Vera Ellen begins her new album, Ideal Home Noise, in doubt. “I’m an imposter… It isn’t easy being like this… But I had to get something off of my chest,” she sings in a moment of self-reproach.
As far as opening tracks go, it’s utterly unsparing: anxiously paced, punishingly personal, Ellen confronts her listener immediately, insisting “this isn’t my best, at all.”
And then the jangling jolt of “Homewrecker” arrives, and you realise that you’ll have to grow accustomed to a constant battle between bright rhythm and wry self-deprecation opposite heavy beats and raw emotion.
It shouldn’t be any other way, though, because it’s this dichotomy that makes Ellen one of the sharpest songwriters to emerge from Aotearoa in a long time.
Ellen’s in her Wellington home when I speak to her across Zoom. It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since the release of It’s Your Birthday, the album that earned her a nomination for the Taite Music Prize and won her Best Alternative Artist at last year’s Aotearoa Music Awards.
As she’s keen to make clear, she was a much different person when she made her previous record. She was a lot younger, for one thing, and dealing with myriad external events. “People leaving, heartbreak, moving to a new country,” she says before trailing off. It feels like the list could go on.
Ideal Home Noise, conversely, is far more introspective. It came together just after the pandemic, during a particularly dark period for the musician. “I started going to therapy,” Ellen reveals. “I had really severe health issues. I was spending heaps of time alone and you can hear it in the record.” She pauses. “As much as the songs are quite fun! I always have a little bit of humour and stuff.” It’s little wonder that she attests to this album being by far her most personal yet.
Feeling like an imposter is something that flashes up throughout our conversation. “I feel like the second you get it out – there’s no retraction. The cats out of the bag,” Ellen remarks about the release of her album. “I think there’s some sort of power that you get as an artist when you haven’t got something out yet.”
When she first got the vinyl pressing back, the moment proved too much for her. “I was lying on the floor with a pillow on my head, and then I just texted everyone I knew and was like, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for this music.’ I just wondered, ‘what have I done here?’ I can’t think too hard about how other people feel about it. It’s just too crippling.”
Perhaps some form of imposter syndrome is also why Ellen struggles to listen to contemporaneous musicians – as a writer, you never really recover from the personal hell of comparing your work to your peers. “I think I’m one of those artists who can’t listen to music while making it,” she confides. “When I’m in the songwriting process, I’m almost actively avoiding it. To combat this, she listened to a lot of ambient music while recording her album. “And especially now there’s so much music,” she adds. “I don’t want to get into the current sounds or anything like that and let that influence my sound.”
Most artists probably feel overwhelmed by their album finally being released, but the emotion must be heightened when the music is so deeply personal. And Ellen doesn’t mind admitting just how much making Ideal Home Noise helped her. “As cheesy as it sounds, especially now looking back on a lot of the lyrics and diary entries from around that time, the songs kind of saved me from a really, really dark place,” she says.
“Especially because I was in a different country and stuff, and not necessarily having the same anchors of people. When you grow up somewhere, there’s places you really know, you’ve got your family, there’s these kind of anchors of your personal history. I just felt like I lost myself. And I felt like these songs brought me back to the world.”
She previously worked in Los Angeles for a record label, but it proved to be an illuminating experience. “I found it really hard to be inside of what was happening in the music business and then also be a musician. It was too raw,” she admits. And while she technically still works in the business – at Flying Nun – something tells me working at a Wellington record store is a lot less intimidating than the corporate hell of California (although she laughs at how strange it will feel to process her own record at the very place she works).
It was actually during her time in the US that she first discovered her eventual album title. “I was house sitting for my boss in Malibu, and the house used to be owned by the Beach Boys,” she recalls. “They had these huge bookshelves full of books, and there was this giant book. I was looking through it and at the time we were looking for a band name. I came across ‘ideal home noise’ and just liked it. That was probably four years ago now, but it just sat with me.”
One of the highlights on Ideal Home Noise is the towering “Carpenter”, a haunting anthem that feels like it unravels for much longer than its tight four minutes.
Upon first listening, I believed it to be about Karen Carpenter; “We are all quietly fighting our own battles,” Ellen had said about the track at the time, which seemed to fit neatly with Carpenter’s tragic story. When I bring my theory up, though, Ellen seems surprised. “It wasn’t inspired by Karen Carpenter, but that’s quite funny now that I think about it! There’s obviously references to Jesus and the Saviour and things like that. I think I was a bit aware when I was talking about “I call the carpenter.”
But as Ellen continues to talk, the story of Carpenter still seems to resonate. The generational talent internally battled eating disorders throughout her life, eventually dying from complications relating to anorexia nervosa aged just 32; no one’s life should be used for didactic purposes, but one lesson that can be drawn from Carpenter’s loss was not to keep inner struggles to oneself.
“When you’re so desperate, you sort of call upon all these different experts to figure out what’s wrong,” Ellen says about the idea behind the track. “I guess you can get lost in that – everyone else is going through their own shit. You need to also check in on other people and get out of your own head and ask for help.”
The tormented push and pull of mental illness: it’s not discussed enough. David Foster Wallace agonisingly captured it in his visceral short story The Depressed Person, whose narrator is someone deeply struggling, in “unceasing emotional pain,” but who is also deeply afraid to reach out to their support network of friends because sharing their feelings is the most difficult obstacle of all.
“You think you’re saving other people from you by becoming so insular, but you become quite self-involved and selfish,” Ellen adds. “It’s not intentional, but that can happen.”
This push and pull plays out in real time each time Ellen performs live. “Before we do shows, I always go on stage and do two songs alone before the band comes on. And every single time, without fail, I’m like, ‘let’s just cut those songs, let’s just go on together.’ They have to force me every time.”
Ellen has been touring with a six-piece band recently, which provided some comfort to someone that previously spent the majority of their time in bands. “I love playing with other people, that’s always been my passion,” she insists.
Despite family members frequently imploring her to do so, Ellen never felt quite ready to release solo music. “I was so scared,” she remembers. “There was just a wall, I couldn’t do it.” And even though she’s technically a solo musician now, the feeling never goes away. “I think it’s really terrifying.. I still feel that way. I’d much prefer performing with the band,” she adds.
She talks animatedly whenever the band comes up. “We’ve got different instrumentation on this record, which mixed up the lineup a bit. We have some electronic drums, which will be really cool. I’m really excited about that we’re all learning the songs at the moment. Every day at home I’m testing out the album and relearning it which is crazy.”
The anxiety of performing may never leave, but Ellen marches on regardless. She recently played a huge show supporting Marlon Williams at Auckland’s Civic Theatre, which turned out to be much less intimidating than she first feared. “I was expecting to be more nervous or something because it was a bigger crowd, but I was like, ‘actually, if anything, it’s kind of less scary.’ I just kind of realised it’s kind of the same at every site.” Her main goal for the rest of the year is to keep touring and play outside of New Zealand. “Performing live is my favourite thing ever,” she says with a smile. “I want to do that as much as I can.”
Ellen ends her album in certainty. “The music is unstoppable,” a tiny voice says sweetly as the closing track “Stick Around 2 See” slowly drifts out.
The voice belongs to one of Ellen’s nephews; samples of her nieces and nephews have been sprinkled throughout the record. “Their voices were a beacon of hope for me,” Ellen says, “even though there was this kind of dark thing happening.” The battle with ourselves never ends, but it’s the external things – family, bandmates, and, above all, music – that offer a way out.
Vera Ellen’s Ideal Home Noise is out now via Flying Nun Records.