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Herb Sundays 30: Jonnine Standish
The HTRK co-founder follows a dream logic story arc through Cat Power, George Michael, Sister Nancy, Kool Keith, and Melbourne/Naarm sounds to a powerful crescendo.
Jonnine Standish is, in her words, a singer/songwriter. Born in Kingston upon Thames, UK in the 1970’s, she moved to Melbourne/Naarm at the age of 3.
Apart from being the co-founder of the group HTRK (pronounced “Hate Rock”), her voice has been featured on songs by Croatian Amor, Dreamcrusher, HTRK patron saint Rowland S. Howard, Loraine James, and more.
She started writing her own solo music in 2017 and her first album (Boomkat Editions. 2020) nabbed her an Australian Music Prize nomination. She picked up the bass guitar in an online course titled 'From beginners to badass in 30 days’ and has played every day since.
On her Herb mix: “My favourite Sunday mixes are a bit shambolic in the flow. This Sunday playlist is for specifically the following: you have a close friend who needs an early morning lift to the coast, they have a lot of bags, probably something heavy has gone down, stop for petrol and coffee, friend is attempting to roll a cigarette but they haven't smoked in years, the weather changes its mind a bit”
To back up a bit, I do Herb Sundays for 3 reasons. 1. To record and share the musical pleasures of people who have spent an inordinate time in the pursuit of such things. 2. To write more. 3. To “give flowers” as they say, to some folks who’ve inspired me via effusive praise and adoration.
For years, I wanted to start a blog of “pre-death obituaries” not because of morbidity, but because we save all the good stuff to say about people until after they’re gone. This is bullshit. I wanted Nathaniel Dwayne Hale aka “Nate Dogg” (August 19, 1969 – March 15, 2011) to know how I felt about him as an artist. There was probably a very low chance of that happening in his life, but now there’s no chance of that happening.
The truth is, obits are fun to write. You can wax poetic without too much embarrassment cause people want to be caught up in the feeling and really get to the heart of someone in an emotional way. There is perhaps a blandness to the modern obit in the social media world, a flood of tropes and screengrabs, and on to the next. Folks like Jeff Weiss strike hot and fast and I have tried my hand on the Ghostly socials. But Herb Sundays gives me a better outlet for such a thing. But back to the living.
In the group HTRK (Jonnine and Nigel Yang, and formerly Sean Stewart), Standish and her bandmates have drummed up an intense and devoted following. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you don’t. It’s quite refreshing actually. “It’s got these drops of humour, drops of sadness, drops of sex,” Jonnine explained in The Face in 2019. “It’s different amounts of drops to make a HTRK song. It’s not that we’re making the music that we want to hear — it’s that we know when we’re making a HTRK song.” They have fans all across the musical and celebrity spectrum, which includes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner. "HTRK possess an originality and mystery worthy of obsession and scrutiny," writes Zinner in his liner notes for the 2015 Ghostly’s reissue of their 2009 album Marry Me Tonight, "for their beautiful and damaged sound is truly, and thankfully, their own.”
I remember when I first heard (of) the band. It was at a house party at 89 Canal St. hosted by my friend Kevin McHugh in 2006, right when I moved to New York. I can’t remember if it was playing or just a discussion but it was one of those “have you heard that band…” moments. I had to know more and eventually, we signed the group to Ghostly. I don’t entirely remember the chronology and perhaps it doesn’t matter but we eventually got a chance to work with them and jumped on it. My colleagues Jeff Owens and Molly Smith get a lot of the credit for taking care of the day-to-day and for shepherding them wilds of America on tours, etc. I work at various levels of proximity to the acts we sign but have kept a comfortable but respectful distance from the band, in some ways I think to not mettle in any way or shape with the process.
On a personal level of taste, their music is amongst the most powerful of the last two decades. In my inner fan logic, the three albums Ghostly has released and 2021’s sublime Rhinestones (on their N & J Blueberries imprint) act as a sort of grief cycle for their lost band member Stewart who died in 2010. 2011’s Work (work, work) which opens with the samples of clammy German phone sex TV ads, like a Ballardian “Me So Horny,” is the denial/anger statement. 2014’s Psychic 9-5 Club is less physically hard, but more truly low and drifting, the fathomless sadness of bargaining/depression. Venus In Leo (and into Rhinestones) are glittering with newfound pleasure and a sort of acceptance and re-awakening.
For all this analysis, I’m not really concerned with what the songs mean. They are perfect as they are: Vignettes of that space between self-awareness and the stuff that haunts us, judging neither. Emotionality is something that’s not discussed enough in the music of HTRK as they play with oblique themes, but they excel at it. The Ophelia dirge of “Eat Yr Heart” is a mood-perfect dark love song in the vein of “Closer.” And they work not just in lyrics, but in space. When Nigel’s skeletal 808 comes back rippling back into solo on “New Year’s Eve” it gives me that hot feeling in my nose when I’m about to cry. I still remember lying in a hotel room in Rome after a night out with my friend Latif (a true HTRK believer) listening to a demo of “Love Is Distraction” each of us with one earbud, taken in by the sound.
The playlist runs with the same sort of dream logic of her music, just held out of reach, awash in dub ripples and distant, strummy guitars. HTRK is sort of on a camp tip right now, and covers of “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “White Wedding” sound magisterial, not silly. You can even start to hear the lyrics of Kool Keith and the Velvets in her voice. Its Postmodern pop magic, the world of Jonnine. She simply picks up the goalposts and walks away with them. It’s a world I want to inhabit longer. A world where moments are felt and maybe even understood, where shame falls away, and things just unfold.