Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

'I just sort of lost my mind a bit' - How Street Chant fixed their Hauora

Street Chant's Emily Littler speaks out against damp houses, lazy songwriting, and sexism in the music industry.
Emily Littler performs during the 2013 Laneway festival with Street Chant. The Kiwi group's new album has been a long time coming. Photo/Dean Purcell
Emily Littler performs during the 2013 Laneway festival with Street Chant. The Kiwi group's new album has been a long time coming. Photo/Dean Purcell

She's able to laugh about it now, but Street Chant front woman Emily Littler had quite a struggle finishing the band's second album Hauora.

"I think, for me, I sort of just lost my mind a bit. It's funny now that I'm out of it, but it was a strange state, because I was totally consumed by it. And also we were going through some shitty band dynamics, and I was incredibly unwell during a lot of the recording, just from living in a damp house. I would spend two or three days every week in bed, with chronic sinus problems.

"And I think I was being a perfectionist about it, but also suffering from quite bad mental illness, and also being quite lazy. It really wasn't the greatest combination for being very productive."

The Auckland-based three piece (Littler is joined by Billie Rogers on bass and Christopher Varnham on drums) formed in 2007, and released their debut album Means in 2010 through Arch Hill.

They were immediately local favourites, winning the 2010 Critics Choice Prize, being nominated for the Taite Prize, and gaining a reputation for their fun and unpredictable presence.

They've kept busy in the intervening years, opening for bands like The Dead Weather, toured the US with 80s American alt-rockers The Lemonheads, and becoming the backing band for David Saunders of The 3Ds as he toured New Zealand once more.

Plus they also released a 7 inch and an EP, and Littler started a solo project under the name Emily Edrosa.

But there was something about Hauora which just got stuck.

"I think because it became such a heavy thing emotionally, it was very easy to put it on the shelf and not think about it. And I felt like it was kind of ruining music for me - I was having these crazy dreams every night, that I was giving birth to some sort of alien. It was very consuming."

Emily Littler, Billie Rogers, and Christopher Varnham of Auckland band Street Chant.
Emily Littler, Billie Rogers, and Christopher Varnham of Auckland band Street Chant.

Hauora is a Maori word which is an overall description for four facets of health - physical, emotional, spiritual, and social, and connects those to the idea of the four walls of a building, and the way they're all required for strength and stability.
It's a particularly resonant title for the album which was so heavily influenced by Littler's negative hauora living circumstances, and a particular period of disillusionment.

"My hauora was very bad at that point" Littler laughs. "But it's really reflective of a time, and that time was when we got back from touring, you know we'd been touring for a year and a half on and off, and then when we finished that we all moved back into flats in central suburbs. And I remember we got back from tour a couple of days before the National party was re-elected, and I just saw everyone feeling really defeated, and it was a bit strange.

Photo of the Grey Lynn flat where Street Chant recorded much of their Hauora album.
Photo of the Grey Lynn flat where Street Chant recorded much of their Hauora album.

"We were all living in these damp houses where everything was constantly wet - the weather can effect you so much when you have no money, you know, can't walk to the supermarket, can't dry your clothes, everything is constantly wet, and everyone seemed a bit defeated, and I think I was really shocked by that."

When she could muster the energy, writing the songs that make up Hauora became a sort of catharsis, a way to make a statement about the frustrating circumstances in which they were living.

Littler was also sick of hearing rock music which made no effort to be memorable, and she wanted to create something which got to people.

"I just wanted to make something ballsy really. When we were touring round it really hit me with a lot of bands, like what is the point of what you're doing, you just get on stage and shuffle around with your reverb pedal on? What is your purpose there? I don't understand it. I mean people can do whatever they want with their music obviously, but for me, I wanted to take a stand."

However, as well as wanting to make ballsy music, Littler also decided to embrace the feminine side of the band.

Having spent much of their early career fighting against endless sexism (she has plenty of examples, including creepy sound techs messing with their gear, being ignored, abused, or talked down to, being described as "bratty", and feeling like her guitar skills came under excessive scrutiny), initially they railed against any perceived notions of weakness by being as forceful as they could. But with Hauora, Littler finally decided being thought of as a sort of girl band might not be the worst thing.

"When we first started, everyone would always say, 'Oh you remind me of Sleater Kinney, oh you remind me of Bikini Kill', and I'd never listened to those bands before, and then I didn't want to because I didn't want to be influenced by them, because for me that sounds like being a girl band is a genre, and that felt marginalising.

"So I'd get on stage and be really crazy because I felt like I was being backed into a corner. So I had to appear really strong. Guys don't have to appear really strong when they're on stage, but I felt like I did, and now I'm kind of realising that's not really what I should be thinking about.

"I'm kind of ashamed of that now. Like what's wrong with being a girl band? Why did we push against that? I want to embrace writing music for girls, I want to make girls feel happy and like they belong, and I want to make girls dance, I don't want to make men brood" she laughs. "I want young girls to like our music, not just fifty year old men in Flying Nun shirts. Of course they can like it, but that's not my goal."

The album is also a clear step forward from Street Chant's past recordings - the songs are more melodic, the lyrics smarter and clearer, the overall sonic quality more lush. In short, Littler has embraced and improved her songwriting talents, and truly put them on display.

"I think when I first started writing songs, I didn't think that much about lyrics, but this one I really wanted them to be strong. I really wanted them to say something.

"My singing took the longest because I want to be taken seriously as a songwriter and I wanted people to hear my melodies as well as my lyrics, so I needed people to hear my singing better. With this one I wanted it to sound nice, and I wanted the lyrics to be audible, and to also have meaning, and meaning that people could relate to."

"I know I can be lazy, but I also know I'm a great songwriter, and I don't want to be labelled as bratty any more. I'm not going to win a Silver Scroll for being a brat right."

Who: Emily Littler of Street Chant
What: New album Hauora, out now
Where and when: Performing at the Kings Arms on Friday April 29

- NZ Herald

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