Max Aurora and the craft of whimsical characterisation

Seagulls on strings, and why you should reach out to your role models.

A couple of weeks ago we were introduced to the most recent endeavour from Melbourne’s indie-rock gang Max Aurora & The Sourthen Lights with the release of their single and music video ‘How I Missed Home’.

This charismatic crew is led by the non-binary mastermind Max Aurora, whose stage name has become a gateway to their exploration of all sorts of fabulous fashion and makeup looks, femme or masc.

Max Aurora & The Southern Lights

Max’s creative genius draws inspiration from the rosy naivety of 1950s advertisements, much like those seen in Mad Men. From yacht club explorations in Williamstown to finding the perfect vintage boat for a photo shoot- the development of ‘How I Missed Home’ has bloomed with creativity and experimentation, and accumulated in a music video worthy of the big screen.

The band’s roots run deep, with Max, Caroline, and Jack playing together since their university days. Jack  then joined in, completing the constellation we now know as “The Southern Lights.”

Their debut single, “How I Missed Home,” is a euphoric yet bittersweet indie rock gem. Inspired by the awe-inspiring story of Laura Dekker, one of the youngest people to sail around the world, the song’s swelling riffs mimic the ocean’s waves.

it’s a sonic voyage of longing, as Laura basks in life on the open sea, while at the same time, yearns to divert to the home where she was born in Aotearoa / New Zealand, a place her family left behind.

Co-director Tamara Brane-Gregory led the charge, crafting a dream-like visual feast with nods to Wes Anderson‘s quirky aesthetic and the fashionable flair of the ’50s. So anchors away as we dive into some behind-the-scenes of the new single from Max Aurora & The Southern Lights.

Max Aurora: Just took my mum to a wild shop called Cheaper Buy Miles in Brunswick, Naarm. She’s visiting from Canberra to watch my band’s single launch.

Happy: Tell us about where you are from? What’s the music scene like in your neck of the woods?

Max Aurora: I’m originally from Canberra, but I moved to Naarm / Melbourne in 2013 to study voice at university. The music scene here is chock-a-block with goodness!

Happy: Describe your average day?

Max Aurora: Hmm, depends what day it is, I may be headed off to the museum I work at, but if it’s a day off, I might be doing errands or at home chugging away with writing or organising my life. A non-negotiable is a cup of tea in the morning!

Happy: What about your ultimate day?

Max Aurora: Oof, well I’m good at dreaming about such a day, but still working on making it really happen. Would probably be spending half a day at some leafy retreat, eating excellent snacks and playing music, and the other half going on a hike to a faraway beach.

Max Aurora & The Southern Lights

Happy: What did you read or watch growing up that fuelled your passion for music?

Max Aurora: I was obsessed with big films like ‘The Matrix’ ‘The Lord of The Rings’ and ‘Titanic’ in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but one film that boosted my love for music, and how I discovered The Beatles, was the 2007 film ‘Across the Universe’. I’ve also always been drawn to books about solo people doing things out in the wild. A highlight book of this type is ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ by Aron Rolston, which is the book that inspired the 2010 film ‘127 Hours’.

Happy: As a non-binary songwriter, how does your personal identity influence your songwriting and the themes explored in your music?

Max Aurora: That’s a big question! Having the stage name of ‘Max Aurora’ has helped me explore finding my favourite types of fashion and makeup, femme or masc. In terms of themes, a lot of my songs are about exploring self-development and empathy, whether that’s for me, another person, or for a character I made up.

Happy: Your band’s sound is described as dreamy bittersweet indie rock. Can you share some of the musical influences that have shaped your style and sound?

Max Aurora: It’s a real mixed bag, starting from my home base of emo and pop punk – think Green Day, Thrice, My Chemical Romance, and more recently The Beths. I also have a love for artists with a great visual identity like Caroline Polachek and Kate Bush. I was introduced to Crowded House very early on, who have a beautiful timelessness to their music. Oh, I’ll also add my love for folky/slight-country music like City and Colour, Jewell and Aimee Mann.

Happy: What inspired you to write the song “How I Missed Home” and choose Laura Dekker’s story as the focal point?

Max Aurora: I watched a documentary about Laura called ‘Maidentrip’ during the depths of Melbourne’s lockdown and was so overtaken by the energy in it that I very quickly and organically wrote this song.

The track is inspired by a particular scene where Laura is stuck in Darwin after her boat gets damaged in the Torres Strait.

She speaks to camera about how a part of her wishes she veered off course and went to her home country of Aotearoa / New Zealand. I related to this scene by own feelings of missing home at the time.

Happy: Could you describe the recording process for “How I Missed Home” at Marigold Studios? Did you encounter any challenges or surprises during the sessions?

Max Aurora: It was a very cathartic experience. In the lead-up to the recording, I was struggling with insomnia from long covid, so much so that I kept wanting to delay the recording.

But after much encouragement from my band and friends, we went through with it. The process spanned two days, the first day workshopping the song, and the second recording it, and after it all I could sleep again!

Max Aurora & The Southern Lights

Happy: The lyrics of the song are filled with ocean imagery. How did you manage to connect with that imagery during the recording process, particularly when laying down the vocals?

Max Aurora: One of my favourite aspects of recording was the vocal tracking. It was this moment of ‘flow’ where I found it easy to connect to the feeling of the song, take directions from our producer, Jon, all while imagining being on a boat crashing through dark blue waves. I’ve never felt like that before, bliss!

Happy: How did you secure permission from Laura Dekker to use footage from her sailing trip for the music video? What was your reaction when she agreed and expressed her appreciation for the song?

Max Aurora: I got the idea to reach out to Laura from my mentor while doing the Women [and non-binary people] in Music mentorship. I sent her an email of an unmixed version of the song and asked about using the footage, to which she replied that she was honoured I wrote a song about her, and we could use any footage from her YouTube channel. It felt really nice to get this reply from her!

Happy: Can you provide some insights into the creative process behind the music video? How did you collaborate with co-director Tamara Brane-Gregory, and what were your goals in terms of visual aesthetics?

Max Aurora: It started with me reaching out to Tamara on Instagram. We then had a chat and Tamara sent through some production ideas. They gave such momentum to the project and knew many other talented folks in film who were keen to jump on board.

The visual goals were to create a dreamy golden look inspired by 1980s music videos, that felt like it could be a set for a play. There was a great sense of collaboration on the video shoot. I thought I would be stressing over every element of production, but I didn’t need to as everyone was so good at what they did!

Happy: The music video for “How I Missed Home” has been described as dreamlike, with references to Wes Anderson’s aesthetic and 1950s fashion. What elements did you incorporate to achieve this unique visual style?

Max Aurora: I’ve always been interested in 1950s/mid-century aesthetic, particularly the rosy naivety of ’50s advertisements explored in shows like Mad Men. Not knowing where to start to create this look, I went for a search at yacht clubs in Williamstown to find a 1950s vintage boat to do a photoshoot on.

After chatting to bemused locals, I found some lovely folks who owned the perfect boat at the Hobson’s Bay Yacht Club. We borrowed some items from the boat to use as props and carried the vibe and costumes of that photoshoot to the music video.

Our great production designer, Milla Pearl, then used her finesse to create this hyper-real fun style with some fake props – my favourite was the seagulls on a string! Our director of photography, Jackson Hayat, then used his magic to create the swaying motion of the camera and the golden sheen over the video.

Happy: How was your music video launch at LongPlay? Were there any surprises or special moments planned for the event?

Max Aurora: It was great! LongPlay is a little venue in Fitzroy which has a really small cinema out the back. After watching the video in this cute cinematic manner, we played a set with ocean/sailing footage projected onto us.

It creates such a different vibe for the audience in this setting, as suddenly watching a band feels like watching a film!

Happy: Your debut EP, “Somewhere Near” was released during lockdown in 2020. How do you feel your music and songwriting have evolved since then, and what can listeners expect from your upcoming releases?

Max Aurora: ‘Somewhere Near’ is a mixed bag of my influences from 2013 to 2018. It was a way for me to figure out how to record and release something while exploring all the genres I like to write in. It was a tricky one to promote with the lockdown restrictions, but I’m proud of it. It is also a rough indicator of the vibe for our upcoming releases. I’m super keen for our next single which is about a character I made up who runs away from home on their motorbike.

Happy: Lastly, what makes you happy?

Max Aurora: Hmm … being with friends and fam, dogs, trees, swimming in the sea, being kind, nice smells, tea, and I guess allowing the happiness to come when it wants to.

Check out “How I Missed Home” and keep in touch with Max Aurora & The Southern Lights