17 May 2024

Review: Heartbreak For Jetlag by Vera Ellen

From The Sampler, 7:00 am on 17 May 2024
Vera Ellen

Taite Music Prize winner Vera Ellen's new EP shows off her phenomenal songwriting chops, says RNZ's Tony Stamp. Photo: Lily Paris West

RNZ's Tony Stamp, host of The Sampler, checks out the new EP by 2024 Taite Music Prize winner Vera Ellen.

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I first heard Vera Ellen as part of her band Girl Friday, who were, at the time, an LA-based outfit where she featured as the sole NZ-born member. Since then, she’s won an Aotearoa Music Award for Best Alternative Artist, and the Taite Prize, for her frankly incredible album Ideal Home Noise.

It’s interesting to chart the progression in Ellen’s songwriting, where each subsequent release seems to see her drop her guard a bit more. Girl Friday trafficked in similarly frothy indie rock, very obviously the same artist, but Ideal Home Noise, prompted by personal crisis, was vulnerable and candid.  

Her latest, Heartbreak For Jetlag, is an EP that stretches even further in that direction. These are songs she wrote for herself first and foremost, unsure if they’d ever reach the greater public.

When she won the Taite Prize, Ellen brought her band member and producer Ben Lemi on stage, stressing what an important part he’d played in making Ideal Home Noise. When I interviewed her about the album, she said he encouraged her to leave in demo parts she’d recorded at home.

She originally intended to replace them with studio quality re-recordings, but keeping the rawer, less polished takes preserved their emotion; something it can be hard to recapture in a studio setting. 

Heartbreak for Jetlag feels like she was emboldened by that experience to release a whole collection of home recordings: prickly, unpolished, and often heart-rending.  

Heartbreak For Jetlag cover

Photo: Flying Nun

Throughout the EP, Ellen allows her singing to be imperfect, but it’s interesting to note studio embellishments, like the mournful piano and atmospheric electric guitar in the title track. 

In the notes she says she never planned to share these songs beyond a couple of close friends, elaborating that “each got [her] through some heavy feelings and out the other side”.

Every song has at least one lyric that leaves a bruise, like “you live in the world, but I live underneath” on the title track. Then again, she specifies on the first track, ‘Part X’, that “this is not the end, it’s just a song”.

The idea that her music might act as a salve for people going through hard times is one Ellen told me is important to her, and that’s the intent here.

As well as mastering the small-scale approach of this EP, she's someone who can command a stage, as you’ll know if you saw the devastating cover of The Front Lawn’s ‘Andy’ that she performed at the last Silver Scroll Awards. 

When I saw her play at Auckland's Whammy Bar, she asked everyone to stop talking during her song ‘Broadway Junction’, and it became pin-drop quiet. The venue even turned off the air conditioner so there was no hum. 

There’s an old adage that things are only finished once you stop working on them. While I’m sure Ellen’s next album will be as fleshed out as previous ones, Heartbreak For Jetlag’s unvarnished compositions feel perfectly fitting.