Melbourne musician Claire Birchall is set to release album Running In Slow Motion April 24th through It Records. It’s a moody, emotive, darkwave synth-pop collection of songs that Claire wrote and recorded herself on a 4-track, and is a departure from her usual indie rock exploits. Today we’re premiering the album’s title track which sounds somewhere between UK band Broadcast, France’s Marie Davidson and the Australian cult classic “Cold Café” by Karen Marks. We chatted with Claire about Running In Slow Motion and her musical journey.
Tell us a little bit about your music journey.
CLAIRE BIRCHALL: I grew up in a musical family down the coast, just outside of Geelong. Dad and Mum both played guitar and sang, and they bought a piano when my sister Bec and I were quite young, so we got lessons. Dad also taught us both how to play guitar, which quickly became our favoured instrument. By high school, I was already playing guitar constantly, joined my first band, and also did some busking in the Geelong mall in the summertime.
My high school music room had a cassette 4-track that I was fascinated with. I borrowed it once, and was completely smitten. I ended up buying one myself at age 17, and got hooked on home recording, churning out tapes that I would swap with friends. Through recording, I started trying out as many different instruments as I could get my hands on, and ended up picking up a bit of drums, bass, mandolin and other things. I finally properly released my debut album, the acoustic based Captain Captain in 2001, which I played most of the instruments on. The album did pretty well on community radio, and got some great support from RRR and PBS in particular.
I formed my own band, Paper Planes, which started out playing the songs from Captain Captain. I’m not sure how, but we gradually morphed into a full tilt rock band. We got some decent support slots over the years, Magic Dirt, Catpower, Ed Kuepper, Band Of Horses…. We also released a self titled album, and two 7” singles (all recorded at the legendary Birdland Studios) which were all quite well received. Also around the same time as Paper Planes, my partner (Matt Green) and I, formed country rock band the Happy Lonesome, which I still play in today. Though I started out on guitar in that band, then moved to keys and mandolin, and back to guitar, these days I’m the drummer!
After Paper Planes I released two solo albums, both recorded on the 4-track (PP and Electricity), then formed another band, Claire Birchall the Phantom Hitchhikers, to launch Electricity. Though it wasn’t properly discussed or intended to be a full time band, we really hit it off, and we’ve been playing ever since. We released our debut single, “All That Matters (it’s Christmas time)” in 2016, then our debut album Nothing Ever Gets Lost in 2017, and we’ve played a hell of a lot of shows. Also unintentional, was the small break the Phantom Hitchhikers ended up having towards the end of 2018, which unusually took me to this synth pop place I’m in now.
You’re more known for your rock, guitar-based music; what inspired you to make a synth record Running In Slow Motion by yourself on 4-track in your bedroom?
CB: It was a bit of an accident really. My band mates (the Phantom Hitchhikers) were pretty busy with various things at the time, and it was getting hard to get everyone together. I got an idea for a song one day, and decided to get out my old 4-track and demo it, for something to do. Using my Casio keyboard for drums, and laying down a simple keyboard line, it somehow didn’t feel like it needed much guitar. The song was “Dead Air”, which turned out being the first single from the album. I liked the relative sparseness of the recording compared to my usual wall of sound, fuzz rock stuff, and it kicked off the inspiration for more writing and recording.
I wasn’t planning on making an album, but I got more and more addicted to experimenting with the new sound and returning to my roots of recording on the old 4-track. It was really refreshing to step away from the guitar and sit there at my Casio, get a beat and a keyboard line going and write a song. It completely changed my way of writing, and got me away from using the same old guitar chords/rhythms etc. Before I knew it, I was programming beats on a drum machine, scouring my collection of dinky little keyboards for cool sounds, and recording at every spare minute. I ended up writing and recording the entire album in just a few months (plus a few songs to spare!).
What vision did you have for the record?
CB: It just happened. But as I got further into recording, things started to take shape. I felt like the Casio keyboard drums weren’t sounding punchy enough on a few songs I’d already recorded, and maybe sounded a little too lo-fi. So I re-recorded a couple of them with programmed drum machine instead, and it really gave the songs the kick they needed. I instantly got hooked on programming my own beats, it’s so much fun. I then started digging the idea of getting the most hi-fi sounding recordings out of my lo-fi 4-track. And I liked the idea of minimal tracks, minimal instrumentation, to let the songs talk without clogging them up with a million overdubs. I wanted to write the sort of songs that’d get stuck in your head. Pop songs. I agonised over the track list for ages, cutting quite a few that weren’t up to scratch to make the poppiest catchy album I could muster. I can’t help that it’s pretty dark too, I’ve always had a little of that in my songwriting.
We’re premiering the third single, title track, “Running In Slow Motion”; what’s the song about?
CB: The song came together super quickly, and I used a little old cream coloured Yamaha keyboard for the drums. I still think the song’s got one of the best drum sounds on the whole album. It sounded kind of eerie, and I guess that inspired the eerie lyrics. It’s kind of a nightmare song. A waking nightmare, or a blurred line between reality and a dream, where people’s faces become distorted and turn into something/someone you don’t know. And you’re trying to escape your demons or run away from monsters, but you can’t scream, and you can only manage to run in slow motion. It’s crazy how fitting it is to be releasing such a nightmarish song right at this point in time, when the whole world is truly living in a nightmare.
What was the best things about working alone on your new collection of songs?
CB: As much as I adore my band and bandmates and what they bring to my songs, there’s something to be said about being able to completely follow through with your sole vision for a song. When I write, I often instantly get ideas for multiple instrument parts, not just guitar or vocals, so it’s interesting to try and lay it all down just as I hear it in my head.
Also, I just love recording on the 4-track. Time absolutely flies by. I forget to eat, to drink water, anything. I just get so engrossed and obsessed. Often I’d write and record the whole song in one night, and end up with a tangle of leads and equipment all over the floor. I really love getting into that headspace, where the inspiration is positively flowing and you don’t want to waste time packing up anything, you’ve just got to keep going. I love the no bullshit simplicity of recording on the 4-track, it allows me to be completely spontaneous.
What was the most challenging?
CB: Definitely the mixing. I lost track of how many hours/days/months I spent doing that! I mix down from the cassette 4-track onto the computer, and then occasionally I’ll add some extra bits and pieces there. Some of this involved tedious synching up and cutting/pasting individual tracks loaded in from the 4-track. Plus, I’m so used to doing more lo-fi stuff, where the vocals are a little more buried. I had to work really hard on getting the vocals to stick out and sound more present and poppy. This involved double tracking, FX, and plenty of other little “secret” tricks.
As a songwriter how do you feel you’ve grown while continuing to evolve, making a different kind of album than what your listeners are used to? Do you feel you took a risk?
CB: Even though I hadn’t made a synth-pop album before, I don’t really feel like I’ve strayed too much into the unknown. Every album I’ve ever done has been different from the previous one. I’ve experimented with all kinds of different sounds, instruments, and recording techniques over the years. Being a multi-instrumentalist really lends itself to experimentation. Plus I’ve got a pretty diverse taste in music. My first album, Captain Captain was a real acoustic guitar based album, totally different to my next one, which was the debut full tilt rock album with my band, Paper Planes. There’s also hints of my keyboard/programmed drums leanings throughout all of my solo albums. That being said, this is a very different sounding album, sure. It’s the first one that is a dedicated synth/drum machine album. But I think it still sounds like me.
What are some things you do to nurture your creativity?
CB: I absolutely always carry a notebook with me. It’s so great having an abundance of snippets of ideas to flick through when I’m stuck for ideas/lyrics. I’ve pieced together many a song from individual lines I’ve written in that book.
I also think it’s also incredibly important to not force creativity. I try not to get too worried if I have a dry spell and don’t get inspired to write any new songs for a while. Sometimes it’s good to have a break, clear your head. The songs come when they’re ready.
You’ve played with Kim Salmon; what’s something you’ve learnt from working with him?
CB: You know, I was really quite scared that I wasn’t going to be capable of playing the stuff that I needed to be able to play with Kim. Some of the guitar stuff I felt was completely out of my league! He really is an incredible guitarist. I couldn’t believe he was trusting in me to pull this off! But I worked my arse off, rehearsing by myself at home. I rehearsed more than I’d ever rehearsed for anything in my life. And incredibly I got it together. I surprised even myself. And it goes to show, you really shouldn’t write yourself off and think you’re not capable of something that looks hard and scary, cause it can turn out totally fine and you can have so much fun!
Kim’s taught me heaps. He’s the ultimate professional, but doesn’t like to over-rehearse to the point where you’re “wasting it all up” and losing the spark. I love that, I really agree with that. I love being kept on my toes when I play with him. It keeps it super exciting and fun. I’m always grinning so much on stage with him. He’s a super lovely guy, he’s great to his fans, talks to everyone, signs stuff, all that. It’s no surprise that people really love him.
Why is making music important to you?
CB: I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t know how not to do it! It’s essential for my soul, my wellbeing. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to write songs, especially when they feel like they’ve simply fallen out of the sky like a gift from the gods. You can’t ignore that shit, you’ve got to see it through. Music has also allowed me to play with and connect with so many wonderful and talented people over the years. I’m currently playing in multiple bands/projects, two of which I play drums in (The Happy Lonesome, and Teresa Duffy-Richards & the Fifty Foot Women), plus the Phantom Hitchhikers, my solo synth thing, and Kim’s band. It’s hectic, but I wouldn’t give this up for the world. My life would not be the same without it.