Sydney Ethereal Experimental Bedroom Art-Pop romæo: “My music is exciting, its unexpected, its weird”

Original photo: Matt Sitas. Handmade collage by B.

We’ve fallen in love with romæo’s music—gorgeous shimmering electronics, lush sounds, dreamy melodies, hypnotic vocals and radio-ready hooks. Gimmie interviewed romæo to explore her world.

How did you first discover music?

ROMÆO: My parents are big music fans and always had the speakers blaring as I was growing up, so I was always singing along to a variety of artists. But the record that really made me want to be a musician was Missy Higgins’ The Sound of White. It came out when I was five and I was immediately sold – I started taking piano lessons and joined a choir.

When did you first start singing? We really love the harmonies and spoken word parts. Do you have any vocal inspirations?

R: Like I said, I was always singing along to the household high-rotation records. I still remember Sharon Jones’ Naturally and Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call back to front. I’ve struggled a lot with where I think my vocals sit and where I used to want them to be. I used to wish my voice was more powerful and mature, but as I’ve developed more confidence in my music, I’ve realised that I can do a lot with what I’ve got. My current vocal inspirations are Kacy Hill, Cecile Believe and Okay Kaya. They all deliver really vulnerable performances and aren’t trying to be anything they aren’t, and in that there is a lot of power. Their vocal melodies are also unusual and unexpected; I love when a melodic line continues further than you expect.

Your music is experimental bedroom art-pop; how did you first start making your own music?

R: I’ve been writing songs for a long time now, albeit most of them were iffy at best and a lot of them where much more indie singer-songwriter vibes. I started playing around with more electronic sounds over the last four years. I’ve always really loved pop but only really came across experimental pop in the last few years, so it’s been quite a recent thing in the grand scheme of things.

What’s your favourite instrument/piece of equipment to use right now when making your music?

R: I bought my first synth earlier this year – the Korg Minilogue XD (in white) so this has been a lot of fun, although every time I think I understand it something weird happens and I’m reminded I don’t.

So far you’ve put out a couple of releases and demos – monologue, revealed & iso demos; could you tell us a little about the progression of your work so far?

R: monologue details the period of time where I fell in love with ‘experimental pop’ and discovered my production potential. I’d always been afraid of trying to be a producer, and to be honest I still shy away from the term, but as I was working on those tracks I built up a lot of confidence. I guess I felt like I finally proved myself to myself. iso demos was thrown together in about a week right at the start of COVID-19. I’ve reconnected with the guitar after disowning it for a few years, so it was fun to combine that with my electronic production. Weirdly, I actually made revealed before any of the other stuff. I was really proud of this track and knew right away I wanted to ‘officially’ release it, so I’ve just been quietly sitting on it for about a year now.

I noticed on your bandcamp you’ve written “written/produced/mixed/mastered (lol)”; why the LOL? It sounds pretty fucking awesome to us!

R: Aaaaa you’re making be blush!!! I guess I’m just giving myself an out in case people think it doesn’t sound too good LOL. Confidence is a slow burn, but we’re getting there.

In November last year you were talking about the first EP you released and mentioned “I’m excited to finally have some faith in myself and my music, albeit unsteady and unreliable”; what changed for you to finally have faith in yourself and what you’re doing?

R: Hmm… I think what I finally realised is that what I’m making is solely my own. I think my music is exciting, its unexpected, its weird – it doesn’t sound quite like anything else. And that is what I look for when discovering new artists. So I kind of shifted my priorities and expectations. My music doesn’t have to be perfect or pristine, it just has to excite me. I still have to remind myself of that constantly though.

When you wrote song “don’t be so hard on yourself” was that a kind of note to self?

R: Oh gosh yes. That song is quite funny, because I listen to it and go ‘yikes that doesn’t sound too good’ but that is the whole point right!! I also laugh at myself for saying “don’t be so hard on yourself/be so hard on yourself”. I know I need to ease off on myself, but personal criticism is such a hard habit to break and can sometimes be valuable. This song was basically my Self pleading to my ego; pleading to be freed in a sense… for these two opposing forces I hear within me to make peace.

Your lyrics are very thoughtful and really honest; are you ever afraid to put yourself out there via your lyrics?

R: Definitely. I do have some unheard songs where I’m like ‘this could be a bit brutal’ for people who actually know me to hear lol. In terms of releasing stuff, I guess I’m conscious of coming off a bit ‘sad girl-y’ and being almost absurdly direct in my lyrics, but I don’t really know any other way. I can be very upfront in person so it is pretty natural for me. I also laugh at my own melodrama and don’t expect it to all be taken too seriously.

Has there been a song that’s been hard for you to write? Why?

R: revealed was actually really challenging to write. I wrote and recorded the first verse and then had no idea how to develop the idea / where to take it or what I even wanted from the song. I basically sat on it for a couple of months and hated everything I tried. Then finally one session, the chorus and bridge just flew out and came together almost insanely quickly. I think the best songs are the ones you can’t even remember writing; they just happen.

Musicians Paul Mac and Rainbow Chan have given you a little guidance with what you’re doing; what’s something you learnt from both of them?

R: Paul and Rainbow are so inspiring for soooo many reasons. What I admire about both of them is their versatility as both musicians and creative, artistic people. They each apply their skills to a variety of different artistic endeavours and kill it every time. Paul helped me learn how to make cool/wacky beats that are both disorienting but also keep the listener engaged. Rainbow has helped me realise how much you can do without overloading a song with different tracks and sounds. As in, we always want to over complicate and add different elements and ‘sparkles’ to a song, but you can also manipulate the same sound in so many different and weirdly wonderful ways. Sometimes less is more.

You use flowers in your artwork; what’s the idea behind that? What do they symbolise to you?

R: Flowers are the ultimate symbol of traditional femininity. Delicate and beautiful, they also allude to female genitalia. Flowers come in all different varietals, all of which are precious. I really struggle with how women in the media must brand themselves. We have to be bold and fierce, or soft and gentle. We are either sexually liberated or innocent and pacificist. But we are all these things, and none of them.

Have you been reading anything interesting, enthralling or great lately?

R: I was enthralled by Murakami’s Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage the other week. His writing is of course stunning – it is as simple or philosophical as you wish, and he hits you with the occasional deep cut. When discussing the unity of heart in relationships, Murakami notes “they are.. linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility”. That hurt.

I’ve also just started my honours thesis on music philosophy, so I’ve been reading a lot about music’s relationship to consciousness and time. Interesting, enthralling and great, it also is an absolute killer.

What’s a song that never ceases to make you happy/cheer you up when you hear it?

R: “Young Hearts Run Free” [by Candi Staton].

What are you working on next?

R: I’m gearing up to release my second ‘official’ single soon which is super exciting. I’m sitting on a number of tracks that I might throw together in a mixtape soon-ish. I’m a master procrastinator and perfectionist, but I think it will be sort of liberating to get these songs out there. It is really hard to stay creative and inspired right now, so I’ve really just been enjoying listening to music and playing around with little ideas. Who knows what’s next!

Please check out romæo; romæo on Facebook; romæo on Instagram.

Californian musician & artist Lealani: “Everyone should be working together, helping each other, sharing ideas and having fun”

Photo: courtesy of Lealani’s porfolio. Handmade collage by B.

Lealani’s creations are highly original and hit you right in the feels! Her debut album Fantastic Planet was written between the ages of 12 and 19 as she experimented with synths, guitars, drums, apps, samplers, effects and production hardware to create her own universe. It’s a really special record and we voted the record our favourite international release of 2019 our praise of the LP said “It’s like BMO became a real girl by back-engineering human experience from discarded Portishead and Massive Attack tapes.” We caught up with Lealani last week to get an insight into her world.

You really love entertaining people; where did this desire come from?

LEALANI: When I started I actually used to be really nervous during shows. I would just stand there and I would never be myself or super loud in front of people, I was just a really nervous person. I started to perform when I was twelve years old, gradually I just started getting more and more comfortable in front of people. I really like entertaining people because it really gives me a chance to be myself and to encourage other people that they could just be themselves on stage too—everybody could be comfortable in that way. It’s been a learning process and it’s been progress to be comfortable on stage. Now that I am pretty comfortable with myself, I want to entertain more and more people, whether that is through music, performing or making art and making animation as well. It’s all really fun.

Why is art and music important to you?

L: Music and art is way for me to express myself. I love it so much because I just get this certain feeling from it that I can’t really get from anything else; where you feel like you’re in your own world, you’re in your own space and you are where you’re meant to be. I love both art and music because it’s a way to show people the world I am in and that they are all in their own world as well. Music and art is a way to express that world, to represent it to people—to show people this is your world and you can be who you want to be. You are yourself and you know yourself well enough to be that and do that.

I’m with you, I’ve always been a big believer in being yourself and creating your own world. When I was a kid people would pick on me and bully me and I found a solace in music and art and creating my own world and in time I became okay with, and proud of, who I am. Did you ever deal with that kind of thing at school?

L: Yeah. Actually in elementary school, I used to have a really, really high pitched voice. Even though we were all kids, my voice was much more higher than the other kids. I’ve always been a very small person – I’m below five feet, I’m 4’11 [laughs] really tiny – I guess kids were like, ‘whoa! She has a high pitched voice and is super tiny’ and I would get made fun of. Eventually that wore down and I didn’t really have that voice anymore. Not everybody was nice [laughs]. But it’s totally fine, I like singing so, maybe that’s way my voice was high back then!

Who was the earliest musician that influenced you?

L: I Middle School, that was the time when I was getting into music, I was introduced to mainstream music like Katy Perry, I didn’t realise that there was more underground music scene that existed. My dad started slowly showing me that. He used to be a DJ back in the day, he used to mix old school hip-hop records like Wu Tang and other old hip hop masters. He started showing me things like MF Doom. He had all this vinyl lying around. One day he said, “You should try to make music on this app on the iPad”. He gave me an iPad and I got a music application when I was twelve years old and I made my first beat. He was like, “Oh, that’s pretty cool”. He started introducing me to more and more music, he never forced anything on me though, he put it there in front of me to look at, if I liked it… I knew that it was something I wanted to pursue. My dad is a huge inspiration of mine.

The band Portishead, was when I first felt chills on my skin and felt goosebumps—the music was so weird. When I was a little kid I actually used to be afraid of their music because it was so striking to me, now I understand it more. They’re one of my favourite bands in the whole entire world. Portishead was a huge influence on me and the Gorillaz! When I heard them I realised how funky people could be in music, they were mixing it with art and they were cartoons too!

You’re studying animation, right?

L: Yeah I’m currently a Second Semester Junior here at California College Of The Arts studying in Oakland for animation. It’s really fun to learn about how to make better animations.

Your debut album, I know you also had a radio show of the same name, Fantastic Planet; that’s named from the 1973 sci-fi French (La Planète sauvage) animated movie?

L: Yes! It is. I was really inspired by that.

My husband and I really love that movie, he’s a big fan of animation and has made animated film clips, and he always loved the film’s animation. I’m actually looking at the movie poster on our wall right now! As soon as we found your stuff we knew straight away that was an inspiration. How did it inspire you?

L: Cool! That’s so awesome. I love that animation. The first time that I heard of it I was searching on YouTube and I saw this music video and I saw the clips of the aliens and I wondered what film it was, I looked it up and ever since then I’ve been like—that’s my world! [laughs]. Like I wanna live in Fantastic Planet! I didn’t know that it was going to turn into a whole album. At first it was like, I need a cool name for my radio show, I choose Fantastic Planet because I really liked the movie. That turned into more than that, I can’t really explain it.

What kind of emotions did you’re album Fantastic Planet come from?

L: It comes from an emotion of discovery, finding yourself, it comes with a lot of realisation and being in tune with yourself. Also, feeling all the pain through the journey of figuring out certain things. On the album I talk a lot about the space, the atmosphere I’m in, the feeling that I’m in. What I also try to include in it is the texture of these feelings. I don’t think too hard when I’m making my songs, they’re pretty much freestyle, they just come out of me. I’m not sure if it’s because that’s how I’m feeling that day or if I’m writing about something I felt years ago. I just let the songs come to me and just freestyle them in the best way that I possibly can, to not think too hard about it. The emotions that it really comes from though is pain, not necessarily bad pain but pain that is just felt, it’s just there.

Maybe because you wrote the album between the ages of 12 and 19 it’s just the pain of growing and growth?

L: Yeah, the pain of growth, exactly! That’s what I’m trying to say [laughs].

You re-released the album yourself?

L: Yeah. There was a little situation that happened with the release of the album. Basically it was a whole situation where I took all of my music off all platforms for a series of months… the whole situation that happened affected me in a way that I tried to not let it affect me. Especially for people that are making music on their own and they really want it to be out there… my advice to people basically is, make sure you own everything! I’ve written all my songs, I’ve written all of my lyrics, I make all the beats and then sometimes there are people out there that are trying to take that from you, to take that world away from you. My album is the first album that I have ever released, it means so much to me, there’s people out there that are basically trying to take away my right to my music, which is something that I never signed up for, I have never signed any contracts for. I decided to just go self-release and to really make it my own. I do realise that a lot of people don’t really talk about it but some artists are stuck with certain companies because they feel like they can’t do anything about it. For me, I was willing to take down all of my music because it meant so much to me that everything I made I owned. From learning my lessons and stuff I know so much more about the music industry.

I want to be there for other artists that make stuff and who wants to put their music out there, I want to encourage people that you can do it on your own. The internet is so large and wide out there that it’s making it more accessible for people to be able to do stuff on their own. Fantastic Planet is my heart and my world and it’s really hard when people are trying to take that away from you. I worked really hard to make sure everything was mine. I don’t want to discourage people from certain companies but you do have to be careful. Know what you’re trying to represent and who you want to be, what your goal is with things. There was a certain company that gave me a hard time about some things—make sure what’s yours is yours!

Courtesy of Lealani’s portfolio.

I get what you mean. I’ve been doing what I do for 25+ years since I was 15 and I’ve seen so much not-cool stuff happen in the music industry, that’s one reason why I’ll forever be on the fringes, that’s where the exciting things happen anyway. I’ve seen what the music “industry” is and it’s not for me.

L: Yeah, and it’s not like I’m trying to take money away from anyone, I just want to create, I don’t want any distractions.

Like you said, you play all the instruments on your album, you wrote it, the concepts, the art—that’s ALL YOU!

L: Exactly!

Is there a song on Fantastic Planet that’s really significant to you?

L: It’s definitely “Lonely Stars” and “Floating” is another one. “Lonely Stars” is so significant to me because – that’s probably why it’s the first track on the album too – it’s one of the first songs I’ve ever made that is totally me, this is who I think I want to be. It’s such a simple track, a synth, a bass and a drum and hi-hat and me singing over it. There’s just something about the melody and how I made it fit into the instrumental and how it flows. I hold that song really close to my heart. I love performing it live too.

I love “Floating” as well.

L: That’s another significant one as well because I made it when I first got the synths I made it with. I was playing around with it all day, I was playing around with a certain sound. It was the first time that I made the track and then wrote lyrics on the spot to how the synth was sounding. If you listen to the track instrumental I really feel like the words just come your way. That was probably the quickest song that I made on the album. It felt right to say those words and for the melody to be the way it was. It was really fun to write.

I think sometimes the simplest tracks can have a big impact because there is a lot of space.

L: Yeah, there’s lots of freedom.

I really love your song “Minuscule” too. You have a clip for it by Mitch Pond.

L: Yeah, Mitchell Pond. He’s an animator he made a film, he’s an animator for the Adult Swim show Dream Corp. He’s a very, very good animator. The first clip he sent me he had animated the Fantastic Planet bird in my hair and me saying “I feel miniscule” and I was like, ‘whoa! This is so amazing!’ I let him do the rest of the video. I feel it’s probably the first music video that captures the Fantastic Planet word incorporated into my own world as well. He is so good as capturing the artist and the song. I was really happy with how it came out.

You finished your first animated short recently Rapper Cow?

L: Yes, Rapper Cow [laughs]. It’s an idea that I’ve had in my head for a few years. Last semester I was finally ready to animate the film, I spent three months animating it with everything that I learned from all my classes. I did the sound for it. Rapper Cow’s voice is actually my voice, I just pitched it down. I was taking a shower when I came up with the idea like, oh, a cow that raps that bumps into this roller skater cow and they get abducted by aliens and they make beats. I’m trying to turn it into an animated series, Rapper Cow episode two should be out by the end of May.

You mentioned you had the idea in the shower; do you find you get most of your best ideas when you’re doing something other than music or art, like just non-thinking things like going for a walk or something?

L: Yes, definitely. It’s always when you least expect it and your mind is free and relaxed. If I’ve been thinking about something so hard and I can’t come up with something I take a shower and all of a sudden everything will make sense.

It’s minimal distractions, you can’t be connected to your phone, computer or whatever!

L: Yeah! That’s so true.

Have you been working on any new music?

L: Yes. I have been working on a lot of collaborations. One that I will mention is a collaboration with the beatmaker, Snakefoot. He’s from L.A. I’d seen him at shows and we said we should collaborate sometime, he’s been sending me some tracks. I’ve really liked the beats. It’s such a challenge for me learning how to collaborate with other beatmakers, just to collaborate with other people in general. It really changes your process because this time I’m working with someone else’s beat rather than making my own. I’m still working on my own music as well. Collaborating is a really big learning process for me and it improves how I make beats as well. It gives me an opportunity to try things I haven’t tried before. There will definitely be new music coming out in the summer. Snakefoot and I will release an EP over the summer.

Courtesy of Lealani’s portfolio.

I’m excited to see how it all comes out; you usually make your beats by yourself in your room?

L: Yeah all by myself. Sometimes I do need to find a way how to use a different drum pattern or try and find a different process… sometimes it’s hard to figure it out.

You started off playing piano when you were 12, got bored of that started playing guitar, drums and synths; you love the drums the most, right?

L: Yeah, yeah! The drums to me are the best instrument. It is limited in a way because there isn’t pitch changes, that limitation really… I believe that limitation sometimes can allow more freedom in how you express yourself. The drums are the most important factor in the tracks because it moves the tracks and makes it come alive. I love bass. I love ‘60s drumming. I love vintage sounding, crunchy drums. That’s something I want to actually incorporate into my next solo album, something that’s more hard and raw, but mixing in a new electronic sound at the same time as being Fantastic Planet. This time I want it to be more raw or hard, just more of everything! I love the drums, it’s the most fun instrument that you can jam on. It’s really good exercise as well [laughs].

I know you and your dad like to collect broken and vintage instruments from Craig’s List; what’s one of the coolest things you’ve found?

L: The coolest thing we’ve found… a lot of the Casio instruments that we find that are broken… a Casio SK1; there’s a circuit bent version called the S-CAT… that’s one of the instruments I really like using. I’ve been experimenting with using more Casio instruments. It’s really interesting how much you can bend sounds through circuit bending. My dad found a Casio calculator, it’s a calculator that’s a keyboard. Casio instruments give you a really vintage sound. I like the encouragement of using broken machines and turning them into something we can make music with.

Through collecting Casio keyboards, I was thinking about majoring as a Music Tech at CalArts. I actually did get accepted but I decided I wanted to do animation. I feel that gave me more freedom to come up with ideas rather than just building instruments. I also wanted to tell stories through animation rather than technology of music. Maybe it would have been better if I did Music Tech, maybe I would have been a complete wizard [laughs]. I’m really happy with my decision though, I feel like I can put out my ideas in a lot of different ways.

I love your illustrative art as well. I guess everything informs each other. There seems to be a real community and collaborations around you.

L: Its cool people support me and for me to see them make things as well. Someone who went to one of my shows at bandcamp headquarters in Oakland and made a “BEEP BOP BOOP” wooden piece for everybody and gave them out at my show. It was really cool to see someone incorporate my little phrase into their art and give them out. For the “Miniscule” music video to come out and to see someone else’s animation with my music was really cool too. It’s one big collaboration. Everyone should be working together, helping each other, sharing ideas and having fun.

Art by Lealani.

As far as your art goes I feel like freedom, exploration and connection are the things that matter most to you?

L: Yeah! Exactly.

Anything else to add?

L: BEEP. BOP. BOOP. Fantastic Planet. Aliens. Thank you so much for listening to Fantastic Planet. Stay tuned for more music coming out and more Rapper Cow. Thanks Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie zine for having me. If anyone needs help with releasing their own music, to self-release, we’re here with a new record company… if you have questions about the music industry feel free to contact me, I want to be there for other artists that might be going through anything. I don’t know everything but I know some things now.

Please check out: Lealani. Lealani bandcamp. @veggieburgerr Instagram.