Having stemmed from the ashes of the band HEX, Giantess released their debut album “Big Woman” last month to critical acclaim, and is quickly becoming one of New Zealand’s most exciting up and coming rock bands. We sat down with frontwoman Kiki Van Newtown to discuss the recording process, the inspiration behind the album, the artwork and the realities of releasing a record during a global pandemic.
Congratulations on the album. It’s very good. How long have you been working on it for?
“So we’ve been working on it for a couple of years.”
Were the songs written a couple of years ago or was it you recording and writing at the same time?
“So probably most of them were written, okay all of them apart from the first song, were written within the last three years. Then we started slowly sort of pre-producing them and demo recording them after we got back from South by Southwest in 2018. So the recording process and the production side of things has been going for about two years. I think the newest one was probably written a year ago.”
Just so I’ve got the timeline right. You played South by Southwest with your old band called HEX, right?
When you’re writing these songs did you always envision them being for a separate project? Were they ever considered to be HEX songs or did you always want them to be put under a different label?
“I wasn’t even really thinking about it. My life had gotten very, very messy at that time. And I felt really productive in terms of writing music. I was just writing heaps of music and I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I didn’t know if it was going to be an album, it was just sort of coming out of me. I wasn’t re-listening to them or anything. So, I had no idea if they even worked together or what was going to happen with them. And then HEX was sort of winding up, before I had the brain space to realize that, I just wanted to start a completely new project. Around that time there was like maybe one or two songs that we were playing live at some points. It was just a huge messy process of me going through a breakup, ending the band and writing all the songs and trying to figure out what was even happening in my life. It wasn’t until probably the middle of 2018 that I decided I wanted to make an album. So that was a very long complicated process. My life was a mess.”
Since it is a breakup album, and a lot of the lyrics are quite emotional, did you find it therapeutic to deal with those feelings in this way? Or did you hold on to them longer than what you otherwise might have?
“So when I was writing the songs, my songwriting process is that I will literally get this really sort of intense feeling that a song is in my brain. And it usually happens at like 11 or 12 o’clock at night, then I just have to get out of bed and go and write it until the songs are fully formed. So within like two or three hours, I’ll have the guitar line, the baseline, a basic drumbeat, all of the vocal lines and all of the lyrics in it. All of the songs that are on the album, that’s how they were written and they’re basically exactly like that. There’s been very little change done to them throughout moving from the scratch demos to the actual final products. And so, writing the songs itself didn’t feel like a very emotional process because it’s almost like being in a trance when I’m writing them. It’s like, I’m not consciously thinking through the process. But then recording them. Now, that was like the traumatizing part. It was very brutal, traumatizing kind of… I think now it’s therapeutic, having done it, but at the time, it was rough.”
Yeah, I could imagine it would have been. A lot of the songs have quite a few different guitar parts running through them. So, when you’re in that initial song writing process, do you write multiple parts all at once, or does that come together later?
“Maybe like 50% of the time, there will be multiple guitar lines. Then as we go through the process of recording them properly, Jason actually records them. He plays the guitar in the band and he records all the guitar pads on the final versions of the songs, on most of the songs he’s added additional guitar lines. In the album, there are like six strings, electric and acoustic, 12 string electric, a baritone guitar and a bass guitar, like he’s really layered it up. Some of them are just repeating the same line, but there might be three or four tracks of it. So actually the guitars are the things that have changed the most substantially, in terms of him adding things to them.”
So when you play live, is it just the two guitars?
“Yes, when it’s live, it’s me on bass, Jason on guitar and then our drummer, and then sometimes we have played with a second guitarist. I mean, ideally, we would probably have another guitarist in the band permanently, but it’s just a matter of finding the right fit for the band.”
Oh, absolutely, yeah. So, who produced the album?
“So Jason produced this. He engineered all of it, did the recording and then did all of the mixings. But I’m quite a backseat producer. I think I’m quite demanding. But he says that I’m good to work with because I have a very, very clear idea of how I want things to sound. So, Jason would do a mix of a song going down one sort of road with the ending. I’d just be like, nah, I hate it. Scrap the whole thing. Like, I hate that sound that you’re going for. So, he was incredibly patient but also really pushed himself and me to try a bunch of different things. So it was a really cool process of him just really sort of experimenting with different sort of mixed styles.”
Was there any one song, in particular, that took longer than the others, or did you sort of come to blows over a little bit?
“Probably Self Taught Mage was, we tried so many different things on that song and I just hated all of them. That was the last song that we did. I’d record vocals two or three times. It wasn’t that I was changing the vocal lines, it was just the delivery. I just hated it. So then I hated how it was being mixed. We had everything else finished for maybe like two or three weeks. We were thinking, I’ve got this one last song that I’m still not happy with. We were just stripping everything out of the song. I was so traumatized by it all and thought, I just want a handheld mic and I’m just gonna be curled up in a ball singing this. By the end of that, I was just lying on the floor singing it trying not to cry. And then actually, it sort of felt so much better having done it that way.”
So tell me about the album artwork as well because it’s very eye-catching. And when I was asked if I wanted to cover this, I actually said yes, just by looking at the album artwork alone before I even heard a song. I think it matches the album perfectly.
“That was by our friend Mica Still and she’s a Wellington-based artist. She’s actually from Oregon, in the States. She does lots of street art and lots of big murals. Anyway, she had done this exhibition maybe, seven or eight years ago that I just loved. I asked her if she could do something sort of in that vein of a powerful woman. Like self-assured and sort of, aggressive. And so that’s what she came up with. When she first showed it to me, I was like, ah! Oh my gosh, it’s amazing! It captures the total, I’ve had a gut full, sort of vibe of the album.”
I mean, speaking of which, rock music, I think it’s a very male-dominated genre. So did you kind of feel nervous or any added pressure creating a project that’s geared towards femininity and women?
“Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t want to sound dismissive, but it’s really been quite a long time since I’ve listened to any male rock music. So, most music I listen to is probably not made by men. I didn’t even think about it, it’s just what came out. I guess it’s just informed by my listening habits which is a lot of female artists.”
You released the album during the lockdown period. Did you find that it was beneficial in a way because everyone was at home, they had nothing to do so they had plenty of time to listen to it? Or would you prefer to have put it out and then immediately start playing live shows?
“I definitely would have preferred to put it out while we were playing live shows just because it’s more fun. We had plans to do a New Zealand tour and head over to Australia. So, we were starting to book shows and that sort of thing. Then in February, I sort of realized that it would be highly unlikely that we would be able to go on tour. At that point, we decided to just continue with our release schedule. The album had been finished since last October, and we just didn’t want to hang on to that anymore. We decided to put it out and it’s been incredibly well received and we’re just trying to find different ways to celebrate it. So we’re doing a bunch of like Skype concerts for people over the weekend which is going to be really fun. And we did our first one last night, which is really awesome. As soon as we can, we want to just get out and play shows again.”
And I mean, you put out the Miley Cyrus cover as well. I think it was it last week or the week before?
Yeah, that was cool. What was the inspiration behind choosing that track specifically?
“I think she put that song out last year and when I heard it, I just was obsessed with it. For ages, I listened to it on repeat. I just loved the lyrics. It’s so defiant and angry and the video for it is incredible. I just loved the sort of imagery of this like intergenerational female power. And yeah as soon as me and Jason heard it, we were like, oh, we have to cover that. You could make that song so heavy. Then lockdown happened and we’re like, let’s just do it. Let’s just have a fun project. So we just did it and then released it. And it was so fun. It was the first proper cover I’ve done. I totally get why people do them.”
For a first cover, it’s really good. Will you consider covering more songs in the future then as well?
“Yeah, absolutely. That was like such a fun process and we’ve got a bunch of, we’ve now got like a list of covers that we want to do.”
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
“Yeah. I think most of our plans are just sort of been built around touring. So it really depends on what happens. We will definitely be playing shows around Aoteroa for sure and we’d love to head over to Australia at any point as a possibility. But other than that, we’re just going to start recording. We’ve got a bunch of demos that I’d like to start doing production on. And yes, I just want to get another album done.”
You can stream “Big Woman” here;