Romy Vager left Adelaide in 2004 as a teenage goth drawn to Melbourne. This week she’ll return to perform for the first time with her celebrated band RVG as they tour the country with Kurt Vile and the Violators.
“I left Adelaide when I was 17,” Vager tells The Adelaide Review. “When I was growing up I was listening to music that reflected Melbourne a lot, in a weird way. I felt like I had to get out, that there was something in Melbourne that I was being drawn to… that’s pretty much it. I mean I love Adelaide, but I felt like a bit of an alien in it for the longest time, and when I moved to Melbourne I found a lot of people that all liked the same music I liked, and were queer like I was, and it was very important for me to make that pilgrimage.”
Vager is by no means unique in this respect. The eastwards flow of youth and talent has been a fact of life for Adelaide, and many smaller cities, for generations. But not all end up in bands like RVG. Recorded for $100 in the empty band room of iconic Melbourne music pub The Tote, the group’s self-released debut A Quality of Mercy saw the Melbourne-based band tour the world, sign a high-profile publishing deal with US label Sub Pop and find themselves among some hallowed music industry halls.
“The most satisfying moment was midway through last year when we played at the BBC’s Studio 4 – where they recorded all the Peel Sessions,” she recalls. “I grew up listening to so much post punk music that was recorded in that room, and being there to do a session was probably one of the highlights of my life, for sure.”
As a visceral, roomy live document of the band captured just months after formation, A Quality of Mercy certainly has echoes of those much-bootlegged Peel Sessions by groups like The Go-Betweens and Orange Juice. It’s no wonder the experience was so memorable – the former were a key influence in shaping Vager’s current sound.
“The Go-Betweens are the obvious ones,” she says of arriving at RVG’s sound. “I was writing music for a long time, and was listening to very dirgy, goth music and the songs I was writing were reflecting that. I brightened up at some stage and started listening to The Go-Betweens, Liz Phair and Robyn Hitchcock, that kind of changed the way I approached songs. Songs became less grungey, more poppy, and had feeling to it. There was a language in the songs I was listening to that I was able to work with, I guess.”
Despite embracing pop elements in her writing, songs like the album’s title track take aim at the darker side of Australian culture and morality. Inspired by the Bali Nine, the song takes aim at a vocal segment of Australian society that is unable or unwilling to see or empathise beyond its own experience. “It was definitely influenced by the Bali Nine and everything that was going on at that time. I sat down and wrote that song very quickly, because you know, I was hearing the news and thinking how ridiculous it was, all these conservative politicians being all, ‘It’s not our problem, you shouldn’t have done it’. [It was] a very hard response to something that really didn’t require such a black and white view. I guess it’s a very broad a theme of fairness and how we treat each other.
“When I grew up in Adelaide I saw a lot more of that in the suburbs. I live in Melbourne now where everybody’s a bit more socially conscious. The inner north is this left-wing paradise, but it definitely represents a broader Australian way. The Australia that, once I leave my bubble, suddenly becomes a lot stranger.”
With a second album soon to be announced, Vager will make her return to Adelaide this weekend as RVG opens for Kurt Vile and the Violators’ current national tour. “This is our first show in Adelaide,” she says. “My parents are going to come which is exciting. I’ve only been back to Adelaide once since I was 17, believe it or not, to play a show with another band a few years ago. A terrible failure of a show that cleared the room,” she says of an ill-fated appearance at the Grace Emily. Which makes this show a homecoming of sorts.
“It’s a bit of a big deal,” she reflects. “I’ve got very unfinished business with Adelaide, that I’m looking forward to making steps to finishing.”
Kurt Vile and the Violators with RVG
The Governor Hindmarsh
Saturday, April 27