Despite the floaty sweetness of frontwoman Elizabeth Mitchell’s swooning voice, Melbourne dream-pop quartet Totally Mild specialise in pointed studies of depression and isolation. That might not have always come to the fore on their breakthrough 2015 album Down Time – though the spritely ‘When I’m Tired’ did recount waking to a house that’s being set alight – but it’s hard to ignore on the band’s accomplished follow-up, Her.
“I am nothing to stay alive for/I am nothing to die for,” goes the closing line of ‘Underwater’, while the twisty ‘Take Today’ asks, “Why wait for a slow decay?”. That unique combination of slow-burn psychology and breathy pop cues – from woozy rhythms to expressive slide guitar – makes for a moving experience.
“I struggle with my mental health all the time,” Mitchell admits, on the phone from Melbourne. “I pretty much only write from my own experience, so that’s just a really overt theme that feeds into all the other themes. I can’t really avoid talking about that stuff, because it permeates the way that I live and the way that I write.”
It’s such a privilege to be able to feel like you can pursue [music]. But it’s juxtaposed with feeling a bit helpless in the world, and not having control over things.
As Mitchell explains, however, she approached that key theme in quite different ways between the two albums: “Down Time was very much [about] partying through being unwell. Her is a bit more about isolation, and that real push and pull between being happy but being chronically depressed. Like, knowing you have great things in your life, but still struggling to stay afloat.”
That push-and-pull is most apparent on ‘Lucky Stars’, a piano ballad that’s at once vulnerable and empowering, happy and heartbreaking. It’s incredibly naked, lyrically and instrumentally, and Mitchell’s own favourite song on the album. While the chorus came from another song she’d been working on, the verses were inspired by a drive back to Melbourne after a gig in Ballarat, surrounded by her friends in the band.
“It’s such a privilege to be able to feel like you can pursue [music],” she says of that glowing vibe. “But it’s juxtaposed with feeling a bit helpless in the world, and not having control over things.”
Her features another piano song in the closing ‘Down Together’, though that’s given a sighing, atmospheric pop treatment by contrast. The piano was Mitchell’s first instrument, and after writing the first Totally Mild release – 2013’s home-recorded, mostly solo effort Castanet – on baritone ukulele before turning to a four-string guitar that’s tuned like a ukulele, she has enjoyed returning to piano. In fact, she’s working on a solo album written largely on that instrument, following a few solo shows before Totally Mild launch Her abroad and at home.
“I was afraid of playing solo for a long time,” says Mitchell, “because I felt like it wouldn’t be enough. But I find it really exciting now. It’s scary, but you have all this control. It’s completely different to playing in a band.”
Mitchell is joined in Totally Mild by guitarist Zachary Schneider, bassist Lehmann Smith and drummer Dylan Young, all songwriters in their own projects. Original drummer Ashley Bundang, also of Zone Out and Ciggie Witch, played on Her but has since departed.
“We’ve always acknowledged that, with everyone being their own songwriters, there’s going to be a point where someone’s out, for whatever reason,” explains Mitchell. “So that had always been a conversation on the table. That happened with Ashley in the middle of last year. But it’s amazing having Dylan in the band: he’s so creative, and he can play every instrument.”
Beyond ‘Lucky Stars’ and the frisky lead single ‘Today Tonight’, other highlights on Her include ‘Take Today’, re-recorded after appearing on a Bedroom Suck compilation a few years ago, and the slow and sumptuous ‘Working Like A Crow’, originally penned for a children’s choir.
“I worked at a primary school, teaching singing, and Lehmann and I were making this album for children,” recalls Mitchell. “So we were writing all these songs and recording them with my singing students. [That] was one of them. The lyrics are quite simple – it’s about being different, but [how] that’s okay. They’re quite childlike in their earnestness. We have pretty much recorded that whole album, but we’ve never finished it.”
The album is just undoubtedly about women.
Her shares a comforting sense of continuity with Down Time, again tapping producer James Cecil (Architecture in Helsinki, Super Melody), whom Mitchell praises for his “amazing ear for pop production.” And Mitchell’s wife, visual artist Xanthe Dobbie, graces the album cover, after having her bare legs star on the front of Down Time. This time she’s in a hot tub appearing to eavesdrop against a mirrored wall, again photographed by artist/musician Darren Sylvester. In the background hangs a portrait of Mitchell’s mother that was painted years ago by a family friend; it also appears in the videos for all three singles on the album.
The presence of her wife and mum underscores the album’s short but potent title. “Her makes sense to me, because the songs are coming from a very specific place of being a woman in the world,” says Mitchell. “The album is just undoubtedly about women.”
That’s clear right for Her’s resonant opening line: “We’re told to keep it in/Don’t aim too high, you’ll fall.” And this time around, Mitchell is fine with making it that clear. “Lyrically, it’s more raw and intimate,” she agrees. “It’s less masked.”
Totally Mild will play Waywards on Friday May 25, and Her is out through Chapter Music on Friday February 23.