Singer-songwriters tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves in their art. Excerpts from a dramatic love story, pensive scenes from everyday life, and social critique alike serve them as the well from whose depths they drag their innermost secrets to passionately and publicly perform the existential problems that keep them awake at night—or something like that. But what if what is performed isn’t true after all?
The Australian artist Carla dal Forno put together a list of eight songs for V/A, which are exactly this: invented, fabulated, imagined. Dal Forno herself is a prolific musician. Over the past decade she was a member of F Ingers, Mole House, and Tarcar, and since 2016 she has been releasing music on her own, mixing elements of wave, indie pop, and dub. What is striking about her music is that the intimate songs are often recorded and produced in such a way that it seems as if the artist is sitting next to you and whispering in your ear. But beware: dal Forno’s songs, as a track from her latest album Come Around shows, are not always true either.
The list of fabulated songs below is part of our current thematic cluster and represents the year’s final contribution.
1. Lewsberg – “Cold Light of Day”
These guys make Velvet Underground-esque art rock, but the lyrics tap into a more contemporary zeitgeist. On “Cold Light of Day” the singer asks us to question our reality: “What you see and what you really see / What is real what is almost real.” It feels very purposeful; however, the chorus creates a rather resigned: “Up and away in the cold light of day, up and away.” It simultaneously describes the stress of anxiety and letting go of it!
2. Lolina – “Fake City, Real City”
As one half of the trickster duo Hype Williams, Inga Copeland (aka Lolina) has a long history of asking us to question prevailing narratives. In this release from 2018 the tracks appear to link up thematically, telling the story of a detective in foggy London… or perhaps not. In “Fake City, Real City” more specifically, the music jolts and twitches along, intriguing or bewildering the listener. Both the lyrics and the production have an unsettling effect. “Let the money bleed out and see what’s left outstanding,” she sings, while also reminding us that “there’s not much under the surface.” Lolina appears to be asking us to question our assumptions about the place she is describing; is it MI6 in another dimension? As the song continues to fragment the narrative, it becomes a brilliant example of how disquieting music can be extremely enjoyable and thought-provoking at the same time.
3. Officer! – “Life at the Water’s Edge”
Mick Hobbs, who writes and records as Officer!, begins this track by explaining to the audience that this song is “the sad and imaginary story of my upbringing.” What follows is a terrible story of a childhood spent by the dockside with a wicked mother and father who regularly beat and abuse him. This message is offset by the fun, melodic track that pulls the narrative along. It is easy to just enjoy the sounds; however, a closer listen reveals that this completely fabricated story is more compelling than some lyricist’s diaristic endeavors. It reminds the listener of times both past and present when underprivileged children are left to fend for themselves in a world that has no safety net. In the end one is reminded that many children have “such a very hard life,” and Mick Hobbs’s ability to make this observation is perhaps more touching because of the humor deployed in the song’s production.
4. Itchy Bugger – “Good For Nothing Man”
The tracks on this Australian artist’s debut album have an unpolished, demo-y sound which make one think they were recorded for friends rather a commercial release. However, despite the lo-fi sound every track is full of clever hooks and penetrating lyrics that appear to unpack common stereotypes found in society. On “Next Time I Fall In Love, Man” the singer asks, “Janet what do you think of this love song? I haven’t written any words for it yet”—essentially laying bare the songwriting process as the song progresses. The song goes on to discuss the necessity of getting enough money so the songwriter will have time, perhaps “long enough for me to write down some words”. The economic bind is laid bare; it is fun to hang out with friends and write songs, but the world also dictates that we earn a little bit of money to afford the time to do so—or, to put it differently, art isn’t free.
5. Opposite Sex – “Supermarket”
This New Zealand band make in-your-face rock music, but on the lead single of their sophomore album Hamlet, the sound is more paired back and lilting. This change in the sonic environment belies the cutting message disguised in the lyrics, which at first glance appear to be about a woman’s trip to the supermarket. Frontwoman Lucy Hale tells us that it’s a nice warm place with many things to eat; however, by the second verse we can hear that the message is becoming more pointed. She sings: “Do you like my face? / It’s called docile by L’Oreal / I like it because it covers up the way I actually look.” By the end of the track it is clear that this song is a critique of the unrealistic social standards for how women should look. It’s a clever little story that functions as an invitation to question the expectation that women ought to commodify their uniqueness and individuality.
6. Little Wings – “Picture Me Grom”
I had to google the word “grom” after first listening to this track, and according to Urban Dictionary a grom is a “young kid, usually under the age of 15, that likes to surf or skateboard… [They are] usually extremely chill and positive.” This all makes sense as one deciphers the lyrics of this song, which contain numerous references to the beach, salt water in one’s hair, and “ripping bongs anywhere we’re at.” To me this song is both silly and serious, and because of this it is quite touching. It is a plea from the narrator to accept the identity he is presenting: “picture me any single way you please but picture me grom.”
7. Carla dal Forno – “Side by Side”
The lyrics to this song are a complete fabrication, but you only know that because I am telling you. I love the freedom you have as a songwriter to write about real stories and real people, but you equally have the power to invent and create a narrative. This story is an imagined meeting with an old lover. It explores the feelings of hesitancy and expectation that such an encounter might provoke. It was fun to imagine this experience, but I am equally happy for this to be a thought experiment rather than a real event.
8. Ruth Garbus – “Hello Everybody”
The opening line of the track “Hello Everybody” is “There’s a nazi living in my head,” which immediately gets your attention. We know this isn’t factually correct, but does the singer know this? The lyrics continue to puzzle listeners: “tacos, beer, and pizza were used to pay the bribe / To minor politicians who were hungry for doritos at the time.” Ruth Garbus appears to be making a point, but the exact meaning is unclear. At this point it’s just intriguing to hear “nazis” and “doritos” mentioned in the same verse. The second verse becomes more clearly self-referential: “If I had synesthesia, would my shit sound like jazz or heavy metal?” Or: “There are many different kinds of music represented in my life.” This contrast of a song that appears to be questioning one’s musical identity while combining absurdist imagery and observation really captures something about the non-linear ways of making and creating art through self-representation. There are nuggets of truth in here alongside the purely fictional.