Premiere: FAIR MAIDEN – OLEANDER (HYSTERICAL RECORDS, 2019)

Words: James Frostick
Band image: Harriet Fraser Barbour

After a few years of self exploration and composition, Adelaide’s noir-folk doo-wop outfit Fair Maiden  is finally releasing its anticipated new album Oleander. Documenting transformations and emotional turbulence, the record is a hypnotic musical document of love and all its pitfalls, perils and pains. We’ve got a preview listen ahead of its release on March 22, as well as a chat with Fair Maiden’s creative lead Ellen Carey.

If there’s one topic that could be described as a bottomless, infinite well of inspiration, it’s love. Love is something we all experience to some degree, but we all experience it differently – meaning our interpretations are wholly unique to others. Because of this, music about love is incredibly varied and nuanced, as each point of view has the potential of offering up a novel take, or can carry a different emotional weight. One interpretation that has had me hooked for years is that of Adelaide’s Fair Maiden, a folk-inspired four-piece who’s sound carries with it a gothic spaciousness and a pastoral glumness both captivating and vivid.

Oleander, Fair Maiden’s long-awaited follow up to 2014’s self-titled effort, is a record of love songs, but not in an overly romanticised sense. This album documents the unforgiving nature of love and romance, showing how matters of the heart can savage and wear at the psyche. It’s a hypnotic dissection of how the fires of passion can become inflamed and enlarged to the point where it turns into an all-consuming storm, laying waste to the soul until it has scorched and burned away all signs of life. Fatalistic implosions, lingering scars, withering loneliness – chief songwriter Ellen Carey weaves these raw moments into the very fabric of the record, but for all its disquieting realness, the record sounds remarkably beautiful.

Fair Maiden’s sound has always tread the line between seductive smokiness and heart-wrenching balladry, but on Oleander the band has nailed the ratio. Rural imagery and desolate soundscapes intermingle with hypnotic harmonies, stirring up the emotional undercurrent and letting it colour the music. Ellen and her band – consisting of Harriet Fraser-Barbour (Workhorse), Steph Crase (Summer Flake) and Hamish Baird – work in unison to conjure vivid soundscapes, be it country gothic, woozy psychedelia or unsettling minimalism. Every note adds to Ellen’s forlorn vocalisations, lyrics and musicianship blending into a substantial force.

Oleander is an album worth lingering on. Its subtleties and metaphors create a textured and layered whole, one that rewards extra listens and attentiveness. You can listen to the record ahead of its offical release this Friday through Hysterical Records right here:

To glean some insight into the the album’s origins and inspirations, I had a chat with Fair Maiden’s singer and creative lead Ellen Carey:

To start, tell me where the process behind Oleander began! I know ‘Coal’ in particular has existed since 2017, but could you pinpoint a time when the record really started to take shape?
I think actually the majority of the album came into place during the middle of 2016. It was a very strange year for me filled with loss and dissociation, and the songs on this album were definitely a direct reflection on my life and mindset at the time.

Oleander is an album of love songs, but not love in the conventional sense. It seems to touch on the darker elements of romance – the terrifying vulnerability, the pain of heartbreak and the degenerative nature of loneliness. What is it about love as a concept that enamours you creatively?
I just find it to be so multi dimensional and powerful and something I think most people can connect with. I’m the most creative and inspired when in pain and I feel at home song writing about misery and heartache. I’m actually generally a really happy person though, I swear! I just know deeply that change is certain and nothing good can ever last and that all humans are profoundly flawed.

The album seems to weave a nuanced tapestry of love – its highs and lows, gains and losses, beginnings and ends. Was this all-encompassing approach – capturing the various emotional nuances – a conscious decision, or more a reflection of personal experience/just how the ideas flowed?
It actually wasn’t a conscious decision and I remember being surprised once the album was complete at the path it had taken all on its own. It made sense to me though I suppose because each song was written from personal experience, kind of chronologically, and I had definitely moved into a darker mindset away from the love song of track one.

On the issue of personal expression, is conveying your own vulnerabilities in song a freeing experience, or does pushing your comfort zone in such a way present a challenge?
I suppose I’ve always struggled with being open in times where I could use emotional support and prefer to act like everything is fine. So having the platform to really unleash and purge my soul in song is incredibly therapeutic and freeing. I try to make some of the rawest moments lyrically more obscure so I don’t feel too exposed but for the most part it’s a very cathartic experience, and cheaper than therapy!

I’d love to know how you conceived of Oleander’s sonic approach. The record is hypnotic, unsettling, weathered and robust all at once. Was there a specific process for you and the band when composing each track and ensuring you properly articulated the emotional heft?
I’ve always really loved very echoey and weird noise, so having the option to record in an old church was so perfect and I think added a lot to the sound. We recorded most of the tracks as a group and did all the vocals separately. Having layers of vocals and harmonies has always been important aesthetically to me. We all work so perfectly together and understand the songs intentions. Harriet, Steph and Hamish are three of the most talented musicians I’ve ever known. We really put in our everything for this album, I found those three days of recording to be an extremely emotional experience, so hopefully that comes through when you listen, I don’t know.

Your process, inspirations and skills have obviously changed since your last album, but what would you say is the biggest stylistic change evident in Oleander?
I think there’s a certain maturity that comes through in this album that may have not been so present in the first. I wanted to take more risks and had a very clear view of how this album should sound. I tried to kind of stretch my boundaries when it came to song writing which was really challenging at times but so worth it in the end.

What did the album process (from song writing to recording) uncover about your self – either personally or creatively – that was particularly revelatory?
That I’m a romantic nihilist and take great comfort in sorrow?? No, seriously though that’s a hard question. Actually, all of these questions I’m finding difficult to answer! I think I was surprised at how willing I was to give myself up to the creation of this album. I exposed myself at a level I wasn’t expecting. I remember having to stop a vocal recording because I began to cry, it kind of just came out of nowhere, but that’s how immersed I was in the moment. I feel like myself, and the others, really surrendered themselves to the songs and I feel so proud of what we have created.

What aspects of Oleander do you hope resonates with listeners the most?
Just that life is hard and it’s okay to feel vulnerable.

Fair Maiden will be touring throughout April. If you find yourself near any of these venues, do yourself a favour and attend:

April 12 – Hotel Metro, Adelaide w/ Dead Roo, Edith & The Heat Pumps
April 26 – The Bearded Lady, Brisbane w/ Pleasure Symbols, Brainbeau, Sorry Golden State
April 27 – Union Hotel, Sydney w/ G2G, Witness-K
May 4 – Old Bar, Melbourne w/ Primo, Mystery Guest
Get your copy of Oleander through Hysterical Records on Friday March 22, or pre-order here.