When Jessame Stepto left class one day in late March, her whole year group was “standing there in tears”, she says. Her inner-city Sydney school had told students to leave early to prepare for online learning, and no one knew when they’d be coming back. Or, for the year 12 cohort, if they’d be coming back at all.
“Everyone was hugging and that’s when I started to cry too,” Stepto says. “I know it’s kind of morbid, but I thought year 12 was over. It was a lot to take in.”
Another big part of Stepto’s life had changed in a flash as well. Along with Lissa Evans (drums), Taylor Shutes (bass) and Isabelle Lowe (vocals), Stepto (guitar) plays in Erthlings, a band formed when three of the girls were eight years old. Signed in 2018 by Future Classic (also label to Flume and G Flip), Erthlings debuted their languid, shoe-gaze rock to packed rooms at Bigsound in Brisbane the same year, parents in tow. “We felt young but, like, stupidly mature – even though we definitely weren’t,” Shutes says.
Throughout years 10 and 11, Erthlings got good at balancing school and band, packing their books to play festivals such as Splendour in the Grass and Groovin’ the Moo, and tour nationally with Amy Shark for six weeks, doing four-day weeks at school and flying interstate each Friday.
Backstage at Splendour they “nearly touched [Tame Impala’s] Kevin Parker once” as he walked by, says Shutes – but they were too intimidated to say hi to Billie Eilish. “We were so shy we didn’t speak to anyone, we just sat in corners staring at people.”
When we meet at Stepto’s parents’ terrace in Paddington, the band are exuding a kind of dazed relief. HSC exams finished a few days ago and, a week earlier, their first song in two years was released, Irrational. It’s about overreacting to a situation, they explain, and being told to calm down.
“Being teenage girls, we get that a lot,” says Shutes. “It’s like, I know I’m being irrational but I just need to feel this way for a minute. I don’t really want to profile us as the moody teenage girls who can’t contain their emotions but to be honest, we all felt it was a common experience.”
2020 had been planned as a quiet one for Erthlings due to HSC commitments. Being based in Sydney, not Melbourne, they learnt from home for only about two months. But according to Evans, “the uncertainty continued” and it hasn’t really stopped.
While 2020 didn’t bring any devastating derailments for the band, as it did for so many others in the music industry, 2021 is a different matter. “We were going to travel and just take off,” says Shutes, but “it’s kind of all crashed”, finishes Stepto. “It’s put a lot of doubt in our mind,” Stepto continues. “Should we tackle uni? What’s going to happen in the future? There’s a lot of question marks.”
Erthlings’ still-forming 2021 plans had looked a lot like realising their dreams. “We were going to fully commit to the band – travelling for shows, writing music all the time, working with new people,” Stepto says. Talking to them, you remember how bright the horizon burned in your final year at school; the light at the end of the line. Regardless of whether you’d planned a gap year, digging straight into uni, or a year abroad: if you were lucky, it was your decision to make – and it felt truly exhilarating.
Yet as the conversation continues, another theme arises: a resilience born specifically from the uncertainty this year has cruelly heaped on everyone. “We’re used to not knowing what’s going to happen now,” says Evans. “At the moment, I only think a week ahead,” says Stepto. “I don’t want to think too existentially, months ahead, I just can’t cope with it.” It’s an outlook it would be hard to counter with any 18-year-old right now.
Shutes feels the same. “Because so much unexpected stuff happened this year and everything changed really quickly, it’s made me feel like planning too much in advance doesn’t matter any more. Like, new jobs are maybe going to emerge anyway? So take what’s in front of you, follow what you’re interested in at the time.”
In lieu of touring or travelling, the members of Erthlings are going to start university and defer their studies if things begin to reopen. “None of us want to let the band just flop,” says Shutes. And they shouldn’t; they were on to a good thing.
“There are lots of rumours going around that music industry people are out to undermine you, use you, but we haven’t seen that side of things,” Stepto says. “Everyone’s been so wonderful and supportive.”
Erthlings play a Graduation Party gig at Oxford Art Factory on December 11.