“It’s not a passive album,” says Two Steps On The Water’s June Jones of the band’s forthcoming LP Sword Songs. That’s something of an understatement, given the record is replete with songs that galvanize one to survive in an often hostile environment: “If you’re feeling terrified / It can help to feel a little terrifying”, sings Jones on opener ‘Camouflage’.
Written throughout 2016, during and immediately after recording full-length debut God Forbid Anyone Look Me In The Eye, the Melbourne band’s second album continues to highlight their propensity for visceral, gut-punch songwriting that is at once deeply comforting and utterly devastating.
Across Sword Songs’ nine tracks, the record spans a breathtaking textural and dynamic range – seamlessly shifting between sparse intimacy and huge, swelling soundscapes filled out with powerful vocal harmonies, organs and string sections. “We naturally tend to work in both extremes of very soft and very intense,” explains Jones. “We’re pretty drawn to that dynamic between opposite sorts of feelings.”
Altogether, Sword Songs feels fuller and more realized a record than the band have ever released. The vast majority of the album was recorded with Melbourne producer Geoffrey O’Connor at Irene’s Warehouse in East Brunswick, along with sessions at other Melbourne studios Head Gap and Phaedra.
We’re a little more subtle in our politics.
Recording was spread out over a period of eight months, a considered process in contrast to the three it took to record God Forbid. “There was a lot of revising and redrafting, among other things going on in our lives. A lot of the time we’ll rearrange the song a few times until we find what seems to work best. We were a little bit more perfectionist than we’ve been in the past, which I think was good”.
That attention to detail shines throughout each track, with performances that are polished while retaining the band’s trademark vitality. Soaring strings performed by members of MSO provide the backdrop for some of the album’s most compelling moments.
Whether we consciously realized it or not, we ended up writing music that centered on an emotional experience over an intellectual one.
While it’d be easy to categorise Two Steps On The Water as “folk-punk”, given their skew towards lively refrains and traditional instrumentation, it’s a label they typically reject. It’s something of a loaded term, as Jones explains, given its historical context and explicit political nature – “we’re a little more subtle in our politics.” Instead, the band opts to describe themselves as “emotion punk”, a self-aware reflection of their tendency to prioritise the emotional connection at the heart of their output.
“I’d say I have a particularly tumultuous relationship with my emotions,” says Jones. “But I found that once I started writing and focusing on them, I started writing good songs – ones that didn’t sound like they were trying to be anything else. Whether we consciously realized it or not, we ended up writing music that centered on an emotional experience over an intellectual one, or one rooted in a specific genre or style”.
That emotional experience anchors much of the album; Jones’ lyrics are tender yet frank meditations on trauma, strength and trans identity. As its title suggests, it’s difficult not to see a narrative of fighting back form throughout the album.
To be political in this abstract way that’s not about experience, and is more about a perception of the world, has always been a historically masculine thing.
What does it look like for those things to manifest throughout the course of someone’s everyday life? What sort of resilience does it take to persist in a culture that consistently demonises mental illness, trans people, and sensitivity? On Sword Songs, Jones articulates unapologetically honest responses – if not necessarily answers – to these questions, complemented by a voice that oscillates between fragile whispers and full-throated howls.
“I feel like the album is a lot of different takes on a similar experience. Some are resilient and proud and brave, and some are totally defeated and desolate. Others are just bitter, like, ‘Maybe I’m not thriving, but fuck you anyway’.” The anger that comes through on tracks like ‘Venom’ feels as vital as pleas for compassion on ‘Hold Me’.
Jones recognizes the power and connection that can come from actively prioritizing emotion over technicality in songwriting – an action that has often been devalued in comparison to “serious” music (read: music traditionally made by men.) “Emotions have always been designated as for women and sissies and wimps – intellectuals have always been framed as masculine. It applies to politics as well – to be political in this abstract way that’s not about experience, and is more about a perception of the world, has always been a historically masculine thing. But emotional music is what gets kids through things like fucked up experiences in high school.”
It’s not hard to imagine a young queer or trans kid stumbling upon Two Steps On The Water and feeling recognized and understood. At their root, getting people through fucked up experiences feels like the band’s driving force. As anyone who has seen them perform live will attest, there is something truly beautiful about a room full of people sharing and contributing to the warmth and energy that Two Steps On The Water project into whatever space they occupy. Last year’s God Forbid highlight ‘YoYo’ assured listeners “If the world don’t love you / then the world is wrong” – the rallying cry of a band that invites people in, offers empathy, and finds a way to fight through the darkness.
Sword Songs is out independently on Friday September 29. For more information, head here.
Header photo by Naomi Beveridge.