Romy Vager has never been more excited to see her bandmates. A month into coronavirus lockdown, the vocalist and songwriter for RVG is at home doing press for her band’s second record, Feral. It’s Easter Friday, so the unusually quiet street outside is even more dormant when drummer Marc Nolte drops by her house. “I was like, oh, I get to see someone and talk to them!” She laughs, and her mop of jet-black hair shakes with her.
Even through a pixellated screen, she still looks the part of the dynamic and vital post-punk frontwoman who’s made festival and venue stages in Melbourne her territory since the band’s debut record, A Quality of Mercy, was released three years ago.
The comparisons to gloomy post-punk bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and local jangle legends the Go-Betweens flowed thick and fast, as did the praise and opportunities following the record’s release. RVG played SXSW and Roskilde, performed a BBC Radio 1 Live Session, supported international artists such as Future Islands and Sleaford Mods, and were nominated for four awards at both the 2017 Music Victoria Awards and the 2018 AIR Awards.
Vager was singled out for awards too. But while RVG was on the rise, she felt the impulse to shrink away from it.
“When we put the first record out, it was really lovely and the local Melbourne scene really loved it. And then we started to go overseas and we’d find ourselves playing at, like, SXSW and we’re playing over in Europe and things got a lot harder to get a hold on. It was good but I did cry a lot ’cause it was the first time I felt very isolated and different.”
She’s become used to it since, she says, but the sentiment comes up often in her writing. “I’m very used to keeping my head down and living a pretty quiet life, and then suddenly it got a bit louder.”
The title of the band’s second record encompasses all of that square peg emotion in two neat syllables. Feral, in this context, is not wildness or mange, it’s like the calling card of outsiders, or the secret genetic make-up of those who can’t find their place, who aren’t compelled to seek out the neat or traditional.
“I’ve been playing music in this weird indie scene that we have, which can be quite conservative,” Vager says. “As a trans person, as someone who’s not very socially good at talking to people, it’s been very difficult for me to get through it … I felt like I haven’t fit. Even playing gigs and being around things in the last few years, [I felt] really outside of things.”
On Feral’s songs, Vager performs autopsies on figures both real and imagined to understand the logic and lives of characters and people outside of herself.
The eponymous Christian Neurosurgeon recounts, in Vager’s lyrics, their day of cutting open brains and going home to pray, while Prima Donna imagines the future pitfalls of a beloved pop culture figure, one doomed to endure heckles from passing cars until their final days.
The record opens with the tortured and touching Alexandra, a song grounded in Vager’s experience of avoiding telling her family back home in Adelaide that she is trans. “I sort of spliced it with a couple of other stories; I’d read of queer people being set on fire by the families overseas. It’s this very hyper song … I like to heighten drama to make reality feel easier sometimes.”
On Alexandra, Vager channelled the fears she had when she ran away from home at age 17. “I never hurt anyone if you don’t count me / I cut a big hole in my heart, spent a year just watching it bleed,” she sings. She says it was about imagining the future she looked towards as a teenager, one in which everything turned out OK. “In the end it was. It was fine. But I’m also trying to fit in a lot of other points [in the song] about not feeling comfortable about where you come from, which is constant in the songs that I write.”
RVG’s first record was named for the song A Quality of Mercy, in which she sang from the perspective of a member of the Bali Nine contemplating how readers of Murdoch papers wished they were dead. Another track on that record, Vincent Van Gogh, revealed the hypocrisies of sensitive male artists who use their charms to manipulate and harm. Sometimes her character studies expose the contradictions of small-minded people, other times they offer an opportunity for empathy.
“I’m just trying to figure out how people work, and sometimes it’s good to write from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have the same viewpoints as you,” she says. “I do think there is some good in everybody and I’m trying to look for things that help me feel like I’m connecting with people more rather than pulling myself away.”
• Feral by RVG is out now through Our Golden Friend / Fire Records