Tia Gostelow: 'I Felt Like I Wasn’t Relevant Anymore'

20 April 2023 | 12:56 pm | Anthony Carew

Tia Gostelow discusses the themes and musical choices behind her third album, Head Noise, before her upcoming festival appearances.

(Pic by MACAMI)

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In December, Tia Gostelow moved back to Mackay. That’s where she was born, where she spent her adolescence, where she cut her musical teeth playing covers sets in local pubs. When her career began to take off —winning Triple J’s Indigenous Initiative as a 16-year-old, releasing her debut album, Thick Skin, at 18— she moved down to Brisbane. But after years away, this summer marked a homecoming for the now-23-year-old songwriter.

“The rental crisis was definitely a big part of it,” says Gostelow. “It was really hard to find anywhere to live in Brisbane. I also felt like I wanted to move back around my family, move in with my partner. I felt like I’d done what I wanted to in Brisbane: create a community, make great friends, make great music. But I feel like I can do that from Mackay, now. And I like the simplicity of being here, it’s nice.”

Being back where she grew up —“this town where I started playing covers gigs when I was 12”— Gostelow has been thinking about how far she’s come. “I grew up in really regional towns my whole life,” she offers, referring not just to Mackay, but a six-year childhood stint on remote Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. “Thinking about back then, I was so naïve, there was so much I didn’t know… I didn’t even know a career like this could exist.”

A career like this has included a run of things Gostelow “never thought [she]’d be able to achieve”: festival shows and European tours, a platinum single (2018’s Strangers), a gold album (Thick Skin), a follow-up LP (2020’s Chrysalis), and, finally, a brand-new third album, Head Noise, due for release this August.

Mirroring her homecoming, Head Noise marks a return to Gostelow’s musical roots. “I’ve been really drawn back to where I started, going back to those folk roots,” she offers. “Even listening back to some of the music I loved when I was younger. I think that’s just a normal thing for someone to go through in life. It’s growing up.”

Gostelow admits that, with Chrysalis, she “just wanted to make cool pop music with no acoustic guitars”. Which was motivated, in part, by a desire to please other people, or to fit into a format. “I’ve felt like I’ve had to make a certain kind of music, because that’s what people are going to love,” she says. “The cool thing was always getting played on Triple J or added to these playlists, and I didn’t think I could do that in the folk world or the country world.”

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“In hindsight,” she continues, “[I can see] that I’ve pushed certain elements of my music aside to try and do that. I came up through a folk and country world, and when I made Chrysalis, I got rid of all the acoustic guitars, the majority of guitars in fact. I wanted to experiment, but I also felt like that’s what people wanted to hear from me.”

When setting out to make Head Noise, Gostelow set her ultimate desire as doing what she wanted to do. “So, I brought back the guitars, I embraced the country twang in my voice,” she says. “I wrote the songs on an acoustic guitar. Even the way we recorded it —sitting around in a room with my band, just playing the tracks live over and over again— was getting back in touch with the way I started making music.”

The resulting record —made in collaboration with producer Chris Collins— is the one that Gostelow feels best represents her: who she is, where she began, where she’s been, where she is now. “This album I feel like I’ve found my feet, and cemented where I want to be,” Gostelow says. “I’m really comfortable and at peace with the music that I’m making.”

Brand-new single Sour finds the middle-point between the synth-pop of Chyrsalis and Head Noise’s warmer, back-to-her-roots sounds: its pop/bop exuberance matched to plentiful guitars. The tune came out of a 2022 writing retreat in the United States, and an experience in a bar.

“I was out with a friend, and there was this guy who was flirting with me, but I was so oblivious to it, I had no idea [it] was happening until my friend pointed it out,” Gostelow recalls. “It’s funny to me that I was so oblivious to it, and Sour is an exaggerated version of that moment. But, I also think it’s open to interpretation. Like it could be a breakup song, about a person who you’ve broken up with trying to crawl back into your life, and saying ‘no thanks’.”

The “fun” tone of Sour contrasts with the lyrical content elsewhere on Head Noise. As its title suggests, the album grapples with anxieties, worries, and negative thought patterns. “I didn’t really know what the theme for the album was [for a long time],” Gostelow admits. “It was only when I heard the last song that I wrote on the album, it’s called I’m Getting Bored Of This, that I realised. There’s a line where I say: ‘head noise is fading/it’s so outdated/I’m not gonna miss this’. The phrase ‘head noise’ really stuck out, and listening to all the songs again, it seemed that it was a really big theme.”

The songs on Head Noise, Gostelow says, largely came from things she’d stay awake thinking about late at night. Sometimes they’d naturally turn into artistic ideas as she lay there, sleepless; which was “good for the album content”, but debilitating in terms of getting enough sleep.

“The songs were filled with things that I was thinking about late at night when a lot of my head noise was happening. A lot of people struggle with anxiety, have difficulty dealing with all their head noise, so I feel like these songs are relatable,” offers Gostelow. “It was a really therapeutic way for me to get out all these things I’ve been thinking and feeling these past three years.”

There’re songs about having anxiety, worrying about the future, the emotional fall-out of talking friends through breakups, dealing with the suicide of someone close to you. Killing You is “about not feeling safe as a woman walking back to your car at night”, something Gostelow thinks is sadly relatable. “I was working at a music venue when I lived in Brisbane,” she offers, “and I would always, when I was walking to my car, carry my keys in my hand.”

Dog Eat Dog World is filled with Gostelow’s complicated feelings about the music industry. While she says her early experiences in the industry were uniformly positive (“I remember being so excited about everything: touring, playing all these shows, writing, recording, meeting all these people in the industry, playing Bigsound… it was exhilarating doing all those things for the first time”), her ‘head noise’ times found savage self-doubts creeping in.

“After taking a break from releasing anything, I felt like I wasn’t relevant anymore,” Gostelow confesses. “It’s that whole thing on social media where you’re constantly comparing yourself to other people. I can know that there’ll be times when I’m not in a touring cycle, but if I’m on my phone seeing people playing shows at festivals, there’s this part of me that wishes that was me. Like: ‘Why aren’t I getting these shows? Am I not relevant?’ That’s where my mind goes, unfortunately.”

In the pandemic times of 2020, and the downtime in the wake of Chrysalis’s release, Gostelow would have “internal battles” about what she was doing with her life; wondering if she needed to study something new, or pick up a hobby, or get a regular job. Something to “balance out” her life.

“It can be hard in the music industry because you never know what the outcome is going to be. It’s a lot of putting your heart and soul into your music, but you don’t really know what’s going to come of that, where it’s going to land. Sometimes, I daydream about having a job where you can know that there’ll be a certain end result from all your work. But then I’m always: ‘no, this is who I am, this is all I’ve ever done in my life, it’s all I ever wanted to do’.”

So, with the ramp-up towards the release of Head Noise kicking in, Gostelow is “trying to be positive about things”. She’s trying to have a healthier relationship to social media; and pushing past her initial reluctance at being on TikTok. “It’s a weird thing, have to learn how to ‘be yourself’ on social media platforms,” she says. “I don’t know how to talk to a camera. I don’t know how to have a conversation with a viewer through a phone… It’s something that I’ve always struggled with.”

“I find it hard to know what I should be showing people, and what I should be keeping to myself,” Gostelow offers. “And if I’m being honest, social media plays a big part in my anxiety. But I know it’s something I have to deal with. I’m just trying my best to remind myself that I’m on my own path. You can’t compare yourself to anyone else. I’m on my own journey.”

You can catch Tia Gostelow at The Long SunsetThe Push, and Tropic Fiesta Festivals. Head Noise is out on 18 August - pre-order the album here.