STONNII – An Interview on Crafting ‘Better’ and Chasing Musical Dreams

by the partae
Tell us about your journey from construction to chasing music dreams
Tell us about your journey from construction to chasing music dreams:
I have wanted to be a singer since I can remember, but somewhere along the line I started telling myself that was an unachievable dream. In high school I actually wanted to be a doctor, so began the medicine career path, but was so burnt out after year 11 that I decided to aim for psychology instead. I enrolled in psychology and nursing at uni, and dropped out in three days after having an epiphany mid-biology lecture that it just wasn’t for me. I changed to a double degree of architecture and construction management after seeing what one of my housemates got to do in her architecture classes. I lasted three out of five years, studying full time and working almost full time as a contract administrator/office manager. My mental health was steadily declining due to the intense workload I tried to juggle alongside keeping up with my family who live hours away, long distance relationships, making new friendships and maintaining old ones, and my very standard (but still ridiculous) uni student partying habits. I was stressed, depressed and helplessly lost. I failed my first ever unit (first time I failed anything) and I did not take it well. One day, after crying in my closet for a couple of hours, I saw an ad for a local music course, called and enrolled for the next intake within half an hour. It was the best decision I ever made, and led to the creation of ‘Better’ and my current career as a musician and artist – my lifelong dream. 

How did being stuck in lockdown and dealing with personal stuff shape “Better”? Was it like pouring all those emotions into the music?
To be totally honest, having this project during lockdown was the only driving force that got me through. Over the course of 2020-2021, on top of the lockdowns that impacted us all, I was also faced with several health complications, went through a breakup and received a heavy mental health diagnosis, all while navigating what seemed like a thousand challenges within my family. I was so incredibly lucky to have my course offerings deemed by the government as requiring face-to-face classes to be viable, so I was able to leave the house a few days a week to rehearse (face-masked and social-distanced of course) with my classmates. Without this interaction and the driving force of a huge creative project, I really think I might have lost the plot. ‘Better’ was a cup and I was pouring every thought and feeling into it – which is the only way I know how to make music.

So, why “Better” for the EP title? How does it vibe with the themes you’re exploring in your tunes?
‘Better’ was the first title that came to me when I was picking the name. It was going to be released under my band name ‘Orange Butter Club’, which sounds really nice beside ‘Better’. I was thinking about what linked the four distinct songs to one another, and when that word came to mind I thought it was perfect. ‘Better’ encapsulates the enduring theme that each song tackles in a different way; both a deep longing for better days, a better environment, better feelings, and a promise that all badness is temporary, and betterness is coming. 
Your music’s got this cool mix of indie pop, neo-soul, and Aussie soft rock vibes. What got you vibing on that blend?
When making ‘Better’, I wasn’t setting out to fit any particular genre; I just made the music that came out of me when I played. My mum gigged as a country music singer when I was small, and I was heavily influenced by Missy Higgins, Kasey Chambers, Shania Twain and The Chicks, which shaped my voice a lot. As I got older and developed my own taste (which is extremely broad), I found myself gravitating towards neo-soul and indie-pop acts with strong lead vocals and powerful lyricism. Some of my favourites include SZA, Lauryn Hill, Joss Stone, Dominic Fike, Still Woozy, Angie McMahon and Julia Jacklin. The sound of the EP is also heavily shaped by Leon’s taste and his guitar style back in 2020/2021. What we created feels like a true expression of my thoughts and ideas as an artist, and I am so proud to be able to say that I made music that I just really liked, and not music in the pursuit of trying to sound a certain way or emulate someone else’s vision.

You mentioned each track on the EP’s got its own flavor, but they all fit together like a tight playlist. How’d you piece that puzzle together?
Luck? I’m not sure I have a good answer to that!! Before recording, we had a set of about 7 original songs, and a couple of covers. When choosing what to put on the EP, ‘Sunny’ and ‘Monday’ were our first really obvious picks. I can’t remember what influenced our choices of the other two – I think they just felt the strongest and most developed of our tracks. We couldn’t have planned for how well they would sit together, and how that underlying message would flow seamlessly through the body of work, but I feel so grateful that it came together so well. 

Tell us about teaming up with your buddy Leon Antonov. How did that duo dynamic play out when you were laying down tracks?
Leon and I hit it off pretty soon after we began studying together. His guitar skills improved so rapidly, it was seriously impressive. We ended up in a band, and when we jammed things just came together so effortlessly and naturally, I knew it was something special. The 4 tracks were made differently from one another; I wrote ‘Sunny’ and ‘Monday’ on my guitar at home, and brought them to rehearsal for Leon, Liam and Zach (bass & drums) to add their magic to. ‘Cake’ was developed from a riff that Leon sent me, I sang over it at home and constructed the melody, before bringing it back to the band. ‘Bad Days’ came together out on the street outside the recording studio (Don’t Poke the Bear); Leon was mucking around on my acoustic guitar, and I just started freestyling and soon later we had most of the track. We have the producer, Chris Wheelwright, to thank for helping bring the bridge section and some of the other details to life. 

“Sunny” and “Bad Days” are like sunshine and rainbows in song form, even though you wrote them during some heavy times. How’d you turn those tough moments into feel-good tunes?
I think that making music with others is what made the final result a positive one. Back then most of my writing was super dark and sad, but I didn’t want to drag Leon or anyone else into my shitstorm of negativity. So, I tried to flip it and create the music that I needed to listen to at the time – reminders that it’s not all bad, that you’re not alone, that you need dirt for flowers. It’s super ironic to me that I made such uplifting tracks during one of the most tumultuous periods of my life, but I guess something within me just knew that people needed hopeful messages – I needed hopeful messages at that time. 

What hurdles did you face turning the project into a solo gig after hitting some roadblocks? How’d you slam dunk those obstacles?
The biggest hurdle I’ve had to overcome is my own silly head. I had a lot of doubts, and kept going back and forth on whether I should release at all, and whether I even thought the songs were any good. Some weeks I’d listen and be convinced the whole thing was terrible and I should chuck it out. I didn’t listen to a single track for over 6 months, and I think that space really helped, because when I listened back with fresh ears I realised I’d been being a bit dramatic (this may or may not be very typical of me). It also took me a while to build the confidence to do it on my own, and I won’t lie, I was a little sad to be continuing on without Leon by my side. Forging ahead as a solo act meant trusting myself to make the right decisions with every aspect of the release (especially since I have done it 100% independently). This has been scary, but now I am incredibly grateful to have listened to my gut, because now I wouldn’t change any of it.  

Walk us through your EP track list game. How’d you pick the tunes and line them up to tell your story of chasing brighter days?
The track list order is; ‘Sunny’, ‘Monday’, ‘Cake’ and finally ‘Bad Days’. This is actually different from the original order that we decided after recording. I have ‘Sunny’ first because I think it’s a beautiful opener, and it primes the audience well to experience the rest of the EP. ‘Monday’ brings the energy up, but the mood down, as I rant about my non-existent work-life balance, and then ‘Cake’ follows as a reflective side note that acknowledges my fears and my sadness, but also reminds me that hating my birthday is a bit frivolous and it’s okay to laugh at myself. ‘Bad Days’ is the longest track, and it really wraps it all up. I put it last because the message behind ‘Bad Days’ is really the essence of the EP – shit happens and life can be stupidly hard, but that’s kind of a universal human experience; knowing that you aren’t alone can be the light at the end of the tunnel.

How do you see your music hitting home with listeners, especially those who are battling their own storms and looking for a musical lifeline?
When I think about my mentality before making ‘Better’ versus now, it reminds me of that ‘Two Guys On A Bus’ meme, where they are both saying ‘nothing matters’ but their perception of that phrase is different based on their mindset.
Both of these dudes still exist within me, I just try a lot harder to be the guy on the right, and remind myself that even when it doesn’t feel like it, it will be okay. Gratitude and grief are two sides of the same coin, and I want my music to help people remember that and even just attempt acceptance. I’m not saying that bad stuff should happen – life can be so cruel and so unfair and I wish it wasn’t; but being aware that I am not alone in my struggles, and that they have helped me to make art and fight harder for a joyful life, softens the sting of grief and regret whenever I find myself confronted with those emotions. I hope that by being honest and vulnerable and sharing my art and my stories, I can help others find solace and strength through their own personal struggles. I want my music to make people feel empowered to acknowledge their own pain and express it in healthy ways, and I hope that doing this will help them to come out of dark places.
Any standout moments from crafting “Better” that you wanna shout out as extra special or meaningful?
One of my favourite writing moments would have to be making ‘Monday’; I literally came home from work, feeling like I was at a breaking point. I sat on my bed, and started angrily scribbling in my notebook. I had the lyrics in about 10 minutes, which I then sang while strumming the first few chords that came to mind. It felt like a moment of pure expression, so uncomplicated and as natural of a process as I can get. As for the recording, making ‘Better’ was my first formal experience, which made every moment feel so, so special to me. We took a week to record the EP, and it was the most fun, exhilarating and exhausting week of my life. I have so much appreciation for everyone involved. Shout out to Chris Wheelwright and Dave Weir for taking all my ideas on board, trusting my vision and making it happen. 

What’s next on the horizon for your music journey? 
I am performing an acoustic set at Unassigned Gallery in Brunswick as part of Crockpot Poetry on May 9th, a Sofar Geelong set at a secret location in Anglesea on May 16th, and a second EP launch in my town is in the works! That’s all I have planned, but if you know me you know I tend to plan as I go, never turning down an opportunity, so I hope to be booked up to my ears in no time. I’m still deciding whether to enlist some new band members, so that might be my next big goal to reach. 
Where do you see yourself heading after dropping “Better” on the world?
My goal with ‘Better’ has been to get it out, work as hard as I can alone and see where that takes me, while learning as much as I can about the release and marketing processes. I mostly just wanted to have music on streaming services for my friends and family, to show them what I’d worked so hard on for so many years, and to share my passion and my art with loved ones. I got to play an impromptu set in Hong Kong after ‘Sunny’ came out, and I have a Japan trip planned for August, so hopefully I can play live there! There aren’t many opportunities to play overseas that I wouldn’t leap at; I adore travelling. I also have dreams of a regional Australian tour – I’d especially love to hit my hometown Katherine, plus the other towns I lived in growing up; Buderim QLD, Glen Innes NSW and Hamilton VIC. We’ll see what happens!

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