Three songs into Teartracks, the effervescent new record from pop prodigy Banoffee, there’s a moment of deeply vulnerable, despairing honesty: “I’ll never get to f*ck anyone / The way I know how to, with you.” And then, as if in an attempt to shake off her blues, the beat kicks in. The interplay between high and low emotion on “Never Get To F*ck Any1” — the choice to pair bad times with bass drops — is a bit of a calling card for the Australian artist. Banoffee, born Martha Brown, has spent a half-decade in the music industry carving out a space in pop music that is both confessional and captivating.
First, her adventures in avant-pop took her to the legendary late hyperpop pioneer SOPHIE, then to an international Taylor Swift tour as a backup singer for Charli XCX. Brown has the Swiftian instinct for spinning individual anger into collective pop catharsis. Her 2020 full-length debut, Look At Us Now, Dad, turned the private details of her life — being stranded at a Chevron, struggling with malaria and subsequent fibromyalgia, searching for meaning after a breakup — into glistening, crystalline electronic pop. On her 2021 follow-up, she leans into her unflinching honesty, pushing her sound further into the digital diva ballads she hinted at in her first record.
It can be a bit of a risk to release an album without an over-the-top, all-out club banger, which is notably absent from the careful melodies of Teartracks. But as Brown, speaking over the phone from Melbourne, describes it, there wasn’t really a more marketable option: “I just had to be honest with myself, and not make it about if I’m going to make money, but as more of an emotional release.” She knows that outside of breakup scenes in sad movies, there isn’t a huge selling point for the mass marketing of her heartbreak; she sees the record as better suited for far more intimate settings: “I think that a lot of these songs are about having a cry in your car,” she says. “I love a lot of the crazy-sounding music that’s coming into the pop world. But this record wasn’t that.”
In many ways, the record in question was shaped by Brown’s physical surroundings: After spending the past few years in Los Angeles, studio-hopping, she returned to her home in Melbourne when the first pandemic restrictions took hold in early March 2020. The decision wasn’t so much a choice, as a necessary step taken for her own self-preservation. In addition to her concerns about being available to help in case her parents fell ill, she also faced the financial hurdles of being a working artist in the U.S. “As a musician who’s not from America, I wasn’t eligible for any of the unemployment benefits,” she recalls. “When all my work was canceled, I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to stay in my apartment. So it was just a necessity to get home where I could get help from the [Australian] government.”
To Brown, her return home was essential to the shape of her new album. “This record couldn’t have been made anywhere else because it’s really a topical record about what happened here,” she says. “Being in Melbourne in these very intense lockdowns meant that I had no choice but to stay at home and write.” And, she added with a slight laugh, “If I was in LA, maybe I wouldn’t have had to write a breakup album. You just never know what the sliding door moment would have been.”
Teartracks is an album that feels both grander and more intimate than Banoffee’s previous work. The record is brimming with the kind of contemplative, serious drama not often found in contemporary pop, like the solo piano at the center of the potent closer “Tears.” But there isn’t, despite titles like “I Hate It” and “Idiot,” a simple kiss-off to her ex on this breakup record. Unlike the excellent “Tennis Fan” on her previous record, the lyrics here don’t place blame on one person over another in the dissolution of their relationship. “I didn’t want to write a ‘f*ck you’ record. Because although that’s really satisfying, a lot of the time that it’s not reality. Most of the time, there’s two people going through something really hard when you break up. And I just wanted this to be more adult in that way, to acknowledge that you can be in pain and not write about the other person being wrong or a bad person.”
The shift between the ecstatic love of America and the isolated quarantine of Australia is perhaps best embodied by the transition between opener “Tapioca Cheeks,” with its shuffling percussion and effusive, autotuned chorus (“Everything you say/ makes me love you more”), and “Enough,” driven by a smoldering guitar and just the lightest touch of vocal processing. “Tapioca Cheeks” was the only Teartracks song recorded in a proper studio setting just prior to her return to Melbourne. Created with PC Music signees Planet 1999, the song came together remarkably quickly — it was a “15-minute track,” by Brown’s estimation.
She embarked on a wholly new creative process when she returned to Melbourne, building songs from stems sent over email, a method that both slowed the album’s production and led to emotional breakthroughs in her writing. “It definitely challenged me as a producer,” Brown said. “I’m quite a messy producer who really relies on collaborators. I couldn’t do that.” But virtual collaboration also seemed to remove some of the pressures of the studio, allowing her to track vocals without judgment. “When I wrote ‘Enough,’ I was in a really bad place,” she explains. “The original vocal for that is very teary, and I just couldn’t really face working on it any longer. I sent it to Charles [of Planet 1999], and it was really raw. You could tell that I was crying on the take, but it was okay, because I was just sending an email. I could work on something that I knew would be special because of its vulnerability, without the confrontation of having a bunch of people in the room staring at me while I lose my shit.”
Banoffee, from this vantage point, seems like an artist without a city to call her own. The isolation of Melbourne, while a fruitful ground for her lyrical experiments, ultimately slowed down the production process — the record’s release date was pushed back from October to early November, and Brown was still finalizing tracks for Teartracks when we spoke just a few weeks before its arrival. But at the same time, Los Angeles seemed to leave her feeling exhausted and cynical of the industry. So where does an artist like Banoffee find home? “I think I’ve learnt that there isn’t one,” she posited. “I’ve been looking around for the ideal place for everything that will make the perfect writing environment. And I think I’ve just realized, especially through this record, that it’s more about being in a place within yourself.” On Teartracks, Brown has crafted a gorgeous, complex place to call home.