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Interview: Giantess Talk About Debut Album 'Big Woman'

Interview: Giantess Talk About Debut Album 'Big Woman'

Chris Cudby / Photo supplied / Thursday 14th May, 2020 9:57AM

Poneke's Kiki Van Newtown and Jason Erskine arise from the ashes of their previous band Hex with today's release of Big Woman, the debut album from the duo's new project Giantess. Written by Van Newtown with production wizardry by Erskine and powerhouse drums courtesy of Lauren Ellis, Giantess' songs sound absolutely vast throughout Big Woman, channeling pure rock energy with alternately furious and transcendent guitars, while knocking listeners off their feet with often emotionally devastating lyrics. Chris Cudby caught up with Van Newtown over the phone last weekend for an in-depth chat about the new record and the group's life during Aotearoa's lockdown – listen to Big Woman here and scroll downwards for their conversation...

Chris Cudby: It's been just over two years since I was last talking with you about the release of Hex's album The Hill Temple. To get a new project started and a debut album out, between that time and now, is a significant and rare achievement. Do you feel, having Giantess established and having the new album out now, that represents a place of stability?

Kiki Van Newtown: Starting Giantess was me vouching for myself really. I've watched all these incredible women around me go through hard times and come out of that process, and just absolutely fucking blossom... and be incredible, creative, powerful people. That's what Giantess is. It's a tribute to women going through something really difficult and then coming out even bigger and more powerful.

Also I didn't realise that 'Giantess' is a kink thing, until after I decided that was going to be the band name. Now a lot of the messages I get are "do you have any photos of your feet?" And I'm like "No." But I didn't realise, because I'm very innocent.

What motivated you and Jason to start afresh with Giantess? How do you feel from this vantage point, looking back at the last couple of years of change?

The answer to the first part would be trauma [laughs]. There have been a lot of things going on in my life, that have necessitated major ruptures and change. Hex was a thing that was in equal parts absolute magic and absolute devastation. I'm really proud of the music Hex produced and I'm really grateful for that time in Hex. So many things changed in my life and in my personal life, I really needed to draw very clear boundaries around many things. Part of that was moving on from Hex. This is the first album I have been involved in, where I have written everything on it. I just wanted (Giantess) to be a new beginning.

Have you been working on this record since The Hill Temple wrapped up? Who was involved in the creation of Big Woman?

I started writing the songs just before The Hill Temple came out. I had done some scratch demos and then after we had released The Hill Temple they just kept coming. It was this incredibly creative period for me... then I worked with Jason to pre-produce (the songs) into what they were going to look like on the album. Which to be honest, they just looked like better quality versions of the scratch demos. Then from probably the start of 2018, was when we started recording them.

We worked with Lauren Ellis, who's this incredible drummer, she toured with us at the end of 2018 as Hex and she recorded all the drums for the album. Then over 2019, we basically did all the tracking over the top. That was done at my house in Lower Hutt. It was done after the kids went to bed, in the small pockets of time we got without loud yelling and screaming and chaos in the house. That was just me and Jason doing all of the tracking on top of Lauren's drums. Jason did all the recording, mixing and engineering everything on the album.

Speaking of family life, how has your family life been during the lockdown period? You've talked about being relatively prepared for this kind of situation?

The two kids that I have, one of them has a primary immune deficiency syndrome, a bone marrow syndrome. We've had to be incredibly careful for the last seven and a half years about infection risks. So none of what's going on, with people wearing masks and carrying hand sanitiser, none of that is new to us. None of the new protocols that people are finding they're having to learn, none of that was new to us. I'm feeling very prepared in that way.

We're very used to staying at home. We stayed at home for a couple of months last year when there was the measles outbreak. This for us is not that much of a deviation from our everyday lives. I also am very introverted, so for me staying at home is fine, it's not that much of a challenge for me. But I can see other people have found this really challenging, because it's massive y'know.

Probably my favourite line from the album is "It's true that love is pain / but I want it all the same." Are you primarily drawing on your own experiences, as inspiration for the lyrics on Big Woman?

I find it interesting that's your favourite line [laughs]. Because it's the single most earnest line on the album... it's so true and gross and painful and human. The album is entirely drawn from my experiences over the last couple of years. Just the sheer amount of mental processing of shitty situations that I've had to do. I know people say this all the time, but it was sort of like therapy writing the album.

Recording the album was so distressing, there were so many times when we were recording where I was literally lying on the floor balling my eyes out trying to sing the songs, because it felt so raw. Then Jason would give me this pep talk. The last song we recorded the lyrics for, I was like "I can't even stand up to do this"... it was very full on. At the same time as I was writing the songs, I was writing lots of short stories. So each song comes with a little short story. They're all slightly fictionalised autobiography as well.

Who did the artwork for Big Woman and why that image?

Mica Still did the art, she did the cover and I love her. I met her when we both had very small children, she is this incredible person who does incredible street art. She's done cover art for other New Zealand musicians. Quite a while ago she did this exhibition of... all these quite saucy paintings. It had lots of rainbows and stripy stockings, it was a little bit like 1920s fashion meets punk. I just loved it and I asked her if she would create something like that... I played her the album and told her what it was about. That was what she came up with and I just love it. It's so aggressive.

I feel like I've finally got myself to a place where I really like myself and I really like the other people who are in my life and I feel very positive about the future. I think that definitely comes across in the aesthetics and the visuals for the album.

The whole lockdown situation must have messed with tour plans for the album. Have you guys been tempted to do any livestream shows? Considering the circumstances, does Giantess have any tour ambitions for 2020?

Yeah we were meant to be in Australia. I'd started booking shows around New Zealand and then I cancelled them all, actually before lockdown happened. At the end of February I was like "we are going to have to go into isolation very soon." Mid-way through February I'd started bulk shopping and storing tubs of baked beans in the shed. We did try to do a livestream performance and actually, I think the internet in New Zealand is a bit shit generally. The sound (was) so terribly compressed that we were like "no sorry, we're not going to do this. It sounds too bad, it's not going to be any fun for anyone." I really am enjoying the livestream festivals and that sort of thing that are happening, but I do feel like we need better internet.

We’re stoked to be working with another excellent drummer Callum Gay, who also plays in Spook The Horses and a bunch of other bands. He’s stupidly talented, and just effortlessly understood what we needed, and he’s funny, so it’s a joy really, and we absolutely want to tour and play more shows if it’s at all possible.

We're obviously at a unique moment, where we can all collectively pause and consider where to go next and hopefully get some things right, post-lockdown. It's no exaggeration to say that along with the pandemic there's some scary shit circulating around. Are there any specific issues you feel Aotearoa urgently needs to address?

There's so much going on and I think a lot of it comes down to a lack of collective love. In terms of things that urgently need to be addressed in Aotearoa, I would say lots of these things can be solved or improved, basically if we decolonize. The urgent things there would be honouring Te Tiriti, abolishing prisons, challenging the police force on the use of armed response teams, making education accessible in the ways that people want and need it, and making sure that everyone has housing. There's all these things that tie into the decolonization process that need to be happening.

There's a huge distrust for government and there's a huge distrust for corporations and I totally understand why, because they've never worked in the interests of the majority of people. I think now more than ever is the time when we have to be really critical thinkers and we need to be tracing things back to: who is benefiting from this? Who is going to be exploited and who is going to be harmed from this? It's not just who's being harmed by government policies, it's who's being harmed by the conspiracy theories and that sort of thing. I think we all just need to keep our wits about us, think critically, follow where the money is, figure out who's holding power in any situation and focus on all those things that tie in to decolonization.

Are you keen to get back in the studio? By the way, your Miley Cyrus cover was awesome!

Thanks! We had so much fun doing that. It's so fun doing covers because you don't have to think up any of the bits, you just get to throw whatever you want on top of it. It's exciting.

I am so keen to get recording again. We've already got a bunch of demos for the next album. I just want the next album to be even heavier [laughs]. I want the album to be like, you can't even hear it, you just feel it and it just messes with your internals. I don't know how to get there yet, but that's the goal.

'Big Woman' is streamable now via Spotify.


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