She stands out in a crowd. Even here, in hip Surry Hills. There she is, Izzi Manfredi of the Preatures, striding across the street, lanky, grinning and fashionably late, wearing red velvet flares and silver pointy boots, a black turtleneck, a black wool jacket with red racing stripes down the sleeves and Nancy Sinatra-style white-rimmed sunglasses perched on top of jet black hair. She leads the way into a back stairwell, up a couple of flights of stairs surrounded by wall-to-wall graffiti and we enter Doldrums, the band’s scruffily inviting recording studio in arty enclave Hibernian House.
Already here is Jack Moffitt, her partner and guitarist/producer with the Preatures. He’s standing at the mixing desk with a pair of pliers, working on an array of wires, leads and jacks. He has big soulful eyes, a gentle demeanour and hair that would need no adjustment were he to accept the lead role in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
“Hey,” he says quietly when he sees Manfredi. “You cut your fringe. It looks really good.”
They hug. They keep hugging. They hug some more. It seems like a good time to take in the studio. A drum kit takes up most of the area under a bay window, guitars and basses lean in racks, keyboards are scattered around. On the walls there are Star Wars, AC/DC, Sonic Youth and Neil Young posters, a mood board featuring dozens of images of women clipped from magazines and the Eighties-style collage artwork for Girlhood, the band’s second album.
“Please don’t read that,” says Manfredi when she notices me peering at some sort of scribbled album manifesto. “That’s from very early on.” It’s the only note of caution the 29-year-old will sound over the next four hours as she opens up about her life. To understand Girlhood you have to understand the girl who grew up to be the woman who wrote the words and sings these new songs. And Izzi Manfredi is only too willing to take you on a guided tour.
Four weeks earlier the band appeared at the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid. Girlhood was still two months away from release and they played it in its entirety for the first time. Manfredi commanded the stage in spike-heel boots and shiny black vinyl pants that looked like they’d been painted on. Moffitt, bass player Thomas Champion and drummer Luke Davison cast Almost Famous shapes around her.
Kids from Alexandria Park Community School Choir joined them on “Yanada”, a rousing and ridiculously catchy song about shedding your skin and opening your eyes underwater, partially sung in the Australian Aboriginal language of the Darug people. It grew out of seeing a performance of The Secret River at the Sydney Theatre Company last year. Manfredi was moved to tears by the play based on Kate Grenville’s award-winning novel and vowed to write a song inspired by it.
She performed “Your Fan” solo, sitting at a Fender Rhodes electric piano. It was intense and intimate, highlighting the song’s central theme of connecting fandom with relationships.
“A lot of people have listened to that song and said, ‘Oh, it reminds me of my ex’,” Manfredi says later. “And I think that there is that synergy between the love that a fan has for their favourite artist or band, and the love that you have for somebody in the first stages of a relationship, when you put that person on a pedestal until you realise that they’re maybe not what you thought they were.”
At the end of the set she said, “This album has been the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
They returned to the stage for encores, playing a few songs from the first album and dedicating “Is This How You Feel?” to Gideon Bensen, who was sitting in the centre of the fifth row. Bensen was second guitarist, co-vocalist and co-songwriter in the Preatures, but left in March last year.
“It had been coming for a while,” says Manfredi, sitting cross-legged on the floor at Doldrums and rolling a cigarette. “I didn’t want him to go. I was really, really upset. I think the boys took it better than I did. But he did it with such grace and humility. He said, ‘Iz, I’ve got to do my own thing. You need to do your thing. You need to run. And don’t worry about it. Just stop thinking about me.'”
I first met the band in 2014 when I interviewed them in Sydney and then in Austin, Texas. They were riding high and running fast on the success of their debut album, Blue Planet Eyes, which had just debuted at number four in the Australian charts – Moffitt had predicted it would come in at 24; Manfredi was less optimistic, opting for 26. “Is This How You Feel?” won the $50,000 Vanda & Young Songwriting Competition, they’d been touring the world for over three years and played just about every major festival, including SXSW, Glastonbury, Coachella, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits.
Three years later, it turns out things were not as rosy as they seemed from the outside. And their opinion of their own debut album is equally clouded. “None of us were happy with it,” says Moffitt.
“None of us,” echoes Manfredi.
“The album ended up being something that we did and not something that we necessarily meant,” says Moffitt. “I don’t want to take away from the record, because it’s a cool record and I’m glad that people like it.”
“It’s groovy as well,” says Manfredi. “But it was wedged between these two really big tours and we did Coachella and SXSW in the middle of it and we were expected to make this hit record. It came out of this whole thing in the music biz where you’ve got to keep up the momentum and if you don’t keep up the momentum, the whole world will end. It was our first time. We didn’t know any better. There’s a lot of things that I would change about that period of time.”
“Not saying yes as much. The first album was about saying yes to other people a lot.”
“Exactly,” says Moffitt. “And this record was about saying yes to each other and yes to the process.”
“I had a great childhood as a small girl,” says Manfredi. “In my adolescence I was a lost girl for 10 years.”
The first album took six weeks to make. Girlhood took 12 months. Whereas Blue Planet Eyes was co-produced with Jim Eno of Spoon and partially recorded in his Austin studio, Moffitt took the reins on Girlhood and it was almost entirely made at Doldrums.
There is at least one track on their debut that Manfredi says she simply cannot sing anymore. It is definitely not their best-known song, “Is This How You Feel?” “That’s a great song because it has a great melody, but it’s also personal,” she says. “You can tell from the lyrics that it’s a song that’s been lived. And that song was basically me writing from when I was a teenager. I just pulled all these scraps from all these different journals and I put them together as vignettes.”
So she decided to go back there for Girlhood.
“I was a hospo baby,” she says, referring to the fact that her parents were in hospitality. Her father is chef Stefano Manfredi; her mother is restaurateur Julie Manfredi Hughes. Dad was – and is – a voracious consumer of music. And for a man now in his mid-60s, he’s eclectic and curious. Although he did play his daughter boomer staples such as Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd, she remembers that he was the first person she knew who owned an Eminem record and he turned her onto PJ Harvey, Massive Attack and the Stone Roses when she was a kid.
Her parents’ break-up seems to be a dividing line in her life. “I didn’t really have a girlhood,” she says. “I had a great childhood as a small girl up to about the age of seven or eight, but my parents weren’t in a happy marriage. Then in my adolescence I was a lost girl for 10 years.”
The house was sold, her mother re-married and only-child Manfredi was not happy in the new blended family. She recounts a heartbreaking story about sneaking into the old family home in Queens Park, in Sydney’s inner-east. “We’d planted gardenia bushes out the front,” she says. “The smell of the gardenia still brings me back to my home because I’d always pick them and put them in my room. After we moved, I remember skipping school and going on these pilgrimages back home, and I would pick the gardenia flowers and bring them back with me and put all the petals in my bed and then eat the rest of the flower, just so I could have my home inside me.”
She drags on her cigarette. “I was a weird kid. I was a weird girl.”
“Still is a weird girl,” Moffitt adds softly.
“Still is a weird girl,” she grins.
Moffitt keeps working on those wires and leads, but he’s attentive to Manfredi, bringing her tea, bringing her food, chiming in to support or supplement something she says. The two of them laugh conspiratorially every now and then.
Manfredi’s family split coincided with her being bullied at International Grammar School in Year 7. “It got really bad,” she says. “It got to the point where I would come to school, walk into the room and this guy would say in front of the whole class, ‘What are you even doing here, Izzi? You’re the ugliest girl I’ve ever seen and no one wants you here.’
“My personality was excavated. I remember this girl actually saying, ‘Izzi’s got no personality.’ And it always stuck with me, I was like, ‘Fuck, how did I get here?'”
She changed schools, and although she found refuge in reading, writing, acting and music, the angst continued. She missed six months of Year 12 due to glandular fever. She started running with a group she refers to as the Bronte boys. “You’ve seen Puberty Blues, right?” she asks. “It was exactly like that. Hierarchical, tribal, cut-throat.”
The new song “Cherry Ripe” is central to all this and digs into those years and the distance she’s travelled since then. “Put you on a stage, now they know your name, but you used to be different, baby, back in the day,” Manfredi sings over a slow, lush R&B feel.
“That was the first song I wrote that really informed the context of the record,” she says. “I wanted to address myself at that point in my life, as an older figure, someone that could look at that young girl with some sense of forgiveness and acceptance. But also recognising that there were so many qualities I had at that age that were actually really special. When I grew up, when I met Thom and Jack [at the Australian Institute Of Music in Sydney], I just left all that behind. I said, ‘I’m never going to look at that again.’ It was just this big scar in my life.
“Even though that allowed me to grow into myself as a young woman, I think in the process of rejecting that girl I also lost something about me which was the quality of the artist, because I really was an artist when I was that age. I was extremely open to the world and sensitive and productive in my own way. Always writing, always reading, always drawing, always singing to myself.”
By the time she says this, I’m in the passenger seat of a taxi. Bass player Champion has arrived, as he and Moffitt have to get to the Lansdowne Hotel to do an interview about their guitars and gear. I turn around and catch a glimpse of Manfredi in the back with one arm around Champion’s shoulders, the other around Moffitt’s.
The girl who became the woman who made Girlhood is smiling. The late afternoon sun is angling in through the taxi’s rear window and glancing off her sunglasses.
If someone had taken a photo at that moment, the three of them could be mistaken for nothing but a band. But they would also look like a family.
From issue #790, available now.