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Marlin’s Dreaming and Erny Belle Become Aotearoa’s Version of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Kylie Minogue

We got Marlin's Dreaming frontman Semisi Ma'ia'i and Erny Belle together to break down their stunning new collaborative ballad, 'Earnestly'. Just don't ask either of them to engage in small talk anytime soon.

When it came time for Marlin’s Dreaming to work on their first song in three years, and when it quickly took shape as a swaying alt-country ballad, frontman Semisi Ma’ia’i had one singer in mind to join them: Erny Belle.

Like Rolling Stone AU/NZ, Semisi had been suitably impressed by Venus Is Home, Aimee Renata’s debut album as Erny Belle, and knew he had to work with her on “Earnestly”, Marlin’s Dreaming’s first release since their 2021 album, Hasten.

“Such great songwriting and storytelling,” he says of Venus Is Home. “So to have Aimee sing on this song just made me so happy. I couldn’t possibly imagine this song without Erny Belle singing on it.”

Like Aotearoa’s version of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Kylie Minogue, Marlin’s Dreaming and Erny Belle make for a fine pairing on “Earnestly”, although their ballad sounds more tender than Nick and Kylie’s haunting killer-and-victim dialogue “Where the Wild Roses Grow”. (And Nick had pined over Kylie for years before they worked together, whereas Semisi only met Aimee for the first time a year or so ago.)

“Earnestly” takes a tongue-in-cheek look at modern romance through the lens of a couple talking past each other. Their future together, it seems, is destined for either a break-up or undying love. “Do you feel the things that I don’t,” Erny Belle softly croons again and again, an anxious thought painfully recognisable to anyone who’s felt a romantic partner slipping away.

The music video, which echoes the unsettling style of David Lynch, places this romance in a nondescript dive bar, populated by elderly dancers drifting and smoking in an almost fugue state.

“I had the idea of creating a slightly horrific country bar setting,” Semisi explains. “I watched the film Blood Simple, the first Coen Brothers film, and loved the way the characters and the bar scenes conjure up a kind of physical revulsion. Everything is so sweaty, dusty, and imperfect.”

For a song that’s about a “relationship where both sides don’t seem to be completely aligned,” it was fitting that Semisi and Aimee seemed a little out of step with each other at first when Rolling Stone AU/NZ got them together to mark the unveiling of their collaboration.

But this is a pair of singers who match each other well, and any early awkwardness in their conversation certainly didn’t linger. The relationship at the heart of “Earnestly” might not last, but one can imagine Marlin’s Dreaming and Erny Belle working together again in the future.

Both artists will be familiar to our readers: we caught up with the Dunedin indie-pop band last year to discuss their Australian tour, while Erny Belle’s second album, Not Your Cupid, topped our Best New Zealand Albums of 2023 countdown.

Read Semisi and Aimee’s full conversation below, in which they discuss the merits of small talk, how romantic relationships influence songwriting, the “seamless” nature of their collaboration, and more.

Marlin’s Dreaming’s “Earnestly” (ft. Erny Belle) is out now. 

Semisi: We’ve been trying to catch up for a drink for a while. It hasn’t worked out for various reasons & excuses. What can you do, we live in a busy city. How are you?

Aimee: Mōrena. You know, we could get a beer and gloss over all the doings and happenings but then it gets to a point of awkwardness, because it’s comfortable to sit in silence. You know when you have two negative ends of a battery and the electrostatic force pushes them away? I feel like that’s us socially together. 

Maybe because we are too similar. Couple of weirdos, dark horses, not huge fans of small talk I reckon. Nevertheless it’s always great getting a beer. Hilarious in fact.

Oh yes, how am I? I’m jacked up on coffee sitting at my dining room table. I’m in between jobs which means I can start writing again but I think I’ll tend to the garden first instead. How are you?

Semisi: Yes! I think I could never put my finger on why when we catch up it’s so funny and awkward. But you have nailed it on the head. I feel like, for me, it’s fairly rare to meet people that don’t really engage in small talk. It’s funny we’re sort of doing it now.. 

In another time – when we didn’t have computers and phones [and] constant, by the minute, updates on people’s lives – I feel like small talk would have been more interesting, hearing about people’s weekends, talking about what they are about to do, about what they just did, but it all feels like I’m getting told something twice now. 

I don’t mind silence either, in fact I really don’t mind it. It can breathe new life into a moment, or for thoughts to progress. What’s your take on all of this? Small talk, awkward silence, and why can’t we just have a beer like old mates?!

Aimee: Well, there’s genuine small talk which is an enjoyable necessity, and there’s disingenuous small talk, like when you’re stuck at a party sitting next to someone and feel obliged to get to know them. The more I talk about this now I realise how cold it makes me sound. Everything doesn’t have to be a grand revelation, maybe there’s a tenderness I need to learn by asking more strangers how their life is going. 

Maybe I need to do myself a favour and stop making constant equations. I don’t like feeling fake but I realise now maybe it is best to pretend to make someone else feel better. Wow, what a revelation!

You’re right though, when it’s so easy to have instant communication these days the well runs dry pretty fast. I guess it depends who you’re with.

What I love about visiting my Dad up north for dinner is listening to his mates and him talk for hours effortlessly, not about anything spectacular or deep but there’s such enthusiasm there. I think I wish I could be a little bit more enthusiastic. But hell, I do love to ramble. A walking contradiction. I think what I mean is maybe I just don’t know you all too well yet… or maybe awkward silence is my favourite form of humour…

Semisi: This is true. The more you pick it apart, the more you realise you’re just making it difficult. 

No you’re right, we don’t really [know each other too well]. [Not] enough to sit in silence without too many questions and answers I suppose.

So, we were lucky enough to have you sing on our song, and I feel like it was a really seamless fit, your voice alongside mine, but also even alongside the music we made. How was the experience for you? 

Aimee: It did feel seamless. It was the first time doing vocals for anyone else so I was a bit nervous, but it helped that you’re so particular about what you want and good at communicating it. I suppose that’s why I got you on board for vocal production/backing vocals on my album. And that was great. I’m keen to do more work with you.

I was wondering – you’ve been in a relationship for quite some time and I’ve never released music whilst being in one. Has certain subject matters in your songs ever caused tension in your relationship?

Like a lot of the time I’ll write because it’s something I can’t talk about and now that I’m with someone I was thinking, shit this could be a bit revealing. Do you guys have a sort of mutual understanding to not dig too deep on the work? Or is everything you write about out in the open already? 

Semisi: There’s definitely been times when it’s been brought up and we’ve sort of casually talked about it. It’s never been an issue, but I can see that it could, depending on circumstances. I think, for us, we are both artists, and so there’s a shared understanding that we need to make art in order to cope with the world. 

For me, my writing process, it’s like feelings and thoughts are completely unwedged when pen goes to paper, or when a chord progression makes me feel a certain way. Being too conscious of disrupting present relationships is understandable, but also potentially ruinous of the song’s honesty. 

Weirdly enough, the lyric writing and end result feels like another part of me that exists, a part that I predominantly keep locked away. So when people (even my partner) ask me about certain songs or phrases, I’m usually so removed I don’t even have an answer. It’s like describing a dream that you can sort of remember having…

Do you feel like now that you have a partner, do you feel like it will alter how you write?

Aimee: I can relate to not having an answer to some styles of writing, I think that’s what I find enjoyable about it. It can be trance-like. 

I am curious to see what I’ll write. It will inspire but not necessarily alter the process. I feel like some of my songs are premonitions to feelings or things that happen in the future. So now that I’m with someone I was strangely envisioning before I met, it will be interesting to see what the next album is about. I was thinking it will be all set on the water. 

Not to break the charm but I didn’t actually grow up in Maungaturoto (like a lot of people think). I grew up with my mother in all different suburbs of Tāmaki, so Maungaturoto was always my home base (turangawaewae) and still is. I think that’s why it was so hard when Nana Venus passed and they had to sell her house. If you don’t own land, or lose people in the place you feel you belong to, you feel displaced. Things change and that’s the nature of life, but it’s definitely taught me a few lessons. 

So you’re from Dunedin – do you prefer writing there? Is the cold better for the mind? Also, what are three things you’d like to do in your life, non-music related, before you fly to the castle in the sky?

Semisi: I can relate to that experience you talk about, going to northland. Except mine is going south. I think it’s funny you sort of unconsciously busy yourself with the most unnecessary of things in Auckland, or at least I do.

I like to write in Dunedin. It has such a rich history of beautiful, raw guitar music that I have [always] really loved. I feel like a small town at the bottom of the South Island can feel both completely inspiring and utterly claustrophobic at the same time. I think that the pace and the weather certainly incites a certain style of music, at least this is the chemical reaction that occurs for me. 

But it’s not always the music I want to be making. So, although a bigger city can feel anxious and self conscious, it can also breathe new life into my writing process. It’s a funny sort of balance. 

Before I die, I would love to play live rock shows outside of Australia and NZ. That can be number one. I want to spend time in Samoa writing and learning. I want to make an album of piano music, and learn the piano at the same time. Sorry, mine became all music-related! How about you?

Aimee: I’d like to write a novel, make a feature film, and become black belt in Karate. I’d love to play in Dunedin sometime or go for a writing session. I like writing in the cold/the south. Sometimes being away from home is a good palate cleanser. 

Semisi: Lets talk about the song & video…

When I asked you to sing on the song, I had a premonition that it would work, but you never know. I certainly didn’t know how you’d interpret the song, if you’d say yes, or even if you’d like the song. 

Your delivery is an interesting mix of naive and hauntingly confident, and in the music video performance, I’d have to say you possess those qualities too. I mean, this is the feeling I get. Where does the character that you play in the song and video sit in your head? 

Aimee: Thanks for circling it back to the song, I went walkabouts!

I fell in love with the song when I first heard it. I took it for a walk to the beach and got really excited. In terms of my voice fitting in, it felt like a fluke. The lyrics play a big part in how I feel out the way I sing. I have to put my own heart into it and maybe some feelings of uncertainty or nervousness, without it being my own song, added to a sort of strange nonchalant delivery, in my faux confidence. 

There’s something about the lyrics that made me feel like not giving too much away. Protecting yourself from your own truth. Maybe that’s why it looks like the lights are on but no one’s home in my performance. 

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