Grace Stevenson and I meet up to talk about her industrial dance project Rebel Yell in a yuppie West End café. She’s on her way to the city to buy her boyfriend, Sean, a pressure cooker for his birthday; “he says he really wants to make like, heaps of beans”, she laughs.
We do the, ‘haven’t seen each other in ages’ thing. Grace is studying to become a teacher, I work full time. Neither of us go to shows that much anymore. We both struggle with it; me trying to keep a tenuous grasp on what’s happening in a scene that can seem both suffocatingly small and impossibly disparate. Grace because it’s not always a kind city to local musicians who have bigger aspirations. “There’s this idea that you have to go to shows to get people to come to your shows”, she says. “I just don’t have the time or money! I go to my own shows cuz I get free entry and free drinks while I’m there. That’s a big part of it”.
Putting Rebel Yell in the context of Australian music, you can see aesthetic cues to Habits, Various Asses, GL. Although all of these bands have more of a pop/RnB vibe, where Rebel Yell lives more in the warehouse, the underground, than the club. Or she would, if there were any actual warehouses in Brisbane.
“Obviously there’s places that have good sound systems”, Grace says. “But there’s nowhere that’s literally underground and good for club nights. Well, there’s TBC club [a semi-underground club space mostly populated by jacked tight t-shirt dudes and college kids]. I would never feel comfortable somewhere like that though. What I’ve been working on with Uda [Widanapathirana, Grace’s booker] is trying to play clubs and not like, ‘gigs’. Brisbane’s really into the mixed bill, but now I’m realising I actually don’t like it. I always have to play first and they’ll just stand still and stare at me. Who’s having fun there?”
“I could be completely going mad, but I think some people don’t like me because I try, and I have ambition. I never want music to be my career, it’s just a hobby. But I do want to try and keep things moving and always try new things. I just hope people don’t think I’m trying to be really famous”.
Now look at these photos Grace did with local stylist Rosepure, and try and imagine that girl giving a fuck about anyone thinking if she’s trying to be famous or not. It’s pure style. Her image as Rebel Yell is carefully calculated grime. Powerful and cool with nods to low-culture. Like Mad Max: Sunshine Coast. The kind of shit that goes off down south but we still don’t really know how to deal with. Artists with sound and vision.
This all might sound a bit negative. Like another couple of wankers whining about a scene we’re not really doing a lot to change. But the hard part is living in Brisbane rules. There’s the weather, the cheap housing, the fact that everyone’s only completely munted some of the time, not constantly. And If I’m not feeling too anxious and I’ve got $20 for drinks, I could go to a party every weekend and have a great time. There’s plenty of great bands here. Some of the punk music is a little too serious, but then there’s Cannon. The greatest band in the world that no one’s heard. And Scraps, and 100%, and Clever, and Sydney 2000.
But it’s our comfort that keeps us safe and shortsighted. To the next gig, the next weekend, the next tape release. And year after year, people move to Melbourne because they feel suffocated by the coziness. Because they want to do something new. Like the way Grace wants to do her new EP, completely bypassing the usual audio formats.
“I’m gonna release just a DVD and have videos for every song, launch it in art gallery spaces as more of a ‘viewing’ kind of thing. The visual is just as important to me. I wouldn’t put my music on just to listen to it. I’m gonna get some Melbourne people to do some videos, and get Rosepure to do one and I might do one… or just half of one and edit it. I’ll do the launch in Sydney, because if I did it in Brisbane no one would come. Sydney is the most supportive state for me. The Brisbane art scene is really supportive and there’s heaps of good people. But it’s a lot of painting and sculpture, not video. And I’m just not in it”.
This kind of straight-talking practicality is typical of Grace. Later she admits that she feels guilty when interstate artists ask her to open their shows because she doesn’t feel like she’s much of a draw in Brisbane; “Sometimes even Sean is like ‘nah babe, I’m gonna skip this one'”.
But hers is a strategy that’s become popular for many. Live in Brisbane for the lower costs, the lower social stresses, but focus your energies on reaching audiences further afield. “I hate it when people move to Melbourne, how is the scene ever gonna change?” she says. “And Brisbane’s good because you can work and study, and you can find all these things to do if you want. Whenever I go into the city there’s like five people I know and I love that. If you go to Melbourne you’re just gonna be surrounded by people who are doing the same thing. You only make it if you’re really really good or you kill yourself working hard. I just want to go on holidays and tour there. A lot of people in Melbourne don’t seem very happy. There’s a lot of politics and I couldn’t deal with that”
So how do you balance trying to live a relatively comfortable life while still making artisic content you’re proud of? You adjust your expectations. You look to other avenues, you stay open minded, and you work with other people doing the same thing.
“I think living here definitely lead to my interest in collaborating”, Grace says. “Because I’m not getting everything I need from playing shows. So working with people on fashion and design compliments that. Also just musically I love working with other artists. Gussy, Habits and Pillow Pro are all on the next EP, which is so cool. No one’s making any money off anything, so why not help each other make cool stuff? I’m extremely anti-competition. I think it’s weird when people get funny about other people doing the same thing as them. If I started something that made people want to do a similar thing I’d think that was sick. I wouldn’t think anyone was taking anything from me. It’s Australian underground music, the stakes are very low”.
Then there’s that collaboration with Rosepure. The beautiful photos which came about because Grace followed them on Instagram. She reached out and they were into the vibe of Rebel Yell as a persona and styled the whole shoot around it. “They just got it immediately”, Grace says, “In real life I wear pastel pink every day, but with Rebel Yell I get to pretend to be someone totally different”. That willingness to go DIY feels very Brisbane. Rosepure is an independent photographer/stylist who work with people for fun. It’s not their job. They saw Brisbane had a gap of cool-looking shit and decided to fill it. From an outside perspective it seems like those gaps just don’t exist in Melbourne.
The way Grace talks about never making money from music, her plans to become a teacher and buy a house on the Sunshine Coast where she grew up, slow cookers and movie nights, while in the same breath dreaming about DJing in Japan when she and Sean go next year, or how she’s always wanted to work with Grimes, kind of captures an idea that’s been in the pop culture air for a while. You can make good art without killing yourself. You can make good art and have a day job. Supporting yourself financially off your art isn’t the ultimate indication of success. In fact, it can often turn the thing you love into something toxic.
“It’s just not realistic for me to ever make a living out of music”, she continues. “If I’m living in Australia there’s only so many times I can play in a month in different cities. And I’m never gonna tour overseas in the hope of magically making it just to lose a bunch of money. The romantic idea of the starving artist has never been romantic for me. I need food, my cats need food, and that’s ok. There’s plenty of other things to do”.