Pure performance: the glittering intensity of V
The Melbourne-based musician’s latest record So Pure melds dark-wave intensity, pop performance and intimate reflections on grief and loss.
Words by Tiarney Miekus | Photos by Chlöe Sugden | April 2019
Like Madonna, Beyoncé, Cher or Rihanna, V is simply V. The pop references might seem incidental for an artist who conjures a carefully crafted, dark-wave aesthetic, and stands on stage engulfed amongst industrial-sounding drum machines, a layer of ’80s synth-wave and their own reverberating vocals. But if you ask V about their musical influences, their first answers are, without any hesitation, the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys. “Oh, and, you know, a Nirvana phase,” they tell me, sounding both thrilled and exasperated by the admission.
There is something latently pop about V. It can be glimpsed in a melody or song structure, but it’s more in the unabashed performance—the over-performance that defines pop—that the Melbourne-based musician evokes in a stylised, post-punk way. Whether live or on record, V has energy: a bleakness that’s blended with glittering, danceable beats; an intensity that, judging by the faces at the Melbourne launch of their new album So Pure in March, is clearly cathartic. As V moves across the stage they can turn a stare on you, looking directly into someone’s eyes as they sing (something, they tell me, the lead singer of Dashboard Confessional once did to them). With heavily winged eyeliner and a steely facial expression, V careens across high and low vocal inflections, sometimes playing bass, other times pumping an arm into the air.
So Pure, an album fixated on grief and loss, was created over six years throughout Europe, England and Australia. Yet V has only recently called Melbourne home, having spent the greater part of a decade—their 20s—in Berlin. After an upbringing with much travelling (their dad is a pilot, their mum an air hostess), V—or Victoria—spent their late teens in Brisbane and started playing in bands at 18, while also attending art school. During this time something fortuitous happened: V’s “younger and cooler” sister took them to a Slits concert where V fell in musical love. “I’d never heard of them before and seeing an all-female band on stage felt amazing. It really deeply informed the beginnings of my so-called musical career,” they say, putting the last two words in air quotes. “It blew my mind.”
V soon left Brisbane for a failed stint in London where, by chance, they knew someone who held an artist residency at the Kunsthaus Tacheles—an artist squat in Berlin. “I decided to go and visit for a week,” V remembers, “and within two days of being there I knew I wasn’t coming back to Australia and I wasn’t going back to the UK. I was going to stay there.” The now-defunct Tacheles was a 9000 square-metre, multi-level site of such fame that it has its own Wikipedia page. Set up by artists after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was a collective experiment in imagination and fostering truly alternative living. V paints a chaotically idyllic picture of their time spent there: grimy interiors, trash everywhere, graffiti covered walls, artists working in nearby studios, mountains of strange, black inflatable tyres in the back yard. Not only did Tacheles give V the space to be an artist, but it conjured the idea of community they carry today, alongside an elemental understanding of DIY.
While V’s first aspiration in Berlin was to be a fashion photographer, music took over. During this time they played in seven bands, organised shows and toured relentlessly, with two particular streams of influence coming though; one was a grindcore band named Batalj who took their name from an IKEA catalogue, rehearsed almost every day and played at 180 bpm. The other project was more pop-inclined. “It was me and a Finnish guy, and he wanted us to be pop stars. He wanted us to be The Kills!” says V. “He taught me about what it’s like to be a slick rock and roller.” Taken together, these two strands gave V the beginnings of an aesthetic that joined an experimental determination with pop structures and performance. V soon played their first solo show in Berlin in 2008 at an art exhibition in an abandoned space. “Like, really abandoned,” they recall. “It was essentially just walls.” Armed with a battery-operated boombox and backing music played off burnt CDs, V sang a capella and played a mini tambourine.
This paints a quaint picture considering V’s live show today. “Well, the performative aspect came waaaay later,” they say. And were they nervous in the early days? “Oh yeah, absolutely. I used to vomit before going on stage. I used to tremble like a leaf. I used to have to lock my knees in position or I felt like I would collapse.” But the experiences of being in a grindcore band and working as a tour guide in Germany soon knocked the shyness away.
When V first performed in Melbourne in 2017 it seemed a little otherworldly—a new performer, having descended with a fully formed, dark aesthetic, immediately finding a home among bands like Vacuum, NUN, Bitumen and Habits. As V continuously reiterates, music isn’t something that happens in isolation, but is about a community—and they’re in love with the community they’ve found in Melbourne. V gushes over NUN, RVG and Ov Pain. They’re reverential when speaking of Ela Stiles and Bitumen. They praise HABITS again and again: “They’re super-performative on stage and I just can’t rip my eyes off them!” V is particularly impressed by strong performance and, when previously speaking of their own performance, has talked of wanting to both entertain people and give an aesthetic experience. Unlike some artists, V doesn’t see the two as being mutually exclusive.
Despite what some call the “ferocity” of V’s live show (at one point they half-joke it’s why they can’t get a date), when V sits across from me in a Melbourne cafe and eats a slice of vegan cheesecake, there’s nothing apparently ferocious happening. They speak animatedly yet assertively, outgoing without “putting it on”. Before we met up I had, by chance, watched them ride a non-motorised scooter down the footpath of a busy, main road; dressed completely in white, chain hanging from their jeans, sunglasses drawn down, dark hair floating on a warm afternoon.
Thinking of V on stage, V scootering and V eating cheesecake, I wonder: is there a difference between V and Victoria? The answer is clearly no (“Me and V are one,” they say, laughing but still serious), and within this blend of persona, writing and performing music have emerged as immovable necessities in their life. “I kind of need it to process these complex and often very unmanageable emotions that I have. It’s almost like a daemon,” they explain. “It’s like this thing inside of me that almost has nothing to do with me sometimes. And sometimes, things will just come out fully formed.” Here lies the very heart of So Pure which was written for V’s former partner, Gentle. The two met in Australia at V’s brother’s wedding and when V went back to Germany—when they were touring with their band HOLYSIX and writing instrumentals for So Pure—V and Gentle held a long-distance relationship. Gentle eventually moved to Berlin, but passed away in 2015. V affirms: “The album was a tribute to him."
Once you understand the background, you can feel the sense of loss that pervades So Pure—the hypnotic repetition, the desire, the hurt. It also shows how the absolutely singular is often the thing that resonates the widest. “I like to think that the music is universal enough that even though I’m writing very personally and very specifically, that it could actually be applied to anyone who might be experiencing the loss of a loved one,” V says. “Or even further afield, it doesn’t have to be death. It could be the loss of a close friendship.”
While emotive moments weave throughout So Pure, for V the process of writing music differs between songs; some appear in their entirety, others are tweaked over years. They’re inclined to a post-punk, DIY ethos, but clearly have a natural ability for rhythm, drawn-out melodic structures and texturising. While programming drums (and finding the right sound) is one of V’s favourite parts of music making, it’s the synths that are the jewels of the record: “Often what really shapes the songs is the synths and that’s kind of my true passion. Even more than the singing, even more than programming the drums or playing the bass.”
Alongside their solo project, V also plays in bands Dark Water and Permission, plus works a factory job that allows for 5pm sound checks. Their life revolves around music and they almost seem mystified by it, making me wonder if they love what they do? V hesitates, before settling on loving things tangential to music: “What I do love is the community—that’s what I love. And I do love the feeling of having achieved something. I love playing shows and that’s how I socialise too. But the rest of it? The implications it leaves for my future? That’s the part I don’t love. What am I going to do when I’m 60? I’m not always going to be able to do the things I’m doing now.” And here’s one of the tricks of pop music that V, perhaps unintentionally, evokes—that even when speaking of grief and longing and mortality, a song can make you think the speaker is eternal.
While V is a self-declared perfectionist (“The album would not have taken six years if I wasn’t an absolute perfectionist!”), it’s not of the careerist kind. They are more of a DIY aesthete who desires to realise their own ideas of perfection. And considering V has been active for over ten years, it’s further telling that So Pure is their most official release yet. They’ve always been “legitimate”, they say, but being underground is simply their thing. “I’m never going to be—as much as I would love to be—I’m never going to be a mainstream artist,” they tell me. “Unless I do a Serge Gainsbourg, which I’m thinking of doing, and purposefully and intellectually write some music to sell—just to sell.”