Words by David C. Obenour
The act of creating can be an addictive habit. While many aspects of playing in a band are rewarding – including just spending time with friends – making art from thin air is inspiring. So it only makes sense that the loss of that creates a void. For Christina Riley, after the end of her band Burnt Palms, she found herself feeling this. This artsickness.
Fortunately, the cure is as simple as the cause – getting back to it. After writing demos on her own, Riley was approached by drummer Mario Hernandez and bassist Donna McKean. Then a different sickness, the global pandemic, complicated and changed things. But not enough to stop, or even to slow down, the creative spirit of Artsick.
Off Shelf: Artsick and artsickness are mentioned a few times as the feeling that led to the band coming together. Can you talk about what you mean by that? What had gotten you in that headspace?
Christina Riley: The band name came to me a little bit after my old band, Burnt Palms broke up. I was so used to getting together with the old mates twice a week to work on new stuff, but when we split, I felt quite alone and longed for those days again. I felt artsick. It’s like feeling intensely lovesick, but for making art. After the band broke up, I was writing songs by myself and roughly recording them, feeling quite sad. Mario heard a couple and offered to record them and play drums which was uplifting for me. I wanted to ask Donna to play bass so when she said yes and we recorded the first 7”, I started to feel like my old self again!
OS: What excites you about the band and how does it jar you out of that feeling?
CR: This collaboration really did shoot me out of feeling artsick. I think especially because it was all new to me – both Donna and Mario are totally different musicians than my previous bandmates, so it is, I guess, a little more surprising and unpredictable which is exciting to me.
OS: Forming in 2018 and releasing your debut album in 2022, you’ve spent a lot of your time as a band so far during the pandemic. How do you think that has affected you, made the experience different this time than with previous groups?
CR: We released a 7” single in 2018, then new songs started forming as we were playing more shows. We had just sort of finished recording when COVID hit and shut everything down. It was pretty brutal for me because I was so excited to be back at it again, then everything came to a halt. I was quite discouraged, but we got through it alright. I definitely missed hanging out and working on stuff with Donna and Mario, but I kept quite busy with figuring out the record artwork, videos, writing more Artsick songs to record with them, and collaborating with Stewart for Boyracer.
OS: In the midst of it all, how did you connect with Slumberland?
CR: Mike Schulman [Slumberland label head] has known Donna and Mario for years – both as a bandmate of Donna’s in Hard Left, and he released Mario’s band, Kids On A Crime Spree records, We Love You So Bad in 2011, Creep The Creeps single in 2013 and his new one, Fall In Love Not In Line this January. Slumberland also released the After School Special LP by Donna’s longtime band, Lunchbox in Oct 2020. Before COVID put us all in lock down, he came to a few Artsick shows, and had expressed interest in if we had any new songs recorded. So when Tim – Donna’s husband and partner in Lunchbox – who recorded the album, finished mixing it, he sent it off for mastering and we showed it to Mike who wanted to put it out. I was very excited! It just took so long to get manufactured due to the vinyl pressing delays.
OS: Without the foil of a live audience and steady touring, how do you think your sound or approach to writing and performing has evolved over this time?
CR: We didn’t have a ton of opportunities to do a whole lot as Artsick before COVID because it was a newer project with our first single coming out in 2018, so we really were just getting going right before lock down. I don’t think my overall songwriting or sound has really changed too much, but it’s all a little more fragmented at this point. Life circumstances, and maybe a bit of pandemic fatigue has affected me a little. I’m inspired a lot by getting out, playing shows and doing things out of my day to day responsibilities, so I do feel like I have been missing that and that is a big factor in the speed at which I am writing now, which is a little slower than before kind of.
OS: Coming out of the pandemic, at least hopefully, what excites you about this new chapter for the band? What familiarity are you excited for and what do you hope to approach differently?
CR: I’m excited to play more shows again! To feel the familiar high I get from it more often. To hit the road, play with great bands and explore. I think I have learned through this to let go a little more, to prepare for the fact things can get cancelled in an instant, and to be ok with that. I have noticed that I enjoy and appreciate when we do anything now, even more than before so that’s nice. I’m looking forward to seeing how this project evolves.
OS: Is Fingers Crossed a reference to the general feeling of hoping and waiting we’ve collectively been through?
CR: In life in general I’m always mentally crossing my fingers, and I think when I listened to the album, it popped in and it just aligned with a feeling of the songs and these current times.
OS: Speaking in general terms, despite the underground’s disdain or distance for the mainstream, pop and punk often go hand-in-hand. What excites you about pop sounds and how do you like adding your own spin?
CR: I have enjoyed pop sounds consistently throughout my life. I love the sparkle of it and moving melodies they often possess. I find punk exciting because it sort of hits you and makes you want to dance and sing along. Mixing indie-pop with punk just feels right to me. It matches who I am really – a sensitive, emotional person with a frayed, turbulent edge. I don’t think about it when I write, but it comes out naturally.
OS: What pop albums do you find yourself gravitating toward these days?
CR: Jetstream Pony – Misplaced Words, Beach Boys – Pet Sounds, Rachel Love – Picture In Mind, Le Pain – Obvious To You.
OS: Also, for as much of a talking point as it was five to ten years ago, it seems as if much of the chatter around “guitar rock going away” has dissipated. That said the longevity of the guitar is very real and Fingers Crossed is a very guitar-centered album, what still excites you about it as an instrument?
CR: Guitar is a vehicle for me to write with. I think it excites me because I don’t really know what I’m doing. I don’t think about what chord goes with what chord, or what key anything is in. It’s never about notes, or time signatures for me. It’s about melody and feeling and the feeling I get when it sounds “right”. It would be helpful if I knew what I was doing, but sometimes I think that’s what makes my songs sound like me – the not knowing.