music | 9 August 2018
Self-proclaimed alt-pop weirdos Jaggers x Lines (Eliana Gray & Morgan Smillie) are set to release their debut album ‘Burn Cycle’ on the 28th of September, and have haphazardly dropped four singles in the months leading up to the big release.
words: waveney russ
photographs: ted black
video: joey bania
Jaggers x Lines blur metaphors into crystalline realities as the pairing comment on day-to-day living with mental health issues, while keeping live shows dynamic and vivacious. The two met when Morgan DJed at now-defunct venue Mou Very, where Eliana was working at the time. They’ve come a long way since then, recently opening for Tash Sultana at Dunedin’s town hall, and it won’t be the last time you see their name alongside the big-timers. Jaggers x Lines want to be international pop sensations.
Hailing from Dunedin in the Deep South, the duo doesn’t echo a hint of the fabled dark ‘Dunedin Sound’, which fragments of the community continue to desperately grasp at the threads of in the present day. Conversely, every Jaggers x Lines performance is a celebration. It celebrates the complexities of life, the continuity and inevitable evolution of Dunedin-based musical genres, and the escapism music provides both musician and audience. However, the realities of living with mental health issues (one in every six New Zealand adult is reported to have a diagnosed psychological disorder at some point in their lives, not to mention the thousands who live undiagnosed or do not fall into the adult category) form the basis of their oeuvre.
"These aren’t your average pop tunes detailing heartbreak or desire, partying hard or staying optimistic."
Their music deals with everything from alcoholism, pyromania and anxiety, to burning down houses, psychological distress from abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and the overwhelming desire to rip off one’s own skin. These aren’t your average pop tunes detailing heartbreak or desire, partying hard or staying optimistic. These are raw and untainted, made wholly digestible by the catchy sample-fuelled, looping beats Morgan lays down behind Eliana’s lyrical density.
All three of us caught up over Echinacea tea in a damp, dark Dunedin flat (admittedly, mine). This arrangement seemed to suit Morgan, who resembles a six-foot-something pro-basketball player. He towered over us more vertically challenged primates as we sat around the table. It would be fair to say that any such arrangement would seem to suit Morgan; nothing appeared to faze the chilled out ‘Jaggers’ half of the equation. He doesn’t interject much, but when he does, it’s considered and constructive. On the other hand, Eliana emanates that infectious energy you encounter at a Jaggers x Lines gig, embodied as an authentic representation of her personality on and off stage. She’s ready to talk about all things from music to trauma, never one to shy away from topics often kept behind closed doors. While chatting, she continually mentioned the polar personality types of the two and how it added a magical element to the pairing during recording and performances. Morgan acts as the cool, calm and collected rock, while Eliana (who works through her own mental health issues) often finds the process overwhelming and appreciates the patient support Morgan affords. These two are idiosyncratic features in the Dunedin music landscape, and you’ll find out why below.
"flickering little embers, soft little lights. Blowing across the damp ground, trying to spring to life."
Your most recent single Soft Little Lights strays from Jaggers X Lines signature sound, with the introduction of jazzy, melodic piano and guest vocals from Alex Selkirk-Hanna (Beachware). What relevance does this song have to your life, and what direction does this shift signify for the two of you?
Lines (Eliana Gray): Every night during the time I wrote 'Soft Little Lights' I would smoke a cigarette out the window of my sun-room before bed and look at the stars. I have issues with anxiety, and one of the more unhelpful coping mechanisms I've developed is paranoid thought cycles. Around this time it was the fear that every ciggie butt I dropped out the window would catch fire and the house would burn down while I was sleeping. That gave me the lines "flickering little embers, soft little lights. Blowing across the damp ground, trying to spring to life." What the song really ended up being about is the ways I use relationships, obsessions and my lifestyle to burn and distract myself from difficult things in my life, including mental illness. I find that I burn myself continually to the ground. I want to move beyond that and develop more sustainable ways to move through life. That song was written in the studio with Morgan while he was getting started on the track's production. The inspiration behind the beats was our fixation on making something a bit smokier than Problem Drinking. I'm always interested in taking things in a jazzier direction, and that feeling was floating around the background of the studio when we were making Soft Little Lights.
When the end comes rolls around
Just like I knew it would
Draw myself a matchbox
The ideas within the preceding single Problem Drinking give themselves away in the title. Where did the influences for this track come from?
Lines: There was a time period around four years ago where I wasn’t medicated yet, I now take a couple of different psychiatric medications, and because I’ve always done bar work, the medication that was always readily available to me was alcohol. I’d only just begun therapy and working through a quagmire of mental illness and actually acknowledging the illnesses that I had. I was like a baby stumbling round in the woods, using alcohol to self-medicate and I became an alcoholic for a while. I used to feel ashamed of it, but I don’t anymore. I am able to be kinder to myself now. Alcohol is a terrible coping mechanism, it only makes you feel sadder. I then got the medication I needed and stopped drinking. This song also came from a year where a couple of my friends took their own lives, it was a year of a lot of awful things happening. A disagreement between my partner and me on the way to Morgan’s house brought about some latent PTSD, which I then channelled into the song. I wrote it in only a few minutes!
Jaggers (Morgan Smillie): She’s the fastest writer I’ve ever come across. I’ll have a loop going, and she’ll say “right, I have this song done, let’s go”, and I only have a loop ready for her. It’s great to record like that because you get all the structure from the writing, I can then change the sound instead of creating an empty song with whatever structure I’ve already decided on.
Lines: In terms of a working process, I think it makes for more interesting vocal melodies. Not having as much music in your head while you write means that you can come up with melodies that you wouldn’t come up with if the rest of the song was already laid out and it had lots of toplines and melodies in it already. My brain gets distracted by those, and I want to sing along to them instead.
Morgan, do you have any influence over the lyrics?
Jaggers: It’s all Eliana.
Do you want to have an influence over the song’s content?
Jaggers: Maybe not. Eliana is a great writer, so I stick to what I know how to do (Morgan holds a Bachelor of Music from Otago University). I wouldn’t mind writing songs and have tried, but I always get down three words and wonder what I could do next. I’m good at coming up with rhyming words! I’ve been holding that one back this whole time.
Sorry didn't mean to
Have that tense intone
Hide outside my bedroom
Scrolling through my phone
The drinking culture in Dunedin is reknowned for being problematic, so that track is pertinent to the environment that it has originated from. Regarding the rejection of a certain ‘Dunedin Sound’ stemming from the generational divide Dunedin’s music scene is currently experiencing, do you two ever consider the fact that you don’t fit neatly into a celebrated Dunedin genre?
Lines: I think it is really cool that Dunedin doesn’t produce anything else that sounds like us at the moment. Dunedin has the punk scene, art noise, this new crop of surf-Mac-Demarco-The-Kooks hybrids with dub basslines and dudes with guitars. It makes it interesting trying to promote our music because we’re not polished pop and don’t pretend to be. We occupy this space where some people find us too pop, and others find us too alternative. The reaction we get from the live shows is fantastic though. We played a Kane Strang gig, filled to the brim with indie bros. My aim for the night was to get those boys bobbing their heads in the back row to dance, and they did! I think we achieved that through our point of difference.
The urge to feel it's over
Conditions being unknown
When will it all be over?
When will we be done?
What are your goals with the Jaggers x Lines project?
Lines: I’m all about getting people to dance and having a fun time. My lyrics are always going to be personal, as music is therapy for me. That’s just the kind of writer I am, nothing is premeditated. It is amazing when people connect to the experiences within the lyrics themselves, but the primary objective is being famous international pop stars that make people dance.
Jaggers: I just want my sound to be funky and want to utilise my interests in mixing and mastering songs as best I can over as many playback devices as possible. That’s my thing.
Has the presence to go pear
Shaped like trepidation
We hover in the air
Could you explain the concept for the ‘Burn Cycle’ album?
Lines: Burn Cycle feels to me the way I move through life. I am a person who suffers from infatuation. I’ve learned to cope with mental illness through impulsivity, and often feel the impulse to light things on fire or rip my skin off. Burn Cycle is about those compulsions and the idea that I have to destroy everything and build it all anew. I know this isn’t healthy, and I’m working on it, but it’s guided a lot of my life. It’s also about the process of regeneration. You can light things on fire, and still return back from the ashes.
Morgan, what is like being part of a musical project where the other half of you is expressing intensely personal, and often traumatic, experiences?
Jaggers: It’s fine. I’m usually absorbed in the sonic aspects of the music. I relate to the problem drinking single though.
The river that holds us
Is flowing too fast
Nothing to hold onto
To try to make it last
Do you think addressing mental illness through digestible, upbeat pop music alleviates the taboo surrounding the subject?
Lines: This album is about conceptualising the healing process. I draw a lot of strength from other artists who address sexual and physical violence in their work and make visible the range of experience these survivors have. Experiencing the music live when it's a party-like atmosphere makes the connection for the audience more difficult. I think people can choose to engage with the lyrics or not engage with the lyrics, which alleviates the taboo for some. It depends how safe the space fields for them. I know it’s not an original concept, making music about mental illness. Something I don't think gets highlighted enough, is talking about the specifics of living with mental illness. I want people to understand that it affects people every day in a variety of ways and that it is hard and messy and weird. I want to be a representative for the complexities of these issues, for being a survivor too. Being joyful about it speeds up the healing process.
Jaggers: I think some people hear the music and believe that the struggle with mental illness was a brief moment in the person’s life, not a day-to-day struggle. In saying that, these issues don’t have to be presented in a sombre atmosphere.
Lead with all the bad news
suit me up for death
I'm used to disappointment
What can I say
What does the new album bring to the table that your previous EP (‘Letters’) does not? Does it reflect the energy you bring to your live shows?
Lines: I'm really excited about how different the album is to the EP. I think they are great extensions of one another both lyrically and sonically. I'm also very excited about how the album represents much more clearly what we sound like live. We never really played the songs from the EP live. There's only one that is consistently in our set (Come To Rest), so for anyone who's seen us live, the album is what that's gonna sound like. Except with less (read: none) of my hyperexcitable yelling and whooping. It's a collection of songs for dancing, for getting sweaty in your body or out of your body. It can be inside of your own feelings or out. It feels more elastic than the EP, especially the ways in which people can connect with it. This is because the sonic landscape is less literally indicative of the lyrical content. They are both simultaneously immersive in different ways, I think you can connect with both the lyrics and the beats together or separately which gives the album many different lives which I love. It is a beautiful metaphor for the elasticity and space I've gained in the creative process between the EP and the album. The summery bangers are definitely going to shake the frost off the end of the Dunedin winter.
Jaggers: The album has been finished for around eight months, and we often have to flag practice as we add new tracks every time we get together. We’ve been heading in more of a live show direction for quite some time. The EP was a quick release after a couple of weeks of isolation and doesn't reflect the sound we have grown into now.
Maybe this is finally
When it all turns around
Maybe this is finally
When I Burn myself to the ground
Directed, shot and edited by Joey Bania.
Upcoming live shows:
ŌTEPOTI: Friday August 24th @ Otago Museum 150th Anniversary Celebrations
TĀMAKIMAKAURAU: Saturday September 1st as part of the Going Global Music Summit
ŌTEPOTI: Friday Setember 7th @ Dog With Two Tails ft. Badfuse (Pōneke)
NATIONWIDE: Album release tour in early October, including dates for Tāmakimakaurau, Pōneke and Ōtepoti
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Jaggers x Lines: @jaggersxlines
Waveney Russ: @waveruss
Ted Black: @ted.black
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