Melbourne band Team Love released their debut, self-titled album in September. Their lilting Americana, folk and alt-country influenced songs come with entrancing harmonies and bold lyrics.
At the heart of the band are singer/guitarist Ruby McGrath-Lester and guitarist Shaun Stolk, and they’re joined on the album by Ruby Cattell on violin and vocals, Monique Bricknell on piano and vocals, Eamonn McGrath-Lester on bass, Paddy McGrath on drums and Brooke Penrose on keys, percussion and vocals.
McGrath-Lester started the band with a friend, George, who left to attend university and Stolk joined about two years ago. Because Stolk and McGrath-Lester were already living in the same household, writing songs together was a natural progression.
‘When George decided to step back it was pretty easy for me to fill in a slot because we’d already been doing it,’ says Stolk. ‘It’s happened pretty naturally, I guess.’
Their songwriting process is, says McGrath-Lester, ‘a bit random. Sometimes we’ll come up with our own things the bring it to the other one. Other times we’ll sit down. Most of the time one of us has an idea and we’ll say, “We should really write lyrics for this.”
‘Ruby’s pretty good at coming up with a whole song,’ says Stolk, ‘and then all of a sudden it’s pretty much done and she’s saying, “Let’s work on this”, and I’ll say, “Oh, you’ve written a whole song! Okay!” Whereas I’ll write something and say, “What do you reckon about this? Can you help me finish it?”
‘Because I’m more limited in my chords,’ McGrath-Lester days, laughing.
Of her writing process she says, ‘I feel like most of the time I’ll just get some little tune in my head, and sometimes there’ll be a line and I’ll write them both together. But most of the time there’s a line in my head and I’ll go from there. Sometimes it will be a tune first. My phone is full of random things and sometimes I can fit them in.’
Stolk says that the music usually comes first for him. ‘I might have a vocal idea but generally the lyrics are the last thing that come for me.’
When asked if he records his ideas as they pop up, he says, ‘A friend of mine when I was growing up, he was a songwriter as well and he said you should never record it the first day, because if you can remember it the second day it means it was catchy.’
McGrath-Lester has two brothers in the band, Eamonn and Paddy.
‘They play drums and bass and over the last year we’ve kind of forced them to play with us sometimes,’ she says, laughing. ‘Whenever we’ve had a gig – or not, this year – we’ve said, “Who wants to play?” and it’s been good because just us two [Shaun and Ruby] have done it if people aren’t free, and we like the idea of it being whoever can play can play. But we’re definitely thinking we want to do another album and have more drums and bass on some of the songs.’
When asked if it’s a blessing or a curse to have your siblings play with you, she says, ‘They’re pretty good. Because I’m their older sibling I kind of boss them into doing it. Generally it’s okay.’
‘I think they’re happy to do it most of the time,’ says Stolk, although he admits that ‘there’s a lot of McGrath-Lesters in that room! I’m pretty good at handling it, though, at this point.’
‘We’re all best friends, related and partners, and I think overall we do pretty good,’ adds McGrath-Lester.
During Victoria’s very strict second lockdown – they released the album in that time – Stolk says the band ‘tried to do what we can with online gigs [to support] the record but it’s handy to have Ruby and I together – we’ve been writing a lot, preparing for album number two as much as I can.’
Says McGrath-Lester, ‘When we had the middle break – when things seemed like they were going to be okay and we opened up again – we managed to have one Instagram-streamed gig with the four of us and Ruby [Cattell] and Monique, and then pretty much after that we went back into lockdown.’
The album was recorded last year – McGrath-Lester headed overseas for three and a half months at the end of the year, so they plan was, she says, to ‘smash it out and finish it and we’ll be able to release it in February. Then it was, “We’ll release it in March”, “We’ll release it in April”. Then we said, “Let’s just do it.”
After so many months without being able to perform, McGrath-Lester sys they were ‘definitely craving being able to play’.
‘It’s strange as well, the idea of having a bunch of people in a tiny little room playing music. It’s such a scary concept right now,’ says Stolk, laughing. ‘But I’m sure we’ll adjust to it pretty quickly once it’s allowed.’
When asked if they have a dream venue that they’d love to play, McGrath-Lester says, ‘Not a venue, but our dream is to play Out on the Weekend festival.’
‘Dream venue would be the Sydney Opera House,’ Stolk adds with a laugh.
McGrath-Lester says she ‘always liked singing as a kid and music. When I was 11 or something I started doing singing lessons for a bit. At the start of school I played a bit of guitar and trumpet – I don’t play trumpet any more,’ she says with a laugh. ‘Throughout high school I was in school bands and stuff. I had a little band with two friends for one gig but it was mainly stuff for school.
‘Then when I left school I lost all my confidence and wanted to do music so badly but was young and too scared for quite a long time. I would go to my middle brother Paddy’s gigs and think, I just want to be up there so badly.
‘It wasn’t until I was 27 [that] George, who was initially in the band, said, “Do you want to do a duo gig together?” and I said, “Yep”’ I was so nervous. And since then I’ve still been nervous but it’s good. I don’t know why, I just lost all my confidence, but I’m glad that it’s back a bit.’
Stolk adds, ‘We usually make Monique do all the banter because neither of us are comfortable onstage.’
His own musical life started when he was in high school.
‘I had a few friends who were musical and I used to hang out with them. I think I was about 14 and I thought I should give it a go as well and try to fit in, so I bought a guitar as well and got them to teach me power chords and things. Just having a guitar lying around at home I played and played and played, and I was in a couple of rock bands when I was younger. I used to sing in a band called The Dead Air for a while, which was a psych-rock six piece, which is very different to what I’m doing now with Team Love.
‘Chris, who’s still my best friend from high school, he plays in bands … I used to busk with Chris down on the waterfront at Geelong and neither of us could sing so we both had to sing, so that’s how I started singing,’ he says, laughing. ‘“I can only remember half the lyrics, so you have to sing the other half.”’
McGrath-Lester says that when she was growing up country music was ‘always in the background because my parents liked it, but I think I went through different phases of liking poppy music and stuff. When I was overseas I started listening to things on my iPod and I thought, I really like this type of music, and I’d write songs and they’d come out as country songs.
‘When George and I started playing together he liked country music too, then other Ruby playing fiddle and it’s evolved from there. And Shaun joining too, over the past few years we’ve become more influenced by country.’
‘I guess I knew what I was getting into,’ says Stolk, ‘so it made it easier that way. Country music’s such an interesting genre because it can be anything but also I don’t know what it is but I know what it isn’t … I never knew much about country music – my parents weren’t really into it at all – but I remember watching that Johnny Cash biopic [Walk the Line], I would have been a teenager when it came out, and I thought, Yeah, this is cool. So that was my introduction. I guess it’s kind of back door through rock ’n’ roll music. ‘
Asked how the band came up with their distinctive name, McGrath-Lester says, ‘Me and some other people were playing trivia one day and we said, “This can be our name, Team Love”, and then we used to be “Ruby and George” for a few gigs, then we thought we should have a band name and we said, “We can do that name.”
‘But I guess it’s like a bit of a joke name,’ she says, laughing.
‘I really like it,’ says Stolk. ‘They were named before I joined in. But I really like it because there are so many sad songs about heartbreak but Team Love is an almost tongue-in-cheek way of naming the group.’
The band does have a team dynamic, of sorts, in that the songs on the album feature four-part harmonies.
‘I’m not a natural harmony singer,’ says Stolk, ‘so I’m really lucky that I’m the only boy in the band so I can hit all the low parts, the easier ones. Ruby [McGrath-Lester] just hears harmonies and it doesn’t make sense to me. I’ll be there with the guitar and piano saying, “Which note am I going to now?” Trying to figure it out whereas she’ll just have it in her head. And the other two girls are really good harmony singers as well.’
‘But we do try to practise!’ adds McGrath-Lester. She says then when she was in high school she played bass in the school band and trumpet in the other school band, and ‘still look on thinking, I want to do more singing.
‘But in that little band we had we did do some harmonies and in the school band I did sing a few songs and sang harmonies, and I was in a school production and sang all the harmonies. I always just like to sing the harmonies of any song. Shaun gets annoyed because I just start singing harmonies to songs that don’t have harmonies in the car.’
That car often fits four band members and their instruments – an advantage, says Stolk, of being an acoustic band. One day they hope to take the road north to Tamworth but, thus far, the timing hasn’t worked out.
With Melbourne emerging from restrictions on gathering numbers, though, they will finally be able to bring the ten fine songs on the album to live audiences. Keep up with their gig news on Facebook at @teamloveband.