1 Apr 2023

Vera Ellen is finally back home

Vera Ellen at Havana in Wellington, just after eating some octopus.
From Music 101, 12:00 pm on 1 April 2023

Warning: this story contains mention of suicide

“I wanted to jump in Broadway Junction / Feel the tracks against my back / Wanted to know how precious life was/ Must have forgot about that,” sings Vera Ellen near the end of her new album Ideal Home Noise.

The song, ‘Broadway Junction’ (a reference to the NYC subway intersection) is raw and performed with palpable emotion.  It’s strangely uplifting, even though it finds her pondering her own death by suicide.

Further lyrics wonder how much time would pass before an unnamed friend or relative would find out, and how long until passersby would continue on with their days.

After a long period in the US, Ellen is now based back in her hometown of Pōneke and reflecting on a rough time in her life.

“To be super blunt, I was suicidal”, she says.

“I was struggling with depression and had a bit of an existential crisis over a long period of time. Looking back I can see why: there wasn’t much in my life that was very stable.”

Ideal Home Noise is an album born from personal turmoil, but for much of its runtime, the darkness is buried within frothy indie pop.

Musically it’s often joyous: major chords, splashes of synth, and Ellen using every colour in her vocal palette. But once you tune into the lyrics, it’s hard to miss.

I first meet Ellen at her workplace: the Flying Nun store on Wellington’s Cuba St. Flying Nun released her last album, It’s Your Birthday, which won her Best Alternative Artist at the Aotearoa Music Awards and was shortlisted for the Taite Prize.

“I feel very much part of a family, and a legacy of amazing music,” she says of her employers. “It’s nice to be part of something that has a history”.

Ellen has no problem with people knowing that she has a day job aside from music. Awkward moments at the shop (someone recently returned her last LP, but only so they could get the new one instead) are outweighed by benefits, like being able to include personal notes when shipping her music to international fans.

“There’s this really weird feeling in the music business that we need to somehow pretend that we’re living these really great, glamorous lives or something. No, it’s really hard to make money in this industry. I’ll never be ashamed of having to work a normal job to support that.”

Vera Ellen in the Wellington Flying Nun store where she works.

Vera Ellen in the Wellington Flying Nun store where she works. Photo: Tony Stamp

There are frequent references to being broke on the new album, which allude to her last stint in America.

She initially moved there in 2016, aged 21, coming back to Aotearoa at the start of the pandemic in 2020, before returning for a year in 2021.

“Part of my sense of self getting so bad was because I didn’t have money, and that felt like a really big deal there. It felt like everything. You’re a failure. I don’t really feel that here.”

When she finishes work, Ellen and I head to Havana, a nearby bar (“it’s got a good vibe, and also I’m aware I don’t have to pay for the drinks,” she says).

After ordering octopus and zucchini to share, we chat about her newfound stability. 

“I’m a lot happier in general,” she says. “I found one of my old diaries (when I say old I mean one year old), and opened it up, and I was like that’s intense, like that’s rough.”

Ellen has been writing songs since she was a kid, starting her first band Gaol Bait in high school, then playing in Maple Syrup, Sweater, and others, before recording her first solo album in 2015.

She left Wellington soon after for a student exchange at the University of California in Los Angeles. After a year she dropped out to pursue music, working a series of jobs to make ends meet.

She also formed the band Girl Friday, which released a few EPs, followed by a well-received full-length album in 2020. The project is an ongoing concern: her trip back in 2021 saw them record new songs and tour the West Coast. She’s typically modest about the volume of her music output.

“It never feels that way. I do my washing more than I pick up my guitar.”

Technically her third album (although the first has been scrubbed from the internet), It’s Your Birthday was the one that reached a larger audience.

“It’s been really nice to take myself seriously as a solo artist, and believe in myself enough to pursue that,” she says, “because it’s only really been the past couple of years I’ve had the confidence.

“You change your focus, and while I’m in New Zealand this is my focus.”

Multi-instrumentalist Ben Lemi (French For Rabbits, Dawn Diver) produced Ideal Home Noise, adding studio-recorded parts to the demos she'd made at home. Some of those lo-fi elements remain in the finished product.

“Some of it is quite rough”, she says, “I listen back and think it’s crazy this made the album.”

Part of the idea behind that was honouring the rawness of the subject matter, and creating a balance between prettiness and abrasion.

It contains the gentlest moments of her career, but there’s always something louder around the corner.

“Every time I feel like I’m leaning into one thing, I want to go somewhere different,” she says.

“I want to rebel against that and create something really stark.”

That extends to the way she uses her voice. It’s an incredibly versatile instrument and stretched in even more directions here than it was on It’s Your Birthday: crooning, yelling, whispering and plenty in between. 

“I've had friends comment ‘you have so many different voices’, and for a while, I had a real identity crisis about it, like is it inauthentic or something? As I've continued to explore musically I’ve accepted that my voice wants to do different things.”

She’s joined by vocals from Lemi, her bandmate Bella, her brother and her mum. On some tracks, like ‘A Grip’, they form a warm counterpoint to the track’s haunting first half. ‘Carpenter’ uses a similar approach, but this time you can feel Ellen’s agitation as the song progresses.

Vera Ellen in her bedroom in Mount Victoria, Wellington.

Vera Ellen in her bedroom in Mount Victoria, Wellington. Photo: Tony Stamp

Back at her home near Mt Victoria, in a flat she shares with six other people, I ask about the candid recordings of children that appear throughout Ideal Home Noise.

“Those are all my nieces and nephews, who I also had running through It’s Your Birthday. Every time I got into those dark spaces, they were these little beacons of light that would shine through, and be like, we need you.”

She has more family here (both parents, two older sisters, one older brother, a foster sister, and a niece two years younger than her who feels like a sister). They are mentioned, as well as having one bedroom and a consistent band, as essential to good mental health.

When It’s Your Birthday came out, Ellen said at the time that she felt exposed by having it out in the world. Ideal Home Noise is much more revealing, she says.

“I think this is much more intimate in exposing darker elements of myself that I don’t share with people generally. On It’s Your Birthday I was singing about romance and things I might talk to friends or family about, but this is way more personal.

“I think I’ve always written that kind of way. So far there hasn’t been any major backlash. Maybe one day I’ll slip up and get a bit too specific.

“But I think there’s a point where you have to risk that in favour of authenticity. I’ve tried to cloud things and make them more vague, and you just lose it. You have to be honest.”

There are two battling voices throughout Ideal Home Noise. One is “this part of you that really wants to push through, and really wants to see the best in everything and everyone, and in yourself,” and the other is “a bit destructive, and wants to mess you up, and pull you into a dark space.”

The sequencing of the album “was thought about thematically a lot”.

Track one is called called ‘Imposter’ (“I felt like I was getting away with something through everyone perceiving me as normal,” Ellen says), then over the course of the album mentions of money segue into mentions of booze, and eventually, those suicidal impulses. Crucially though, ‘Broadway Junction’ is followed by “Stick Around 2 See”, the final track.

“I feel like the term ‘stick around to see another day’ was what I really needed to hear at the time. Like, can you just do one more day? Can you wait one more day? Anything can happen in one day. Anything can change in one day.

“I was having a lot of health issues, I think that’s important to mention. When you don’t feel in control of your body, you can feel like a burden on people. And it’s really hard as an independent person to ask for help or assistance.”

Ellen suffers from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, a disorder of the autonomic nervous system. By the end of a 2019 American tour supporting The Beths she “couldn’t walk from one end of the room to the other without feeling really dizzy”, then in 2021 suffered a seizure and wound up in hospital.

“I was not well, but I was not able to express that. I think that tied into all the mental health things.”

Vera Ellen's guitar and Fender amp.

Vera Ellen's guitar and Fender amp. Photo: Tony Stamp

Returning home was integral to her recovery, she says.

“I think coming back here and setting up, and having time alone to rediscover who I was, but also [to] rediscover how much love I had in my life, through my family and people I’d grown up with, and just how much people here were willing to give me for nothing in return.

“People just wanting to help you because they love you, it’s such an eye-opening experience.”

She says ‘Broadway Junction’ is still very difficult to perform live, but it’s also one of the songs that gets the most response. Ideal Home Noise is a record of a very bad year in Ellen’s life, but she’s met it head-on with humour, and remarkably clear-eyed songwriting. It is by turns wry, and sometimes angry, but the overall effect is buoyant and celebratory.

“What I hope someone gets from the album is that life can be really difficult at points, but I think it’s really important to see that there is another side. And it’s always worth sticking around to see.

“The amount of love and support I’ve received in the past year, sometimes I feel so overwhelmed with gratitude and joy and happiness that I have so many amazing, beautiful people in my life. It’s incredible how much can change in such a short amount of time.” 

Where to get help:

  • Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

  • Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

  • Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

  • Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

  • Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

  • What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

  • Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

  • Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

  • Healthline: 0800 611 116

  • Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155