Duo Modal Melodies’ debut single ‘Occupants’ – “I was hoping for a positive outcome or something good to happen after a difficult time.”

Photo: Danielle Hakim. Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

Modal Melodies is a collaboration between Violetta Del Conte-Race (Primo!/The Glass Picture) & Jake Robertson (Alien Nosejob, etc.) made in the spirit of fun and experimentation without rules, they found in each other their biggest inspiration. 

Gimmie are premiering album opener ‘Occupants’, a joyful electronic synth-pop romp, with Vio’s vocals welcoming, intimate and daydreamy. We chatted with Jake and Vio.

How did the project get started?

JAKE: I approached Vio at Jerkfest 2021. I’ve always been a pretty strong admirer of her songwriting and ability to play and sing said songs. I had a bunch of songs that I was struggling with, this was around the last time I was speaking to you, I felt like all of my songs were sounding the same. So, I thought I’d hit up Vio and see if she could give us a hand with some stuff and if I could return the favour. I don’t know if it was ever intended to be a full album, it just panned out like that because the workflow was so languid. It was so smooth, I felt like it was no effort whatsoever to do this, probably because Vio and I work in a similar method.

VIO: Yeah, it was really easy to work together. It got even easier as it went along. We started out with a couple of ideas then started adding more ideas and realised that any ideas we could use; everything we shared with each other we were like, ‘We can do something with that!’ 

JAKE: We had very limited restrictions. There was no wrong answers.

You told me that the only rule for Modal Melodies is that it was only going to be a recorded project and that you’ll never play live.

JAKE: [Laughs] You know, rules can be broken. I always do this, where I go to record with someone and it turns into a live thing.

So Modal Melodies might play live?

JAKE: [Laughs] I’m going to say, no.

VIO: We haven’t talked about it. The cool thing with having the idea of not playing live meant that we could just play as many instruments as we wanted, add as many layers and not have to worry how we would actually do it if we wanted to play it live. It freed us up in that way. That meant that we could push ourselves. There was a song that we did two key changes in; I don’t think I’ve ever done a key change in a song ever. That was really fun! Just trying new things out.

JAKE: The way that we put the songs together was how I put demos together when I’m by myself. I’d never really shown anyone that process before. It felt a little bit weird recording it like that, it felt like demos the entire time, which made me more a little bit loosey-goosey with stuff [laughs]. Did you feel like that Vio? 

VIO: Do you mean adding stuff?

JAKE: Adding stuff. Or even just the writing. I guess because it was so free-flowing there literally wasn’t a single ‘No, let’s not put that in there.’ There was a couple of ‘Hey, we should take out that guitar or put in this guitar’ – the editing that goes with every recording. Because there were no rules or restrictions, I felt like I was in a demo process the entire time. It wasn’t until listening to the song back that I was like, ‘Whoa, this is the whole finished song!’

You mentioned you have a process; what is that process?

JAKE: We recorded the Modal Melodies stuff in the same way that I would write a song, where I would do it in loops of bits and pieces and layer different parts over the top of each other as opposed to when I would rerecord those demos into a album for a different project and do everything live or as live as possible, if it’s Alien Nosejob. So, I play drums along to the entire song. Or if it’s a three-minute guitar song record the entire three-minute guitar, whereas a lot of the songs Vio and I did were looped-based. Some songs we’d play the entire song on guitar or both of us have guitars plugged in, play an entire three-minute song then cut up little bits and pieces, like use the the 20 second or 30 second mark of Vio’s guitar and then the 40 second mark of my guitar. I’ve never done that with another person before, it was very easygoing and a free-flowing was of doing things. 

What’s your usual process Vio?

VIO: With Primo! a lot of the songs start with Xanthe or I bringing in an idea and we’ll learn it together or expand on it, maybe if there’s a verse and no chorus. Or maybe do a demo. Before this I was just using GarageBand demos and would send them to everyone. 

With Modal Melodies, like Jake was saying… I think that’s why it came together so fast because there wasn’t that extra step of taking it in to a group of other people and trying to make that live. It’s done already and you’re sort of shocked it’s already finished [laughs]. 

JAKE: A lot of this was done during lockdown when we couldn’t see each other, so we would email each other being like, ‘Let’s try and have a part that sounds like this or this song.’ It’d be, ‘I really like how this song from the 80s has a whistle in it.’ That’s a bad example though because there is no whistling, but something like that. 

Vio, how do you inspire each other musically? Last time I spoke with Jake he told me that one thing he really admired about what you do musically, is that you give things space, you know where things can breathe as opposed to when he makes stuff and it’s really jam packed. You’re the opposite in that way?

VIO: Yeah, I would agree with that. It was cool for me because I always feel that I work quite simply. I often repeat things a lot. If there was an idea that I initially brought in, I was always amazed by how much we could expand on it. I really loved what he added to all of the songs; I never would have thought of those things myself. All of the songs became better through our collaboration. 

I really love your singing on this album.

VIO: Thank you!

There’s so many really beautiful moments. I love how sound-wise it has an 80s feel but then I can totally hear elements of what each of you do in your other projects shine through. It definitely has it’s own sound though.

JAKE: Each of us had three or four half written songs we brought in. Before we got in the room together (it was a lockdown before we could actually meet up) there was so many emails back-and-forth, with each email having a YouTube playlist; we were sending each other different songs, different influences, so many songs I’d never heard of before. When Vio sent them to me I was like, ‘I’ll try and make something in the style of this.’ 

There was one song that we did instrumentally here that we recorded, we had no vocals and we went for a walk and then Vio went home, three hours later she sent me the recorded words and it was about the tawny frogmouths that we saw a couple hours before on our walk. I feel like you should talk about this Vio, because your lyrics are so much more of a large percentage than mine. It was really cool, I felt like the next day I was reliving the previous day from the words that Vio had written, which was real nice. 

What’s that song called?

JAKE: ‘Clearer Path To Hutton Street’, which is the street I live on.

VIO:  I think it’s ‘Fourth Stage’ Jake!

JAKE: It is? Oh, it is! It’s ‘Fourth Stage’. 

VIO: ‘Clearer Path…’ is another reference to your house, although the lyrics weren’t about your house but somehow the title ended up being about your house [laughs]. 

JAKE: I think it might have been one of the things where you record something on an iPhone and it says the location. I think it said ‘Clearer Path’ then the location was Hutton Street and I sent it to Billy [Gardener – Anti Fade Records] as a demo. He was like ‘Damn – A Clearer Path To Hutton Street – what a title!’ So, I kept it. 

We’re excited to be premiering Modal Melodies debut single ‘Occupants’!

JAKE: That’s one of Vio’s.

VIO: That was the first song that we ever worked on. It was an idea that I had on keyboard and I had some singing for it already; very minimal keys and vocals. I wrote it with my friend in mind, who is also my housemate. That’s where the title came from, we live in the same house…

JAKE: And, is your bandmate [in The Glass Picture]!

VIO: Yes, she’s also my bandmate Lucy [Emanuel]. I wrote it when we were coming out of lockdown at the start of last year. It’s really just me trying to write something to look forward to, my idea was to write something where I was hoping for a positive outcome or something good to happen after a difficult time.

It definitely has that feel and it’s a really cool way to kick off the Modal Melodies album.

VIO: I feel that was really musically interesting, to see what Jake came up with on the software synth; we worked on that a lot. 

When you were sending songs back-and-forth to each other over email was there anything that surprised you?

VIO: I found the song ‘Driving’ quite surprising because it was supposed to be a surprise, we did a bit of an experiment where Jake wrote all the music for that, he had a whole track with no singing and we were like, ok, let’s email each other vocals but not listen to the other person’s vocals until we’d done our own. It was interesting to see how different they would be or how different the melodies would be that we’d come up with. The only lyrical guideline is that it would be about driving, because it’s reminding me of it.

It sounds like you had a lot of fun making the album and there was a lot of experimentation. 

JAKE: It was super fun! Not to continually talk about lockdown, but we’d basically spent a year not seeing anybody and being locked in our rooms. Then it was our choice to lock ourselves in the room to do this, it was almost like a liberating thing [laughs]. It was experimental. It’s a hard one because I feel like it’s each of our ideas completely unfiltered and neither of us said no to the other person. What’s the style of writing called that probably [Jack] Kerouac did where it’s just continuous typing? Stream of consciousness kind of thing. Did you feel that Vio?

VIO: Yeah, I reckon, just because it flowed really easily that lends itself to that stream of consciousness approach. It already feels like you’re in it and it’s just a continuation. 

You mentioned that you were sending songs by other artists to each other inspiring your songwriting; what were some of them that you really enjoyed?

JAKE: The first email that Vio sent me was a Saâda Bonaire track. Our song ‘Starting Point’ was written after Vio sending me that. And what was that later era Wire song? I’m one of those people that only listen to the first three Wire records. 

VIO: It’s on the album with the purple cover… A Bell Is A Cup.

JAKE: Yeah, yeah. ‘Follow the Locust’! Vio sent me so many things I’d never heard of.

VIO: The songs Jake sent have become some of my favourite songs, like ‘Double Heart’ by Robert Rental. 

JAKE: Oh yeah, that’s amazing!

VIO: And that Vivien Vee song ‘Higher’ is so good. 

JAKE: That was kind of in my mind for the slow disco song… with the Italo disco Eurodisco-thing in mind. We wrote a few uplifters on there as well as a rocker, which surprised me. 

Because several of the songs were done from each of our houses, songs like ‘Clearer Path…” and ‘The Sun’ has that arpeggio in it… I was surprised at that when first hearing it, even though it was 50/50 my album. It was just exciting. For me to hear what Vio was coming up with. 

Vio, you did the artwork for the album?

VIO: The painting has sheet music on it, and I can barely read sheet music. I was inspired by the Modal Melodies text which Jake came up with. He wanted to put a lot of clefs and notes in it, we didn’t end up doing that but the painting was inspired by that. Jake sent me a drawing on my phone and I redrew it and put it into illustrator. I guess that was collaborative as well. 

Where did the name come from?

JAKE: The first demo that I did had the name Modal Melodies, then Vio suggested it as the band name instead. We changed the song name to ‘Changing Lights’ which is the closer on the album. I called it Modal Melodies because it was the first song that I wrote on paper first, I tried to write it using my bodgey music writing skills, which is very minimal. I came up with the name before I came up with the song. 

Jake mentioned earlier that you write a lot of the lyrics, Vio?

VIO: Yeah. I wrote all through the process. Usually I’m really slow with lyrics but for some reason this time it didn’t happen. Often if Jake sent me a demo I would instantly get an idea, or even with just what it sounded like, with ‘Driving’, I think ‘Modal Melodies’ as well… I’ve never really experienced that before, writing to something that is already made, the music being made like that. I think it changes how you write. It’s challenging as well. You might not do what you naturally do when you’re just sitting down with an instrument and singing along with it. 

That’s something we both talked about as well, where we were both maybe stuck in a rut with our songwriting, just doing the same things that were quite instinctive, not knowing how it get out of that. 

JAKE: Before I approached you I felt the same as when I used to teach guitar. When I tried to write a song I would often find myself putting in little bits of ‘Layla’ [Eric Clapton] or whatever the student wanted to learn. I found myself doing that with my own songs because it’s all I ever tried to write. When I approached you, I was in desperate want of collaboration with you! 

VIO: I’m glad it worked out! [laughs].

JAKE: Me too! [laughs].

What’s your current favourite song from your record?

JAKE: I tend to like the ones that I had the least to do with, like ‘In The Rain’ and ‘The Sun’. I would say ‘Driving’ was the most 50/50 song I’ve ever been a part of, especially the process of recording it as well—it felt real special. That’s a favourite.

Why did it feel special?

JAKE: As Vio mentioned before, we wrote several parts of the songs without the other person hearing it and then put it all together when we were in the same room, hearing it for the first time together when we played it back. I’m not sure if other people will have the same feelings when they hear it but it makes me think of how we wrote it and what we were doing that day. 

VIO: Yeah, that’s one of mine too. It was cool because it could have been the first time that we both played guitars at the same time. We both just improvised some stuff. It was a really fun experience. I also like the songs that Jake sings on, because I do sing a lot.

JAKE: My voice is all like UUUGH! [laughs] and Vio is like [makes an angelic sound] Aaaaaah!

VIO: [Laughs].

I like the parts where you sing together. 

JAKE: Yeah, Vio kept trying to get me to do that… Vio, I apologise for how difficult I made that for you [laughs]. We’ll have to do it on album two!

Anything else you want to tell me about this project?

JAKE: We did a clip! I was watching a lot of Secret Life Of Us and me and Vio shot a clip in St. Kilda where they shot SLOU. Looking forward to that one coming out!

VIO: It features dancing by us [laughs].

JAKE: Yes, we made up a dance routine! [laughs].

MODAL MELODIES debut full length, self-titled album from May 13th, 2022 on Anti Fade Records (AUS).

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