Navigating the Weird Years
“My most overused phrase at the moment is, ‘surviving’” laughs Fickle Friends’ Natassja Shiner down the line from the empty café she’s picked as her makeshift office, adopted for meetings in a gap between lockdowns. While 2020 was a weird year for most, for Shiner it came with added heartache and forced change.
Formed in Brighton in 2013, Fickle Friends cut their teeth playing shows across the UK and Europe, from DIY gigs to festivals. There was a time when you couldn’t walk into a summer field without hearing their bright synth-pop swooning from a covered stage. Their ubiquity led to a signing with Polydor and in 2018, the release of their debut album You Are Someone Else. Following a busy album campaign the band decided to take a step back and reassess their position. They parted ways with their label and took a year off to reset, found new management, and wrote a new record. But then came 2020…
The band were ready to announce a new album when the pandemic struck, and although times were unprecedented, their new deal with label Cooking Vinyl allowed them a newfound freedom, and the ability to control their output. “We’re just a lot happier getting on with stuff by ourselves,” smiles Shiner. “You hear the stories [about acts] signing to a major label and the label managing to make them think they’ve thought of something but actually they’re just putting ideas in your head, or trying to force you to do things a certain way. I was like, that won’t be me! I’m headstrong, I know what I’m doing, I won’t be coerced into doing anything! But it fucking happened.”
The past nine months have had emotionally impacted us all, but as well as a time for grieving it’s been a time for reflection, and listening to Shiner speak so honestly, with such consideration, it’s clear how deeply she’s been affected. “Until it happens to you, you just don’t realise how mental it is,” she sighs. “I feel like major labels can be brilliant and there’s a lot of brilliant minds there and they did a lot of good for us, but a lot of it is just throwing shit at a wall and hoping that it sticks, and we really didn’t like that. We’ve gone back to doing all the creative by ourselves. All the writing, the mixing, it’s all fairly in-house again. We’re a lot more comfortable with that, and I feel like we’ve been able to grow a lot more. So it’s been interesting seeing both sides.”
The band were planning to release their second album in September last year, with punchy lead single “Pretty Great”, and the follow up ear-worm, “Eats Me Up” getting a release at the start of last year. “We had a release pencilled, with plans to fly to Japan to start an Asian tour. I was excited about all the ramen I was going to eat...”
Instead, their year off has transformed into a sprawling absence with no real end in sight. “It’s been pretty horrible,” nods Shiner. “We’ve been writing, but having taken a year off from the first album anyway we never thought that we’d get another year of not doing anything. We were booked for so many festivals this year and that was all taken away from us. Those shows are what make us feel fulfilled. Writing music is fulfilling in one way, but writing and playing and touring and meeting fans is what we love more than anything in the whole world. Not being able to do that is fucking weird. I can’t quite describe it.”
Like everyone else the COVID crisis forced the band to adapt to their new circumstances, recalibrating and changing tact as the world fell into uncertainty. They put the breaks on the album launch and decided to keep writing, employing catharsis and creativity as a reaction to the ongoing pandemic. Weird Years (Season 1) gets a release today, the first of a multi-part album. “There’ll be more seasons. We don’t know how many yet. We’ve left it open because we’re in a very uncertain time, we don’t know what’s going to happen in six months, never mind a year. We don't know if we’re gonna be able to tour to support a record,” explains Shiner. “All we know is that we want to release music consistently and eventually package it all up as a record. In terms of the first three songs that came out before we did Weird Years it was like, yeah we’re gearing up for a record. And then lockdown happened and I couldn’t travel to Brighton to our studio and we couldn’t really work. We were trying to do it over Zoom but it wasn’t working and we were like, fuck. How are we gonna not come to a standstill and keep going? So it was born out of necessity, but also it enabled us to prioritise what we were doing and be able to finish songs and keep writing and not feel creatively stunted in any way.”
The previous singles that formed part of the original release have been left floating in streaming limbo. “They were gonna be a part of the record and to be honest it’s all been such a mess because we were like, shit, what are we gonna do?” Shrugs Shiner. “It is weird because you really fall in love with a song after you start playing it on tour and it becomes so much more of a thing to you. Those songs we did write ages ago and I was in such a different headspace at the time and they’re both very in your face love songs and this year with everything it’s brought with it, the person I’ve been with the last five years who was the person I wrote all these songs about, we parted ways in the middle of lockdown and this year has been a corona-coaster and it’s so weird looking at how I felt at the time and what I’ve lost, it’s pretty horrible. It’s weird to reflect on how easily things can change in such a small period of time.”
As if the precarious upheaval of her professional life wasn’t enough, Shiner’s break up also turned her personal life upside down, creating more uncertainty when least welcome. “It was very odd because we broke up, I got coronavirus, was really ill, like it was awful. I felt really trapped in my own body and I had so many panic attacks during that time and I think that was the thing that made me feel like my partner wasn’t there for me or couldn’t handle it,” she says. “Thinking back now, my head was a mess anyway. We were in this house, couldn’t get out of the flat because our tenancy was until the end of August, ended up managing to move in the middle of lockdown to the other side of London, and all of that was like, oh everything’s fine. And then I felt alone, didn’t have festival season to distract myself and I really, really plummeted, like badly. It was really bad. I had been on antidepressants before, but this was really different. I just found it really difficult to try and work through what I was feeling because I felt like, this is so silly, it’s just a breakup. Well, actually no, it’s the person I thought I was going to be with forever, my job and the thing I love doing the most completely gone, not seeing friends, not seeing my family, and I honestly started to bury myself in a hole and started to feel really sorry for myself. I was just in my flat, just thinking and overthinking more and more.”
However, Shiner made a vow to remain creative even when travel was banned and the band couldn’t meet to write or record in person. She took on new activities and tried new skills, growing and distracting herself in equal measure. “I vowed to myself, I will not be idle. I will be learning, I’ll be achieving things, I’ll be doing stuff,” she nods affirmatively. “Luckily I did have other things to focus on because I started training to become a yoga teacher this year and I was finishing my training online, so at least I had that. I started teaching yoga on Zoom, I did a bit of illustration for fun, and I was like, I’ll do pay what you feel like portraits and I started drawing a lot of people’s pets, which is great. And have since gotten into doing a bit of animation and making music videos for people, so there’s a lot of amazing stuff that has come from this time of limitation. I was like, the reason I’m feeling so awful is because I need to focus on something, I need something to do. So honestly, I bought stick and poke, I bought stuff to do pottery, puzzles, all sorts of crafting shit. Anything I could possibly do to make sure that my brain could stay busy. The plight of the desperate woman.”
In turn, the band have been expanding the way they connect with their fanbase and have been engaging with different artistic disciplines across the upcoming season campaign. For each single they’ve been commissioning a bespoke artwork, with fans encouraged to contribute too. “That mainly came from the fact that we used to receive quite a lot of art from people,” smiles Shiner. “I feel like our fan base are just very creative people and I was like, there must be something else that we can do to help inspire people in this weird time. The thing that’s obviously kept me going is being able to be creative in other ways, not just musically and I was like, maybe we can encourage that in other people?”
For the track “What a Time” they commissioned the illustrator Alexandra Cook, who Shiner has been a fan of for years and it grew from there. “For “92” we’ve commissioned this girl who I met on the last tour we did. We were in Sheffield and she was working in a vintage shop and I bought this jumpsuit to wear for the show and she was like, ‘I made that’. And I was like, oh my god I’m obsessed,” she laughs. “And as soon as we thought about this thing I reached out to her and I was like, could I commission you to make some sort of jumpsuit piece that is inspired by “92”, and she was like, ‘I’d love to’. So she’s doing the next one. And then we’ve got this ceramic modelmaker who’s doing “Million”. It’s so cool. People are just amazing, they really are.”
While the artistic concept is inventive, Shiner wanted to keep her song ideas focussed and relatable. “A multipart album all about moments from the last two years of just feeling a bit out of sorts, but surprisingly upbeat in true Fickle Friends style. Sad songs, but with a sweet, funky beat,” she jokes. “Some people are like, do a concept album, and sometimes everything links together, but this is literally two years of emptying my brain across so much time and so many things have happened, that’s why it’s the Weird Years. There are little moments that anyone can relate to like, oh fuck I went through a break up in lockdown, oh yeah I felt trapped and I’ve become a really good homebody and I felt in limbo or I’ve fallen in love. There’s a lot of love and relationships that have come out of lockdown as well.”
Love in the time of coronavirus is a strange one, starved of real world interactions and robbed of tactility, it’s a frustratingly new concept that Shiner pours over in the track “IRL.” “All these conversations I’ve had with people like, you can’t message a guy or a girl for too long because you don’t know if you have any chemistry in real life,” she explains. “I was like, you’re right, yeah. It’s just fucking weird isn’t it? Trying to form relationships at this time.”
The lack of real life connection is something that Fickle Friends can relate to professionally as well as personally. Historically they’ve always been a live band. Always on tour or showing up to brighten a soggy festival, it felt as though the live space was where they made the most sense. But without that real life engagement, releasing music and trying to connect with their fans has forced them to reconsider how they move forward. “We came about just before social media really kicked off, so it’s been a bit of a weird time for us because we’re not massive social media people, we very much relied on the fact we could sell tickets and go on tour and people turned up to the shows,” she explains. “That’s how we sold our last record, selling all these cassettes and these records and all of these physical things and we can’t do that this time so do we put the album out? I know people have been releasing records just now without going on tour and we got a bit freaked out by it and were like, we’ll do Weird Years and we’ll do the seasons. I really love that idea and I like that it enables us to continually put out music without having to take a pause again. Pausing for two years after the first album, then pausing after “Eats Me Up”, figuring out what we want to do, I don’t want that to happen again. I want to be putting out music. We’ve got all of this material and it’s all great, we could put all of it out and then maybe it gets us to a point where we can go on tour.”
Stoked up on 90s TV shows and John Hughes movies, Shiner’s happy releasing her new music in seasons, although she’s aware it’s not the news everyone wants to hear. “They’re like, so when’s the album coming out? And I’m like, I don’t know,” she laughs. “They’re like, you need to call it an EP so DSPs understand. I was like, I don’t care. Cool that DSPs understand what we want to do. I’m gonna call it a multi-part album, so I hope that’s alright?”
Whatever you want to call it, the five collected tracks are a classic burst of Fickle Friends, mixing despondent, emotionally packed and sardonic lyricism with bright and vibrant hooks, instant melody and driving dynamics. Lead single and season opener “What A Time” is a glistening rush of synth-led escapism that might just help you forget for a moment the shit show that’s swirling around your four walls, while the aforementioned “IRL” takes its deeply relatable sentiment and turns it into a glimpse of hope with pulsing percussive construction and a melody as transient as app-found love. Both “Million” and “92” were penned before Shiner’s breakup and are packed with heartfelt sentiment, the former an indulgent, sweet narrative that takes on a sting in retrospect. Season closer “Finish Line” is starkly honest, circling the mental trials and defeats we’ve all struggled with these past months, synths swelling and supporting Shiner’s delicate delivery.
Mentally for Fickle Friends, this release has been in the works for over a year, a long time to be fixated on just one thing. However, now there’s a plan and a vision, Shiner and her bandmates find themselves with a renewed motivation. “We got a bit of a fire in our bellies last week and we were like, huh, right, we need to up the writing and I wanna collaborate more,” she smiles. “It’s just been me and Jack for so long. We’re gonna start reaching out to people and I think we’re gonna do some writing with Bad Sounds and a few of our other pals and just try and make it fun again. Because when you’re with a group of people who are all creative it can be so fun. But we’re writing all the time. The thing is, I struggle to be the kind of artist who finishes the album and it’s done and it’s submitted, and then you wait six months and it comes out. I couldn't deal with that because I write all these songs in between and I’d be like, I want them to come out now! And you have to wait two years. We’re writing all the time and new is always better. I know that’s not always necessarily true, but that’s how you feel in that moment!”
The only thing left now is to take their TV series out for a roadshow. “God, I miss gigs so much. Like, going to them. I took it for granted, so much,” she says, shaking her head. “Once you’re a musician and you’re in a band, the brilliant thing is it’s so easy to go to gigs. It's like, ah mate, stick me on the g list. And you rock up and you have a sick time and you just do that every week and don’t think about it. And now it’s all gone I’m like, what do I do that gives me meaning? If there’s anything to take from this it’s that the Government doesn’t really appreciate how much the music industry does for our country, but whatever. Also, these socially distanced gigs. Obviously I’d love to play but half the fun is getting the vibe from the people at the front singing and they’re all drunk and smothered on their mates crying and laughing.
Season 1 may be packed full of heartache and reflection, and with any luck Season 2 will bring with it a new joyful, hedonistic storyline that’s less the The Breakfast Club and more Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Stay tuned.