Our own Amber Caitlin Sammut sat down with Leona Farrugia, Janelle Borg, Leanne Zammit and Michelle Farrugia, the girls behind the well known band Cryptic Street, for an in depth chat about everything from the band’s sound to the Maltese music scene in general.
“You should probably hold your nose for a bit.” I’m warned as I’m led down a series of narrow staircases to the band’s garage, where we’ll be holding the interview. And they’re right. The garage area is dingy, dirty and dark, an unidentifiable liquid floods the steps and the eerie lighting casts strange shadows against the walls. If you think that’s any reflection of the actual garage though, you’ve got another thing coming. Packed to the brim with sound equipment and instruments, the girls welcome me into their space, a sofa, armchair, mini-fridge and comfortable lighting giving it a homely vibe, while the lack of cellular reception gives it a clubhouse-like feel. We’re in a home away from home; a secret musical hive.
We settle in and get comfortable and start off the night with a simple first question: What four words would you use to describe Cryptic Street’s sound?
The girls throw words around and they settle for “eccentric”, “angry” (which is met by unanimous agreement), “shocking” and “fun”, words which I’m quick to point out differ greatly from their past work. Looking around you though, you can tell. Each of the girls, Janelle Borg, Leanne Zammit, Leona Farrugia and Michelle Farrugia, are sporting fresh, vibrant hair colours, bringing each of their own equally vibrant personalities to the surface. I ask them, why the sudden change? They tell me that they’ve all changed, and so have their emotions. Have they gotten angrier?
“Leona.” Janelle (guitar) tells me teasingly.
“Well yes,” Leona (vocals) explains. “Certain experiences happened throughout this short period of time and obviously it influenced my approach to music, the way I write lyrics, and the way I approach life basically.”
“Now she’s aggressive and bad ass.” Janelle jokes, something Leona is quick to tell me is not the case.
However she does mention the large amount of influence each of them have on one another, and the music they make, especially in times of stress and turmoil. “In a way we kind of empathise through the music because we’re all on the same wavelength. Someone comes in frustrated and a song comes out of it.” explains Leanne (bass).
This sparks some curiosity about the song writing process itself, so I ask them how they get it to flow.
The other girls push Michelle (drums), who has up till this point remained silently seated on the sofa next to me, to answer. As the youngest member, at only fifteen years old, she’s the newest to the music scene and the band in general, and I’m told that this is actually her first interview.
“We just jam and see what come’s out of it.” she tells me shyly. I ask her what it’s like for her as the newest girl on the scene. She tells me that it’s different to what she expected, especially in terms of the song writing experience, which she thought would be a lot more structured, however she says that she likes it. The other girls tease her and that seems to be the norm; they’re relaxed and laid back with each other, confident in each others presence.
We move on to more pressing matters: Rock the South and their plans for the weekend long gig. “Basically, the planning part is that we’re bringing a Spanish act from Madrid,” Janelle tells me. “His name is Lois, and we got in contact with him via Instagram.” something she tells me took a lot more work than one would expect. “In terms of Rock the South, we’re releasing a new merchandise line. We’re trying to be more professional.”
“in the years we tried to be somebody that we’re not”
“I think what happened,” Leona chimes in, “is that in the years we tried to be somebody that we’re not, like when you’re still trying to find your identity and experiment, with the music genes especially, you tend to delve into a different thought, or do what people want.” The end of that seems to be nigh as Leanne tells me that they’ll be preforming mostly brand new songs during their set at Rock The South this year. Is this a goodbye to “Stranger”?
“Not goodbye,” consolidates Janelle, “but it doesn’t represent who we are now. Especially in terms of the line up change, you can’t really speak up for the past members with the music that we’re doing now, which was an issue with past members because maybe not everyone agrees with the direction we’re taking but, like, f*ck everyone. At a certain point in your life you just say, f*ck what everyone thinks, this is who we are now. In terms of the new music, the aggressiveness wasn’t planned but it’s very cathartic at this point.”
“f*ck what everyone thinks, this is who we are now”
I move on and ask them about their recent musical adventure in Spain, which Michelle explains was four days, over which they all experienced living together for the first time. When I ask them about what living together was like, they seem to agree that they’d enjoyed it, and that it was an opportunity for both Leanne and Michelle to get used to Janelle and Leona. The latter two are the only original members and have been friends for sixteen years, describing each other as moody but saying that they have adapted to each others quirks.
Leanne tells me that she considers Spain to be one big adventure, in the performing experience, through which they received lots of helpful input, as well as in the social experience. (“We moved some guy to tears!”). And from what they tell me (most of which I’m told is not suitable for print – sorry!) they had quite the wild few nights, a group favourite being a particularly tearful evening in a bar, and a shocking game of “Never Have I Ever…”. All in all it was a bonding experience they all enjoyed, so much so they’re to do it again, joining Lois over the summer as part of their deal with their management; during which they’re hoping to do promotion for their new album being recorded in July, another project that they’re excited about.
Eleven tracks, completely different to their EP “Stranger”, including two demo songs currently available to listen on the band’s SoundCloud. I ask them if they are worried about possible negative responses from past fans in reaction to their change in sound? Janelle says no, stating that their fan base has never been concrete due to their inconsistency as a band in the past.
“With past members, it’s always been like a roller-coaster with people wanting to leave; and the departure of Julia [Hickey] felt like a break up.” confesses Leona, talking about their ex-drummer who left the band to pursue her tertiary education in Scotland. “We’d known each other for sixteen years, we grew up together, so it truly felt like a break up. We cried for f*cking hours.”
Janelle continues, “Then when Denise [Gilford] (played keyboard) left we started to question what we were going to do; are we going to continue to perform? You have to think, we’ve [her and Leona] been on this project for six years, we’ve invested a lot into this.”
Despite this worry, they’re happy to take each opportunity as it comes and feel strongly about staying together as a group and making the most of every situation.
“It’s like a family to me”
“It’s like a family to me, and I think you need to create that bond, but when it comes to work it’s work. It’s like a second job but we get payed with satisfaction.” say Leona.
“I really see it like maintaining a relationship because you have to meet fairly often and you have to put effort into keeping it working.” Leanne agrees. “Like a f*cked up boyfriend!” Leona concludes, and the others find this amusing.
“I do worry about the original fan base though. It is a priority for me because, after all, you need a certain appreciation from the audience. I almost want [Rock The South] to happen as soon as possible to see the reaction.”
“They might be a bit disappointed,” concludes Leanne, “but I think that depends a lot on what their music taste is, and even if they don’t like the new direction, the EP will still be there for them.”
“It’s not for everyone,” agrees Leona, “but when I write the lyrics I want it to be really true, exactly what I’m thinking at the time, like a diary but saying it out loud. If I wanted to say “f*ck you!” then I just say it. That’s it. That’s how I am in my every day life, I’m a very honest person.”
“I think in this day and age, with all the fake people around, there needs to be some realness.” says Janelle.
“What’s important is that this sound is what we’re comfortable with at this point in time.” finishes Leanne.
Following that, I decide to close off our interview with one final question: what do the girls think of the Maltese music scene as artists themselves?
The girls all agree that there needs to be more collaboration between female artists, both on a local and and international level. “We’ve got to band together,” Leona tells me, “We’re f*cking females there’s no difference! I’ve worked with men all along, and I hate to say it; but it [the scene] is male dominated, and there shouldn’t be this kind of friction with other girl bands.”
“The gender thing shouldn’t make a difference.” Leanne agrees, “The friction shouldn’t be just for the sake of being girl bands.”
All the girls agree that there is the problem of girls bands not supporting each other, and an unhealthy level of competition and jealousy between them, something I find interesting because it’s not something that seems to be all that heavily publicized; but it makes sense the more they explain it. Many all-female bands tend to be pitted against each other and compared in the media, and it makes sense that that could cause problems between them, especially in a business where publicity is key. Despite this, the girls all agree that this is more of a social issue.
“It’s not about being a good female musician, it’s about being a good musician.”
“I call myself a feminist and I’m not afraid of saying it because for me it’s being equal with all genders and sexualities. I don’t know why people are so ashamed to say it, because if they are it’s probably because they don’t know the sociology behind it. It’s ignorance and it makes me angry.” says Janelle, who is also an anthropology student at the University of Malta.
“Some people have corrupted the term by going rogue.” Leanne explains, “Which is probably why ‘egalitarian’ has become the preferred term. The way I see it, if you’re good at what you do, the whole gender thing will work out for itself. It’s not about being a good female musician, it’s about being a good musician.”
In an attempt to get back on track, I ask Michelle what she thinks of the scene as a new musician and she explains that she doesn’t think it’s promoted as well as it could be. “Before I joined the band, I had never been to Maltese gigs, I didn’t even know of any Maltese bands, nothing.” but she also attests that they’re very welcoming and supportive.
“We’ve had a lot of bands backing us up, we’re such a small community that we need to help each other. If one person gets an opportunity the whole island gets the attention so it really helps.” Leona says. “We’re just big fish in a small pond, it’s useless to be overly competitive.” Janelle agrees. “I feel like it’s a very, maybe not close community, but it’s easy to get known.” Leanne points out.
So it isn’t difficult for new musicians to get attention? “We had Peter Borg and Matthew James Borg from Red Elektrik helping us out as well.” Leona tells me of their beginning as a band. “We recorded at Peter’s studio and his band backed us a lot. They helped us see a lot of different scenarios out of music, to network. At that point we were only fourteen, we didn’t know anything but they taught us a lot. And even Nicky Morales [no snow/no alps; BILA] was always there for the Maltese bands and approached us at that time.”
Leona in fact then went on to work with Nicky Morales and is currently also the keyboardist and backing vocalist for no snow/no alps, while Janelle also works with new-comers Oxygyn. Not bad from the fourteen year olds who “didn’t know anything”. Leona tells me that it’s difficult balancing both bands, especially since no snow/no alps is so well established in Malta (they’ve even just celebrated their 10 years on the music scene) but she seems to enjoy it.
All in all, these girls are passionate about what they do, and it resonates in both the music and the way they discuss it. Wishing them luck, I leave them to get on with their rehearsal. They’re making music, they’re loving what they do and being unequivocally themselves as they do it. Cryptic Street is revving the engine, showing no signs of stopping, and hopefully they never will.
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