From under a mop of curls, Caleb Harper – Spacey Jane frontman, guitarist and songwriter – looks every part the disaffected Gen Z idol. But under the surface, and on songs like their mega-hit Booster Seat, he excavates specific and devastating memories of a life lived under a cloud of anxiety and depression.
“There’s a lot of theater around what we do – that sort of smoke and mirrors and lights,” Harper says from his home in Perth, where he’s settling back in after six months away, including a 17-date tour in Europe and the UK – the longest he’s ever spent away from the west coast. “But it’s hard to be enigmatic and also make the music that we make.
“And so we sort of blur this line between artists and just regular people. For me, it’s really difficult to navigate that. Sometimes you’re the performer, sometimes you’re just yourself, being really open and honest.”
The West Australian band has quickly gone from relative obscurity to one of the country’s most in-demand acts, with national tours and international interest coming thick and fast. Since the band formed six years ago, they have put out a string of buzzy releases including Good For You, Skin and Lots of Nothing, which landed at No 3 in Triple J’s 2021 Hottest 100 poll.
When the band started, Harper was failing out of university, where he was studying chemical engineering and finance. As a depressed teenager, he had built up impenetrable defense mechanisms; a craving for approval left him with an identity crisis. He flooded at uni and lost touch with music and his parents.
“Another wasted day / Sleeping off the hunger pains / Saying you’re ok … Getting fucked up and kicked out,” Harper sings on Not What You Paid For from Spacey Jane’s upcoming second album, Here Comes Everybody. The song is like stepping into a time warp, he says: “That’s a picture of what I was when I was 18, 19: a sort of chameleon-like person trying desperately to find community, and riddled with mental health things and drinking … I was in and out for a while.”
When he and his school friend Kieran Lama, who is both the band’s drummer and manager, got together to form Spacey Jane, it was a coincidental moment that ended up being a way out. “I would credit the band – both the music and the people – with giving me something to be passionate about,” Harper says. “I was a very lost kid and didn’t have any focus or drive to do anything.”
Their guitarist, Ashton Hardman-Le Cornu, joined later and in 2019, Peppa Lane – who describes herself as having been “a bit of a fan” of the band’s early work – replaced the outgoing bassist, Amelia Murray, completing the now tight- knit unit. (Murray stepped away from the band to study medicine and, according to Lama, is just a few months from “being a fully fledged doctor”.)
Rather than limiting them, the West Australian music scene was a supportive enclave for Spacey Jane in their early years, granting them the chance to become gig-fit before venturing further afield. Or, as Lama puts it, “Perth affords you the opportunity to be shit and get good”.
“We had the chance to cut our teeth for a few years before we could even afford to play shows over east,” Hardman-Le Cornu adds. “So by the time we did that, we were really ready.”
Their 2019 national tour took them to Melbourne’s Curtin Bandroom and the Lansdowne in Sydney – venues that could fit around 300 punters. When they returned to those cities a year later, after lockdowns and border closures, they had an debut album, Sunlight, that would reach No. 2 on the charts and were suddenly selling out the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and the Enmore Theater six times over .
Released in June 2020, Sunlight chronicled Harper’s experiences with mental illness and finding steady footing in relationships and the world. Those clear-eyed lyrics were doused in the sunny guitars and catchy choruses that see every Spacey Jane show resemble an especially enthusiastic prayer service, where everyone is reciting every line, word-perfect, with religious devotion.
“The thing that Sunlight showed me was that my experiences weren’t as unique as I thought they were,” Harper says.
He began writing Here Comes Everybody in the early days of the pandemic in a desperate attempt to shake off – or at least outsource – the confusion and panic he was living through. But after dredging up his fears and insecurities on the first batch of Spacey Jane songs – and finding a rapt and eager audience on the receiving end of them – he made a conscious effort to zoom out and try to put himself in their shoes.
“I think that I just got sick of talking about myself. I wanted to be a little bit less selfish in the writing,” he says. “Covid was a contributing factor in the sense that there was this collective navel-gazing took place, because you were just left with yourself.
“I wanted to get away from that and speak to what other people were thinking about.”
There might be few people in Harper’s position in Australia who can be this kind of generational vanguard, showing the kids who’ve had a couple of stunted, interrupted years that someone understands them. Across the record he tries to meet them where they are; on Bothers Me, he sings: “Graduate spend summer figuring out … Gave my young years toeing the line / I can’t remember months at a time”.
But most often, the record grapples with themes of self-destruction, veering between fucking up and beating yourself up for it and the anxiety gurgling away under it all. They’re common fixations for touring musicians, whose lifestyles serve to dredge up or exacerbate dormant personal issues. (Harper describes touring and all that comes with it – the partying, the bad food and worse sleep – as the “ugly side of the thing you love”.)
Harper is a little cynical of the label that’s been affixed to him because of his openness in interviews and his lyrics – “It’s been interesting to watch it be portrayed as this ‘indie-rock poster boy for mental health’,” he says – but seems to have accepted the responsibility to help young people, particularly young men, find ways to be vulnerable and seek support.
“I put myself in this position, but there are definitely times when I think I’m exposing myself too much,” he says. “It’s easier when you’re writing or when you’re on stage: there’s a character and there’s a song, lights and a PA to hide behind.”