My Little Lies is an independent release by Gina Cimmelli. It’s a five-track EP, and it’s super amazingly good. It’s in that ’80s jangle guitar pop style that repackaged the ’60s, the stuff that was the toast of the college radio circuit at the time, and of course the Perth scene I grew up in. So yeah, I know this stuff.
I could try to write a proper review, or I could do something I’ve been wanting to for a while — record an interview for Rocknerd, now that I have my Skype recording setup in order. And get the artist to do the hard bit for me. So Gina and I spoke last Monday, just as she started the final preparations before release day. My first proper musician interview in twenty-odd years.
I am a Brooklyn songwriter. I’ve been doing songwriting professionally for about fifteen years. I’ve written for commercials and for myself — which I prefer doing — although it always pays more when it’s not for me.
I was born and raised in New York. I went to school in Boston at Berklee College of Music, where I studied voice and songwriting, and met a ton of talented musicians and artists, and just cultivated a great network of friends. And luckily a bunch of us all moved to Brooklyn together after school. And so the studio that I recorded at was with someone that I met at Berklee, who now owns and runs their own recording studio. And musicians, you know, we’re past friends. So it’s a great network that I continue to have in my life, and we just keep working together.
I live and work in the city for a nonprofit theatre, but I really love to write for myself, but then also for TV, film, commercials, whatever I can get myself into.
Your previous album (Gina’s Picture Show) was six years ago — what brought this one around?
I always use my personal songwriting as my own form of therapy. I had a pretty tough past two years, and I couldn’t get it right in terms of helping myself through therapy with real live humans talking it out, so I needed to go inward and talk myself through it.
I decided to write about the progression of the last two years of my life and make it sort of vague, so that it was not too obvious, but then also relatable, because I’m sure a lot of people go through heartbreak and loss and have similar feelings. So I used the last few months as a time to get everything out that I couldn’t say to the person, and then decided to put it out there and make it live for the whole world to see.
So that’s where the words came from — where did the music come from?
Usually I just write on piano, and I do the lyrics with piano. And this time I used, one of my friends, Corey Sterling, helped me produce it, and it was just a lot of demo recordings to start off. We would just record guitar, bass, fake MIDI Garage Band drums. I got a bunch of songs demoed out, started to share them with friends and coworkers, and it became obvious that I needed to really go for it and make it as professional as I could and then share it.
What sort of music were you listening to that went into it?
Over the past few months, or longer than that, I felt a close connection to female songwriters. So I was listening to a lot of Phoebe Bridgers and Soccer Mommy and other strong female songwriters that I went to school with, Jeni Magana who has a band called Magana and her song “Inches Apart” just, like, wrecks me any time. She’s amazing. She’s brilliant and she’s a close friend and we’ve played music together for almost a decade.
So seeing your friends make it happen for them and then being their cheerleader and their advocate — eventually you’re like, okay, I gotta do this for myself, if I’m serious I gotta try it for myself. It’s a combination of listening to a bunch of them and pulling from a bunch of music influences, but mostly I feel like lately I’ve surrounded myself with female songwriters.
What it really made me think of was ’80s college guitar pop — that looked back to the ’60s but was very ’80s.
Yeah, yeah! A lot of the time when I write, because my parents are filmmakers I often like sort of create whole stories and scenes in my head for each song. So for this one I actually wanted to do Earth, and what the album art and each of the singles is on task to become was individual graphic novel images that tell a tale. The idea of the story is that I’ve been thrown through a black hole and then I’m finding my way back.
When I think of space, or when I think of galaxies or floating around, I hear that eighties influence and I can feel it when I’m looking at the stars. So it all connected to have that throwback vibe of the eighties, to keep it nostalgic, to keep it familiar.
Especially when you’re writing love songs, or heartbreak songs, it’s like, everyone who’s had that feeling, so the more that you can connect with your listener and make it broader, even though it’s so personal, you’re talking about a very specific thing. The sounds that you can influence on each track help me connect to my listener.
Who did the cover?
My friend Shannon Orcutt, who is a graphic designer and artist. She’s doing all five images. The first image, for “Happy People,” is also going to be the cover art.
I don’t know if I’m going to do a full CD, but I’m going to make graphic novel booklets and have a download code on the back. The thing these days is to have some sort of trick with your merch so that it entices people to listen as well as buy. I do like something tangible.
Let’s go through the album. “Happy People”:
That was the first song that I wrote in the series. It’s not actually about being happy, unfortunately. It’s a breakup song, it’s coming to terms with the person that you held in such high regard maybe didn’t hold you in the same high regard. It was a song that I felt like I needed to be my angriest, my meanest, that’s really as harsh as I get. I mean, it’s very harsh, but …
It’s about how when someone breaks your heart, they take everything with them and they basically take away your power to feel, which is where I was for a little while — without feeling, and angry about it.
What went into the music for that? Who can you hear that you were thinking of when you were coming up with the music?
For that one I definitely had a more sixties throwback vibe in my mind. Originally I wanted to have a huge choir at the end, just like singing and tambourines and a lot of layering. And I did as much as I could with my own voice but just didn’t have the funds to gather a whole entourage. But I wanted it to sound with that sort of swung rock vibe for the choruses, and I wanted it to go more ethereal for the bridge, and yeah. Thankfully Corey Sterling, I give broad strokes, I play him my piano and my vocal recordings and then he shapes it into what it became.
What about the instrumentation, did you play most of it?
No, I’m probably the worst guitar player that’s existed, even though I have two guitars at my house. I hired some really talented musicians to perform. I mostly did vocals and piano.
“Midnight,” the single:
“Midnight” was the one that I wanted to explain where I was to everyone around me that was concerned. When I was going through my breakup, it was hard for me to really connect with everyone around me and to be present, and I felt like everyone was worried. I wrote this as a way of telling everyone that I’m here, but I just needed a little space and time, and I’m going to be okay.
I did send it to my parents pretty early on. “Dad, I wrote this song, it may help clear up some things.” But for the most part I kept my friends connected to the whole writing process so that they could give input and see where I was.
That song came from a visual at first. I was really into following the Hubble Twitter feed, and a bunch like the Curiosity Rover, and I was seeing all these amazing images of space and Mars and the depths of the galaxy that you forget are there when you’re living in regular life, and it seemed like such a peaceful place to be.
So I had the piano part written out trying to mirror the chords of what I thought space would sound like. Then I wanted it to be surprising, so for the choruses I threw in an extra measure, so it was four and four, then five and four, just to throw people off. I was trying to explain it to Corey, as I was playing the song for him, and he was like “I don’t think this is going to work”, and I was like, “this is going to work, it’s happening, we’re doing it.”
I wrote this on a plane, flying from Austin, Texas to New York last fall. I was going through taking off, and I get a little flight-nervous, so I was writing in my head and on paper, and then all of a sudden it became an actual song, about what I was leaving behind and then what I was heading back towards. I didn’t want to go back home in the state that I was in, so I wrote this song to figure out a way if I could go back to the start of my journey.
What was really cool with this one was that, during the recording process, I’m not one to add vocal layering, or delays, or effects, but the engineer, Jeff Fettig, was really adamant that we could add texture by layering vocals. So in the second verse there’s all this added texture that wasn’t originally supposed to be there, but I think now it makes the song. And that didn’t happen until we were in the studio. It’s funny the way it evolves.
As the album goes on, I try to eventually take myself into a comfort swing. So the lowest dip was “Way Back,” and then we’re headed up again for this one. It’s reminding yourself that life’s a mystery, you don’t know what’s going to happen, so take account of all the good small things that happen and eventually you’ll be in a good place again.
You say that you write most of the stuff piano and vocal. When do you come up with the tune? Do you get the tune first, or do you come up with some words and then a tune calls itself to you?
This song for me, this is where I knew I wanted to layer in the eighties. So that beginning melody (sings hook), I I had that stuck in my head for a while, and I had this little red Casio piano. It’s really tiny and it plays the worst synth sound, and it plays only two sounds, and I played it on that and it sounded cool. I was just trying to find where it was supposed to go. It’s a hook that I couldn’t get out of my head, and so I had an idea for a song and wrote it around that one element.
“Darling” — you’ve managed to make something that’s generic and touching at the same time, which is sort of the prize of songwriting, really.
Thank you! Again, this is as positive as I get on this album. This is as cheerful and hopeful as you’re going to see me on this EP.
I knew I needed to do some sort of a nod to the way I used to write — I always saw the love in everything and I always was optimistic. I think at the end of the day, I am still that person. So I didn’t want to put out an EP without it.
But it was the last thing I wrote for this EP, and it was just … actually, it started as a journal entry, and then it turned into, I guess it was like a self-help post-it. Like “put your head up on the subway so you can see people’s faces.” From there it grew into a song to myself, but then also to whoever the next person’s going to be that wants to catch my eye and I want to catch theirs.
You do these fabulously compact little songs. “Darling” is like a two-minute-twelve epic.
Thank you so much! I’m very excited about it. And the drummer that played on this, his name’s Harrison Keithline, this is his favourite one. “I love this song, it should be a Tinder commercial!” I was like, okay! Just having other people excited about the track as they’re recording it, it helps tremendously. And then the little small spark of hopefulness all of a sudden became a huge fire as we were recording it, and then I felt more true and honest as I was singing it.
Just last week I was in a Mastercard commercial! It’s a Mastercard-slash-American Airlines “Priceless” thing. They posted it last week. It’s got two million hits so far, so I’m excited. It’s one of my old songs, it’s this song called “Wait” that I wrote for a previous album, Gina’s Picture Show (2012).
One of my friends from LA found out about the commercial in advance and so this company reached out to me and said “we’d like to put your song into a commercial!” which is something I’ve always done, so it didn’t seem like a big deal.
But then they were like “do you want to audition to be in the commercial, we’re going to have a girl sing your song, would you like to be that girl?” and I was like “yes! I would like to be the girl singing my song in a commercial!”
So I went down to The Bitter End, which is a Soho rock venue that’s been around for decades. And I go and there’s cameras set up, because it’s an audition, and I’m playing my song, and then all of a sudden my friend who lives in LA jumps out and surprises me, and then they’re like, “oh, Gina, this is the commercial!” It’s one of those “gotcha!” ads.
A Priceless Surprise brought two friends together again for an unforgettable jam session at The Bitter End, thanks to the @AmericanAir #AAdvantage Mastercard. #MilesMakeMemories pic.twitter.com/jMDyKqQxGL
— Mastercard (@Mastercard) June 8, 2018
The commercial is her surprising me, and “American Alrlines makes memories and Mastercard brings people together and our moment was priceless.” It was a really weird thing, I’ve never been in a commercial before like that. So it was a whole new experience.
You were pranked by a corporation.
I was! It was one of those. It’s weird. It’s me freaking out for a minute. It’s very bizarre.