We were lucky enough to catch up with musician Ilona Mahieu following the excellent release of ‘Stiletto’. Enjoy the full interview now!
Hi Ilona, tell us about yourself?
Hi! My name is Ilona, and my band is Ilona Mahieu. We’re all 21/22, we’re based in Guildford, UK, and we write atmospheric indie-rock inspired by a huge range of different artists and genres. I love to write songs rich with emotion, and it’s always been super important to me that the lyrics I write are clever, thoughtful and original.
My band (Emma, Jack and Mark) are the ones responsible for bringing them to life, and they do an amazing job at that. It’s also important to me that our visuals are as bold and interesting as our songs, so I work hard to make sure our album artwork, promotional photos, music videos, etc., Match the vision I have in my head. In a way, this allows me to show the listener a window into my mind and let them really experience the story I’m trying to tell with each song.
Tell us about your latest release, ‘Stiletto’?
This song is about that voice in your head telling you to give up the game and go home – beautifully bitter and full of attitude, the sentiment of this track is nostalgic for pop-punk throwbacks such as ‘Misery Business’ by Paramore.
The lyrics centre around the metaphor of the Queen of Hearts and the Court Jester mirroring one another, or a Queen fallen from grace. I always really liked the imagery behind playing cards and Alice In Wonderland, as well as the idea of dressing up in heels and pretending to be someone you’re not (putting on a mask, hence the jester mask imagery) just to impress someone who isn’t even paying attention.
This was the initial inspiration behind the song; as a teenager I noticed myself doing this and trying too hard in an effort to fit in and gain the approval of people who didn’t care about me. This song is about grabbing myself by the shoulders and shaking myself out of it.
What was your songwriting process for this latest single?
I started writing this song when I was 15 and finished it when I was 17/18. I always had a really clear concept, and vision for this track – the Queen of Hearts and playing card imagery is baked into the lyrics, so I wanted the music to be dramatic and punchy to match. Before the band, I played all my songs on an acoustic guitar, but this song was always meant to be a lot more than that – the soothing acoustic vibe just didn’t do it justice.
Taking 2 to 3 years to finish writing a song may seem like a long time, but this is the process I follow with a lot of my songs. I am constantly noting down lyrical ideas and recording melodies in the voice notes on my phone, and over time I’ll accumulate a group of ideas that have been subconsciously linked. I take a lot of pride in my lyrics and if a line doesn’t sit quite right or I know deep down the writing could be better I will keep letting the song sort of stew in my mind until the right words come along. Sometimes I might write an entire song, then much later down the line scrap the whole thing and strip it down to one idea and build it back up from there, bigger and better.
What was the recording process of ‘Stiletto’ like?
We recorded the song along with our previous two singles, ‘In My Bones’ and ‘Criminal’ at AJA Studios back in January 2020. I had recorded a demo a year, or so prior with different musicians, so I had a good idea of what kind of sound I was after.
Our engineer and producer Ryan (105mm Studios) had been looking forward to working on this track in particular as it’s one of our heavier tunes. He’s always had a really good understanding of how to marry what I want and what the song needs. As I do with all of our music, I recorded the vocals myself at home as I prefer to be alone when I record, so I have the time and space to experiment with different approaches to the performance.
I also edit my own vocals before sending them to Ryan to mix. However, for this song he insisted we record at least the choruses and the outro together so that he could pull a stronger performance out of me – you can hear in the track, it absolutely worked. I don’t think I’ve been able to pull off those notes quite like that before or since, to be honest.
Ilona Mahieu began as a solo project and became a band project, what sparked the change?
I always intended for my music to become a band project, but growing up, I struggled to find anyone who played music and could write with me. I started singing and writing lyrics and melodies at a really young age, and when I was 13, I started teaching myself basic guitar skills so I could play songs properly. It took until I went to university to finally meet the right group of people, and while I knew that turning it into a band project would transform the songs, I never anticipated how much positive change the others would bring. I’m really grateful to them, and the music would not be the same without them.
What message do you think your music conveys to your fans?
To be honest, I’m not totally sure. I would say that instead of a message, the music I write is intended to convey an emotion and tell a story. I want to encourage people to embrace and indulge in vulnerability, be it their own or from the perspective of someone else.
‘Stiletto’ is alternative-rock in genre, what draws you to write in that style?
I grew up being a massive fan of bands such as Paramore, My Chemical Romance, and Evanescence. We get compared to Evanescence in particular very often. I love the theatrics and huge powerful vocal performances, as well as the gritty instrumentation and production. However, we never aim to write within a certain genre – we simply play and see what sounds good to us. I think it’s important not to limit yourself to one style, and due to our huge range of influences between the four of us, we often take elements from a variety of different artists and genres.
What’s the music scene like in Guildford?
As a student town, the music scene is awesome. We met when attending ACM (Academy of Contemporary Music), so Guildford is packed with musicians and creatives. Our first show as a band was at the Star Inn, and we’ve watched plenty of our friends perform there as well as the Boileroom and the Holroyd. Nights out in Guildford town feel like a music festival because you’re constantly running between venues trying to catch all the shows on. We’ve unfortunately not had that many opportunities to perform due to the pandemic, but fingers crossed we will be able to soon enough.
Who are your non-musical influences?
I like to write about people and situations around me. I try to put myself in their shoes and write from their perspective; it all goes back to wanting to tell a story. Everything I write is very personal and introspective, but not necessarily always to me. Sometimes I’m inspired by what someone around me has done, and sometimes I want to explore what I would do if I was in their position. A great example of this is a song I released in 2019 with my friend Kayncee called “Dysart”.
I wrote this song after studying the play ‘Equus’ by Peter Shaffer for school, and I always found the themes and ideas really interesting. The track even samples quotes from the film adaptation. The comparison of perspectives between a psychiatrist and his patient fascinated me, and I got Kayncee to watch the film and research the play so that we could create our own interpretation together.
What do you think are the biggest obstacles for bands/artists today?
Social media is both a blessing and a curse for musicians today. Accessing an audience is more available than ever before, but that also means everyone else is fighting for their attention. It’s so easy to just drown in all the noise. I find myself regularly getting lost in the marketing side of things, obsessing over numbers and losing sight of what’s actually important.
I compare myself to other artists too, and social media gives the impression that everyone is doing really well. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of these ‘online courses’ and pay-to-play gigs that take advantage of bands and artists just starting out and looking for some guidance. I try to remind myself to focus on the art and trust the process – if the music is as good as I believe it is, then people will listen.
What are your hopes for the next two years?
Obviously a lot of our goals are at risk of being interrupted by the global pandemic, which can’t be helped. Despite everything, we’ve been continuing to write new material, and ideally, we would really like to record our debut EP within 2021. We’re super proud of our discography so far, and we’re just eager to keep expanding it and play as many gigs as we can get our hands-on.
FVMusicBlog January 2021
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