By Michael Tedder
Whether we’re an adult with a full-time career, a busy student, or a buzzed-about indie pop artist, we can all get in a rut. Read an advice columnist or listen to a life coach and they’ll suggest a variety of ways to get unstuck, from journaling to diet changes to simply going on a walk. But for Harriette Pilbeam, the songwriter behind ascendent dream machine Hatchie, the key to moving forward was, as for many of us, turning to Kylie Minogue.
Last year, Hatchie's EP Sugar & Spice earned international attention for its five songs of waved-out and crushed-out pop, and the band embarked on a brief stateside tour afterwards. Pilbeam was working hard on the follow-up, and had made headway on what she knew was an anticipated debut. Her first session in Melbourne with producer John Castle, an Australian knob-twiddler who helmed Sugar & Spice and has also worked with songwriter Vance Joy, had gone great. Then she hit a wall.
"I was feeling a bit bummed out in October, because I really liked the first five songs I did on the album, but I was kind of stuck,” she tells MTV News. “I didn't like anything that I'd since written since. I didn't think that they matched those. I was feeling a bit lost, and the clock was ticking."
Over a bowl of vegan ramen a few hours before she opens for Girlpool at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, Pilbeam remembers that things began to turn when she heard a snippet of music that her live-in boyfriend and collaborator Joe Agius was working on, a danceable track that didn't really fit in with the music she'd made before but which captured her attention nonetheless. "I was like, I love that song, let's try and finish it," she remembers. "I couldn't figure out what direction it should go in, because it didn't sound like a Hatchie song. We were like, 'Let's just pretend we're writing this like Kylie Minogue.' That's how it became what is."
The end result of the Minogue cosplay was "Stay With Me," a highlight of her upcoming debut album Keepsake, out June 21 via Double Double Whammy. "Stay With Me" is a shimmering, upbeat pop song that retains the essential head-in-the-clouds reverie Hatchie established with the Sugar & Spice EP, while adding a bounce that might get even the deepest introverts onto the dance floor. "We sent it to a couple of friends because we were so excited about it, and they were like, 'This is going to be on the album, right?'" Pilbeam says. "I was like, no. I'm not doing dance music or something like that. But then I realized I can do whatever I want on my album. If I love the song, I'll put it on."
Hatchie has been labeled dream-pop since the beginning (Sugar & Spice’s "Try" eventually got a remix from Cocteau Twins's guitarist Robin Guthrie). Many of the dream-pop and shoegaze bands she cites as main influences, including not just the Cocteau Twins, but The Sundays, Mazzy Star, and My Bloody Valentine, were in their heyday a few decades before she was born. She says she discovered them through playlists (she first heard the Cocteau’s immortal single “Lorelei” on a mix Agius made her) and the sort-of-best-of-decade lists your friends in the music journalism-industrial complex provide you with. (You’re welcome.) “I got into it a kind of late, because a lot of people get obsessed with that in their teen years,” she says. Shoegaze and dream-pop is music built for the listener to hide out in. But on Keepsake, Hatchie also pulls influence from contemporary favorites like quirky pop stars Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen; she’s now making music for people that like to get lost, but maybe wouldn’t mind being just a bit more outgoing. “I just want the melodies to really stand out. I think that's the main difference.”
And once she got over the idea of making music that had to sound exactly like she was known for, her songwriting started to open up. “This is my opportunity to skewer a bit,” she realized. “Because I've always loved albums that cover a bunch of different sounds. There’s nothing wrong with an album that’s super-cohesive, but I really liked that first Wolf Alice album, where every song is different.”
Before she was working on her debut album, the 26-year-old Pilbeam grew up in sleepy Brisbane, Australia. "The city is tiny. There's one or two zones where people play live music, and there is one area with clubs, and there's a couple areas with bars, but other than that it's pretty much just suburbia," she says. "It's really vast and quiet. International acts didn't come to Brisbane, they just go to Sydney and Melbourne. It makes us even more isolated than even a normal small town."
After graduating high school and auditioning for a music conservatory, she joined some of her friends in the “slacker rock” group Babaganouj. They did pretty well for themselves in their home continent, even as she notes that “an Australian tour can be two cities,” but the band eventually ran its course and broke up. The group stopped playing about two years ago, freeing Pilbeam up to pursue her own creative vision.
"I remember I got an electric guitar and I'd just been feeling really, really down about wanting to be a musician and feeling like I wasn't really doing anything,” she says. “I felt like with Babaganouj... I had a say in everything, it was very much an equal footing band, but I felt like I wasn't making the music that I really wanted to make."
The first song she wrote on her own, with help from Agius, was "Try," a slice of lovelorn, daydream pop about urging your crush to make a move already. She uploaded the single to Unearthed, the music discovery portal of Triple J, Australia's national radio. "It's guaranteed that someone there listens to it. That's the rule, which is awesome. If they listen to it and they like it, they will play it on the radio," she says. "They played it immediately. Within a few weeks, I had a manager, and I had label interest and was booking shows. I had only written three songs. It was very full on, exciting and surreal."
The sudden success has even been a little dizzying, Pilbeam admits.
"I still have moments where I'm like, this is so weird,” she says. “Even yesterday, I was doing a photoshoot in New York and I thought it was just over a year ago when I quit my job. I was a barista and I was like, it's probably time I quit my job, because I have to go on tour. A couple years ago I didn't think this would be happening."
“Try,” like every song on Sugar & Spice, was inspired by falling in love with Agius, her first real adult relationship. She first met Agius when he directed a video for Babaganouj. Today, they live and work together, as he makes her videos, sometimes helps with co-writing and production, and plays guitar in her live band. "It can be weird spending every minute of every day together. Most couples don't do that," she says.
But just as she wanted to open up her sound a bit on her Keepsake, she also wanted to broaden her subject matter. "Kiss the Stars," for example, still brings the swoon, while "Secret" is a song inspired by her friend confiding in her about their mental-health struggles. "It's something that we all deal with, and I have a lot of close friends who deal with dark, deep-seated issues." Current single "Obsessed" is also about her friends, and her not-always-healthy relationships with some of them.
"When I was younger, I had a tendency to always have a best friend, and that best friend was always smarter than me, prettier than me, did everything better than me. It got to a point where I would just constantly compare myself to them, to the point where I would ruin their friendship. I would use it as a reflection of myself, I would end up hating myself," she says. "It's a habit I'm really trying to break as an adult."
Ultimately, by moving past her own ideas of what a Hatchie song could sound like or talk about, Pilbeam was able to tap into her deeper artistic vision, crafting an album full of the sweet melodies and heady atmosphere that won her attention, but also finds new ways to be herself. She’s boldly assertive and perhaps ready to dance on synth-soaked opener “Not That Kind of Girl,” and “Unwanted Guest” is glistening industrial rock for people too polite to enter a mosh pit. Hatchie still sounds lost in the clouds throughout Keepsake, but now she’s got both her feet firmly on the ground.
But while she’s glad she opened up enough to allow "Stay With Me" on Keepsake, there's times she'll work on a song that doesn't feel right for her. Though her debut album still hasn’t yet hit shelves, Pilbeam’s already starting to think about penning songs for other people.
“I don't really feel good about writing a heartbroken ballad, that's not me. But I can write it for someone else,” she says. “Its early days, but a genuine dream of mine would be to write a song for Kylie Minogue.”