Australian duo anchor & the butterfly appeared on Volume. 2 of our Beautiful Songwriting series, their debut album, Nothing To Win Nothing To Lose, not only demonstrating a special understanding of the human condition, but also threatening to leave an indelible mark on the hearts of all those who listen. I recently chatted to band members Bridget Robertson (vocals) and Lance Hillier (guitar) about working as a duo, their songwriting process and the difficulties they faced while recording their superlative debut record.
The feedback we would give each other was very honest - brutally honest at times, too.
Bridget: Well, we started as a five-piece band, and then we realised that that’s really difficult. We kind-of came to the conclusion that it was far easier for us to play as a duo than it was to play with three other guys who like to drink beer and perhaps weren’t as focussed. All great musicians… Because we live in the same house together, it just made sense.
Lance: Yeah, it definitely started because it was easier. I mean, trying to organise a whole band, just for a rehearsal during the week – with five people, it gets to be a little bit difficult.
Bridget: I guess it became quite fun for us to look at how we could work as a duo – it’s far easier in a band, because you feel a bit more backed up when you’ve got a few other people around you. It kind-of made us become focussed on becoming better at what we do.
Bridget: About three years, I’d say. Initially we started recording as a band that was unsuccessful… I don’t know – would you say it was unsuccessful?
Lance: Well, look, it was successful, there were some great moments there, but just the structure… I’m still learning on the whole recording process, and producing and engineering because we’re doing this all ourselves, and we haven’t really done that before.
Bridget: So yeah, three years. It took us that long to make the album in the end and we probably started at that point, when we split off and decided just to do our own thing.
Lance: Yeah, that kinda fell apart a bit. I mean, some of those recordings sounded great with the band, but it was only bits of the song. It’d go on to be like a ten minute instrumental. All these people playing over the top of each other, and it was quite hard to listen to, some of it.
Bridget: Yes. [laughs]
Bridget: I would say that would be most of the time. Particularly the people we were playing with. [laughs] Yeah, that can get a bit annoying.
Lance: Now that I think about it, definitely yeah. Maybe the duo came out of wanting a little more space.
Lance: I’m sure those bands think it as well. It’s how honest they are with each other, you know? This guy on the guitar is doing four minute solos and has got every pedal on his pedal-board on, and the bass player’s just going, ‘Yeah… Yeah, man’, but inside he’s thinking, ‘Ugh, do I have to play this bar again?’
Bridget: I think the whole thing has been different to what I’ve done before. We were assessing each other’s work, I think that’s where it was a bit different – critiquing each other’s work. That hasn’t happened for me previously, and I don’t know if that’s because we live together and there’s a level of honesty – so you can say, ‘That’s shit’, and you don’t care… Well you do care but…
Lance: Oh, you care!
Bridget: [laughs] The feedback we would give each other was very honest – brutally honest at times, too. So that was, I think, a positive. Certainly, I haven’t worked that way before, and it took a bit of getting used to, because I would probably critique Lance’s work in the studio, like come in, halfway through a session and go, ‘Ugh, what are you doing, those valves don’t sound right’, and he’s spent the last three hours eqing the valves. [laughs] Or I’ve got a song and I love the chorus, and think it’s the key to the whole thing, or a bridge, and Lance goes, ‘That bridge doesn’t work’, so I think our egos got taken out of the process. There are no egos anymore.
Lance: Yeah, it wasn’t an easy record to make. Learning the process.
Bridget: Yeah, ‘I’m so awesome!’… ‘No, actually I’m not.’
Bridget: I think we also didn’t start it as well as we could’ve. We ended up with a lot of songs that we thought were right, but weren’t quite right structurally.
Lance: I’d end up, ultimately, spending maybe two or three months in the studio trying to fix these songs, but really it was a structure issue to begin with. There are processes when you record that we’re completely aware of now. You make sure the song are right before you start recording them. You just really take all of those steps, and I’m sure the next one is going to be easier.
Lance: Trial and error.
Bridget: Yeah, we didn’t really start out with a plan. Our studio has a lot of equipment, and Lance was pretty keen to play with as much of that equipment as possible.
Lance: Yeah, it was more out of experimentation, and the bands we like listening to as well. I mean, some of the instruments on the music came from bands I listen to, like the Mando-guitar – that really high octave 12-string on there. So who we listen to, and some vague idea of who we want to sound like. The direction is really hard to define sometimes, and I don’t think you can go into a recording and go, ‘Right, this is how the recording is going to sound.’
Bridget: There are albums that we love though, and I guess when you do everything yourself you need some reference points, so often we were listening to things we loved…
Lance: And we were disappointed a lot of the time… [laughs]
Bridget: With our stuff when we went back to it [laughs]. I don’t think we set out to try and be anything, we just knew the kind of music that we loved. I don’t know if we were emulating anything in particular – our taste in music is quite broad.
Lance: I just wanted to be able to listen back to something that didn’t suck. That I could actually listen to and not pinpoint one thing and go, ‘That’s really, really bad.’ I’ve got my own thoughts on how to improve on what we’ve done, but it’s a pretty steep learning curve.
Bridget: We love artists like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, but then we really love bands like Low, and Sigur Ros, I was listening to a lot of – Lance was too. So stylistically, they’re quite different, but I guess we were just taking ideas and seeing what would come together. I don’t know, do you think?
Lance: We just threw everything at the wall. Experimentation and trial-and-error was a lot of it.
Bridget: Wistful… That’s a great word. My artwork used to be called whimsical a lot by my lecturers when I was at art school. I guess we dream a lot.
Lance: Can you define wistful. [laughs]
Bridget: Can I define wistful? I think of dandelions, kind-of, in the breeze, with bits coming of it… Floating, kinda dreamy.
Bridget: Ah, shit! [laughs]
Lance: That’s the way I understood it, so thank you!
Bridget: I think that probably does sum us up.
Lance: Definitely that album.
Bridget: Pensive sadness. Yeah…
Lance: More a pensiveness. Definitely. It’s hard to tell. I mean, I didn’t think anyone would like White and Grey.
Bridget: Lance didn’t like it. I think he thought it was too pensive and too sad.
Bridget: Which it is, I guess.
Lance: I think you gain a clearer understanding of what you sound like through comments other people make, so I’ve definitely learnt a lot from just what other people have said, and what they like and what they don’t like.
Bridget: And I think that sometimes I find that I don’t really understand what it is I’ve created until down the track, and then you go, ‘What did that actually mean?’ So for us, I guess, at the end of that album, we were just travelling along. We weren’t too sure exactly what the destination was. It’s hard to articulate.
Lance: What’s true is, it’s hard to have insight and perspective, when you’re living with the person you play with, you’re engineering the stuff you play, you’re mixing it, and you’re trying to produce it as well. I think for a first album, that was a lot to take on.
Bridget: You were quite pensive and sad. [laughs]
Lance: Well, I was very sad. I just wanted it to end.
Bridget: In the studio every day.
Lance: Yeah, it’s isolating. Very isolating… That’s probably why it sounds wistful.
Lance: Well those songs are all Bridget’s history.
Bridget: The collection of songs came together in that way, for sure. We had a lot of song written that didn’t make the cut, but it’s interesting the ones that did were a collection of songs that did fit together quite well. And I suppose my style of writing is quite reflective, because as a songwriter, you’re going back into moments, or you’re trying to conjure up a situation that you want to analyse or talk about in a song. So yeah, you tend to go back to memories, or invent a memory too – invent someone else’s memory of something.
Lance: This is weird isn’t it?
Bridget: My background is visual arts, so I don’t know if that’s been an advantage in visualising circumstance or scenes, and then writing about or around it. All of the songs have got a seed of truth though, they’re all based around a truthful moment somewhere, but what happens around that truthful moment is not all my story. I’m kinda looking at it from someone else’s perspective of how they would feel in that moment. Which makes it more interesting as a writer.
Lance: As a listener as well.
Bridget: Yeah, because it’s probably a bit more accessible.
Lance: Well, you’re not just singing about you.
Bridget: No, and that’s boring if it’s all about me. It has to be intriguing for me to listen to as well, because I don’t wanna just listen to myself talking about myself and my circumstance. I find that would be a bit boring to me, as a listener.
Bridget: Alone. Completely alone.
Lance: Surrendered. For me, playing instruments, it’s just a real surrendered space.
Bridget: Suspended out of the day-to-day reality, which I think is probably why we enjoy it so much.
Lance: Yeah, it’s definitely a way to switch off.
Bridget: I don’t know if there’s a certain mood.
Lance: I think you definitely need to create the space to do that. You can’t just go straight from work and sit down and start it. And I know Bridget, as a songwriter – sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t. I don’t write the songs, so I’m out of that process.
Bridget: A lot of writers say they write when they’re sad, but I don’t do that. I’m not a very sad person, even though I write rather sad songs, or what people might perceive as quite sad songs… What! Do you think I’m a sad person?
Lance: No, not at all. Quite the opposite.
Bridget: Yeah, right!
Lance: Really easy. I know Bridget has this way… A lot of the earlier songs, she’d write these funny bridges, so you’d be really into the song, and then it’d go on this really strange tangent, but I couldn’t get it back. So those times I would stop and say, ‘What’s happening here? Why is the song over here? It kinda feels like two completely different songs.’ I usually love the songs but…
Bridget: You know straight away though usually, don’t you?
Lance: And I don’t know why that is sometimes. You know, I hear songs all the time that have a hundred different chord progressions in the first verse, but I dunno… Maybe it’s a control thing.
Bridget: No, you will usually, within the first time you play along to it, say yes or no.
Lance: Yeah, I can usually connect pretty easily to the stuff she writes though.
Bridget: And if it’s not working for you, you just stop playing, usually.
Lance: That’s right.
Lance: Not really. It’s usually Bridget writing the songs and when she’s ready, she’ll play it, and I’ll sometimes have something to play along with.
Bridget: But you’re pretty good at just saying , ‘It needs an extra verse…’
Lance: I’ll have maybe one or two comments, and I feel really out of place saying it sometimes, but you do have to be honest, and that’s what we have learnt through this whole process. And I’ll usually have one or two things to say… I do try and help but it’s strange… It’s strange to me, because I’m just a guy who plays along, you know? I’m the side-man, and I enjoy that. I love to play music, whereas Bridget could probably be quite happy just to sit in the room and write songs, and never play live. But see, I love playing live. So, I don’t know if it’s back-and-forth…
Bridget: We critique it.
Bridget: Yeah, it worked well, didn’t it?
Lance: That’s our daughter.
Bridget: Certainly because of what it was invoking. Lance is quite instinctual in the studio, so an idea will come to him, and he’ll just decide to run with it.
Lance: I follow any idea. That’s why it took so long! [laughs] But it was fun – I learnt a lot.
Bridget: And I think because you’re talking about memory, and you’re talking about looking back… I know when Lance decided to do that and I heard it back, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s perfect!’
Lance: She did do a really good job though.
Bridget: Lance has got an ability to capture the essence of the song and then follow that idea. I think he does that really well. It’s kind-of a funny process for us, because Lance spends so much time in the studio by himself, working on the music, and I spend so much time by myself writing the songs, that we actually really didn’t connect that much until I laid down the guide tracks of my vocals. But I recorded my vocals by myself, so out of that whole three years, I reckon we spent maybe three days in the studio together. [laughs] You were kind of in your own little world, trying to come up with your own ideas around how they should work, so it’s a funny process for a duo.
Lance: I thought we were in this together.
Bridget: But I think that alone times allows you to really go deep into what that feeling is that you’re trying to capture.
Lance: Instrument choices, I mean, that’s an obvious one for me as an instrumentalist. I listen to stuff, and the stuff I love I try to emulate, or look into how it was created or what instrument it was.
Bridget: You listen intensely to things too. We’ll be in the car and… With Radiohead the other day, and he says, ‘Listen to that point when the shaker comes in’, and you’re sitting there and you’re going, ‘Eh?’
Lance: It’s just one shaker – that’s it, for the whole song. But it’s so right. That song’s perfect.
Bridget: I guess as far as influences go, I know Lance seems to take it wherever it comes from when it comes to instrumentation. I suppose there’s a lot of artists that I love, but I don’t know if we emulate them so much as…
Lance: We’re inspired by them.
Bridget: Yeah. I guess, Ryan Adams. I’m a massive fan of Ryan Adams – I know in the early writing of this album, I listened to Heartbreaker, like, non-stop. I couldn’t stop listening to it.
Lance: Thank you! That’s what I was going for. I guess when I was saying that I didn’t just wanna make anything that sucked… The fact that it was a slow creeper is just fine for me.
Bridget: Yeah, it’s great.
Lance: I’m really looking forward to doing the next one, and I didn’t want to do another one without having one that we can at least listen to. And there is some really beautiful moments on there, that we did really work hard on.
Bridget: Ah, that’s excellent. Thanks, Jamie. That’s very cool.
Bridget: I guess we looked at what you were doing and went, ‘Yeah, that fits.’ It fits in with where we sit, I suppose. We’re not that well known at all, like…
Together: We’re not well known! [laugh]
Bridget: So yeah, we were pretty chuffed to just get a random request like that. It’s fantastic for us.
Bridget: We would definitely change the way we approached it, but then I wonder whether we would have arrived at what we did without that level of pain. [laughs] No, I shouldn’t say it was painful, it was a process that we’ve learnt a lot from. So next time, hopefully we’ll be one of those band that says, ‘We recorded it in three days!’ But I think that the kind of music we like has layers and depth.
Lance: But then, not, as well. I mean, you listen to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. They’re just two guys sitting in a studio playing live, and that’s how they do it. That stuff is just ridiculously good.
Bridget: We’d be prepared next time. We recorded a lot of songs that Lance spent a whole lot of time on, and then towards the end, just went, ‘Actually, it’s not working.’
Lance: Yeah, I think that’s because of the structure though. Like, ‘Maybe’ didn’t get on there, which was a great sounding song, but you get to a point where you just kinda get lost in it – you’re not with it anymore and it’s kind-of going its own way. That’s a lesson that I’ve definitely learnt – make sure the structure’s right before you spend three months on it. Trying to make it right by the sound, you just can’t do it, I don’t think. If it’s not right to being with…
Bridget: We should write a book on how not to make an album. [laughs] Although, we made an album, and at times we didn’t think we were going to get there. We thought, we’re not going to get anything happening, because it was a lot of trial-and-error, a lot of stops-and-starts. I don’t know if you’d change anything?
Lance: I would, but I can’t. I mean, sound-wise, and engineering and mixing… I could cite a-hundred things right off the top of my head that I would change. But you can’t really go back, and it is what it is.
Bridget: And the fact that other people like it outside of our friendship group means a lot.
Lance: Yeah, that’s fantastic.
Bridget: Yeah, that often happens.
Lance: When a song’s raw… There’s probably something to be said for recording a song when it’s really raw, because there’s something about it.
Bridget: And often it can be the production’s all wrong too. I know there’s some Townes van Zandt work where him on his guitar is fantastic.
Lance: Yeah, and some of the production stuff…
Bridget: Really hasn’t worked that well, because it just doesn’t suit him best. I mean, a good song is a good song, but you lose the emotion sometimes in the production.
Bridget: I’m in the process of writing at the moment, and Lance is in the process of selling a lot of gear and replacing it with a lot more expensive stuff.
Lance: We’re excited.
Bridget: There’s a small collection of new songs. They’re kind-of heading in a similar, but a little bit different direction.
Lance: They’re great. I love ’em. I think we’re planning to not spend as long on it, to just try and get the process right, and really making a collection of songs that work. As far as the recording goes, we’ve talked about going and hiring somewhere instead of doing it in the backyard, because it tends to take a really long time.
Bridget: That sounds so Australian, ‘Ah, we’ll just do it in the backyard.’
Lance: We’re talking about hiring maybe a hall in the bush somewhere for seven days or something. This time we will be really well prepared, and get the majority of it done in a really nice-sounding room. It’s one of the things I would actually change about the first record as well – is not record it in a really flat-sounding room, because I think the room sound adds so much to the record. You can’t emulate a great sounding room, I don’t think. Maybe you can, if you’re a really good engineer, with reverbs, but I don’t know how to do that. So, I’m going for a lot more of a natural sounding recording, maybe.
Bridget: A bit more open.
Lance: Yeah, a bit more open. It’s hard to know what a recording is going to sound like, going in, but we’re preparing for it in that way.
Bridget: It looks like we’re doing it ourselves again. We did talk about going into a studio, but then…
Lance: Well, you didn’t like the rush of trying to get your vocals all done in three days.
Bridget: No. So, looks like we’ll do it ourselves.
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