The Pikelet Recipe
ELIZA SARLOS reports on how Evelyn Morris went from experimental hardcore drummer to solo sensation Pikelet. Photos by LAUREN BAMFORD.
Way back in February 2006 I wandered into Fitzroy’s Old Bar, and was immediately rendered speechless. Unassumingly posited on the miniscule stage was an anonymous woman nervously stumbling her way through a set of half songs and looped thoughts, harmonies upon harmonies of voice, accordion and moments of percussion. Unlike anything I’d heard before, the set had the qualities of a Utopic open-mic night; where you could tell everyone in the room shared my unexpected awe. When my speech resumed, questions followed almost immediately.
Who was this girl?
Her name’s Evelyn, my companion readily answered. She plays in a couple of hardcore bands.
What’s she play?
I had no idea.
How long’s she been doing this for?
I’m pretty sure this is her first show.
Compelled to play fan-girl, I went over to the door/merch stand and picked up a Pikelet CD-R, untitled as far as I knew. I later found out the “hardcore” bands Evelyn Morris played in were suitably experimental within their genres: Melbourne staples True Radical Miracle, and the semi-super group that is Baseball. She also plays in an indie project directed at kids, called The Purple Stripes. I’m still completely bewildered by the diversity of her creative output.
Months later, although it seems like years, Pikelet is in Sydney as the main support for US pop group The Blow. It’s funny how time disappears, and it feels like I’ve known Evelyn’s music for at least a decade. Pikelet’s been a fixture on my stereo, in my gig going, and in releases that I’ve awaited with high levels of anticipation. The evolution of her music has been similarly speedy – with CD-R #1 followed by the recently released nine-track EP ‘Track Suit Pants’, which was the product of a creativity frenzy in the process of demoing for her album proper, due out on Chapter Music within the next few months.
But already I’m ahead of myself. An evolutionary tale should start at the beginning of the evolution.
Age four: Starts playing piano. Obsession ensues.
Age thirteen: Dumps piano, in favour for the infinitely “cooler” drums.
“I wasn’t listening to a lot of music that had piano in it, it didn’t seem relevant. And it seemed like everyone was doing guitar,” Evelyn says as she reluctantly graphs her own chronology. “During the time between 17 and 21 I played with heaps of different bands, just trying out all kinds of different music, only on drums really, plus I actually wrote some songs on guitar and sang a bit, but [would] then get really embarrassed about it. I guess I was trying to figure out what kind of music I wanted to play.”
One of those bands was the now-defunct Winter Carnation who, in a way, saw Evelyn find eventual homes in both True Radical Miracle and Baseball. TRM was first, with bass player Leith Thomas recruiting Evelyn shortly after she left Winter Carnation. With Baseball, it was a similar thing. And then came Pikelet.
“I definitely wanted to write more music, and through the experience I had with Baseball and TRM I just grew more and more confident about songwriting.”
The thing with a solo project, I imagine, is that there is no definitive start point. You begin to play music, start thinking about the music you’re playing, and somehow it evolves into something that is tangibly yours. In that process of creating tangibility I’m sure a catalyst is useful, to announce to yourself more than to anyone else that what you’re doing is “real,” and has relevance.
For Evelyn, this came in the form of time, introspective philosophising and, well, Pikeleting.
Pikeleting? Okay, that’s a Pikelet- (the artist) specific neologism, conveniently crafted for this article. But it does have some broader significance – a nicer term for scrounging, to fulfill a kind of creative urge.
“When I first started making Pikelet stuff I had a bit of time to myself, and there was a lot going on in my family, because my Mum was unwell – she had breast cancer. And I decided that I wanted to make something I could give to her, and it was very confronting to me, addressing my parent’s mortality, because I’m very close to them, so I decided to give her something to thank her for everything, because she’s always been so incredibly supportive of what I want to do with my life. That first recording that I did was kind of to write songs that were pretty so that she could hear them. It extended beyond that really quickly, but that was part of what started those first recordings,” she notes.
“She used to make me pikelets when I was a kid. I found out when I was a teenager that she did it because she wanted to give us a treat, and that’s what she did when she didn’t have any money. She always had eggs, because there were chickens, and she’d always have flour and powdered milk in the cupboard, so she would just throw together pikelets, and it was a really big deal for me, but I found out later that it was just what she did when she had nothing else.”
Just as the sweet smell wafting out of a Lower Templestowe house in the ‘80s was the result of scrounging around for sweetness to give to Evelyn the child, the initial sounds floating from her more recent residence was like a reciprocal offering from Evelyn the adult to her ailing mother. Through a similarly resourceful process, recorded on borrowed equipment onto barely afforded tape, Pikelet came into existence through that first CD-R, a gift to her Mum at a time when it was needed. For the record, Ev’s mum is alive and healthy, and yes, she dug the tape.
So in our quickly developing chronology, we’ve got a catalyst to Pikelet. But note, quite markedly, that it’s a catalyst for what was brewing previously. Sitting somewhat awkwardly in the notorious sleaze of Sydney’s late night drinking hole, the Judgement Bar, Evelyn is keen to push the point – Pikelet didn’t emerge out of some abstract ether, and had instead been a significant fixture in her musical psyche for some time, somehow finding space to exist amidst the crevices spare from her other projects.
“It wasn’t so much just sitting down with a guitar and trying to write a song, it was just writing with everyone else [in my bands] made me feel a lot more confident. I started trying to write some songs on piano and stuff, and found that it didn’t really have any structure or didn’t interest me,” she says dismissively. “And then I just borrowed a friend’s loop pedal, had a mess around, tried it out, and I had a really great time. And I just sort of realised that singing was something I wanted to do.”
To me, it’s funny that a tool used in experimental and improvisational circles provided the impetus to create something more structured out of Evelyn’s musical thoughts. It’s within this mindset that the way her music has evolved plays out with intrigue – to get to the point where songs have significant structural frameworks and employ certain traditions, all through a loop pedal (a line six, if you’re a trainspotter).
“I felt like I wanted to do something where I was playing really pretty music. There are so many records that I have that are really beautiful, and I kind of wanted to try and create something like that. Not that I don’t think Baseball and True Rad are beautiful in their own way, it’s just a different approach to it, where it’s addressing a different part of me.”
In any creative process ‘pretty’ is a pretty awful concept to have to champion as core to your work, but somehow with Pikelet it makes sense. It seems too frivolous a term to apply to anything you’re going to take seriously, but the toughest thing about Pikelet – even in the context of the origins of its genesis, the conviction of its realization and the emergence of such a strong musical persona – is still this prettiness. That first CD-R is incredibly pretty, a strong statement from someone coming from a less than typical musical prettiness. Its follow up, the ‘Track Suit Pants’ EP, continues on that trajectory, and even adds cute to the mix, in bucketloads.
That Evelyn lays out harmonies, rhythms and patterns through which she interacts with herself involves some masterful musical trickery; that it’s all for the sake of creating something pretty is brave as all hell. I mean, way to isolate your audience – you’re pissing off your existing fans, and challenging your pop ones far too much to still inhabit their comfort zone. To make something that appeals to even a portion of each of those groups is a feat to be admired.
That Evelyn lays out harmonies, rhythms and patterns through which she interacts with herself involves some masterful musical trickery; that it’s all for the sake of creating something pretty is brave as all hell.
Following what was a successful show at the Newtown Theatre, at the end of the mini-tour supporting The Blow, Evelyn seems lucidly aware of this reality. “It’s just in the process really,” she drops in nonchalantly. “When it first started it was just something I was doing for myself, just trying it out, and I played it to a few people, and I decided to do a show and that went really well, and you were really encouraging, as well as everyone at that show.” (I’m glad to note my fan-girl enthusiasm was acknowledged, and to cite that, yeah, we the spectators, do matter).
“So I decided to do another one, and it just snowballed from there and I guess it’s like I’ve kind of put something out there and people’s responses have given me a lot of trust in the fact that there are always going to be people that will embrace whatever you’re doing regardless of whether it’s technically ‘good’. The downside of that coin is that there are always going to be people that don’t like it as well, and over the last year that I’ve been doing Pikelet I’ve just kind of really just stared that idea in the face – there’s no actual fixed ‘good’ or ‘bad’, there’s just people’s opinions and it doesn’t matter either way. It sounds like a really simple concept, but to actually take it on board…”
“There will always be people that you want to enjoy your music, but it’s kind of been really great accepting that sometimes people don’t – it’s like a… what’s the word when you take a section of something and it’s like a miniature of everything else? I feel like that’s the way that people act in general, there’s always going to be people around that you really want to behave a certain way, the way that it felt was I was really stepping out of, not the mould, but stepping out and doing something completely different, it’s always going to bring out a reaction.”
“Everyone has an idea of you and then [what you do] is different to that idea. So I was really aware of it, and it was kind of intentional – whilst the process has been a snowball, it’s become fairly intentional, that’s something that I think out now, looking at ways that I can do things differently to how I do usually.”
Does that apply to the actual songwriting process too?
“Definitely. It’s not really even an active process. When I’ve written a song, and I start writing another one, if the natural instinct is to do the same as what I did in the last song, I try it out and go, ‘Hmmm, too similar,’ and then try something else. It’s such a good way to do it, things never become stale, for anyone – for you, while you’re making it, or for anyone listening. For me, it becomes stale making music the same all the time.”
For those of you who don’t have the musical companions to this piece in your collection (that’s releases 1 and 2 in the Pikelet catalogue) let me assist with a brief description:
Untitled is a collection of 10 eclectically thrown together tracks, playing as much with vocal harmonies as it does with both structure and instrumentation. The source of my obsession on this release was the third of its pieces, where vocal meanderings intersect with the equally abstracted phrase, “We’re doing it under your nose,” that again harmonises with the same line, amidst a mêlée of piano accordion and percussive patterns to leave beat-makers jealous. Structurally and thematically, the tracks barely follow a pattern, but that’s intrinsic to its charm.
Untitled’s successor, the ‘Track Suit Pants’ EP shows a sideways step where Evelyn plays with dynamics a whole bunch more, exploring each morsel of sound with intrigue and developing storylines through which she unfolds character vignettes with as much vigour as she packed in the harmonies on the predecessor. There’s the same amount of experimentalism as was present on #1, but it seems more intentional, and more based around song than around sound. It started as a demoing session for tracks for an official release, but quickly became an entity unto its own.
“I think a lot of the narratives that are in the songs are about nobody in particular, but they’re just something maybe I’ve observed because I’ve got quite a strong interest in different aspects of humanity, and the way people interact with each other, and choices people make in their lives – all kinds of things. I guess what I’m thinking can be fairly philosophical sometimes, and so being able to put any of those ideas into a cute or funny story is something that really appeals to me. Which is kind of why I’ve got stories about a guy that works in a sewerage plant, or the little man who’s really, really small.”
“It did start off with me going, ‘I’m going to use my voice as an instrument, and use it for harmonies, because I didn’t know what else to do’. The stories came because I feel like it’s essential to use your voice in some way, and the general way that people communicate is through using words. And usually they’re just things that make me laugh.”
The luxuries and indulgence of songwriting has an unhindered canvas when you’re doing something on your lonesome. Look at Evelyn’s relative contemporaries – Blarke Bayer, the solo project of My Disco/Agents of Abhorrence’s Ben Andrews, offers him a space to interrogate the noise elements of his guitar work more thoroughly. The Crayon Fields’ Geoff O’Connor uses his Sly Hats moniker to get lo-fi and let his pop yearnings develop in their simplicity. Pikelet touring buddy (and Chapter Music supreme) Guy Blackman likewise uses his solo work, following on from significant stints in Sleepy Township and Minimum Chips, to display the personal quite openly. Even in this microcosm of a small geographically bound music community, the role of a solo project gets established as the space to get personal, to find out what challenges one’s self and explore the boundaries of individual tastes and creativity. So the luxuries of such an endeavour become as revelatory as they are indulgent – a process in self-discovery.
“The thing about doing Pikelet stuff was that it really challenges me in so many ways. I get so nervous before playing, and then I have to work through it, and then when I’m recording I go through these periods where I’m completely overcome with insecurity about what I’m writing, and it’s just been really amazing to just be by myself and go through that. Like with bands – everyone in my bands is so fucking rad – if anything comes up in your band where you feel like you’re not good enough or whatever, which is natural, it’s a natural human reaction – if it comes up you can get them to make you feel better and they always do ‘cause they’re really close friends. But when you’re by yourself you really have to [sort through it] – and so I’ve been able to take that to every aspect of my life.”
“I feel like when I’m playing in the band it’s so much everyone else’s thing, that I don’t have any control over it. And I’m feeding off everyone else more than I am actually writing my own parts. If I’m writing a song with Pikelet I do that with a four-track. I’ll make a part, and then I’ll play off that just like I do with everyone in Baseball or True Rad. That’s where my songwriting’s always come from, through bouncing off other people.”
Through a loop pedal and her own competing contributions to Pikelet, Evelyn Morris is able to craft something remarkably unique and, dare I say, honest. While the contribution externally is incredibly worthwhile, it seems that the impetus and true worth comes from intrinsic benefits for Evelyn. And that’s what I dig when it comes to a crass creative criterion.
“It’s helped me to get through day-to-day life, and to get through any insecurities I’ve had with myself, that’s why I do any kind of art, and I feel like that’s why most people do. And it’s not just that, it’s like a fascination with other human beings, and with yourself, being a human being. It’s this trying to figure out – what the heck – what’s our purpose, what drives us, what are we getting at, what are we trying to do?”