In this new Rolling Stone AU/NZ series, we take a look at some rising Aotearoa artists who are looking to impress in 2023 and beyond. It may still be an uncertain time for the Kiwi music industry at large, but exciting new artists like those included in this series keep on emerging.
No one was more surprised than Lukas Mayo when their music started to connect with so many people. After putting their first single together from their bedroom at their parents house in 2017, they really didn’t expect anyone to hear it.
When an eager audience of DIY music listeners began to gather for Lukas’ work under the Pickle Darling name, in love with their authentic use of instruments and lo-fi indie sound, it gave them the confidence to trust their own instincts.
That led to the release of Pickle Darling’s first EP, Spring Onion Pancakes, followed by two full-length albums – 2019’s Bigness and 2021’s Cosmonaut – which were, in this publication’s estimation, some of the best bedroom pop releases of the last several years.
Pickle Darling has gone on to support acclaimed artists like Lucy Dacus, The Beths, and most recently Fontaines D.C. and the hard work was rewarded earlier this month when Mayo signed to US record label Father/Daughter Records.
On something of a roll, he’ll now head to Austin, Texas, in March as one of the incredible Kiwi artists set to represent Aotearoa on the world stage at the prestigious SXSW festival.
Not that any of this is going to the Ōtautahi artist’s head: they told Rolling Stone AU/NZ that they really don’t think they have “any chops to show off,” which is why Mayo chooses to focus on finding “really unexpected ways” to please listeners.
Following the release of their new single “King of Joy”, which unsurprisingly hits the mark again, Pickle Darling opened up about how the ukulele played an important role in the discovery of their love for making music, why they put time into creating exciting visuals, and how it feels to be signed to a world-renowned record label.
Rolling Stone AU/NZ: How did music influence you in the early stages of your life?
Pickle Darling: A lot of basic stuff. As a child the very earliest music I remember paying attention to was The Beatles, Bee Gees, U2, and then Radiohead, just all the CDs I would find in our house.
Later on, it became Sparklehorse, Postal Service, Joanna Newsom, The Unicorns, Iris Dement, Sufjan Stevens, Mount Eerie, Guided By Voices. This was all the kind of formative high school stuff that made music feel possible for me I guess.
I also vividly remember the first Beth Orton album really affecting me as a kid, before I was really conscious of the music world and albums and stuff. I just heard her voice and how broken and mournful it sounded really stuck with me.
When did you discover your interest in creating music?
It’s kind of embarrassing but I started out with ukulele in primary school and I would play Guns N’ Roses songs on the ukulele. I upgraded to guitar and eventually got into home recording, just layering stuff and making repetitive instrumental stuff. I only taught myself how to sing pretty much as an adult, and I did a really terrible job of Beatles covers as a way to teach myself how to record my voice. It’s still online.
What did the early stages of making music look like in terms of establishing yourself as a composer?
I never really have a sound in mind when I’m producing – I was always just working around my limitations and what I was capable of. I’m usually just trying to make every moment of a song as interesting and colourful as it can be. From the start I never wanted to make music that was alienating, I wanted to make stuff that felt generous and open-hearted.
Part of that came from studying music in tertiary, which was fantastic and gave me a lot of skills but at the time it felt intimidating and quite insular, like people were making music just for other musicians. That never really appealed to me.
Is there a certain sound you’re most attracted to when you’re listening to music?
I try to listen to all sorts of stuff. Usually I’m drawn to anything that feels emotionally open and empathetic. But that’s kind of vague because that can be anything depending on my frame of mind.
Right now I’m listening to a lot of More Eaze and William Tyler, two quite different artists that make music that evokes physical space really well, which is something I want to explore in my own music eventually. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is also someone I’m inspired by a lot at the moment, he has such a freedom with lyrics, they can feel so playful and scary at the same time.
Are there any artists you look up to in particular?
R.A.P. Ferreira is an artist I admire – his work ethic is amazing and his total control over his work and total independence is really inspiring. Other than that a lot of my musical heroes are ones that had kind of failed careers but persisted regardless.
What importance do you think putting visuals out with your music has?
I think it’s hard to say if music videos matter as much as they did 20 years ago, but I kinda like putting weird shit out there on the internet. In my flat sometimes we do deep dives into the weird side of YouTube, and I quite like making stuff that feels like that.
A video can show a different side of a song, a more playful side of a dark song and vice versa. I don’t do all my videos myself of course – Martin Sagadin is probably the person who has done the most of my videos, we really click together.
What was the inspiration behind Cosmonaut?
That one was written in the midst of a long distance relationship, and I was watching a lot of classic sci-fi films (Solaris, Stalker etc) and the sense of loneliness and distance you see in those movies inspired the whole aesthetic of the album. It’s very loosely a concept album I guess – it starts on earth, goes to space in the middle few songs, and then ends back on earth. And the instrumentation kind of reflects that, it starts out more acoustic with banjo and stuff and then gets all electronic in the middle and then kind of returns to more banjo at the end.
What are some of the highlights of your career so far?
Playing shows with The Beths and Lucy Dacus have been highlights. I can never seem to tour as much as I’d like, I’m kind of always broke, so when another band takes me on tour it’s awesome. The Beths in particular have been super helpful and kind and supportive! SXSW I am sure will feel like a highlight in the future, right now it is mostly terrifying to think about.
What kind of personality traits and values do you think it takes to find success in pursuing your passion?
I would love to know the answer to this! I don’t know if I will ever be considered ‘successful’ but guess that depends on how you define success. My thing has always been to make sure music always feels like a hobby, and to only do things that I want to do because they feel good to me internally and not because it’s a smart industry thing to do or whatever.
Sounds corny, but I think it doesn’t make sense to talk about success if you aren’t sure what’s important to you in your life as a whole. For me personally that looks like making music for its own sake in spite of any goals or any ideas of ‘making it’ or whatever.
How did signing to Father/Daughter Records come about?
Funnily enough this is the closest thing to a big break I’ve had. I’ve been a fan of the label for a while, I love the Anna McClellan and Remember Sports albums a lot. The label reached out to me on Twitter when I mentioned I was working on new music and we had some video chats.
They really supported what I was doing and my kind of DIY approach to everything and I felt like they were a team of people that I wanted a long term working relationship with! They are a label that feels like they’re doing it for the right reasons and they’ve been really kind to me.
What are some goals for 2023 and what can fans expect from you this year?
There’s a whole bunch of stuff – but it’s a secret.