Lead by singer-songwriter-guitarists Tom Russo, Joe White and Fran Keaney, the guitar-pop five-piece returned home to Australia after the relentless touring schedule that came following the release of their critically regarded debut 'Hope Downs'. After feeling the literal and metaphorical ground under their feet had shifted, the band began grasping for something reliable.
For Keaney, that translated into writing "pure romantic fiction" and consciously avoiding the temptation of angsty break-up songs, while Russo looked north to a "bizarre place" that captured the feeling of manufacturing a sense of home when his own had disappeared.
The eponymous New Italy is a village near New South Wales’s Northern Rivers – the area drummer Marcel Tussie is from. A blink-and-you'll-miss-it pit-stop of a place with fewer than 200 residents, it was founded by Venetian immigrants in the late-1800s and now serves as something of a living monument to Italians' contribution to Australia, with replica Roman statues dotted like alien souvenirs on the otherwise rural landscape. The parallels of the way the band attempted to maintain connections and create familiarity during their disorienting time on the road was apparent to Russo. "These are the expressions of people trying to find home somewhere alien: trying to create utopia in a turbulent and imperfect world."
In addition to that specific place, the songs on the record exist variably in Darwin (Cameo), Melbourne (Beautiful Steven, Cool Change), the tiny town of Rushworth (Not Tonight) and the driver's seat of a car at a drive-in movie (Cars in Space). Rolling Blackouts are well-versed in a detailed and cinematic style of songwriting, where landscapes, interactions and memories materialise as characters and stories that reflect the tight, swirling guitars that emote alongside the trio's voices.
The record’s lead single Cars in Space is emblematic of the band’s approach to songwriting. After arriving at an instinctual space while jamming, they bottle the specific chemistry that comes of the five of them locking into one another, and “reverse-engineer them into a weird pop song”, White explains. The panicky helplessness of realising a break-up is imminent is brought to life not just through Keaney’s lyrics, but sonically through a spiral of three guitars, dueling and dancing around one another in a way Rolling Blackouts [BL1] have mastered.
The record's very present geographic identity emerged from the band losing their grip on their own, whether that was through the pressure of touring, the dissolution of relationships, a frustrating distance from their daily lives – or some combination of all three – that came from being slingshotted all over the world, playing sold out headline tours and festivals including Coachella, Governors Ball, Primavera Sound, All Points East and Pitchfork Music Festival.
"I felt completely rudderless on tour," Keaney says. "It’s fun but you get to a point where you’re like, Who am I anymore? You feel like you’re everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And no one in particular." Russo adds, "We saw a lot of the world, which was such a privilege, but it was kind of like looking through the window at other people's lives, and then also reflecting on our own."
Rather than dwell in the displacement though, Keaney was determined to channel how he was feeling into something optimistic. "I wanted to write songs that I could use as some sort of bedrock of hopefulness to stand on, something to be proud of. A lot of the songs on the new record are reaching forward and trying to imagine an idyll of home and love."
Home, for Russo, manifests in different ways: there's Melbourne, where he grew up, but also in Southern Italy where "the forebears" of their family (bassist Joe Russo is his brother) originated. As members of the band individually visited the Mediterranean and returned home to Melbourne's inner-north, where waves of European migrants forged a sense of home since the 1950s, they realised the emotional distance between the two was miniscule. The prominent and romantic Greco-Roman statues that sit outside tidy brick homes in Brunswick represent, for Russo, an attempt to "build a utopia of where your heart’s from."
The same can be said of this record, where early attempts at writing big, high-concept songs about The State of the World were abandoned in favour of love songs (She's There, Deep Slough) and familiar voices and characters filter in and out, grounding the band's stories in their personal histories. On Second of the First [BL2] the voice of a close friend joins White's partner in delivering a spoken word passage; the chorus from Cool Change began its life in a song the trio played in an early band, over a decade ago; the chords from Cameo were once in an eventually abandoned song called Hope Downs; an early version of Falling Thunder featured a reference that only their friends would recognise.
"We tried to make these little nods to our friends and loved ones, to stay loyal to our old selves," Russo explains. "I think we were trying to recapture some of the innocent weirdness of our very first recordings," Keaney adds of the Cool Change chorus. "Which I think we did." There’s something comforting, too, in knowing the next time they’re buffeted from stage to stage around the world, they’ll be taking the voices of their loved ones with them, building a new totem of home no matter where they end up.