Charm of Finches sisters Mabel and Ivy met with me on a Saturday morning in Northcote to chat about their songwriting. Mature and natural songwriters, it’s no surprise their first EP Home, and 2016 debut album Staring at the Starry Ceiling have already earned them multiple slots on the festival scene (Port Fairy Folk Festival, Woodford Folk Festival) and supports gigs (Jordie Lane, Yirrmal, Raised by Eagles, Kasey Chambers). There are numerous ‘next big thing’ lists, but the Charm of Finches girls seem less about hype and exude promise of staying power, where dedication, passion and a good sense-of-self assist you though the sometimes fickle and ego centric music industry. Add to the mix their own writing style and young ages (mid to late teens!), I was keen to learn their songwriting process.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
MABEL: Well when I was 12 I’d been in the same class throughout my whole primary school, because we’d been to Steiner school. In Steiner you have one teacher all the way from Grade 1 to Grade 6 and I kind of reached the end and the teacher was like ‘we should write a song for the end of the journey’. So yeah, I wrote a song for my teacher. That was the first time I picked up guitar and then kind of just went from there. I think it’s a bit addictive! And the second song was about a book that I read – when I was 12 (laughs) yeah about druids (laughs).
What about together, are you both equal songwriters, or do you write the songs Mabel?
MABEL: Well in the past i’ve written most of the songs on our EP and on our album, but now we’re co-writing a lot more.
IVY: I write a lot of the harmonies as well.
There’s a lot of harmonies with you both isn’t there? So you have two albums?
MABEL: Well there’s the EP which was a Year 8 project. A project that went on for 3 months and we could choose anything that we would like to do. It was a big long term project . I was like ‘oh yeah, i’ll make a little EP of my songs and you know just burn it and give it to a couple of friends’. But it just expanded and it was this huge project. Our friend Michael Johnston, who is a harpist produced it and his friend did the sound and we did it professionally so it snowballed. We got heaps of gigs.
That’s cool. And then the album?
MABEL: Released last year
IVY: Staring at the Starry Ceiling – bit of a tongue twister.
When recording the EP and the album did you find the songwriting changed, or did the songs you had stay pretty much the same?
We did a lot of work on arranging with different instrumentation. This album was quite a studio album, whereas our EP was quite live – there were only a couple of overdubs of extra instruments but this one we had a long period of time where I sat down and wrote all the parts and string arrangements and banjo and glockenspiel. The songs were ready and we decided we could expand on them and give them a different flavour to when we perform them live. Nick Huggins produced our album, who’s an amazing guy. I think that was a really great pairing. He was able to put his ideas in the mixing bowl.
Added to how the songs were already?
MABEL: He had a lot of really nice creative ideas and it’s just great to have someone from the outside looking in to the project and giving input. We also gave him all our fave albums that we love the production and arranging on, like Sufjan Stevens and Agnes Obel.
People who are doing something a bit different and staying natural?
MABEL: Yeah we put ourselves in the folk genre and I think it’s quite an expandable genre. There’s so many things you can do and I love how people now are adding things from all sorts of genres and putting them into that melting pot. It’s really exciting to take ideas from everywhere and morph them in together into something that’s become our baby (laughs).
And what about you IVY, when you’re working out harmonies and stuff – when Mabel will play you a song on guitar, do you take that away and work it out?
IVY: We used to do it more like she’d bring in a song and play it through a couple of times and i’d join in and come up with harmonies. But then recently when writing songs together more, it’s been like more along the way, coming up with the harmony and melody at the same time.
MABEL: We’ve been doing a lot more co-writing, it’s really nice.
What about playing live together, do you sometimes come up with things then or when rehearsing before a gig?
MABEL: Um, not often.
IVY: It’s happened a couple of times
MABEL: I think when I was writing Sky Watching, a song on our album, it was still a song in process. I think I had a chorus and a bridge, but still didn’t have a second verse. And we really wanted to play it because its so exciting to play a new song, there’s that kind of energy, a new thing. We had about an hour before we played, so we wrote the second verse, and then played it at that gig. And we’re really happy with that song and that’s the single on the album – so it worked out pretty well. I think some songs don’t take a long time to write, some of them just kind of drop out of the air like they’re already written, and some of them I have to sit on for a long time.
What would you say is the longest time?
MABEL: Yeah months. I have a lot of unfinished songs, just bits of songs everywhere. Like I’ve got a great chorus that’s sort of waiting for some verses to put with it, and yeah just so many bits and pieces waiting to come to life.
Do you find you then get another idea and start working on it.
BOTH: All the time, so many songs at the moment.
MABEL: It’s sometimes hard to return back to an old song and recapture that emotion, or that inspiration that made it happen.
Because you’ve grown and have a different perspective sometimes.
MABEL: Yeah, or its changed dramatically since then (laughs).
Any songwriting routines?
IVY: We went on a holiday and it was going to be to write songs, in Gippsland. It’s our friend’s holiday house who lent it to us to finish our songs.
Did just the two of you go up?
MABEL: Our whole family. But we had our own room in the end of the house, which was the songwriting room.
IVY: I find that really hard to just set a time and the pressure of having to finish the song, or thinking that you have to. And so we got like – we got one song done.
MABEL: And it actually turned out very well. Which was surprising because at the time were like ‘this is taking so looong’.
IVY: We’d go on another walk and then come back (laughs)
I think that’s pretty common, if you think ‘ok im gonna sit down and write a song’.
MABEL: I find the best songs come when there’s a reason to sit down and write it, there’s an emotion or something has happened that has triggered emotions that leads very fluidly into a song. And they come out very naturally.
The song Paper and Ink- I realised that’s one of the songs you played early on in our song writing group. How did that song come about?
MABEL: I wrote it when I was 15. It started off as a riff – the riff at the start of the song, which I really wanted to put in a song. It was kind of a co-write. Ivy and I just sat on the bed, recorded the riff and just put it on repeat and wrote poetry as that was in the background.
Without singing any melody, just writing?
MABEL: And then we just looked at our poetry and what we liked and didn’t like. And we kindof had some inspiration didn’t we?
MABEL: I had some flowers on my desk, that Grandma had given me (laughs). And we sort of based it around that.
IVY: It was a rainy Sunday afternoon (laughs)
MABEL: So that motif of the flowers runs through the song. The song is quite sensual in that way, alot of imagery which kind of conjures the emotion.
That’s a really interesting way to co-write, a bit different to what you normally do?
MABEL: Well as I said I don’t normally do that with my songs. We had another way, for the new song which doesn’t have a name yet – we wrote in Metung. I had been studying a book by Banana Yoshimoto – Kitchen, which is about grief. We found a page in the book and took out our favourite phrases – to spark the beginning of the song.
IVY: The song was also about when my friend passed away, at the start of the year, so that was my way of expressing my feelings for that – which I hadn’t done before – it was still bottled up inside of me, so I feel like it helped.
That sounds like a nice way to do it, by using the words and imagery instead of being really direct. Does imagery come naturally when writing, or is it a conscious choice?
MABEL: I think for me it’s quite natural. I’m inspired by nature, since growing up through the Steiner education we have a lot of camps we go on and in Year 9 we go on hiking camps, which are all different terrain.
You’re both at Steiner school now?
MABEL: I’m in Year 11, so it’s a Steiner stream within mainstream – i’m doing VCE.
IVY: I’m doing Year 9 which is still Steiner.
How do you fit in songwriting around school demands, VCE and as young women in your teens?
MABEL: It’s sometimes hard to juggle
And performing as well.
MABEL: We are often going to a festival and in the car doing our homework on the way (laughs)
The rockstar life.
MABEL: Yeah! This year I’ve chosen subjects which kind of compliment my music like literature and art, which are still feeding and inspiring my music.
What about songwriting influences? You mentioned before Sufjan Stevens – any others?
MABEL: We still listen to, and used to be hard core fans (laughs) of First Aid Kit – the Swedish sisters. I think they inspired us initially to start being musicians, because we heard they made their first album when they were 16 or something and we were like ‘hey that’s pretty young, why don’t we do that’. We listen to a lot of folk music, like Celtic folk and we both play violin and cello – I play classical cello and Ivy plays fiddle.
Were they your main instruments before guitar?
IVY: Yeah. Because in Steiner in Year 3 you have to choose either violin or cello, so that feeds into our music.
So that sort of music you’re listening to is not really main stream artists. How do you find them?
MABEL: Folk festivals really. We are introduced to a lot of artists there, and it’s so fun just like following them around (laughs), and getting to know them when we’re artists on the same bill or in the artist campground.
IVY: It’s so much fun.
How do you know when a song is finished?
MABEL: I think it comes into its own. We often play it at a gig, and I think if it doesn’t go well, we go ‘its a crap song’ and put it in the pile again to revisit another time, or it’s a good one and we keep playing it.
IVY: We’re pretty harsh on each other (laughs). We have each other to kind of decide whether its finished or not.
MABEL: And our parents as well, it’s nice to hear someone from outside say ‘you’ve gone too far, you’re adding too many bits, just keep it simple’. One of the songs on our first EP, the last track ‘Go Back Down the Track’ doesn’t have a chorus – kind of a simple folk song and I was just playing it ‘this is a bit of a song, do you wanna hear it mum?’ And she goes ‘that’s it – don’t add anything else’.
Photo credit: Emma McEvoy