Style Liaisons: In Conversation With Erny Belle, The Country-Pop-Alt-Folk Star Looking To The Stars

By Madeleine Crutchley
On her new album ‘Not Your Cupid’, Erny Belle sources influence from the stars. Photo / Babiche Martens

On her new album Not Your Cupid, Aimee Renata embraces wit and romanticism in both songwriting and style. Hot off the back of a celebratory release party, the Taite Award-nominated artist shares some insights into her vast nebula of influences and delights in an imagined costume archive.

As Erny Belle,

As a costume designer by (earlier) trade, Renata’s on-the-fly videos have a distinct dramatic flair, often enhanced by thoughtful costuming — think fringed leather chaps, a Gothic tiered gown and an iridescent gold mini dress. On stage, she’s also a fan of something striking, often donning an oversized scrunchie and sweeping black ensembles. She’s also recently been captured in romantic dresses and lace for local brand Gloria, cementing her status of style within our local fashion scene.

Her sophomore album, Not Your Cupid, was released early this month. It is a record filled with lush and expansive strings, attuned to a sense of romance. Reliably, it has a sense of humour and some great Gothic punctuations, but, as the artist notes, it’s a little lighter in tone.

Ahead of her album release show in December and a summer scattered with festivals, the singer-songwriter reflects on the making of Not Your Cupid and considers the costumes that help her create a character.

Your debut album Venus Is Home was released in February last year, and a year and a half later you’ve arrived at the release of Not Your Cupid. When did the work on your new album begin?

Probably about six months prior to recording the album. I mostly wrote the album at home. I’ve been pretty homebound since Venus Is Home was released, since I was still doing work for that album and then the signing with Flying Nun. It wasn’t too long after that I started recording it, so most of it I wrote at home. Two of the songs, my bassists wrote the guitar for, so that was very helpful [laughs]. I think even though Venus Is Home came out not that long ago, I was ready to do a second one because it took so long to release that — by the time it was released it had been years. So, it was actually the natural cycle by that point.

Was there a particular mood or tone that propelled you forward with the new album?

Maybe a sense of feeling validated as an artist? And feeling that I had more things to achieve and look forward to. I keep harping on about it but the [genesis is] the future self. More about where I’m going, rather than where I’m currently at. Like, a premonition.

Venus Is Home has a really strong sense of place. In that forward-looking on Not Your Cupid, are you still drawing on place?

It’s maybe a little bit more ethereal. It’s not like home or a town. It’s not a physical space, it’s a spiritual place [laughs]. It’s the stars. If it was set somewhere, where the hell would it be ... I don’t know.

Is there some placemaking in it?

Yeah, it’s more of a realm.

Are there other influences that inform the songwriting?

I think it was a record more based on me experimenting with the music itself. Making music, because it’s music. I definitely didn’t overconceptualise it, or have a concept at all, apart from the title. It definitely felt like the process of making it was a very prayerful feeling. That’s why I think of it as being out in the stars.

The instruments and the compositions happened naturally with the people that I was working with I guess. The sounds are intentional, that over-romanticism, the violins and the string sections. It’s really hard to explain where it came from ... but somewhere inside of me [laughs].

Erny Belle’s first album was released to great acclaim. With her second record, the artist looks towards the light. Photo / Matt Hunter
Erny Belle’s first album was released to great acclaim. With her second record, the artist looks towards the light. Photo / Matt Hunter

Were there musicians you were looking to?

There definitely were influences, but if I name who they are, and you listen to my music, it doesn’t make any sense. It was, in my head, Judy Garland, Édith Piaf and a lot of 60s pop and 60s Goth pop too, and new romantics, sort of 80s. It’s a weird blend — folk influence and 60s psychedelic vibe with “Crypto” and the sitar, which is also quite ancient feeling. It’s all of the things that are part of who I am and what I like listening to.

Was it a similar process to the first album?

Yes, similar, but it was a lot more professional [laughs], compared to my first experience. I recorded with the band that I’ve been playing with live, so we were really locked in with each other. On the first album, I did a lot of re-tracking, so it was different. We live-tracked the bones of the album on Not Your Cupid.

Did playing live a lot before recording Not Your Cupid change any of your decisions?

I knew what worked and what didn’t. But we were working under the pressure of time, so every day was a rush and kind of stressful, but it worked well in a sense because we had to make really fast decisions. We were under the pump; lots of late nights.

How did you know when the songs or album were done? When can you let them go?

For me, it’s being able to listen through the whole song, and nothing annoys me. I’m really quite pedantic. The devil is in the detail. For me, it’s being able to listen through a song, and if there’s nothing I want to change, and as soon as I feel that way I move on straight away — otherwise I’ll start to overcook things. I always wonder if I do overcook things a little bit, but that’s something I’m still figuring out.

Venus Is Home had a few little imperfections in it, and Not Your Cupid was very slick. But hopefully, not too much so that it kills it. I think in the next one, I’ll find a happy middle ground.

In the videos that have been coming out, there’s a little sense of fun and sparkle, with some irony and deadpan. Where did that sense come from?

The album, for me, though it’s not sonically that much lighter than the first one, is a lighter one. So, I think that has naturally transpired into the visuals. The reference to that 50s and 60s era of romanticism and songwriting has come through to the visuals a bit, playing into that character.

I see the song visually as I write it and that probably influences what I end up filming. It’s always in the background, once I get to it. The song is first. The videos are all done pretty quickly, and they all seem to be quite last minute to me. I don’t know whether that’s because I don’t start planning them fast enough and leave it to the last minute — like leaving your homework to the last minute, which I always did at school, I’m still that person.

I think the videos that I make are also influenced by what I can do in terms of budget. I’d love to know what sort of visual world I could build with an endless budget [laughs].

And that deadpan?

I think it’s a part of my humour. It’s like, not giving everything away. It’s like my deadpan chainmail.

To me, the videos often feel extravagant and dramatic and I feel that a lot of that comes through costuming. Is there something you look for when you dress as Erny Belle?

I used to work in costume, so I have experience — it was my job. I’m kind of taking that skill set and applying it to my own film. Mostly, it’s about dressing to the right story of what’s happening in the video. It starts there, dressing myself as the character.

Is there an Erny Belle archive with all of those pieces?

I just thought it was too narcissistic to keep an archive of my costumes as if it would be in a museum or something, but I feel like I should. I recently got rid of my Stay Golden high heels, which I really regret.

They’re such a presence in that video.

They’re the opening shot ... Damn, maybe I should start an archive. I also really regret, I got rid of the Burning Heaven wedding dress. I think I should keep them. But I just hate holding on to things from the past. It’s like no, get out of my life, on to the next! It would be kind of amazing to see my future old self open up a closet to all of the costumes of the video clips.

Do you pull pieces, like that sparkling dress for Stay Golden, and keep them in the background, knowing that you’ll use them one day?

A lot of pieces are like that. But that one was probably the most thought-out video clip that I’ve done. I knew I wanted it to be gold and sparkly, so I wanted the right lenses, and then to find the dress — which was quite a mission — and then camera test it to make sure it did the right thing.

How do you decide what to wear on stage?

I think I’m still figuring out what I like to wear on stage. But there have definitely been outfits that I prefer, or that didn’t work, or that I didn’t feel comfortable in.

I quite liked wearing my Jess Grindell riding shirt. I feel like I need more of those because it’s got really massive, puffed sleeves. I use my arms quite a lot, so something with that silhouette, I guess.

I always tend to wear my motorbike boots that are really heavy and chunky, that kind of grounds me. So I don’t levitate [laughs].

Erny Belle will play an album release show for Not Your Cupid at the Wintergarden, The Civic on December 8 in Auckland. Not Your Cupid is available on vinyl and CD at Flying Nun now (or on streaming platforms).

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