Claire Birchall’s continuing evolution as a songwriter and performer plus her commitment to DIY and sincerity over irony make her one of the most compelling and long-standing members of the Melbourne music community. From stunningly raw confessions to big-time rock to pop songs lavished with fuzzed out guitar, Casio drums and loops, Claire continues to find new ways to present her material to audiences around town. Her upcoming release, the single ‘All That Matters (it’s Christmas time)’, is the first under the guise of Claire Birchall & the Phantom Hitchhikers and will be released on Birchall’s own Night Owl Records this December.
Claire’s first exposure came after her 4-track recorded acoustic based solo album This Gallery of Mine (1999) was released and gained traction with local audiences around Geelong and the Surf Coast. She capitalised on this in 2001 with the release of ‘Captain Captain’ which became a community radio favourite in Melbourne, scoring a spot in Triple R’s Soundscape Top 10 album chart. It’s intricately layered instrumentation and sweet vocal harmonies captured widespread interest and a host of fans. ‘Gallery’ and ‘Captain’ were re-packaged and released as a double album in 2013.
In a departure from the low-key, intimate nature of the first two records, Claire formed a new band, Paper Planes, and moved towards a more full-tilt rock sound. The band retained the pop sensibility intrinsic to Claire’s other work, but took things to a new sonic level, and hinted at further exploration to come. The bands’ successes included the critically acclaimed 2008 self-titled debut album (“Words fail me. Perfect.” – Mess & Noise), popular 7” single ‘Do It For The Kids’ (2007 Best Unbeaten Brother Records), and a number of high profile support shows, from Catpower to Band of Horses, Magic Dirt and Ed Kuepper.
Despite the success of Paper Planes, the band would eventually wind down in 2010 and Claire would return to her roots in cassette 4-track recording and DIY, taking the lessons she had learned with her. The result was the album ‘PP’, “an extraordinary mélange of basic beats, distorted keyboard and guitar, and pop songs of exceptional resilience” (Mess and Noise), with the album a “serious contender for the best of 2012” (Lorraine Crescent). The lead single from ‘PP’, a cover of The Bangles hit ‘Manic Monday’, was a Triple R Breakfasters staple for many weeks. While the album was completely DIY, down to the artwork, for live performance Claire assembled a band which included a vintage drum machine, her sister Bec, also from Paper Planes, and Pete Azzopardi, a bandmate of Claire’s in country-rock band The Happy Lonesome since 2002. After a year, Claire paused to reissue her first two albums, and assembled a new band which included Matt Green (The Happy Lonesome) on harmonica. After this brief reminiscence, it was back to writing more new material.
With her love for home-recording rekindled after PP, Claire immediately began work on the follow up, a two-year process that would culminate with the 2015 album, Electricity. While it retains the DIY aesthetic found on PP, Electricity has a more expansive quality, the heavy amount of tracking creating a wall of sound around the songs. The combination of the recording style with a songwriting style that draws from Country, Indie, Pop and Soul resulted in one of the most original records of the year. After the recording was finished, Claire needed to get a band together to play a few shows to launch the record and she called on sister Bec (guitar/keyboards/vocals), Pete Azzopardi (bass/vocals) and Matt Green (harmonica) to help her out. Joining them on drums was Jarrod Brown from Azzopardi’s pop group, The Coves.
The band set about learning songs from Electricity and Claire’s back catalogue and found an immediate chemistry, with the laid-back environment enabling them to interpret the original songs and make them their own. What started as a temporary measure to help Claire launch her new album quickly began to feel like something more permanent and the band was given the name Claire Birchall & the Phantom Hitchhikers. The band set about earning a reputation as a versatile, loud, and must-see experience, bringing to life the thick sounds of Electricity with the energy and passion that only a group of true-believers can bring. They quickly became a unit. Most importantly the band spotlights Claire’s ability to write sonically ambitious and interesting songs that retain a familiar pop heart.
The chemistry between the band became a highlight and it was decided that this had to be tapped and put down on record. As the band scraped together the time to learn new material, the new record started to take shape and they eventually went in to Dan Sullivan’s Collingwood studio to record some songs which mark the beginnings of Claire’s next full-length album (to be released sometime in 2017), the first under the new moniker Claire Birchall & the Phantom Hitchhikers. The band also recorded their upcoming single, ‘All That Matters (It’s Christmas Time)’, suburban pop gem, which will be launched at The Tote in December 2016. After two-and-a-half years together, Claire Birchall & the Phantom Hitchhikers are finally putting themselves on record and marking the latest stage in one of Melbourne’s very best in Claire Birchall.
BIO: The Happy Lonesome formed in Geelong in the late 90's when singer/songwriter/guitar/harmonica playing Matt Green decided to put a band together. What started as a duo soon expanded to a 5 piece band. Over the years there have been many many different incarnations of the The Happy Lonesome. One thing that remains is their country rockin' ways.
DISCOGRAPHY: 'Home Recordings '98-2001' - CDr Album (2001) 'First Miles of an Old Trail' - CDr EP (2003) 'The Happy Lonesome EP' - CD EP (2006) The Happy Lonesome 'Don't Wanna Get Blue' / Stutz 'Troubadours' - Split 7" single (2008)
BAND MEMBERS: Matthew Green Claire Birchall Craig Davis Pete Azzopardi Brad Young Jarrod Quarrell David Ryan Matt Avent Mark Brant Simon Hoye Paul Rawlinson
BIO: The Coves finally formed in 2009, after ten years maturing the talents and experiences of its three founding members; 18 if you count the time between Pete Azzopardi (guitar/vocals) and Jarrod Brown (drums/Ricky Gervais impressions) meeting at an inter-primary school camp in 1990 and finally “getting it together”. The bond was sealed back then with the latter handing over his Led Zeppelin t-shirt as a parting gift to Pete after days spent talking up their mutual love of John Lennon and boasting how fast the other could transition between the C, D and G chords on guitar. They reunited years later at a Geelong high school, with friend Aidan Windle, as The Hollows, the moniker Pete and Aidan took when writing and recording 10 songs for a little-heard but well-loved four-track cassette album of earnest and whimsically-catchy pop songs.
Pete, Aidan and Jarrod day-dreamed and dollied about that glorious, fearful summer when high school ends and the big world lay at your feet, rehearsing Hollows songs (Jarrod taking up the drums after failing to crack that all-import E chord on the stringed instrument). But the gig never happened, and uni, early fatherhood, tedious customer service jobs (and equally tedious office jobs), Bendigo, etcetera, swept them apart. At the occasional party enthusiasms would be renewed, and the musical muscle remained rigidly flexed with Pete playing lead-guitar for Geelong country-rockers, The Happy Lonesome (and keys and drums in the short-lived confectionary pop of Beds in Zero Weather and Windsor Royale), and Jarrod perfecting his beats behind the kit in River Snake, The High Heels and Sherpa Sherpa. Aidan taught at a high school but always kept a ukulele handy.
In 2007, Pete recorded an album at home, and in time was writing songs on a regular basis. Feeling compelled to bring them to a wider audience, rehearsals began in earnest (as Aidan and Pete have never known to be anything but) mid-2009. Their first EP 4 Songs—a set of folk-rock tinged pop songs with a hue of J Mascis—was recorded and released independently before their first show that November, supporting Wagons in Geelong. The one Hollows’ song they revived for the debut, the closing number, managed to cause a black-out in the Geelong-CBD and the rest of the show was cancelled. It could not have been a more auspicious start for the band.
Typically, more shows and more songs followed, supporting the likes of the Jezabels, Diana Anaid, and Gun Street Girls, and playing several Melbourne pubs and lawn-bowls greens. October 2010 saw the download-only release of Rocket Pocket: 6 sweepingly varied jangle-pop songs recorded on a shoestring and funnelled to your wireless-port with the glee of an underwear thief.
April 2011 saw them paying-up in Preston’s Head Gap studios for that “big drum sound”, where they recorded two like-minded and downhearted folk-rock gems in “Fool For Love” and “You Created A Monster”. Paper Planes’s Claire Birchall played electric mandolin on the latter song, and Daniel Hall, former band-member of Jarrod’s in High Heals and Sherpa Sherpa, applied his Farfisa organ and his oft-cited “guns” to both numbers. This was followed up in 2012 with the ep Summon Your Dead, a six-track hymn to love, loss, nervousness and anything else that could fit in to three and-a-half minutes of Power Pop glory.
Work has tentatively begun on the band's debut long-player, with loads of songs to choose from, and loads of work still to do. Let us pray that it will be worth it.
BIO: The seed of what was to become Paper Planes sprouted back in 1998 for the express purpose of showcasing singer/guitarist Claire Birchall’s 4-track recordings in a live setting. By mid 2001, the name Paper Planes was first used, and with a settled four-piece line-up, and an edgier, tougher sound, Paper Planes began playing regular headline gigs as well as supporting a range of established local and international bands., from Ed Kuepper to Magic Dirt, to Catpower and Band of Horses.
After several years of focusing on developing their live performance and sound, the band entered Birdland Studios to record “You’re a Winner” and “Do it for the kids”. Along with Claire on guitar and vocals, the band featured sister Rebecca Birchall on keyboard, guitar and backing vocals, Adam Pacula on drums and Mark Brant on bass. The songs were released in 2007 by Norwegian label Best Unbeaten Brother as a 7” white vinyl single, and received airplay on 3RRR, PBS, Triple J, and several European radio stations. In response to the single, Nic Dalton from Half A Cow Records stated: "Classic songs, inspired lyrics. Paper Planes could easily be one of the major-players in Australia. They ROCK!"
Following the successful launch of the single, Paper Planes returned to Birdland, this time with bass player Adam Doherty, to record the rest of the songs for their debut self-titled album. Released in July 2008 through local independent label Night Owl Records, the response from fans and the wider industry was overwhelmingly positive to say the least, with Mess+Noise magazines review stating it was an “extraordinarily textured, accomplished and sumptuous rock album”, and finishing with the astonishing quote “Words fail me. Perfect.”
Paper Planes again returned to Birdland in 2009, with new bass player Brad Young, to record “Golden Sounds” and ”Safe and Sound”. Night Owl Records released the songs as a 7” single at the end of the year. Head-nodding old school indie rock soaked in sunshine, with just enough shade to keep the pop-police at bay, the single was another sonic step forward for the band. The Planes continued their steady run of rocking shows, and a music video for “Golden Sounds” scored some airtime on ABC TV’s ‘Rage’.
The following year, after a decade of gigging and recording, the Planes sadly disbanded. Claire again returned to solo projects, and is currently fronting a new outfit, Claire Birchall & The Phantom Hitchhikers. With all of the members of the Planes unwilling to call the band ‘done and dusted’, someday, we may still see a Paper Planes reunion. We just don’t know when…