A guest post courtesy of the virtual pen of Gareth Ware
As the artistic vehicle for the perennially nomadic Anika Ostendorf, it’s safe to say that Hachiku has had an unorthodox genesis. Born in Detroit, raised in Germany, and with further stints in the US and London under her belt before her eventual settlement in Melbourne, Ostendorf is perhaps best viewed as a songwriter with a constantly-shifting set of surroundings to draw upon.
With songwriting sharp and inventive enough to win herself a support slot during Courtney Barnett’s 2015 European touring commitments, Ostendorf would end up interning at her former touring buddy’s self-run label, Milk! Records, a relationship that would eventually blossom into one of signing and label boss. While many of her labelmates (Barnett, Jen Cloher, Fraser A Gorman, The Finks) have an appeal deeply rooted in the realms of earthy, everyperson charm Ostendorf opts for a different route. The end results offer hazy, sparkling dreamscapes (not that they lose any sense of realty; as Ostendrof details it’s an EP that details with, amongst other things, bereavement) with a dose of bittersweet wistfulness thrown into the mix – see ‘Zombie Slayer’, whose outro could soundtrack a prom scene in a lost John Hughes film, all longing gazes across a high school dancefloor. With the self-titled début EP having landed last month, we spoke shortly after Ostendorf had completed a month-long residency of Sunday shows at revered Melbourne haunt The Tote about the effect that shifting environments have had on her songwriting, her methodical approach to songwriting, her induction into the MilK! community and her future plans for the project.
GW: Having been making music for years, what fuelled the decision to make a début EP – was it a case of gradually reaching a point where you felt you had an appropriate song cycle or was there a more definite catalytic moment?
I feel like the Hachiku debut EP is best described as a gradual accumulation of songs that spent many years in the making. For example, the oldest song on the EP is ‘Polar Bears’. The main idea and 3-chord sequence for it started when I was around 15-years-old. I remember making up provisional lyrics from random band names I found on the cover of a music magazine (going something like this: “Aloe Blacc is in your club, a two door cinema club – and I, I can see him dancing. Neon Indian Black”). The bridge part came to me 3 years later when I was sitting in my uni room, staring at a postcard on my wall with a hand-drawn doodle of a polar bear wearing knitted woolen clothes on it. 2 years later in Melbourne, I was 20 and about to record final vocals for the song and it occurred to me that it was probably time to replace the 5-year-old provisional lyrics from a teenage time when I had convinced myself my life was too boring to be lyric-worthy. The other songs on the EP share this aspect to have gradually over a long period of time formed from idea snippets into final compositions. I set myself a deadline that by the end of my uni exchange to Melbourne (which was in July 2015) I would have had to finally finish a musical project and a 5-song EP seemed to be manageable given that I was doing a full-time Biology degree at the same time.
GW: As someone who’s been making music for several years how do you feel you’ve developed as a songwriter since first creating music and what attributes in your songwriting have you always tried to keep?
I remember I used to set myself rules like, ‘you have to write a song that follows ABCDE as a chord sequences or ‘you are not allowed to hit the same part of the drum kit twice in a row’. I also remember convincing myself when I was 14 that I was doomed forever because my life was split into musical periods of excessive melody writing followed months later by a lyrical period; because my lyrical and musical periods were never overlapping I was destined to fail and would never be able to write a finished song that contained lyrics and music. I accepted my fate defeatedly. I have definitely become more confident since and trust in my abilities to write a finished song that’s longer than 30 seconds (even though I still find the process quite exhausting – I’d rather write 40x 30 second song snippets than 10x 2 min songs). I still give myself stupid rules like ‘your song lyrics have to incorporate these 7 words – dolphins, moon, desolation, horizon, tranquility, caravan, clarity.’ One thing that always needs to happen is that a melody line/lyric needs to evoke an emotional response of warmth within me. It needs to feel 100% right for me to be convinced of its worthiness (that usually requires multiple hours of looping the same bit over and over again before it releases serotonin in my brain).
GW: Despite having made music for several years prior was the task of making your début record a daunting prospect at all or do you feel you were at a point, in your own mind, of having enough confidence in the songs for that it to never be an issue?
It wasn’t really daunting as there was no real pressure by a label or anyone else to finish a record or have it sound a particular way. The only person putting pressure on the project was myself but being quite a perfectionist with high standards, working entirely by yourself can get very frustrating and discouraging at times. There is no validation that anything you are creating in the moment is worthy and good enough. Having a big vision of what I wanted things to sound like is helpful in terms of having a direction, but not having the skills and knowing how to get the music to 100% sound like the vision definitely ended in some desperate hair-pulling-out moments. I did not have a lot of confidence in my recording abilities – it was a period of self-doubt and re-recording and re-doing things not knowing how to do it the proper way. At no point with the songs on the EP did I think ‘yeah that sounds awesome’ it was and still is a thing of ‘that will have to do. I don’t know how to make it sound any better.’ At the same time, it’s a trial and error process with its own highlights – anything you hear in the final product is based on my own little successes that no matter how small left me with the feeling that I’ve achieved something after all, whether that’s getting vocals to finally sound okay after re-recording for the 9th time or re-mixing a song for days and then realising that the original mix sounded way better. Having been in proper recording studios since, I’ve also realised that there is not one right way to do things. In the long run I will probably be grateful that I am experimenting and teaching myself along the way – no matter how slow and frustrating the process is.
GW: Some artists treat an EP as a vehicle for eclectic songwriting experimentation but with yours there’s a consistent aesthetic running throughout the record – was that a conscious decision or a by-product of the direction your songwriting had already taken?
I think that’s just how the 5 songs naturally ended up fitting together. I always say that I’ve never written a song idea that I didn’t end up making into a finished song, so at the time I recorded those 5 songs they were actually the only 5 songs I had written in that time-period. I feel like mid-career artists can utilise an EP as a short project to experiment with sounds and develop their style without having to commit that experiment to a full-length LP. The reason my first release ended up as an EP and not an album is simply based on shortage of songs. If I had written 10 songs at that time it would have been a 10 song LP instead. However, my songwriting and recording process is very slow so I’ll try and hurry up a bit so the first album won’t take 10 years to make.
GW: As someone who’s moved around throughout their life, and with the record having been recorded in 3 countries, to what extent – both in a general sense and to you personally – do you think surroundings and sense of place can impact on songwriting, and how do you feel your environments have influenced the EP?
In a philosophical sense, of course all our experiences are reflected in our actions. In a literal sense, moving around a lot maintains a constant sense of inspiration. I got to experience a variety of musical styles from folk music in Michigan to genre-defying music in London and simultaneously met lots of people along the way that all had an input into shaping my personality which is after all obviously intrinsically linked to my musical creations.
At the same time not having a consistent home comes with restrictions. I couldn’t form a band but had to do things solo – from performing to writing songs to recording. I was restricted in equipment choices because I could usually only bring a mini-keyboard, guitar and portable recording set-up. While recording the EP I had to rely a lot on friend’s gear which allowed me to use a lot of different equipment but also meant that I had to improvise and work with what was available.
GW: It’s safe to say that your path to being signed to Milk! has been somewhat unorthodox – from a support slot on Courtney’s European tour dates to an internship to an eventual signing. Do you feel that your journey is in any way emblematic of the sense of community at the heart of the label?
Yes, 100%. Milk! is all about community and wanting to create that support network for friends and I just happen to be one of them, and I consider myself very lucky to be part of such a great family-vibe community. It’s probably unorthodox that other labels find their bands that way, because they are probably mostly interested in bands that are going to generate the biggest income. However the artists on Milk! would all share a similar story to my involvement with Milk! – being friends before anything else. Oliver [Mestitz, The Finks] and Courtney have been playing music together for years, [drummer Jen] Sholakis plays in 3x bands on the label, Celeste [Potter, Ouch My Face/artist] has been Milk!’s go-to illustrator and animator for forever. You could probably say Jen and Courtney are the label mothers and we are their little children.
GW: Alongside what some might call ‘traditional’ songwriting present on Milk!’s roster (Jen, Fraser, Courtney etc), yours stands out with its brightness and dream-like haziness. Do you feel that’s a fair assessment and as a songwriter is it exciting to think that the release is potentially bringing something new to the label?
That’s a nice question. Even though I am a singer-songwriter, I would probably consider myself a producer first and I am foremost interested in sounds and arrangements and how to make a whole song work in its entirety. I do think Hachiku is a bit different to the more traditional songwriters on Milk! but the label is also home to an eclectic mix of musical styles. I always find that Milk! isn’t as much a ‘genre-label’ in comparison to those labels that can be quite homogeneous in their musical choices. You wouldn’t necessarily expect Ouch My Face to be represented on the same label as the Finks but Milk! make it work because they foremost want to support the music they love which so happens to primarily be coming from the Milk! community of friends. The variety of musical styles on the Milk! label is definitely exciting and I think Hachiku adds to the eclectic mix present.
GW: Amid that sparkling brightness there also seems to be an underlying wistfulness to the record – was that something you’d set out to achieve and if so do you feel that the core mood is matched by the lyrical themes?
I find it quite hard to analyse my own lyrics in their meanings, in particularly the intention behind my songs. I never write songs with a particular theme in mind or the intention to communicate a specific feeling. They just come out of me that way. For example, Zombie Slayer I wrote during the time my grandmother died. I didn’t realise when writing the song that I was obviously processing my experience and incorporating it into the song. Thinking about the lyrics now almost 3 years later, I am shocked by how straight-forward and literal verses relate to particular things that happened during that time (for example, we were late and arrived 5 minutes after she died at her house – “you were 5 minutes late now come and collect your scars” – or she died on the 7th January – “on the 7th day of your life she died”). It seems more that my brain and feelings are a riddle that unconsciously unravels and unfolds in my lyrics until I get to analyse the outcome and put into context way after the lyrics have written themselves. Weird.
GW: Looking back, do you think you’ve made the record that you initially set out to do, or has it gradually changed into something else entirely during its conception?
I wrote each song without the initial intention of combining those particular 5 songs into a record. Hence, the EP is more of a patchwork, mix-and-match of songs that luckily ended up fitting quite nicely together.
GW: As an artist in a relatively early stage of their recording career, how has the experience of releasing the record (not to mention forming a live band, playing the Tote residency, and making waves in one of the world’s leading musical cities) been for you, and has it in any way caused you to reconsider what you’re capable of and what you can achieve in future?
I always find it hard to reflect on something when I am still right in the middle of it. I haven’t really had a moment yet to step back and take it all in with the Milk! Residency still happening, Hachiku writing new songs and making music videos, as well as playing lots of exciting shows. I am sure I will wake up one day in 7 years and be like ‘wow, how good were all these things happening back then in 2017?!’ but at the moment it’s all moving at a too rapid pace to be able to really tell how I feel about it. I should probably schedule in some more reflective diary writing time. But it’s been a very exciting and encouraging experience from forming Hachiku live band at the beginning of the year to releasing Moon Face on the Split Singles Club to making our first music video to playing our first headline shows to a packed out residency at the Tote 4 times in a row. I never expected that many people to show up and be interested in seeing us play. The positive feedback for the self-recorded EP made me believe more in my recording and producing abilities where prior to the release I had many doubts whether the song’s recording quality was up to scratch. I’m excited for future Hachiku – how we will develop as a 4-piece rather than a strict solo project, what shows we will play together etc. It’s all very exciting and I feel quite motivated to take it further.
Hachiku’s self-titled debut EP is out now via Milk! Records. Click HERE for more information on Hachiku.