While it required a lot of resilience for any of us to make it through 2020, Goat Girl were being forced to dig deep long before the pandemic.
At the tailend of 2019, the South London-based quartet were finishing recording ‘On All Fours’, the follow-up to 2018’s self-titled debut, when they were dealt a devastating blow in the news that guitarist/singer Ellie Rose Davies had been diagnosed with stage four lymphatic cancer. All plans were put on hold as Davies returned home to Cornwall for treatment, whereupon COVID arrived in the UK and the world entered its current state of stasis.
“If anything, it’s made our dynamic stronger,” says Davies, now thankfully in remission. “But then that’s the case for so many reasons, not just with the cancer. With a lot of us suffering from depression, everyone’s been struggling in their own way. But I think we’ve all been there for each other, which has strengthened our relationship. We’re a very solid unit.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that ‘On All Fours’ simply wouldn’t exist without that closeness. Where most songs on their debut were written by lead singer Lottie Pendlebury, today she describes this second record as their first truly collaborative collection. “We each had a very equal part to play in making this album and you can hear all four of our personalities coming through, in the melodies, the lyrical content, and all of the elements. So yeah, it feels really good to be promoting it with that knowledge.”
For Holly Mullineaux – who joined in 2019, replacing original bassist Naima Redina-Bock – the writing process gave her an even deeper insight into her bandmates’ talents. “I was still getting to know everyone but I already knew that they were all creative, and it wasn’t a case of them being like, ‘I just play guitar.’ Even so, seeing some of the keyboard playing Rosy [Jones, drums] was doing was quite a surprise. But then everyone in the band continues to surprise and inspire me; it just gets better and better.”
Speaking to three of the four members of Goat Girl today, their mutual respect and affection is clear. Reminiscing about their sessions with Fontaines D.C.-producer and Speedy Wunderground boss Dan Carey, they laugh recalling some of his more unconventional recording methods. A highlight was creating percussive beds by “playing” a selection of random objects in the most unorthodox manner they could imagine.
“I swear at one point Rosy was just whacking a bowl that contained a rubber lizard,” Mullineaux grins. “But then Dan’s very much about capturing the moment and people’s excitement and energy. And that makes the process fun for everyone, and when you’re in a good mood he gets the best out of you.”
‘On All Fours’ absolutely represents the best of Goat Girl. As the synth-led, psych-rock brilliance of lead single ‘Sad Cowboy’ implied, these songs simultaneously represent their most adventurous and accessible work so far. While their debut dealt in barbed blasts of murky post-punk interspersed with more experimental, instrumental interludes, this collection fuses both sides of their sound, and combines more complex arrangements with melodies that linger in your consciousness long after the music stops.
“We’re not afraid to be lavish or indulgent anymore,” says Davies of their sonic evolution. “On the first record, that was sort of almost exactly what we didn’t want to be, but we’ve found a way now to be indulgent in more of an experimental way. And I feel like that’s a confidence thing.”
Mullineaux continues: “I think it’s quite a talent as well to come up with a catchy melody or riff in a song. We’ve got to the point now where we’re not ashamed to be too accessible. It’s about embracing that and using the weird electronic sounds – like Dan’s modular synths – to weird it up to something that’s more to our taste, musically.”
“It’s brave to give in a bit to what people want,” Davies adds. “There can be a tendency with rock music or experimental music to include too much dissonance, or to shy away from the pop-y elements. But if it feels good for you then why are you shying away from it?”
This instinctive approach extends to the album’s lyrics, which find the band digging deeper into the darkness of life in the 2020s, discussing clinical depression (‘Anxiety Feels’), insomnia (the Scabies-inspired ‘They Bite On You’), environmental damage (‘The Crack’), and a specific instance of homophobia Jones was subjected to while on tour (‘P.T.S.Tea’). As befitting a band who once sang, “Build a bonfire, put the Tories on the top,” a fiercely anti-authoritarian streak runs throughout the record, and it’s perhaps at its most satisfying on ‘Pest’, which finds Pendlebury calmly asserting, “And I have no shame when I say step the fuck away.”
The queasy unease that underpins many of these songs is reflected in their choice of album title, which is a phrase lifted from the 1966 novel ‘Giles Goat-Boy’ by US author John Barth. As Pendlebury explains, she particularly liked the ambiguity of the image.
“It feels very submissive, like [the subject is] taking everything that the world is throwing at them, which was very much the experience of us writing. There were so many different struggles and enlightenments and reaffirmations of beliefs, that this whole process felt like us all being on all fours. And I think with that submission comes power in the way that you can change the injustices that you’re feeling around you and actually take control back.”
Goat Girl have literally done just that with ‘On All Fours’, emerging from intense experiences of disorientation, anger and fear utterly uncowed, having transformed them into a vital artistic statement. Though clearly hugely proud of their achievement, Pendlebury is still careful not to dismiss the band’s previous efforts.
“I still really treasure the lyrics from the first album and I still really believe in what they were saying. They have this beautiful angst that I feel like I’ve lost a bit now because I process my emotions differently. I think it’s just about developing as a person and extending on those opinions. And I think that comes through reading and educating and experiencing new things.”
The world that ‘On All Fours’ is being released into is certainly no less stressful than the one it was written in, more than a year ago. With that in mind, we wonder where their hope lies for the future? Pendlebury replies in a flash.
“I’m hopeful for people being more aware of everything that’s going on. I feel like everyone’s had a lot of time to live within the news and discover how corrupt our Government is, not supporting the most vulnerable through all of this, and with everything that was happening with police suppressing the Black Lives Matter protests. Once all this is over people can be more solidified in those ideas and become more of a unit in society. Because I think almost the strongest thing you can do politically right now is know your neighbours; know everyone in your community.”
‘On All Fours’ is out now. Listen to the album with a track-by-track commentary from Lottie Pendelbury, in our exclusive podcast.