May 26, 2024

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The Veronicas grew up in the public eye. Now they’re taking back control | Pop and rock

As the Veronicas see it, there is a thread connecting every mistake they’ve made in their nearly 20-year career: surrendering control. Across their two decades in music, they say others have pushed them in certain directions, sometimes against their own gut feelings. And it’s rarely gone well.

“The only regrets we have are the times that we haven’t listened to that inner voice, and we’ve been like, ‘OK, we’ll do it’,” says Jess Origliasso, one half of the chart-topping pop duo with her twin sister, Lisa. “And, like any career after that long, there have been quite a few of those times.”

Not that their own instincts have always worked for them, Lisa adds. “I mean, there’s been a lot of wild times, I’m not gonna say that there hasn’t. God, it’s [been] 20 years – it could have been a lot worse for us. We didn’t go to jail. None of us went to rehab. If anything, we were little punk rock emo girls just writing out our little feelings into music, and people were connecting with it.”

‘We were little punk rock emo girls just writing out our little feelings’: the Veronicas at the 2008 Aria awards. Photograph: PhotoNews International/FilmMagic

We’ve met to discuss the Veronicas’ sixth album, Gothic Summer, and the ups and downs that led to it. The ups are obvious. At age 20 they signed a $2m record deal with Warner Records in the US (one of the biggest deals in history for an Australian artist, Lisa proudly notes), kickstarting a career that would take them around the world. Their 2005 debut album went four times platinum and earned them an Aria award; the follow-up went platinum too, thanks in part to the global hit Untouched, a song you probably had on high-rotation on your iPod nano, and which cemented them as Australian pop royalty.

As for the downs, they may include some of those “wild times”. The pair became a tabloid fixture early on, the inevitable consequence of being candid and confident young women in the mid-aughts, an era famously cruel to female celebrities. Jess, who identifies as queer, was treated particularly badly, outed by the tabloids and then accused of kissing women as a publicity stunt. More recently, there have been other headlines. A high-profile relationship that broke down very publicly. A 2021 accusation that reality show Celebrity Apprentice was selectively editing them. There were endless rumours aired about the year the pair went without speaking, and the time they were removed from a plane by cabin crew.

The Veronicas haven’t much reason to trust the press – which gives context to how parts of the interview play out.

The Veronicas staged their own photoshoots for Gothic Summer, under the mentorship of photographer Tyler Shields. Photograph: Logan Huffman

When I meet them in a Sydney hotel lobby, the pair are cheery and warm, greeting me with a hug and sliding on to my wrist a leftover friendship bracelet from the Taylor Swift concert they were at two nights prior.

I’m surprised to find their manager will be sitting in too: a soft-spoken American woman called Alex seated at an adjacent table, who is also Jess’s fiance. Alex has held the role officially for the last six months, after two years of self-management. Part of the job description, Jess laughs, is to “try to shut us up and stop us from having opinions”.

And Alex does make her presence felt. At one point, I ask about the well-documented year the sisters didn’t speak, and she pauses her breakfast to interrupt: “You don’t have to answer. These are not approved topics.” But while sometimes specific subjects are flagged as off-limits before an interview is agreed to, that didn’t happen here; I’d been told in advance “some personal questions are OK”, and that they wanted to focus on their music.

Later, I bring up their 2019 reality show, The Veronicas: Blood is For Life, in which the pair get beauty injections, play shows, and bicker with each other. “I don’t think we need to talk about the reality show,” Alex says.

The sisters themselves are more forthcoming. “The reality of that show wasn’t necessarily reality. You know what I mean?” Jess answers. “It was a joke. It was a dramatised version of our lives. I was saying to Lisa, where’s my Gold Logie for the fight we had in the last episode?”

At this, Lisa shrugs. “I don’t even know why we did it.”

The Veronicas. Photograph: Logan Huffman

When answering a tricky question, the Origliassos have a habit of saying more, not less. Sometimes they’ll correct each other on details, or display a little sisterly tension, like when Lisa gently suggests Jess have “some self-awareness” about her own role in letting personal matters play out publicly.

But they’re also very funny, happily joking about the rare moments in their career where they had too much control. “We did style ourselves and do our own makeup way back in the day – I wish we hadn’t, to be honest,” Lisa laughs. “People were offering help but we said, no, we are doing this ourselves!”

The Origliassos had their eyes set on music from the beginning. The pair had been singing and dancing since they were little girls and, after their parents bought them guitars for their 16th birthday, began playing live wherever they could – they racked up “probably 1,000” gigs before they got signed, from local council Christmas concerts to sets at palliative care units. Then in their late-teen years, they signed a publishing deal as songwriters and spent two years “learning to collaborate and write”. It was on a songwriting trip to the US in 2004 that they met the manager who helped broker their huge deal with Warner.

The Veronicas on stage at the 2008 MTV Australia awards. Photograph: Kristian Dowling/Getty Images

What followed was years of nonstop touring and recording – as thrilling a time as it was “ultimately exhausting”. But instead of swiftly following up their first two hit albums with a third, it took four years for the Veronicas to get even a new single out, and another three before they had another record. It was, as Lisa says, “like we disappeared”.

They blame the changing industry of the late 2000s that left their label in a state of flux and without a steady A&R manager. It was impossible to get music approved for release, they say; in industry lingo they were “shelved”, and Jess says their career took “an irreconcilable hit”. “To have absolutely no power to release music to your fans, when you have built to that level – it was devastating to us.” (Warner Music declined to comment.)

The pair wrote a heartfelt plea for release from their contract to the new CEO of Warner, and signed to Sony Music instead; after their first single on the new label went to #1, Jess celebrated by tweeting “surprise, bitch” at Warner. “I don’t know why people didn’t take Twitter away from me at that time,” she groans now – but the full album went platinum too.

Michael Paynter, who worked as the Veronicas’ musical director from 2013 to 2020, says the twins have always had a strong vision for every element of their career – from what merch should look like to how a drum snare should sound.

“Those girls are razor sharp … Anything you’ve heard or seen or experienced about the Veronicas is because they wanted it that way,” Paynter says. “And I think that’s the reason why they’re still around – because they don’t leave anything about their career up to anybody else.”

But some things they had no control over. It would take another seven years to release their next album, and this time the break was personal. First was their year apart in 2017, which they don’t want to discuss. Then in 2018, their mother became sick with a degenerative illness, and they moved back to Australia to care for her until she passed in 2021. This time brought the pair closer together.

“When you have to … [come] together every day to try to alleviate a suffering that you can’t control, I don’t think that there’s a greater respect you could have for someone that’s willing to show up and be there,” Jess says. “Because a lot of people aren’t.”

While their career came second, songwriting was their “coping mechanism” – and in 2021 they released a pair of albums through Sony, wrapping up their contract and leaving them free agents to think about their next step.

‘We’re basically independent artists now.’ Photograph: Logan Huffman

They decided to do it all differently for album number six. Gothic Summer was released as a non-exclusive, one record deal through the independent US music publisher Big Noise, a label co-founded by their friend John Feldmann. The Veronicas are, as Jess puts it, “basically independent artists now”.

And they’re now directing every stage of the album release, including making their own music videos and styling and staging their own photoshoots, under the mentorship of US photographer Tyler Shields with Lisa’s husband, Logan Huffman, behind the camera. (The Veronicas did their own shoot for this piece, but the images weren’t released to the Guardian by deadline.) Having put as much of themselves into the business side has made Gothic Summer “a really rewarding body of work for us,” Lisa says.

The album is also a wildly fun romp: bouncy, carefree pop songs that feature drum from Blink 182’s Travis Barker, a guest appearance from Australian rapper Kerser and the occasional twangy strum of surf guitars. “It was a very hard few years for us,” Jess says. “It just felt really nice and fun to arrive at that place – like we were feeling joyful again.”

But there’s sincerity behind the snappy lyrics. The album’s lead single, Perfect, hits back at the airbrushed image of beauty that social media often presents, the sort of superficiality the twins have lost all interest in the years since losing their mum. “Loss is the number one thing that just changes your entire world,” Lisa says. “It’s like, oh, wait a minute, am I getting caught up in something that doesn’t actually matter?”

This new album finds them settled in their lives, both now happily partnered and splitting their time between homes in Queensland and the US, pulling back from putting so much of their lives on social media largely because “of the last seven years,” Jess says.

“I got tired of being loud … [Drama] is fun, we’re geared towards it, we’re human. But I didn’t want to be the person being the doer of that any more. I didn’t like who I was when I was doing that. It didn’t make me feel good.”

It’s a lesson they’ve learned the hard way.

“It is kind of wild to think about the fact we grew up in the public eye over the most formative years of our life,” Lisa says. “[People know] even more than, in hindsight, we would probably have liked them to.”

The interview doesn’t end as friendly as it began, and within about 20 minutes I get a call from one publicist, and an email from another; I’m told the Veronicas would like the profile killed. And in hindsight – if it does run – they’ve decided it should be focused on their new album and their future, as “this is not a 20th Anniversary piece”.

But after so long in the spotlight, the Origliasso sisters know better than most that that’s not how this works; that giving access means losing at least some control.

“We’ve always been proud of being strong, opinionated women, I feel like our hearts have always been in the right place,” as Lisa put it in our interview.

“How that’s perceived and written about and talked about, we can’t control that. But we can stand in our integrity and know that we’ve always done the best we can.”

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