A few weeks ago, I was browsing through the New Music Friday AU/NZ playlist on Spotify when I came across a song called “Back To My Vice”. It drew me in right away, so I looked up the artist as well.
It turns out HANDSOME has been making music with a message for quite some time now. And this new release is a part of a bigger audiovisual project called BLAME.
So, to celebrate Pride Month this year on my blog, the artist has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her journey so far, building a HANDSOME movement, and how the queer community could teach Australia one thing or two about love and acceptance.
Until 2017, Caitlin McGregor performed under the moniker Caitlin Parker. And even though she’d already established herself on the Australian music scene, she felt that she needed a change. So she created HANDSOME.
HANDSOME’s music is a celebration of self-expression. She tells stories about strong friendships, falling in love, and kissing girls. Through her catchy Tomboy pop/electronic bangers, she also wants to flip off those who have opinions on who you should be.
With over ten singles and two EPs under her belt, this queer artist from Sydney has further solidified her place in the independent Australian community with the 2022 releases. Apart from the BLAME EP, three tracks: “Blame”, “Royally” and “Back To My Vice”, constitute a short movie bearing the same name as the record. And because it seems like a well-thought-out project, I was keen to learn more about the concept.
Here’s what I found out.
Silly McWiggles (SM): One of your influences is Robyn, who “writes sad bangers like no other”. In your music, you also talk quite a bit about being shamed and the judgmental treatment by others. Yet, your songs are infused with hope, and love wins in the end. Why do you think this aesthetic is suitable for your message of acceptance?
HANDSOME: I think emotional electronic music is a way to dance and move and heal at the same time. Moving your body and being moved internally can be such a wild form of expression, and I love music for that reason. I think music has the power to heal and empower, and I want to express that through my own music – I want hope to be in the last moments of the song every time!
SM: HANDSOME is not only your artistic moniker, it is also a movement/collective that you’re trying to build called the HANDSOME GANG. How do you engage with and nourish that network beyond the music experience?
HANDSOME: I think anyone and everyone who is a part of HANDSOME in a wider context – friends, family, fans, people who come to shows and listen to the music in the background – are part of the HANDSOME GANG. I want people to feel at home with the moments, the music, and the community I create. When people come to shows, meet me in person, and interact with me online, I want to be present and I want people to feel heard.
SM: In a recent article, NME called your music “queer outlaw pop”. What do you think makes you an outlaw in the pop music world in Australia?
HANDSOME: Haha, I think they are referring more to the “outlawish” landscape that was created in my new short film ‘BLAME’. However, I do think that HANDSOME sometimes stands adjacent to the industry noise.
SM: So was the BLAME movie going to be a coherent trilogy from the very beginning? Or did you write the three songs separately, and they suddenly made sense together?
HANDSOME: The songs were actually written first. However, I always wanted it to be a coherent narrative. I’ve always wanted to branch out and make film, and this was a beautiful gateway that was created for me. Songs in a body of work, like an EP or an album, are always connected by the timeframe in which they are created and the artist’s experience. So my experiences in this time allowed me to create a narrative for the film.
SM: And if you could summarise every song on the BLAME EP with one stereotype often associated with the queer community, what would it be?
HANDSOME: Masc and flamboyant. Which I think is correct, but there is SO MUCH more to listen to and see!
SM: BLAME seems like a multidimensional world that goes beyond the music. Could you elaborate on its elements and how they all fit together?
HANDSOME: I’ve always wanted to shoot something in the Australian desert. I think it is a wondrous part of our country that not everyone gets to experience. I think taking this desire and slowly building a world around the celebration of masc culture really harnessed the worlds together. The Dykes On Bikes brought the ‘Mad Max-esque’ elements to the surface, where I think the cowboy world was just something I couldn’t ignore as a rich part of the Australian outback… and really, what could be more queer.
SM: The lyrics on the BLAME EP are very personal and intimate. Are the stories told from your perspective, or are they more accounts of relatable experiences overheard in a broader community?
HANDSOME: The majority of the song lyrics are all from personal experiences, yes. A tumultuous time in my life – both the good and the bad. However, some lyrics – especially on the title track – are enriched by stories from other people around me. Listening to these stories is always so inspirational to tap into deeper matters of the heart, I think, and to magnify what others will feel affected by in a song.
SM: And why was it important to you to shoot the BLAME film in the outback? Does that have anything to do with the feeling of loneliness you also explore on the EP?
HANDSOME: I think there is a stereotype of the outback being a place of loneliness, simply because of its vastness. The ‘lonely cowboy’ was also a character I wanted to appropriate and enhance as part of telling this story. The landscape is so beautiful, but it can make you feel small in comparison to the rest of the world, and I think this is a humbling feeling also.
SM: What new elements (sound effects, gear, instruments) did you use on the songs that make up the BLAME EP, compared to your previous releases?
HANDSOME: I actually used less sound effects in this EP than in previous HANDSOME releases. Much more software plugins were used, with a higher concentration of R’n’B and hip hop sounds, as this was what was so exciting for me at the time.
SM: Congrats on staging the BLAME live show for Vivid Sydney recently. For those who couldn’t be there, could you reveal a bit more about the concept and how it was received?
HANDSOME: Thank you! I wanted to create an experience, a party, a celebration, rather than just a show. Together with friends and amazing performers, we were able to show the audience different artistic expressions of the word ‘blame’ and how it can be interpreted. There was poetry, dances, DJs – it was a real ride! I wanted everyone to leave feeling like they had been a part of something truly unique. It was a wonderful night 🙂
SM: On that note, your music is heavily linked to the visual aspect. When you write songs, do you already have a general idea of how you’d like to narrate that story in a music clip?
HANDSOME: Great question! I am a very visual person, and I often write music with a visual (a music video concept or a scene) in mind. It really helps me tap into what I am writing about and how people might feel when they hear it. I don’t think it is always the final visual concept, but I am definitely creating a mind map while I am writing the song.
SM: You often direct or write scripts for your music clips. Are you afraid that your creative vision might, otherwise, not be understood or come through if you let another visual artist fully take the lead?
HANDSOME: I think honestly I am just a massive control freak 🙂 A good and sometimes a bad behavioral trait, haha. But because the visual experience of my music is so paramount to the writing process, I am ready to hit play on the camera when the song is finished, and I want to harness that energy.
SM: So what is the “queeroic” film concept? What inspired you to create it?
HANDSOME: “Queeroic” is a term we created for this project – queer hero. Queerness is not something that is hidden much these days in a more accepting world, however a lot of art in the past has been taken, stolen, and reappropriated, and a lot of the queer narrative has been written out of history. I wanted to make sure this was at the forefront of this project. Writing queer experiences into the hetero-normative cinema like a cowboy storyline was a very important element. Because our visibility gives us power, and every young person, scared person, shy person, or forgotten person should be able to see themselves in every storyline and know they can do anything.
SM: You’re also interested in other forms of art and culture. In one of the interviews, you mentioned “soundtracking contemporary ballet, writing film scores, and composing for theatre” as your future creative ambitions. You’ve partially delved into film scores with your BLAME movie. How do you think you could incorporate the other two elements to further enhance the “HANDSOME experience”?
HANDSOME: OOOOhhhh! In so many ways. I just have my eye on longevity in art-making – I’m hungry to do everything. Concocting creative ideas and unique experiences is one of my greatest joys. And if I can do that while connecting with my audience and making people feel something special, then I am in!
SM: Going back in time, your debut as HANDSOME in 2017 coincided with the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Back then, you were quite critical of the government, which stood “in the way of progressive thought”. Apart from the “YES” vote by the Australian public, have you seen other positive changes in Australia in the acknowledgment of the LGBTQI+ community since? If so, which ones?
HANDSOME: We are so lucky to be a part of this country. Australia really is a place where you can self-express safely in many places. I think a lot of positive change has happened since the ‘YES’ vote, but I do think we are only really seeing this ramp up in the last year or so. Notably, states getting rid of the ‘gay panic defense’ is really FUCKING long overdue, but seeing states (yay, Tassie) banning Conversion Therapy recently is also an amazing step in the right direction.
SM: You are a fierce advocate of everyone’s voices being heard and equal treatment in all aspects of life, regardless of sexuality. It feels like this is one of the themes on BLAME as well. What still stands in the way of this message being a reality for the queer community in Australia, both in the music industry and in everyday life?
HANDSOME: I think, with all of its progress, queerness is still ‘othered’, both in the music industry and everyday life – which doesn’t hinder our voices, but puts us in a category of our own. A lot of the queer community loves this (who doesn’t want to be a part of that club) BUT it still comes with its issues in equality and recognition.
SM: Could you please name three LGBTQI+ Australian acts who inspire you through their music activism? And why them?
HANDSOME: Cub Sport, because they are so proud and powerful in their visibility.
Jamaica Moana, because she is like no other artist in this country and has so many experiences to offer our world.
Flowerkid, because he is so vulnerable and personal in his storytelling. An old soul, with incredible hope to offer young queer people. Ugh! Just incredible.
SM: And finally, you transitioned from your project as Caitlin Park (CP) to HANDSOME because you didn’t feel that CP represented the “authentic” you at the time. Do you think that HANDSOME is the final stage of that journey into self-awareness and self-expression?
HANDSOME: Very interesting question! I don’t think it is no. As artists, I think we all continue to evolve, I just think it’s the next step.
Check out a playlist HANDSOME put together to celebrate the “Queeroic Music of Australia” below:
Post cover image:supplied/Dominique Berns
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