Interview: Odette on Herald, Borderline Personality Disorder and insects

Odette‘s 2017 debut album To A Stranger earned her national recognition with ARIA nominations for Best Adult Contemporary Album and Breakthrough Artist. Not to mention gold certifications across two singles. Following up its success was bound to be a daunting task, but the 23-year-old’s second album Herald is a superb body of work tackling mental battles, relationship rebuilding and self-discovery.

Thematics aside, her musicality is unparalleled. Odette is very much in a genre by herself, with spoken word and gutsy vocals on top a scintillating yet full-bodied production grounded in piano and peppered with a palette of sonic surprises. She weaves through magpies recorded on her phone at the dead of night, tiny insects and gravel, as well as an array of woodwinds and brass with electronic elements. She also has the ability to make you crumple inwards while also wanting to thrash around on a crowded dance floor – again, unparalleled.

I caught up with her for a lengthy and refreshingly candid conversation that has become one of my favourites. Here, Odette talks openly about her recent diagnosis with Borderline Personality Disorder, her relationship with her parents, learning to accept her shortcomings and the creation of Herald.

Find this important conversation in full below:

Odette, how are you?

Very busy and excited. I’m so ready for this album to be out.

I was going to ask how you feel about the release. To A Stranger was such a big album for you.

Yeah, it was. It was received pretty well. I’m nervous for this to come out actually. I feel like it’s going to be different and a bit more intense to the first record.

Herald, itself, is a sign that something’s about to happen, so that says something in of itself. There’s big things on your horizon, Odette.

Wow, you sound like my fortune cookie!

Or your therapist.

Either way, it’s welcome.

Hell yeah! Talk to me about choosing “Herald” as the title track, because that wasn’t originally the plan, was it?

No, originally it was going to be called Dwell, after the song “Dwell”. But I don’t know, the last year of pushing things back and taking some more time, I actually grew up a lot. And I felt like I needed to change it, because my head space had changed, and I didn’t want to be ruminating on toxic behaviours. And I wanted to send a better message out there.

I feel like this album, cohesively, it is a turning point for you because, To A Stranger, addressed a super toxic relationship period in your life, whereas this one is almost the response, particularly when you listen to, “I Miss You I’m Sorry” and “Herald”.

It’s about a toxic relationship. But, it was like I needed to think about that, so I could figure out my own flaws. So, essentially the whole album [Herald] was written during a period of just being super unwell.

And then, after having some time to plan around the visuals, and we were playing with production a little bit. Pip [Norman] and I started working on “Dwell”, as well. It just changed for me. The meaning of the album changed and it became more about accountability and trying to be responsible, then beautifying my own pain. But, also drawing attention to the fact that that was very much where I was. So, I can’t lie. That’s the mindset that I was in, but just trying to be a bit more responsible.

You’ve been pretty vocal about mental health on social media. Talk to me about your journey with Borderline Personality Disorder [BPD].

I only got diagnosed last year. So this I started writing before I was diagnosed and also while I was having a really difficult period of… I didn’t what was going on, essentially. So, I was like a hurricane, like a tornado of just lashing out and being horrible and vile. And I didn’t even know what was going on. I was like: “What is happening?”

Eventually I had to come to terms with the fact that A) I had BPD; and B) it doesn’t change that I hurt my loved ones. And that’s another cool part of this album. Even, “I Miss You I’m Sorry”, and “Amends”, it’s about things within myself, but it’s also about me trying to take responsibility for the hurt that I inflicted on other people, instead of just pushing it all onto them.

That’s a hard thing to come to terms with. And isn’t it typically a disorder that goes undiagnosed? I feel like a lot of people who would be like, “I just feel erratic, but that’s just who I am as a human. So it’s not a thing.” What was the point where you thought, “I need to talk to someone about this. I need to figure out if this is actually something that I need to get diagnosed”?

I’ve been seeing therapists since I was a kid and my parents always sussed that something was going on. But, they weren’t necessarily the most clued-up people. So, it was just more so a case of me, figuring things out very much on my own. I moved out on my own, when I was eighteen. So, it was weird. I didn’t really have any clarity. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about what was happening, except for these therapists, and they were only getting a small part. So, I only got diagnosed last year, but really I should have been diagnosed when I was sixteen, or fifteen.

It’s not just about therapists, because they can only really observe what you let them observe. And the thing about BPD is that it’s so complex. It’s regarded as a complex mental health disorder. And the reason that it’s called that, is because there are so many different ways that it can manifest in a person. It’s not just one thing. Everyone’s experience can be completely different. There are nine symptoms that you have to display to be diagnosed, and I have every single one, hell yeah. But also, people will have aspects of other disorders as well, which is why it’s so hard for people to even get a diagnosis.

I think you bringing in into the public conversation is really important then, for people who might be thinking that they display some of those symptoms. It’s something that definitely, prior to you talking about it, it’s something I never really heard in the public sphere. Typically mental health is associated with anxiety and depression, but never something like this.

I feel like people are used to mental illness being quite passive, and you withdraw. And sometimes it’s the exact opposite. Sometimes you become aggressive, you become volatile, you become difficult to be around. And these are all things that we don’t talk about, because they’re scary. And they are scary. It’s scary for people involved and it’s scary for the individual, but it’s definitely something that should be talked about more.

Yeah, because they’re not exactly pretty traits that people want to glamorise the way that social media does.

Exactly. You can’t really make freaking out and screaming sexy, you know? You hear Lana Del Rey being like, (singing) “I just kicked the wall,” you know?

Yeah! I wanted to ask about “Trial by Fire” because there’s a lot of really heavy imagery. Is that in any way related to your mental health? You talk about another person and when I was listening to it, I was curious whether that’s a significant other, your family, or whether it was inner demons.

I’m comfortable talking about who these songs are about. Because everyone who I’ve written a song about, on this record knows, and I’ve shown it to them, and we’ve talked about it. So, I don’t want to shock them into it, that’d be awful.

But that’s about my mother. That’s about my mum, who I grew up with. She has her own issues, like me, but worse, because she’s older and they didn’t have access to the education back then. So, it wasn’t ideal. But I have a lot of repressed rage from it. I have a lot of friends actually who’ve had similar experiences. And when I showed them that song, they were like, “Dude, what is it about certain mums?”

I don’t know, some mums are great and some people don’t get it. And they’re like, “You shouldn’t talk your mum like this.” But then some people who’ve experienced a toxic parent are just like, “Yes, this is exactly what happened. And like, “Fuck, this is so it.” So, yeah, I had a lot of anger and you can tell I’m angry if I put a lot of words into a song and this is one of those.

Even that, in itself, is a huge revelation, because as a child you’re always thinking, “Whatever my parents do is excellent.” They’re the epitome, you just idolise them. And then to come to a point where you’re like, “My parents aren’t perfect.” That’s something that a lot of children go through and that’s something that’s scary, it’s humanising.

Plus, especially if you’ve experienced trauma with a parent, you aren’t built in with… Humans don’t have a mechanism in their brain that can recognise a primary caregiver as a threat. So, we don’t have the ability to do that. So essentially, we’re fucked. Hopefully one day, our future generations can sort that out.

It’s so primal. I think sometimes, the strongest hate is born out of love. When someone you love does something bad, it’s because you just have such a high expectation of them that it really lets you down.

Exactly. And I’ve definitely let people down. I think I’ve actually gained a lot of empathy for people, like my parents, during this time. Not a lot, but a decent amount. I think. Empathy is important moving forward.

And I think, the culture and society that we live in at the moment is so black and white. Which is what reminds me so much of BPD, because that’s a huge symptom, is just thinking of things in extremes. We’re quick to vilify people for making mistakes and doing bad things when everyone does it. And it just gets to a point where it’s like, “Let’s just stop being hypocrites and just go to therapy, come on.”

You all go to the gym and exercise your body, why don’t you go to therapy and exercise your brain? It’s just prioritising mental health, doing your research, taking care of yourself and what you’re projecting.

Talk to me about “Why Can’t I Let the Sun Set?”.

The song was written towards the end… I don’t know. My whole life has been between being sick and then moments of clarity, and then being sick, and then moments of clarity.

So this was written during a moment where I was like, “God, I’m sick and tired of this cycle of emotions and it just doesn’t stop.” And I was really frustrated, but I was also really sad. That song was about all the progress that I had been making with my therapy and with my loved ones, and communication, and boundaries. And then all of it turning to shit, the moment I would have an episode.

It would just frustrate me, because it would feel like I would do all this work and then I would throw it all in the bin. Then I’d have to start again. And yeah, so that’s what that song is about. It’s about a frustration, feeling turbulent and stagnant at the same time.

Even the sun is such great imagery for that, because the sun comes up, but then it goes down, and then it comes up and then it goes down… It’s always very cyclical. Is there one song on the album that you’re most nervous for people to hear about?

Maybe “Herald” just because that was the angriest one. And that’s why it starts the album. When you listen to the lyrics, it’s so, actually almost toxic, and the song itself bangs, fucking banger! I love it, because it’s got this balance of this is this toxic mindset, but also there’s this undercurrent of, “Hey. Actually, no. Wait. I don’t want to think like this.”

And it’s so subtle throughout the whole record, these moments of when I get consumed with emotion, there are these little bug noises, or these little moments where it’s like, “Hey, remember that time that you liked something and life was good? Just change your focus.” But yeah, I love “Herald”. It sums up everything, wanting to bring on something new, but not knowing how to.

Tell me about the soundscape throughout this album because you’ve got a lot more experimental additions. In “Amends”, you start off with some magpies, and as you said, you’ve got bugs – was that something that you really thought to bring in? Or was that Damian [Taylor]’s brainchild?

That was definitely me. Damian is the best, because he’s the tech wizard that accompanies me through all these sonic explanations and he just gets it. But no, definitely the bugs and insects and all the birds were my idea, because it’s a grounding thing and a lot of textures.

The live instruments: there’s accordion, there’s clarinet, there’s saxophone. It’s all a means to realign myself with the present moment, because, look, all of the lyrics are fricking intense. It’s really all-consuming and I didn’t want it to just be bad, bad, bad, all the time, bad.

I wanted it to be like, this is where she’s at, but there is an entire universe around it that has nothing to do with that. Insects don’t fricking know I’m having a breakdown, they’re going off and doing their thing. They’re just chilling and getting some pollen.

That’s almost a touch like the word sonder, where you realise everyone’s life as equally as complex as your own. And you’re like, “Wow, my problems are minuscule in comparison to these people over here. And that hurts a little bit, but it’s refreshing.”

Pain is subjective. You might be experiencing the most pain you’ve ever felt in your life, and it could be minuscule compared to someone who’s experienced something extreme. And that shouldn’t mean that it’s a minuscule thing. Do you know what I mean?

Pain demands to be felt and it’s still relevant to yourself.

Exactly. This whole record is that. It’s just about processing intense emotions and eventually reaching a place where you can use nature and you can use your actual immediate surroundings as grounding techniques, as mindfulness. And then, just honestly, I’m so ready for the next project. I’m going to be singing these songs for two years, I was like two years, but I’m so ready.

I never want to fucking go back to where I was when I wrote “Herald”, ever, ever, ever again. What a crap time.

Do you transport yourself back when you perform your songs live, or are you dissociated with those initial feelings?

Yeah, dissociated. I mean, sometimes there are some lyrics that I can’t… I actually had to leave a song off this album because it was too painful. It was a song that I wrote for my old, best friend and our friendship ended because of my subsequent mental health issues. So, I had to leave that album off the record, because I was like, there’s no way in hell I can perform that. But maybe I’ll release it one day. It’s a pretty good song. So, we’ll see.

I’ll keep an ear out. At the end of the day, you’re just super fortuitous that you have this platform to be able to diarise and work through all these feelings, and then be able to share it with other people who are going through something similar, or at least need something to listen to and thrash it out. What’s on the horizon? Have you started the next body of work then?

Honestly? Yeah. I have. Herald was great, but it’s not really where I’m at right now. It’s more so, a time capsule. I feel like performing it, though, I’m so looking forward to doing that. It’s just going to solidify the catharsis of it all and how important it is to say things out loud and not just keep thinking them in your head. But yes, I’m looking forward to writing more works that are less introspective. Well, they’ll always be introspective, to a degree, but less, I don’t know, all-consuming, I feel.

I think music is just a selfish art form, at the crux of it. But that’s not villainous.

I’m like, is this narcissistic? I’m like, it is. This so is. This whole thing is narcissistic. But, at the same time, if I didn’t do it, I would go crazy.

It’s therapy though! Odette, thank you so much for chatting with me and I hope you’re doing well.

Thanks, I really am.

Herald is out February 5th, 2021. Pre-order your copy HERE! Stay up to date with Odette on her website, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Main image credit: Giulia Giannini McGauran

Tait McGregor