“We’re all evolving, growing”: CLEWS chat how they became the band they are today

When Sydney-based duo CLEWS started writing music, they set out to create a band they hadn’t heard in Australia before – two women in a rock band with big harmonies, big melodies, brit-rock vibes, and 90’s band production.

This was the music they grew up on. Some of their earliest memories are of touring around America with their Dad’s band; a band which he also formed with his sibling.

So we caught up with sisters Lily and Grace Richardson to chat about their latest single CRUSHED and how they became the band that they are today.

Photos: Dani Hansen

We’re all evolving, growing“: Lily and Grace Richardson of Sydney-based rock duo CLEWS chat new music and the road that led them to where they are today.

HAPPY: You released your latest single CRUSHED on Friday, have you gotten much feedback about it yet?

LILY: You can’t really tell until you start noticing people singing along to it at shows. Then you know people are getting on board.

HAPPY: Can you talk us through the song. What’s it about?

GRACE: I think it’s about being overwhelmed. I think that was a big theme that went through it. But Lily wrote it so she should know. Take the reins girl.

LILY: Yeah, I think I’ve been writing lots of songs about being a modern girl in a modern world, even though that sounds lame. But it’s true. I think CRUSHED is about feeling overwhelmed.

HAPPY: Overwhelmed by the world?

LILY: Yeah, I guess so. [Pauses] Hang on, I’m trying to sing the chorus in my head. Yeah, I think it’s about reducing your life down to little salient moments that you instil meaning into. Usually, my songs start out as prose or something and it just forms a narrative or a theme, but this one, I don’t know, it started off with a totally different chorus and we Frankensteined it together a bit. So, it’s sort of just an amalgamation of thoughts. I don’t think I wrote it specifically about one thing.

HAPPY: What’s your writing process?

LILY: Well, it used to just be me writing all the songs but we’ve started co-writing some songs together. I usually just write heaps and heaps and heaps of notes, like little couplets, just on my phone or in a notepad, and then I find phrases that go well together or a narrative will start to take shape.

HAPPY: Do you play all the guitars in your recordings?

LILY: I just write it to chords, I’m not really a great guitar player, and then Grace writes all the riffs and stuff. Like on CRUSHED, Grace wrote the riff for the bridge and then we got our friend Leroy Francis – he’s in Sloan Peterson, he’s really cool – to add a bit of his flavour to it. We play our guitars live…

GRACE: But we like to get other people on board.

LILY: Some real shredders for recording. Not that you’re not a shredder Grace.

HAPPY: So you guys grew up in Mollymook.

GRACE: Have you been?

HAPPY: Yeah that used to be the place where my family would go for every single vacation.

LILY: Everyone knows someone or is someone who has a holiday house there.

HAPPY: It was a weird place for me because I remember always being really intimidated by the Ulladulla kids. They seemed really cool to me… like they had lots of freedom.

LILY: Yeah, just surf rats running around everywhere.

GRACE: But we were not one of them.

HAPPY: Do you think that growing up on a small coastal town has added anything to the music you make or has influenced your taste or your style?

GRACE: Definitely.

LILY: You reckon?

GRACE: Yeah, for sure, because growing up in such a beautiful place… well, where you grow up has such an impact on your whole identity, as in who you become. We’d be completely different people if we grew up in Sydney or anywhere else or the city. It’s hard to say how it would have been different.

LILY: For me, yes and no. When I first started songwriting as a teenager and we were still living at home, I think I was influenced a lot by where we were growing up. I was writing about the external world and nature and stuff.

HAPPY: It’s all you know…

LILY: Yeah, exactly. But I think for this specific project we knew exactly what influences we wanted to draw from and exactly what sound we wanted. Now we’re writing a lot more about internalised ideas rather than external, descriptive things.

HAPPY: How did you guys find your sound?

LILY: We really wanted to be in a band when Grace finished school and we knew exactly what we wanted to do. We thought, no one that we can see, at least in Sydney, is doing the girl version of the Oasis thing, or Brit rock, big harmonies, whatever it was, we were like “that is what we want to do.

GRACE: Even when we didn’t have a band – and that was when I was still in high school so I was coming up to Sydney to do shows and little gigs around, cutting our teeth around Sydney, just the two of us – we were already doing the harmonies and we were already doing the guitars. We’d get people coming up and saying “that was beautiful,” you know, “that felt really folk-influenced.” And then we were like “how do we break out of that and be a rock band?” Oh, we need to get drums and bass. So we did. But as Lily said, we always had a really clear idea of how we wanted to sound even before we had drums and bass.

HAPPY: So you first started singing together in your house, in your bedroom? When did you first realise you could both sing?

GRACE: We weren’t even really singing that much when we were teenagers living at home. When one is 14 and the other is 18 you just don’t really get along because the life stages are so far apart. But our parents were both musical so Dad was always playing Oasis or Crowded House or The Beatles or Joanie. The Beatles were probably a really big one for the harmonies because our house always had music playing in it and somebody was always singing a harmony along to it. It might have been Mum or Dad or Lily or me. So even the first songs that Lily wrote when she was 15, I would probably sing little harmonies to that as well. But it took a while. I think when Lily moved out of home, it was probably when that life-stage gap started to close, and we could just be normal with each other, rather than just that sister-dynamic of living in the same house.

HAPPY: I feel like everyone has one album or artist or song that changed them forever. Can you guys think of one off the top of your heads?

GRACE: There isn’t one that springs to mind, but one of them, where I remember the moment that I heard it is Oblivious by The Strokes, off their latest EP from like 2015. I hadn’t gotten into The Strokes before that. That song introduced me to them and now they’re in my top two, you know.

HAPPY: Yeah, just hearing their stuff for the first time.

GRACE: Yeah, I remember hearing it and shouting out to my roommate like, “YOU HAVE TO HEAR THIS!”

HAPPY: That’s the best feeling.

LILY: I forget that you were a teenager two years ago.

GRACE: I’m still a teenager.

LILY: Yeah, but still discovering these things. Like, The Strokes.

HAPPY: This is still your formative time. We are beyond it. We know where we sit in our musical tastes.

GRACE: You’re all established, real, human beings, and I’m still fumbling around in the world.

LILY: You’re still discovering the Strokes in 2016.

GRACE: But, you know what, I got there didn’t I?

HAPPY: But also, it’s not the end of the fumbling.

LILY: We’re all evolving, growing.

GRACE: Alright Lily, your turn.

LILY: Well, mine’s a bit of a yarn, ok. So, at our place, we had a big CD cabinet with hundreds of CDs in it. So Mum was going through them all trying to get rid of stuff, and she pulled up Sketched For My Sweetheart the Drunk, the album that Jeff Buckley was working on when he died and then they released it posthumously, and Mum was playing it, trying to decide whether to keep it or not, saying, “aw, I never really got into Jeff Buckley.” So I was like 13 and Mum was like, I don’t want this CD anymore and I was like “well I’ll have it.” I don’t know why, I would have heard about two seconds of it, but I was drawn to it. That album is still a big one for me. I actually like it more than Grace. Not you Grace.

GRACE: Yeah, I was confused for a second there.

LILY: Yeah, you know when you’re a kid and you don’t really have your own musical tastes yet. You just like what your parents like. And I think that was the first record where Mum was like “I don’t like this,” and me instead of being like “I just like whatever Mum likes,” I said instead “No wait, I actually really like this.

HAPPY: Yeah, hang on, Mum knows nothing. So you’re on tour with Holy Holy. Do you feel like this tour has given you time to figure out your stage presence or what you want your shows to be?

LILY: Yeah, totally. Because, even just a year ago, when we were playing really small pub gigs, we actually never really had a long run, this is the first tour where we are playing four nights in a row or something. Which doesn’t seem that much to a well-seasoned touring group but it’s different for us. We are playing shows a few nights a week, like all in a row, it’s cool. It’s taught us to warm up our voices properly, and you know, you don’t want to play the same show every night. You’ve got to bring a bit of pizzazz, bring you’re A-game every time.

HAPPY: You’ve done a few tours now, as CLEWS, with different bands, and that was on the back of one CLEWS song really, which is MUSEUM. What do you put that down to? Do you think it just rests on the quality of MUSEUM and how people resonated with it?

GRACE: Yeah, MUSEUM went really well.

LILY: But it’s probably just down to our team and our management and our label. And also, we’ve known we wanted to do this since we were kids. We started doing it a few years ago. I feel like we’ve been chipping away at this our whole young-adult life. With MUSEUM, everything just sort of clicked into place, and it just carried onto something.

HAPPY: People just heard something they liked out of it. Are you guys working on new stuff now? Is there an album or an EP coming?

GRACE: Great question.

LILY: We left it so long between singles. MUSEUM came out at the start of the year. We play all these gigs and we only have like two songs out now, so I’d really like to get a couple of singles out early next year.

HAPPY: So, your dad has a band. You’ve heard a lot of his music obviously.

LILY: Oh, did we ever. But go on?

HAPPY: Do you like it, is my main question?

GRACE: We actually lived in America for two years when I was 4 or 5 and Lily was 8 or 9, and we lived in LA for about a year.

LILY: Hang on, back story, back story – sorry to interject. I want to pave the way for the end of your story. So dad’s band is with his brother actually.

HAPPY: Wow, that’s sweet.

LILY: And they were called ‘Brother’. They would sing harmonies together. They were a festival band in the 90’s and the 00’s, and they played the bagpipes and it was this whole rock and roll show and they wore kilts and stuff.

HAPPY: That’s awesome.

GRACE: It was so crazy.

LILY: And we would tour all around the states with them and watch them play festivals. They played at Disneyworld and we got to go watch. It was so much fun.

GRACE: We were just living the dream for the earliest years of my life. All my earliest memories are from America. So it’s like Dad in a kilt, rocking out with his brothers.

LILY: Yeah, he was cool.

HAPPY: So, you guys thought it was cool at the time?

GRACE: Oh yeah.

LILY: We were his literal biggest fans. This is when people would buy hundreds of CDs when they went to the gigs, and we were doing the merch, like selling CDs with the merch ladies.

GRACE: We probably messed up our hearing from an early age.

LILY: Yeah, but you know what, that’s the rock and roll lifestyle.

HAPPY: How can you not want to do what you do now then if you were on the road with dad.

GRACE: Yeah it’s weird because I didn’t even make that connection until recently, someone else asked us about it.

LILY: Yeah, like that was so much fun, of course we wanted to do that.

Catch CLEWS live at The Lansdowne Hotel on December 8th as part of The Collective. Tickets and info here.