In July, ABC revealed Australia’s Aged Care sector was still waiting on promised COVID grants, over three years since the onset of the pandemic. According to the grim report, Aged Care, which had understandably been struggling in the past few years, had been left with around half a billion dollars in debt due to delays in the payment of the COVID grants.
One person who wasn’t surprised was Jenny McKechnie. The lead singer of Melbourne punk rock trio Cable Ties experienced first-hand the Australian government’s brutal dereliction of duty when it came to Aged Care and other vital healthcare services during the pandemic. It’s why the provided press release for her band’s third album, All Her Plans, opened with a question not about music but about something much more important: “When public support systems fall short, who ends up carrying the burden?”
The answer, according to McKechnie, is, more often than not, the “grandmothers, mothers, and caregivers that society just expects will do more free labour to clean up the shit. Aged care got really laid bare over COVID. Some of those revelations just make me absolutely sick.”
I’m talking with McKechnie over Zoom on a quiet Monday afternoon in early July. That damning ABC report is still a week or so away from being published. We’re here to talk about Cable Ties’ new album, and as All Her Plans is billed as the band’s most personal record to date, the conversation naturally follows suit.
The songs on All Her Plans incisively detail stories of addiction, mental health struggles, and, above it all, Australia’s struggling healthcare system, with much of the material drawn from McKechnie’s experiences with her own family. She is soft-spoken, a little nervous at times yet warm and kind, but a fire draws out of her voice when we talk about the Australian government’s response to its most vulnerable citizens.
“The album has a lot of feminist themes on it, and that’s because the burden [of care] does often fall on the caregivers that have been there the whole time and are forced to pick up the pieces. That’s what the government’s banking on happening. When you cut funding for mental health services and you don’t adequately fund aged care and everything else, those problems don’t go away.”
“You’re not a perfect client / We’ve got no place for you to go,” McKechnie sings at the beginning of “Perfect Client”, howling her frustration at watching someone close fall victim to a desperate system. A few tracks later, on “Silos”, she expands on that sense of helplessness with lacerating words:
“They cannot treat her mental health because of her addiction
But when she gets through detox, they say she’s too high risk, and-
They send her off to hospital, so then within a week
She’s been dosed up on some Valium, and sent home with no relief.”
All Her Plans is inherently political, yet it’s probably Cable Ties’ least political album yet. Their second release, Far Enough, raged against misogyny, racism, gender issues, climate change, and myriad other issues in a collection that McKechnie concedes was purposefully designed to be an “all-encompassing thing that was a statement of who I am.”
Far Enough boosted the band to a new level, earning them Best Rock/Punk Album at the 2020 Music Victoria Awards, and plays on triple j, Australia’s national radio station. A few months after Far Enough debuted, the pandemic hit Australia, and all the momentum Cable Ties had been building was immediately extinguished.
“The album still did well, but we couldn’t tour, and it was a huge blow,” McKechnie says. “So, by the time we were writing this new one, I was like, ‘I just want to enjoy writing music. I want to write what comes out of me at the time and not put this huge amount of pressure on myself to make it anything.’”
That’s why All Her Plans is McKechnie – and Cable Ties – at their most personal. “I’m really proud of the way it came out,” she adds. “I think it means I enjoyed the process a bit more. I like bands that have a bit of light and shade to what they do, and I really wanted to bring that to the record as well.”
All Her Plans contains some of the band’s loveliest songs, in particular “Time for You”, a sweet ode to finding safety and comfort in the presence of a partner. “I’ve got no time… but I’ve got time for you,” McKechnie cries in the joyous anthem. “I’m always running around to different gigs or uni and everything else. With my partner James, I come home and I can just sit down. After about five minutes of me being like, ‘blah, blah, blah,’ I can finally calm down! I’m really lucky to have that,” she explains.
The couple had only been together for about six months before they moved in together. “I was supposed to be going off on tour, so I was like, ‘oh, it’s not too turbo to move in together because I’m not even going to be here half the time.’ Once COVID hit, this vision was quickly altered. “Suddenly it was like, ‘ok, you’re the person I’m going to see 24/7!’”
There’s also “Mum’s Caravan”, the jangliest Cable Ties are ever likely to sound, which recognises the sacrifices McKechnie’s mother made to take care of loved ones when the public support systems failed them. “When my grandma was getting old and sick, we didn’t send her to a nursing home because we all knew the state that Aged Care was in and couldn’t trust it. So my mum looks after her,” McKechnie tells me.
“When stuff happens with other family members, she’s the one that’s there, picking them up from hospital, getting legal aid together to fight whatever charges the cops have laid this time, paying the fines. It’s just the healthcare system falling short and not providing the care for people experiencing addiction and people experiencing complex mental health problems.”
When McKechnie speaks about her relationship with her mum, a lightness emerges. “I played in a band called Shit Sex, and she was like, ‘This is great!’ She was getting up on the stage and singing along with us. There’s just nothing I can do to stop her being supportive!”
McKechnie formed Cable Ties in 2015 alongside bassist Nick Brown and drummer Shauna Boyle. On their third album, they sound stronger as a trio than ever, a controlled and coherent unit completely aligned in rhythm and vision. Eight years in, they’re still pushing each other as musicians, with Boyle leading vocals for the first time on the sharp garage track, “Thoughts Back”.
“With this one, we wrote the music and I was like, ‘Shauna, I’ve got this vague idea, do you want to help me write it?’ And then she went away and wrote the whole song! I was trying to be sneaky and be like, ‘I’ll get her to help with this one and then I’ll get her to write a song on her own,’ and she just took the ball and ran with it straight away and came up with this amazing song.”
“Thoughts Back” even became the first Cable Ties song to be played on BBC Radio 1 in the UK. “I was like, “gee, Shauna, my songs never get played on Radio 1,’” McKechnie laughs. “I hope that we can do more of that because she’s excellent at it. And, selfishly, I also get a vocal break.”
I ask if the trio’s relationship was tested between their second and third albums. McKechnie pauses. “We got through the last three years, so I think we’re going to be good! Cable Ties had a pretty dream run until 2020: we opened [Australian festival] Meredith, our first records did really well, we had all this stuff lined up, and then shit hit the fan a little bit.
“Now we’ve got through that, all the constant booking and cancelling and rejections, and we’re still really determined. We want to go on tour for months at a time, we just want to do it. It seems to have only stoked the fire.”
After a run of UK and European shows, Cable Ties will embark on their first US tour in September, and they seem well placed to become the next Australian rock band to make inroads in the country, following the example of Gang of Youths and Amyl and the Sniffers (they’ll perform with the latter at two shows in the UK this month).
All Her Plans is the band’s second album to be released internationally by Merge Records, which is also how they find themselves supporting esteemed indie rockers Superchunk while in the US – the band’s bassist Laura Ballance and guitarist Mac McCaughan founded Merge in 1989. “We were two days from getting on a plane to go to the States in 2020 and it all got cancelled,” McKechnie recalls. “So this is our first time and we’re all very excited.”
How will US crowds take to Cable Ties’ pointed punk rock? “If they like angry ladies screaming at them and playing loud music – who doesn’t?!” McKechnie answers. “We really are a live band and we need to play live to break into international audiences. It’s the thing that we do best and we enjoy the most. We’re just really raring to go and do it.”
Cable Ties already have one American fan in Henry Rollins, who’s been fervently championing the band since their earlier albums. “We are completely blown away by that,” McKechnie concedes. “He was onto the first record, but then he’s like that with so many great little Australian bands. I’ve listened to a few interviews with him and his unending passion and energy for music blows me away. If I stood next to him, would some of the energy be absorbed, would I feel some of it?”
McKechnie took her mum to see Rollins when he was recently in Australia on his spoken word tour. “My mum puts videos of the band playing up on YouTube – she always has – and one of them ended up getting 1,000 views or something,” she says. “My mum kept saying, ‘it’s gone viral, Jenny, it’s gone viral!’
“There were people commenting about Henry, you know, sending them here (to the video). So my mum was like, ‘alright, this Henry Rollins is great.’” McKechnie had just one worry about taking her mum to see Rollins’ show. “I told her that if she tried to point me out, then I’d be leaving immediately!”
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Cable Ties’ third album seems to end with a respite, a breather after the emotional upheaval – all the empathy and anger – of the previous 30 minutes. The final track is called “Deep Breath Out”, after all: it begins with a tremulous guitar line, McKechnie’s voice timid as she relays the deeply personal story of a sibling struggling under the weight of addiction. She talks of “rearranging the past… keeping only the fondest parts”; she worries about “how things are gonna change.”
And then “Deep Breath Out” relinquishes, the rhythm explodes into life, and McKechnie’s voice rises to meet it. “But I love it when you call with all your plans… And show me all the things you made with your own hands,” she cries out, her voice crackling with emotion.
Because Cable Ties’ third album doesn’t try to change the past, or keep only the positive memories, or ignore the faults and frailties of real life; All Her Plans is truthful, starkly vulnerable, and a powerful melding of the personal and universal.
There’s time for a final question. Has your mum listened to the album yet, I ask. Did she like it? McKechnie smiles. “Yeah, she loved it.”