Interview: The Fallen Robins

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The Fallen Robins are a trio of sisters – Charlotte, Jess and Sarah – from Sydney who released the single ‘(Watch Out) Boy’ earlier this year, and saw it reach the #2 spot on the triple j Unearthed charts and be shortlisted by the ASA Australian Songwriting Contest (country category).

In November they released the EP Stupid Little Girls, a five-song country/folk collection of glorious harmonies and impassioned songwriting. The sisters have, says Sarah, been singing together ‘forever, but as a band, Char and Jess actually started together before I joined and they did a few gigs for about a year before I joined. So I came around in about 2018, I think, when we were going to some different folk festivals and I joined in on them. And we recorded the EP in January this year.’

Sarah joined the band, says Jess, due to ‘constant persistence from us. We begged and begged and begged for about two years before we finally convinced her to come in on it.”

‘They wouldn’t let me say no,’ Sarah says, laughing. ‘That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be here!’

Charlotte was playing solo for quite a while, then, says Jess, ‘I was really interested in going to a few folk festivals with Char, so our first one ever was the Uranquinty Folk Festival.’

Says Charlotte, ‘My end game was that we would all join together because for our whole lives when we were singing at family gatherings everyone was saying, “You girls are great”, even when we couldn’t sing. So I just played my cards slowly and gave them no choice.’

The sisters also play instruments – Sarah is on cajon and keyboards, Charlotte on guitar and harmonica, and Jess says she plays ‘light percussion’.

‘She’s our Stevie Nicks,’ adds Charlotte.

The sisters had a musical upbringing, although not because they had a musician parent.

‘Mum put me into piano lessons,’ says Sarah. ‘I think I started when I was about five and I think we all did that. So she definitely put us into it so from that and from our own interest we decided to learn instruments. We were all in band in primary school. I played the trumpet and the other two played the clarinet. Mum when she was a kid played the clarinet. She loves music.’

‘She’s just not very good at it!’ adds Jess. ‘She really does love it, she has a really strong appreciation for it. Really very good at getting tickets for shows. She’s managed to get us Taylor Swift tickets every year that she’s been here, somehow, so that’s awesome.’

While they were growing up the sisters say they were influenced by their mother’s musical taste, citing ABBA, John Denver and, ‘very contentiously, Meatloaf,’ says Charlotte. ‘Jess and Sar turned out to hate Meatloaf but I loved him, he’s an inspiration for me.’

Now, says Jess, their mother listens to the bands they like. ‘We got her into Taylor Swift,’ adds Charlotte, ‘and now Taylor Swift is one of her favourite artists.’ 

The Fallen Robins have played at several festivals, and their first appearance happened somewhat organically.

‘Jess and I were actually picked off a blackboard stage,’ says Charlotte. ‘We went to a festival one year and we weren’t on the line-up and we just played a couple of covers – I don’t think we’d even put together originals at that point – and the festival director came by and said, “You girls should apply next year [wink wink]”, and so we did.’

Asked if they felt like deer in headlights during that first festival, she says, ‘We probably felt at that point, because we’d been asked, it wasn’t exactly deer in headlights but it was definitely, “We don’t know what we were doing – we’re just going to see what sticks and what doesn’t.”’

Says Jess, ‘The first song I ever remember performing – that blackboard that Char spoke about that we went to one year – we sang a song called “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men – and the way I approached it was, Char’s been doing this for a really long time, let’s let her tell me what to do. So that’s how we started it and now she’s made sure that it’s very much a collaboration at this point. But we all started following what Char had to say just because of her experience.’

Adds Sarah, ‘I think another reason why it wasn’t too daunting was because Char has been arranging covers for us to sing just for fun for ages and we used to do this song at all our family gatherings called “Viva la Gloria” by Green Day. We have an a cappella arrangement of it. Every single time we were in front of the family Mum said, “Sing a song for them!” So in some way or another we’ve been performing in front of people for a while, so [the band] was “we’re just going to sing a song”, that’s all we’re doing.’

Given that siblings have their own dynamic, and so do bands, it’s natural to wonder if The Fallen Robins’ band dynamic is the same as when they’re not performing. Jess says it’s a pretty good reflection of their sister dynamic, and Charlotte adds, ‘In good ways and bad.’

‘Because we live together we rehearse just after dinner,’ explains Jess, ‘there’s not much of a distinction between just spending time together and being in band mode. A lot of it flows over in terms of personality and in terms of our dynamic.’

The sisters’ harmonies work beautifully. Jess says that their mother says ‘the harmonies sound like they’re meant to be because we’re sisters. We always say, “Mum, of course you have to say that because you’re our mum, you have to say they sound good”, and she says, “No, I don’t!” But honestly I think they do come quite naturally and we’re really lucky in terms of sound – how they actually sound – and where we fit within the song.’

‘There’s a little bit of mind reading, almost,’ says Charlotte. ‘Jess and I have looked at each other onstage before and said, “Did you just read my mind?” Particularly with our Quarantunes series that we put on YouTube to get us through the whole lockdown period, those arrangements came so quickly because I’d say, “Okay, I’m on melody”, and they’d just jump to it, or, “Jess, you’re on melody” and it just happens.’

‘And we’ve gotten into a pattern,’ adds Sarah. ‘We change it up all the time, but when we start a song we’re generally on the same page of who’s going to do what. We generally know where we’re going to be, so it’s easy to then just go for it and sing the song through once and then we say, “Okay, that was really nice but maybe let’s change this one thing.” So it comes very easily.’ 

Given that Charlotte had done a fair bit of solo performing before the band formed, it might be natural for her to put her solo foot down from time to time and want to do things her way. However, she says, ‘Because I’m also the songwriter of the group, I think that is more at play than solo, because I so much prefer to be playing with my sisters than solo. It’s just so much more gratifying and fun, and I’m such a sucker for harmonies as well. So in that way I’m like, “No, please come.” But when it comes to arranging an original I’ve just written, if I say, “Jess, you can have this verse” and she sings one run differently to how I wrote it I’ll say, “Actually, it was meant to be the other way.”’

When Jess is asked if that ever annoys her, she says, ‘I think we came to an agreement a while ago and Char has gotten better at letting us have our own parts.’

‘And letting her songs go,’ adds Sarah.

‘It’s like letting a child go because she’s created and nurtured these songs,’ says Jess, ‘so to give them away is obviously quite hard for her, but I think she’s gotten used to the idea and I guess there’s a bit more trust known will be able to do something good with the song as well.’

‘I’m very dramatic!’ Charlotte says with a laugh.

The songs on the EP were written over a time that Charlotte grew out of teenage hood and into adulthood. When asked if having them recorded for other people to hear feels a bit as though she’s showing her secret diary to the world, she says, ‘For sure. I’m a very emotional being but I don’t usually like to show those emotions to people outside of the family. Particularly because a lot of our fans at this point are obviously our friends and there are some songs on the EP about some people that everyone knows. So it’s “I’m singing about some guy that we all went to high school with but I’m not going to tell you”. It’s like a look into the inner workings. That didn’t hit me when I was first performing on stage because I think I was just so happy to have something to say and something that was my own.

‘It hit me when we did our music video, “Watch Out Boy”, and we were working with a filmmaker who went to our high school – he was a close friend of mine and then we kind of drifted over the years and reconnected for this music video. And we had him standing there and a crew of 12 people and I was thinking, Oh my god, I’m singing about this guy Michael knows! It was a very weird feeling.’

The Fallen Robins produced the EP themselves. ‘We wanted the songs to be what we saw them as,’ says Sarah, ‘so we didn’t want or need somebody to drive it. But the guy who mixed it, Ben at Everland Studios, he was really great in helping us, being very open to all of our ideas. So he helped us and gave us a few ideas here and there, But he was great because he built on what we saw the songs as.’

It wasn’t an automatic decision for them to self-produce. Charlotte explains that she and Jess were ‘gigging for three years before we recorded and people would always ask us for CDs, but I always felt that maybe we weren’t ready. And we weren’t ready to put it all together. Not even weren’t ready to sing it or play it but not ready to have everyone come together like that.’

Adds Jess, ‘Originally when we went to Ben we said, “We know nothing. We need your help. We’re learning from the bottom up. We’ve never recorded before. We want these songs to be an exact replication of what we produce live, and anything on top of that is going to be a bonus.” So we went in saying “We’re basically just going to sing these songs live, we’re going to record them”, and we ended up being lucky enough to get in a bunch of friends that we’ve met at folk festivals and stuff on various instruments, which brought them to life a lot more than we thought they would. And we were really happy with how it all ended up. Our baseline was just get in there and sing them and see what happens.’

‘And there was someone else we considered working with initially,’ says Charlotte, ‘but he ended up not being right for us in terms of telling us which songs we should and shouldn’t put on an EP, and fighting with us about how many songs make an EP, and we thought, Okay, that’s not for us.’

  Given that the EP was recorded at the start of the year and released at the end, it’s logical to presume the pandemic factored into their decision to hold onto it – and that was indeed the case.

‘Basically with our music,’ says Jess, ‘the main way we were ever going to sell albums was through folk festivals, because our generation doesn’t buy CDs any more, let alone own a CD player. So that was how we were planning on promoting it, selling it, getting it out there. And then all of them got cancelled and we thought, Whoa – we really need to reassess how we’re actually going to get this out to the world. So that was pretty much the main reason behind delaying it in the first place. And then we thought, We’ll wait for festival season next year – which has been cancelled. So then we thought, All right, we’re just going to release it, and we released “Boy”, which was during lockdown, which was actually quite nice – it was an interesting thing to get us through lockdown, a nice way to say “we’re still here, we’re still doing stuff, we haven’t lost all motivation or hope”. Then [with the EP] we wanted to get it out before the Christmas rush and before the New Year.’

And for anyone curious about the band’s name, Charlotte explains: ‘I was doing the folk festival circuit and Jess went on a gap year at the time we decided, “Let’s do this music thing seriously.” So we said, “When you get back from your gap year we’ll find ourselves a name and we’ll start building an image and we’ll go to festivals seriously. We’ll see if we can actually do this thing.” So I sat down to think of a name, and my ultimate songwriting legend and inspiration is Leonard Cohen, because I think he writes poetry that he puts to music, it’s not even songwriting. He’s got a song called “Chelsea Hotel #2”, which is quite a legendary song in the folk circuit because it’s about an affair he had with Janis Joplin and they were at the famed Chelsea Hotel. And there’s a line in the very last verse that says, “I don’t mean to confess that I loved you the best/ Can’t keep track of each fallen robin”, and I said, “That’s it – we’re The Fallen Robins.”’

While the band won’t be able to play festivals anytime soon, hopefully the reopening of venues around their home town will mean they can play the occasional show – and in the meantime music fans can find their music on Bandcamp (CD and digital) and discover just why they’ve become such favourites on the festival circuit.

thefallenrobins.com