Writing and Photographs by Erandhi Mendis
Every so often an album lands in my inbox that absolutely floors me. From beginning to end I sat quietly in my house and with somewhat of a furrowed brow, thought – how on earth is this a debut record?
Charlotte Gemmill grew up learning to harmonise during car rides to and from boarding school. This past fortnight, her artist project Eliott released Just Calling To Tell You I’m OK, a collection of immersive soul-baring songs that signify a musician firmly on the rise.
We meet in a Collingwood cafe, a few streets away from the studio where she recorded most of her album. The suburb is renowned for the eclectic mix of nineteenth century residential and industrial crossover – and now a thriving creative hub. It’s a place that now obviously holds immense meaning for her music, but within minutes of meeting, Gemmill is quick to harken back to her roots.
“I think a part of me will always be a country girl,” she laughs. “I always talk about it with my friends, that if I have kids, I’d take them back home because I just remember being young and riding around on bikes – just being part of the community there.”
Gemmill’s connection to place and the way in which she carefully describes her upbringing is woven into the comforting nostalgia of the record. Most artists graduate to doing regional tours after they’ve hit the big cities, so it is telling that the first stop for Gemmill performing her new music is actually a pub she used to play in as a teenager.
“I used to play that pub when I was 14/15 for years. It’s kind of a full circle moment going back and playing the record,” she pauses to smile – “but probably to the same people.”
The album itself has been a journey. Some of the songs began when Gemmill was 22, but the reality of being an album artist didn’t set in until a fateful trip to Paris.
“Paris just felt like I was walking through a painting – it was also the first time I had been alone for a very long time and I fell in love with music again because there was no one telling me you need to go and write these songs. That trip made me put my foot down and say I want to create something that someone can sit through and listen to from start to finish.”
In the age of Spotify playlists and big singles that dominate commercial radio, the desire to rebuke any notion of pandering to EPs or a TikTok soundbite is a radical determination that tells me everything I need to know about Gemmill – an artist that will not compromise despite the difficult climate.
“I used to have so much self-doubt, particularly when I was studying and being surrounded by all these people who had been doing [music] for years while I was trying to find my own voice. The trip to Paris came at the perfect time – and probably 5 of the songs we made over there ended up on the album.”
But some of the songs lived more convoluted lives – the hauntingly beautiful collaboration Happy On My Own was something that she had written years prior – and didn’t know what to do with.
“It was one of those songs that was always just sitting there – but I knew it had to have a place in the world. And then me and Gab [Strum] were tossing up what to do with it and he mentioned the idea of a duet. I hadn’t even met Tim who is Vancouver Sleep Clinic and it was lockdown. So we sent him the track and within two days we had a vocal back – as soon as we heard his version we were like, yep, that’s the one.
“Honestly, by the end of it I’m now like, I don’t need a therapist – I’ve done the album,” she laughs. “A lot of this album I was kind of writing in real time and experiencing these things as they were happening. Some of it was subconscious writing, like Control for instance was written while I was overseas with Jack [Grace] and I was still in this relationship that wasn’t serving me. But I remember getting back from that trip and I think I showed his mum and her reaction was sort of ‘is that about?’ – and me then realising that I needed to leave that relationship.”
It feels like the most relatable story – to know you have to go long before you actually move. And for artists, while tapping into conscious emotional experiences can create art, the power of the subconscious is often credited with levels of creativity that exists beyond our rational mind.
“Stuff for me would always come out in the things I was writing. I knew deep down that I had to make these choices, but it wasn’t until that trip that I realised what I was saying.”
One of my favourite lines on the album is coincidentally on Control – when Gemmill croons “I’m alone now – but I’m healing.” In barely a handful of words, it summarises a build of inordinate pressure and the freedom that comes with quiet.
“Again, it’s so funny, I wrote that while I was still in [that] relationship, but it was finished after we broke up. That line is kind of the crux of the album – I needed to work things out on my own to heal. I never wanted this album to be just about heartbreak and I think when I’m telling these stories it’s more about who I’m becoming afterwards, not even necessarily just romantic relationships. I was just learning about self-discovery.”
The voyage of learning oneself shines through when listening from front to back. Gemmill’s talent for storytelling traverses you through her chronology of pain, heartache and the all important rebuilding. The album name, a sensitive call back to those who have sat next to her on her journey.
“The first track, only 25, has that [album title] lyric in it and I was just going through quite a dark time in my life. My family and friends were really worried about me and I think finishing on Just Fine as well, the record is almost a note to my family and friends, especially my mum that I am “just calling to tell you I’m okay.” I think after everything I went through that was something I really wanted to say.”
While Gemmill is candid about her challenges, she is also self assured in the work she has created. She should be, the album is a triumph – aside from the idyllic lo-fi sonic world and masterclass in songwriting, it is Gemmill’s vocals that truly sets her apart. Stunning arrangements and gospel-esque harmonies provide perfect footing for a soaring performance that I’m confident will only continue to get better with age. The record concludes by combining the heartfelt with the epic, an anthemic build of apologies that reinforces the odyssey of Eliott: a multifaceted heroine from Cobram who is unafraid to let you in.