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‘I wanted to write songs that uplifted people’ – an interview with Mardi Lumsden

Award-winning indie-pop singer-songwriter from Brisbane, Mardi Lumsden, released the third single from her sophomore album on October 6. In this Q&A she talks about COVID lockdowns, musical inspiration, and wearing a spacesuit to pick her son up from school.

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“Nineteen” is the third single from your upcoming sophomore album and you say it features your favourite opening line ever. The line (which others, including me, also think is a gem) is: “You bought someone a star from some charlatan on the internet”. Do you remember the moment this line landed, or what prompted you to write it?
I do! It’s a line I had for years in my ideas notebook. Pennay (my partner) actually did buy a star for someone a very long time ago, but from the back of the TV Week. I remember thinking how romantic it would have been. It beautifully captured the naivety and effort you put into relationships when you are young. I wrote the entire song around the opening line. It’s not the best way to write, but I knew that’s what needed to be done here.

Your sophomore album debuted live in its entirety at the Brisbane Powerhouse to a packed audience in late August. How was the launch, when will the album be available?
It was so fun. It was a lot of work (mostly for Pennay) because we had to translate something we made at home by ourselves into a live show with other musicians. We enlisted some great musicians/friends to help us and tried really, really hard not to get sick and have to cancel. We swapped out guitars and banjos for keyboards and computers! We didn’t know if it would work until we did it and I can’t wait to get to do it again.

One thing I noticed from the last album is that whether it’s one song or 10, a release seems to only hold interest for a few weeks (unless it takes off). It’s sad, but the reality in a streaming world. So, with this album, I am releasing one song at a time. It’s kind of exhausting because every six to eight weeks there is a video to make and song to promote, but it’s an interesting experiment.

Sophomore simply means second album – but it’s often a big deal for a band. A first album often contains material worked on for years before release and draws on youthful energy. A second demands new material and confidence you can build on your fledgling efforts. How hard or easy was it to get this album together and to start launching it?
We released our debut album Hiatus in March 2020. We had been working on those songs for years and wanted them out in the world so we could figure out what was next. But that also meant Hiatus came and went with no fanfare. The only time we have played many of those songs live was in a livestream show. Some we still have never played live. It’s almost like it didn’t happen.

I was a bit down after that, so I signed myself up to the I Heart Songwriting 10-week program. It’s an online songwriting club I’ve done a few times. You are put into small groups with writers from all over the world and given a weekly prompt. Each week you submit what you worked on and give each other feedback. I was in a great group who pushed me to be better and gave helpful feedback. I ended up doing it for 20 weeks, wrote 18 songs and eight of them made it onto this album.

“Nineteen” was also part of a song-a-week songwriting challenge you did with your husband/collaborator/producer Andrew Pennay in 2020 and 2021. The word “candle” was the prompt for “Never Have I Ever”. What was the specific prompt for “Nineteen”, and how did your songwriting unfold from it?
The prompt for this one was “stars” so I didn’t move too far away from that. It reminded me of that opening line as soon as I read the prompt, so then I had to figure out what the song was about.

“Nineteen” was mixed by UK-based Charlie Holmes (Aurora, Ed Sheeran, Anne Marie) and mastered by Simon Francis (Charlie Puth, Julia Stone, Björk). What was it like working with them?
It was quite intimidating knowing that at the same time they were working on our tracks, they were also working on the next UK #1. We really liked Charlie’s pop work and since we did everything else at home, we could afford to get him to mix for us. We don’t know how to mix pop and we are really proud of these songs and wanted to give them the best chance of success. Simon made sure our songs wouldn’t sound out of place on the radio next to something really big.

The three singles from your new album released so far seem to be less folk (than your previous album) and more pop. You also list the genre for “Nineteen” as Indie pop / nu disco. Did you purposely set out to write happy music people could dance to? What other sounds and textures feature on the album?
The last few years have been so intense and negative. One of the yet-to-be-released songs is about compassion fatigue. I think we were all just tired. So, I wanted to write songs that uplifted people, gave them hope, gave them a reason to dance in their kitchen like a loon; like I do! The next song we are releasing is a disco track. There’s also a Pheobe Bridgers type moody track. We were exploring how far we can push what we do.

“Here if you need” was used with permission in a video for Downey Park Netball, and you say the video provided an inspiring snapshot of a community working together after the floods. Has your music been used in any other contexts (quirky or otherwise)? 
That song is going to be used in another netball video too, which I am excited about. We have had a few songs in TV shows, which is my goal for these new songs too. I always know where in the world a particular episode of Dance Academy has aired because my streaming stats on that song go through the roof! It’s big in Germany this week.

You and Pennay are a great musical team. Your music is self-released, self-produced and recorded in your Brisbane home (a converted church). You even directed and edited the video clip for “Nineteen” filmed in one hour at the Imaginaria. What do you most enjoy about your creative synergy and working partnership?
It’s free! But seriously, we have similar opinions about what we like but bring different strengths to the table. We have learnt to accept each other’s feedback. Sometimes I write a song and just want him to say, “That’s perfect! You’re amazing!” but he hears it as a producer and says, “That doesn’t make sense” or “You don’t have a chorus”. It can be frustrating and annoying, but it makes for a better song in the end.

Banjo, your son, is now 7. What signs is he showing of following in his parents’ musical footsteps? If he isn’t following you and Pennay down the musical path, what other beat is he walking to?
He has eclectic taste and a great ear; he can pick a Donny Hathaway or Taylor Swift song a mile away. He is more into LEGO, reading and bike riding than music, but there are instruments all over the house so he tries them all out. And he is pretty clear that he is in the family band.

How challenging is it for you and Pennay to compose and record music when Banjo is around?
It’s impossible to do when he is awake. We are lucky he is a great sleeper because all our musical work is done and recorded when he is asleep, often in the next room.

You confessed on Facebook that you picked up Banjo from primary school in the spacesuit that you wear in the video clip for “Nineteen”. What was his reaction?
He asked why I looked like an astronaut and why I didn’t bring his bike as requested! I was running late. It was either, pick him up in costume without the bike, or be late. Kids have a way of keeping you humble.

Mardi Lumsden wears a spacesuit in the video clip for her new single ‘Nineteen’. She also wore it to pick up her son from primary school. Photos: Supplied

Which Sydney-based musician is creating a unique sound you admire?
I saw MUNG MUNG at BigSound recently. She was incredible. So much energy, really unique and my face hurt from smiling. I’m also a huge fan of The Banks Brothers and The Morrisons –so love to see them whenever I need a banjo fix.

How has your performance schedule recovered post lockdown? When might we be lucky enough to hear you perform again in Sydney?
I would love to play in Sydney again, but at this stage we can’t afford it. Being independent is great because you get to make what you want to make, but it also means you pay for things yourself. And when there is a small human in tow, day jobs that require attention and the uncertainty of airlines and shows going ahead, it becomes quite tricky. When we know we can sell enough tickets, we will definitely be back.

Where can people buy your singles?
Bandcamp is the best place to buy digital music. https://mardilumsden.bandcamp.com/music

We aren’t currently pressing any records but are not ruling it out for the whole album.

Watch the video clip of “Nineteen” here: https://youtu.be/IE_BnGaspHI

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