Premiere: CALIFORNIA GIRLS – ‘SMALL BIRDS’

Words: James Frostick
Artist image: Tim Hardy

Canberra-based neo-synth-pop artist Gus McGrath aka California Girls is releasing the second track from his forthcoming record Beat Boy. ‘Small Birds’ is an irresistibly danceable track that places the listener in the bowels of a pulsing subterranean rave as Gus moves through a heaving mass of bodies, searching for true intimacy amid an uncaring world hooked on physical immediacy. 

It’s happening again.”

This ominous, modulated and repeated phrase – buoyed by an uptempo tick and ethereal synthetic progression – is the first we taste of ‘Small Birds’ by California Girls, the moniker of Gus McGrath. This brief introductory moment finds Gus in the midst of an apparent lapse – the point where he realises he’s done this before. What is ‘this’, in this instance? Well, it’s hard to say exactly – he could be exercising old habits, repeating the same mistakes, or arriving at unfulfilling yet familiar result. Whatever it is, it’s happening once more. Before long, the beat quickens and tenses and Gus interjects with his signature pristine monotone invocations – stilted in cadence yet clear. He relays actions – of what is being done to him, asked of him, asked by him – though the experience seems to be taking place without joy.

A few months back, California Girls released ‘Give Me Everything‘, an emotion-soaked song detailing Gus’ unfulfilled want, an inner discomfort and a desperate craving for total liberation. ‘Small Birds’ exists in the same headspace – here, Gus desires to be cared for, or as he puts it, “I want fucking affection and lots of attention.” It’s a reasonable request – tenderness and genuine feeling are core drivers for most folks, though ‘Small Birds’ is riddled with not only longing, but a palpable frustration that this care is always just out of reach. Gus searches empty streets, hotels and apartment blocks for a figure that can reciprocate affection, though as the track progresses I get the sense most avenues are dead ends, perhaps once physical lust dissipates. To the sound of pounding techno, Gus sails a sea of soft skin, searching for a softness beneath. Just before the rhythm reaches its zenith, he lays himself bare – a spit-shined soul that wants nothing more than to stop running and break the cycle before his sense of self worth disintegrates.

As California Girls, Gus injects the club world with tenderness and longing that might strike some as isolating in its earnestness, especially when compared to the impulse-driven communion of the dance floor. In reality, his music speaks to the unspoken desires of these spaces and the communities that inhabit them, the members of which all seek the same thing – connection, release and a feeling of belonging. The music of California Girls is a reminder that emotion drives us even in our most dizzying moments of unrestraint – tears mix with the sweat as the beat pulses in time with our hearts.

California Girls will be releasing his debut LP Beat Boy, on March 3 next year through Dero Arcade. California Girls will be supporting Molly Nilsson in the coming weeks, with shows at Freda’s on Thursday November 28, The Curtain on Friday November 29, and The Foundry on Sunday December 1.

SOUNDCLOUD