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HANDSOME on starting a gang, the importance of self-love and self expression through music

16 April 2018 | 10:08 am | Max Lewis

Caitlin Park makes music under the moniker HANDSOME, which is a lot more than just a new solo project so we got to know all about her and what's to come.

HANDSOME (aka CAITLIN PARK) has already made a name for herself with just two tracks under her belt. Formerly making quirky indie goodness under her own name, she switched up the formula, adopted a cool stage name, and started making left-of-centre electronica that explored queer identity, friendship and defiance. The result was her debut as HANDSOME; 'Late Night Ball Game' ft JOYRIDE, a mishmash of electropop, trap and alternative RnB that told us everything we needed to know about her new persona. The track and its gorgeous accompanying video - directed by HANDSOME - dropped during the tumultuous postal survey on same-sex marriage. At a time where Australia's queer community was feeling alone, 'Late Night Ball Game' had a simple but powerful message of friendship and self-love.

In March this year, she dropped her second single in 'Save Some Love', a slightly more pop yet no less powerful track, with a central message of saving some love for yourself after looking out for other people. The video - again directed by HANDSOME - hammered home this point in a way that was both heartwarming and visually stunning, and really showed off HANDSOME's knack for both musical and visual storytelling in a simple but effective way.

About to play her very first headlining shows as HANDSOME at the end of April, the stage is set for her to do something truly exceptional this year. We caught up with HANDSOME as she prepares for her tour, talking about the 'HANDSOME Gang', the aesthetic of 90s films and the musical allure of the city.

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So I’ll start off with the super obvious question; what is HANDSOME?

I was kind of making music before, under Caitlin Park, and was having a great time doing that, and then, I was making a new record for CP stuff, and it kind of got to a point where I didn’t really feel like the Caitlin Park "brand" - for lack of a better term - really fit me anymore. I think it had a lot to do with me sort of growing up, meeting some new people who became really close knit in my life, including a huge part of the queer community. There’s also a part about music I wasn’t really doing before which was using music to say something that I really cared about. I really felt like I wanted to start something new, so HANDSOME started to come into fruition. I started to play around with the name for a while - my girlfriend was like, "Nah, that’s never gonna work!” [laughs] It really felt right to me. I think of HANDSOME as a word and something that I relate to - it’s something I aspire to be. If somebody describes me as ‘handsome’ it feels like me, rather than pretty or beautiful or whatever. The idea that HANDSOME is a celebration of self-expression; I felt like that idea made sense to me personally.

You’ve thrown around stuff about the ‘HANDSOME Gang’ a lot on your social media - can you tell me a little about that and how it came about?

Good question! At the start of HANDSOME as we were building it, I kind of just wanted it to be as much of a collective as it is a solo project. The HANDSOME band has two other people involved, but so many of the video clips I’m making and plan to make will involve heaps of different people, and I want it to be a community of its own. I also want people to feel like if they’re apart of the HANDSOME gang and a part of this music, that they feel really safe [like] the way I feel like the queer community does for me. I would like to build something of a community and group of my own. So when people come to our shows, be the brand or the name, or they wear a badge that says 'HANDSOME GANG', they really feel like they’re part of something really special and safe.

I was trying to think of a contemporary example of something like the HANDSOME Gang and the best I could do was the WU-TANG CLAN.

Yeah! [laughs]

In so far as it’s a collective of people that come and go but it’s a very identifiable name and brand - you see it and you know exactly what it is.

Yeah! I mean, I have to admit there’s something so alluring to me about the idea of being in a gang. I feel like as much as people may deny that, they may deny that more so as they get older. I think it’s alluring to everyone, being apart of something others aren’t a part of, something exclusive. There’s obviously the negativity of gang mentality but, being a part of something special is really alluring to most people I think. To add to that as well, I was talking to someone recently - we’ve started this idea of “What is HANDSOME to you?” and I love the idea of people having different descriptors of what that is personally. The character of HANDSOME to me is kind of like in early 1940s or 50s films, I imagine, like, ‘Out on the Prairie’, country-western, there’s one character who’s kind of chubby, doesn’t speak - maybe he’s mute. Not really that good looking, but everyone calls him ‘handsome’. Everyone’s like, “Who’s that?” and they say “Oh, that’s Handsome, he doesn’t talk much.” That's kind of how I always imagined the character to be. Not that it’s anything like me! But that’s the whole idea I guess.

Like putting a name and a face to ‘the other’.

Yeah, exactly! I’m excited to see where people get involved with the idea of the HANDSOME gang and also - join in on what they think. More than anything I want it to be a community but also a sort of movement of people going out of their way to celebrate self expression. I think that’s the essence of what it’s about.

Do you have any plans to expand the HANDSOME brand any further?

Yeah, I’ve got heaps! It’s never ending. My partner’s just like, “God dammit, relax!” [laughs] I’d love to do some stuff - we’re looking at doing some great merch and I’d love to look at that further. But more than anything it would be really great to come up with some kind of network involved with just answering anybody’s questions or queries. Maybe for younger kids who don’t really feel like they fit in, and how we can help by utilising our experience. You don’t have to be afraid of being who you are. I don’t know whether that turns into a group on Facebook, or that goes even further and we create an online hub to assist those questions and stuff. I don’t know yet, there’s heaps of ideas in the works, so we’ll see.

In terms of media and art, do you see HANDSOME progressing beyond music and film?

Yeah! Maybe down the line. I like the idea of expanding the HANDSOME gang around visual arts and doing collaborations with certain artists. I feel like there’s a real strength in the queer community, and allies, and the arts community is heaps like that as well. I don’t want to create a group that just shuts out people that are non-queer. But the idea of collaborating with visual artists for merch, or prints, film clips, we can really change attitudes and minds of young people that struggle with their identity and self expression, and look back on how we can monetise it to put money back into the community. I think that would be a strong step, but it would also be really fun!

Focusing on music a little more; what influences your musical direction for HANDSOME?

Heaps of stuff I guess. One thing that’s notable, especially between Caitlin Park and HANDSOME, is that there’s no acoustic instruments used at all. I feel more than anything that it’s accessibility. I know I can make all the music I’m making in my small studio at home, and there’s something so freeing about that. In terms of stuff I’ve been listening to and feels inspiring; bands like The XX and producers like Jamie XX, Sylvan Esso is a really big inspiration. Music that kind of finds a way of making pop or pop-directed music that’s really left of centre, that uses all these intricate moments as hooks; those are the things that really entice my musical ears. I feel like if you listen to ‘New Music Fridays’ or any ‘Best of New Music’ on Spotify or Apple and stuff, you can listen to a whole lot, and there’s so much same-y music, but there’s also heaps of people doing really exciting things, stepping in a new direction of pop. Artists that sort of step out of the boundary really excite me, and I feel like it’s happening more and more. As well as that, RnB and hip-hop is a big new step musically for me, especially using 808 beat making and using synths - those kind of aesthetics are a really different thing for me, and it’s really fun!

Yeah, I really loved the retro aesthetic ‘Save Some Love’ had with the 707 drum machine mixed with the modern production - it was a neat touch!

Thank you! ‘Save Some Love’ was such a beast - I tell my friends that it’s my ‘opus’. I’ve never spent so much time on a song before. It took me over a year and a half to finish. I was in the studio with Benjamin Fletcher and David Hunt - really well known for writing with Sarah Blasko, and with Marina and the Diamonds in the UK. When you listen to that piano part you can really get a Sarah Blasko vibe, it’s sort of dark and…intense? I went in and had a listen to the way they were tinkering, and later took the stems with me. A year and a half after that I came up with the final ‘Save Some Love’ that took it in a different direction. I did really want to do something that felt like a journey, and felt really like there were parts to it. I think the thing I really struggled with in finalising it was making sure each of those moments came together; that there was something that connected them. Finally getting the outro vocals - you know, the “Don’t let me go, don’t let me go” part - I finally felt like everything sort of clicked and I thought, “Thank God!” I always wanted it to be phenomenal. I wanted to be really proud of it - and I am!

I thought the video was phenomenal as well. That and your video for ‘Late Night Ball Game’ really drew me into the HANDSOME brand. How important is this visual aspect to HANDSOME?

So important! I think that visual aspects are so important for artists, with social media and stuff. But music videos have always been so important to me - it is such a privilege to have your music put to a vision. From day one, I wanted the visual element of HANDSOME to be front and centre, a major part of building the HANDSOME gang and the idea of community. A lot of the characters in ‘Late Night Ball Game’ are also in ‘Save Some Love’. I hope to continue that continuity.

Do you have any particular influences for your visual side?

More casual visual stuff. I mean, 90s films are a big part of it. From the single covers, photo direction - a lot of it is based on Winona Ryder films, and that really amazing feeling that a lot of 90s films had of groups of friends and the casual nature of teenagers. For ‘Save Some Love’, the opening shot is of my friends Nic and Rachel having a conversation, grilling the scheme of what ‘Save Some Love’ turns into. I actually wrote a script for them, and it was totally based around the dialogue used in the original Puberty Blues. I always loved how the dialogue in Australian films was executed - Dead End Drive-In with Ned Manning as well - where the execution of the dialogue is just so casual. It almost doesn’t seem like it’s acted. The dialogue didn’t end up working well but it was really fun to play with that idea together.

Something I recognised in your videos as well - and this is probably just me over analysing - but it’s like Sydney itself is as much of a recognisable character in your videos as your friends. Was that something you tried to tie in?

Not really. When I was making these songs, I actually moved to Brooklyn on the Central Coast for a year, and that’s basically where I was mixing all of these songs and finishing them off. I love a part of the HANDSOME idea being me escaping the city. At the time I was like, "I love the idea of shooting a video of me on a boat in the water, escaping the hubbub of city life." I realised when putting the aesthetics together and making the videos, there’s so much of it that is so "city." There’s not a warmth of country life at all, it’s really metallic. All I imagine is a group of friends getting drunk on a rooftop at 6am. Sydney obviously is where I live and where we made the videos, but I think mainly for me it’s city-centric music.

Would you want to explore that sense of city escapism in your music later on?

Maybe, yeah! I guess at the moment I like the idea of finding escapism within the confines of complex worlds. Whether that’s just looking into the eyes of your friends or your partner even though you’re surrounded by the crazy complexities of stuff going on everywhere, you find that escapism elsewhere. When it comes to making music with a warmer sound, I’m not sure. I like the idea of exploring different avenues at the moment. I’m just about to jump into the studio and write some more stuff. I feel like it could go a bunch of different ways - I’m pretty excited about it!

You’re doing your first headline shows at the end of April - how does that feel?

It feels so good! It’s such a different thing than what I’ve ever done before. There's two other people in my band - Shana and Albie  - and it feels so good to be in a band that is really energised and really on board with the movement and what it means to me, really wanting to be apart of a group of people. And also, I make the music but then I bring these people in, and I just get to sing, I don’t have to play anything! I’m excited to be making music that people can connect with but can also dance to, and vibe off the energy of the music and the room.

Do you have any plans to make the live HANDSOME experience a unique subsection of the brand, in the same way that the music and videos are standalone entities?

It’s funny you say that, my girlfriend keeps talking about the ‘HANDSOME experience’. I feel like you can only garner that kind of label if you’re like, Queen or something - ‘The Queen Experience’. That’s a really good point though, it’s something we want to look at for the future. You know, curating nights, making parties, collaborating with artists that aren’t just musicians but visual artists or spoken word actors. I really look forward to doing that in the future. In this time as we’re just building stuff it’s just the show as is, which in itself is an experience. But down the line we plan to put all of those elements into the melting pot and create some really special things.

I can’t wait to see what you guys come up with!

Yeah! Thanks so much! Thanks for your support on the videos as well - I’m happy you really "got" it.

Yeah, ‘Late Night Ball Game’ came at a really interesting time - what with the plebiscite, and in my own personal development. So I guess that’s why it clicked with me so much.

Yeah! It’s really funny because me and JOYRIDE wrote ‘Late Night Ball Game’ almost a year and a half before the plebiscite was even brought up. It was always gonna be a single, and it was great we could do it as a launchpad for HANDSOME because it kind of felt like I was coming out all over again *laughs*. Which actually felt really good, it really carried the brand straight away for me. I was really glad it came out at a time where I think a lot of people in the community really needed support. We got a lot of messages from people that said it helped them, which is phenomenal to hear. It sort of strangely fell into place. I wished the plebiscite never happened but I’m glad with the result. I think that’s why artists and musos and all of us make this kind of stuff - it’s great to have the platform to do it.

Tickets are running out for HANDSOME's debut headline tour of Sydney and Melbourne, so be sure to grab your tix HERE!


Thursday 26 April

Lansdowne Hotel, Sydney

Friday 27 April

The Gasometer (Upstairs), Melbourne