we always set out to write an album and you know, we started in quite a strange manner with becoming popular pretty quickly with Hold Me Down before we really made it compact – born as a band, I guess – and I think what we learned in the early years of writing music together was that we kind of just needed to burn through a couple of years, getting used to collaborate on an intimate level. I think after working on writing for a couple of years, we got it to be a bit more of a body of work, and I guess what Shadowboxer came to be about was that exact process. But I think it expands a little further with we were going through in our own lives – something like Easier was a real first moment where we realised that we had something to say within an album context.
Even our latest single, Shadows, we wrote that quite early on in the process, towards the end of 2015, and we just stored these little pieces of this concept we wanted to talk about, which started off all about turning away from your shadow and actually facing up to who you want to be or what you want to do, and the insecurities of that vision and in a funny way, it was informed by how we were working but also how life works as well.
I think that we always wanted to set out to write an album and I think we have to go through the wringer a bit. I think bodies of work like this are very difficult to finish before you tear it all apart – be as creative as you can, start to love to make things and then having to abandon them – it's just the process of the album. You have to really see what works and start finishing things whether we were insecure about it or not, and I think that was what really led us to the album.
You mentioned that the album is a bit of a musical reflection of that time and both how the band and yourself have changed musically and personally. I know you mentioned there are some pretty rough things in there – sickness and mental health and relationship deterioration and all that sort of stuff. I don't want you to speak for the rest of the band, because I don't know if you feel comfortable doing that, but can you tell me a bit about the struggles that ended up shaping the album?
Yeah, I can speak kind of broadly for the band and quite intimately to myself. I think when you sit down and start writing a song, they’re always going to be innately personal, and I think that was important in the process of taking our time.
I think we needed to own it, and there are some darker things on this record and I think what we really wanted to say after three years working on it – I think we started in August 2016 and wrapped about August last year – is we wanted to kind of go through those topics of anxiety, of social anxiety or sickness or mental health, all these aspects, but also kind of never seemed like we were idolising that idea.
What I always wanted to be careful of was talking about these things in a very matter of fact way; being raw and honest, while protecting myself but also the people in the audience that would be listening to them, and I think the last process of the album that we went through – when we went to this cabin in California last year – was seeing everything a little bit more in hindsight, a little more in retrospect, and kind of looking at it like, “okay, well this is everything that has been our dream, parts of lives, parts of our creative process and our creative struggle. How do we look ahead and go, there's some positivity there?” and I think that was the real lesson that I took home as a human being and also as the full band – you can kind of look at these darker sides of your life, or you see the struggle and perhaps look at them too closely.
I think the important thing is to see them for what they're worth and be able to move on in a positive way and not feel like you're getting stuck in your own slog. Do you know what I mean?
For sure. There’s a really beautiful quote that says the record is about, like you were saying, trying to lift yourself out of that darkness and those rougher times and acknowledge the lighter times and the moments happier. How do you go about doing that and then translating it into an album?
I think that's where the power of music comes in. There's a track called Harlem, towards the end of the record, that’s one of our personal favourites on the album, and to me, that song encapsulates that feeling of turning away and facing the sun and being like, “how beautiful can life be.” I wish I had more answers after five years of stewing over it – I didn't think I was looking for this kind of concept when we started writing the album to start with.
I don't know; I think that there's a lot in Shadowboxing, even the definition of Shadowboxing – preparing for a fight, being behind a closed door and practising your punches. I think, honestly, the importance of what Shadowboxing is trying to say is that I actually kind of need to go out there and go and doubt it – do it with intention º but also be cool about it about it too.
I think going through the process I personally felt like maybe I was putting a little too much pressure on myself to make something great or to be great, and I think the greatest thing about finishing the album is that we just finished it. We can't keep stewing over it anymore, we just need to put it out there and accept it for what it is, and I think there's a bit of a metaphor for how I now want to move on with my life and I think that's the real crux of the message.
Moving on away from the themes a little bit, Shadowboxer is what, sixteen tracks long? That is quite a mammoth undertaking, especially for a debut album, and interestingly also at a time where it seems like there's that whole thing with hip-hop last year where all the albums were seven tracks and thirty minutes long, getting right cut down. Was there any particular thinking behind making Shadowboxer quite a long, extensive listen or was it just you couldn't cut out the babies that you've made over the years, or?
Yeah, I think the theme of the record – every song that fit around that theme, that's part of the story – was a contender for the album and we thought the album was finished around within the couple months of last year and it wasn't until we started writing again that we felt like – it was the end of last year – that we felt like we actually had more to say and that we wanted to kind of add to it, and add that kind of feeling towards it.
We were part of that – of releasing shorter pieces – but I guess personally, after years of releasing single after single, the only thing we wanted to do next was to give the people that had been hanging out for the album – that were hanging out for months unending – something to chew on and I guess putting it sixteen tracks, you can just kind of hit play on however you play it or flip the record, and actually just dive into our world a little more.
I think too, we played around with the singles part of Mansionair for quite a number of years and I think for us too, we just wanted to show that we could also write these kind of B-side, C-side songs of the album that some go for two minutes, or just a chord, or some go for a little longer and meander around like a simple hook or something, just showing that the other side of Mansionair isn't just confined to three minutes, three and a half minutes, but actually kind of gives a little more. I guess writing an album that spans sixteen tracks was, although it's somewhat unintentional, something that just happened, and felt very right.
I guess that's what it is, for a number of those reasons, but there are heaps more. Finding a place that we can go, "hey guys, here's the whole bunch and more, that you've been waiting for” is an almost as a reward for our fans – and they deserve it.
I wanted to sort of keep it centred on the album, but one thing I did sort of want to touch on was ODESZA. I know that that collaboration inspired a bit of a shift for Mansionair and really helped in pushing you guys into the US, which I know is where you guys are a lot now – like doing US headline shows, even doing Coachella and stuff. What were some of the effects of that ODESZA collaboration, and pushing you into America?
Yeah, it definitely did. Even meeting and spending time with them – I toured with them a little bit last year performing Line of Sight – but I just admired them for what they were doing and their vision. They just work, they just get things done, and they love what they do and they're absolutely killing it in the States.
That platform really helps us. I guess it validated us over a little bit and it gave us this kind of level of recognition that perhaps we were of undeserving of at the time, like the bloody Grammy nomination – I still don't believe that actually, I still think someone's lying to me about that – but they gave us a little nod over there.
We were always wanting to spend a bit of time in the States and really started a good touring lifestyle over there. We gave it a real push as well as our label, Glassnote – they put us out there in a great way and I think America is fantastic country, they're such passionate music lovers as they are here in Australia.
I think that there's a real beauty in being able to just log twenty-six shows in three weeks around the country. That's something that we can't really do. But we love playing shows so much; we get to hit the road in Australia for a couple of months and play seven or eight shows. In the States, it’s something that you can really kind of chew on and the songs take a new shape when you spend that many nights in a row singing them and performing them. You kind of enter this sort of a trance state, you've sung it so many times, you like "I don't know what this song means anymore."
The ODESZA guys made us see what was possible over there and kind of pushed us out the Australian circuit a little bit, which was amazing.
I know that transition from Australian to US audience is quite a big one – even though they are so many similarities – but something that only a few Australian acts have been able to achieve. What’s been the most surprising thing about that shift in audience and industries?
I think the biggest shift – and this is what I love so much about being Australian – is in Australia, you just get to be you, and it's a little more grounding. You just chat, and it's like "you're just that bloke from that band," but in America, it’s just a little more of a different, and acts seem to keep to themselves away from everyone a bit.
I always really notice that shift when we come back from the States and we land back in Australia and we play some Australian shows. We're like the bloke next door, which is a beautiful thing and I really love it. I think that with playing live so much while working on this record, was something what we always wanted, like hey, we're all here and we're all just wanting to sing these songs to connect to something other than our boring lives at times.
That's the biggest difference – in Australia, you're just the bloke next door, you're not elevated or anything, in any unrightful way. It's a very beautiful thing.
Mansionair's debut album Shadowboxer is out now via Liberation Records. Find their upcoming tour dates – including AU/NZ shows this May/June – HERE.
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