Mel O’Neill / marigolden

Mel O’Neill / marigolden

Artist / Musician

marigolden melds indie-rock & alt-rnb. Opinionated but full of questions, she just wants her songs to feel like a warm hug. Maturing as a musician and human since her last single, marigolden wants you to hear exactly what is going on inside her head.

Digging into the creative process, Byta speaks with artists, musicians, producers, DJs and anyone involved with music creation. A conversation about how they create, collaborate and share music. From studio setups to routines, and the first person to hear about the next 'big' work.

Where are you based?

Wurundjeri country, Melton/Melbourne, VIC.

How, when and where did you start making music? Are you primarily a musician or a producer, or do something else?

At heart, I’m a songwriter and I sing and play instruments to communicate what I write. When I was six years old I told my sisters I wanted to be a singer. My dad is a pipe organist and pianist so music was apart of our family. I started writing songs when I was 14 and got into a performing arts school around the same age so I was simultaneously putting together these punk-folk-sad-girl songs at home while singing classical music at school. I studied classical voice at University but at the end of my first year, my first long term relationship broke up, and I remember someone telling me that the music you turn to when you are heartbroken is the music that means the most to you. I turned to songwriting and indie-folk music so I realised I wanted to make a change.

I got some lessons, auditioned to transfer to the Jazz stream at Uni, somehow managed to get in and they put me straight into second year. I had never sung jazz before in my life so I had to work my butt off and spent most of my evenings on campus in practice rooms. But studying jazz has informed my songwriting and I’m glad I made the change.

Who would you consider some of your biggest influences when it comes to your “sound”?

I’m a chronic genre hopper and it’s troublesome. The artists I look up to are the ones who sound unashamedly themselves and can write the shit out of a song – artists like Lianne La Havas, Phoebe Bridgers, Angie McMahon, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac. I’ve definitely stolen from Lianne La Havas’s guitar playing, giving the strings a little shimmy and bend. I wish I could steal her giant handspan for my guitar playing also. Angie McMahon’s vocal tone is dee-vine and brings me a lot of inspiration. And the production on Phoebe Bridgers’ tracks give me courage to think outside the box.

Explain your creative process. Do you have a routine?

Finding the start of a song… Sometimes the lyrics will come first, sometimes the melody, sometimes a rhythm or sometimes a chord progression. When it comes in bits like that, the process of completing a song is usually a lot longer because it takes a while to find cohesion in what I’m trying to say. The magic happens when a line comes to me that has lyrics, melody and rhythm all at once. When a line comes like that the intent is a lot clearer and I can shape around it more easily. 

If there is any sort of routine, it’s generally spending a few months recording snippets into my phone’s voice memos then spending a day going through them all to figure out which ones leap out at me, which ones work together and which ones need to sit for a bit longer… or potentially never see the light of day. 

But finishing a song… my processes are different if I am writing for myself, for someone else or just for the sake of getting a song finished.

If I’m writing to get a song done and I don’t think I’ll use it for my own project, I’ll lock myself in a room for a few hours, remove any sort of self-judgement from my brain and just let it rip. I can then view it as a songwriter, not as ‘marigolden’, and it’s easier to get the song done because there is less emotional attachment. 

If I’m writing for myself… I’ll usually do a similar thing to what I’ve just described… except I’ll remain deeply emotionally attached. Sometimes I’ll still smash the song out, start to finish, in an hour or so, but sometimes I will continue to re-write parts of the song over and over until the whole thing feels like it’s apart of my body. I will proceed to play that song over and over and over and over again until I get self-conscious that it’s annoying my partner and my dog starts whining. When it gets to a stage where it has all the parts of ‘a song’, but before I dub it complete, I tend to subconsciously associate a colour with it, and if the colour doesn’t sit right with me, I know it’s not finished yet. 

What is your “studio” setup?

I’m not a gear head – I’m a muso on a budget, but I love my little home studio.

If I’m practicing for stage I go through my tried and true and sadly rusting Behringer B212 PA which is one of the first pieces of equipment I ever bought in combo with my first ever microphone (Shure sm58, hero) and for which I’m pretty sure I got the sales assistant in trouble for convincing him to sell it to me for much less than he should have. I use my partner’s tiny practice amp from high school for guitar and will one day buy a real guitar amp. I honestly can’t say how I’ve made it this far without one except a big thank you to everyone I’ve ever borrowed a guitar amp from (that’s a lot of thank yous). For performances, I use a Shure Beta 57A which is technically an instrumental mic but I love the way it balances the highs in my voice and the warmth it carries in my tone. 

Recording wise… starting from the start, for vocals I use an Audio-Technica AT2020 P48 because an immensely generous friend gave it to me when talking me out of buying a USB condenser mic. Thank you, Josh. That’s held onto my wonky mic stand with a stage mic clip and masking tape because I didn’t have a shock mount at the time and have just never bought one. I have a few guitars but my newest is a Grestch G2622T. It’s green and it sounds like a dream. For keys I have a Korg SV-1 and I love it. I use a Behringer UM2 U-Phoria interface because it’s one of cheapest ones I could find and gets me from A to B. I record and mix in teen-classic GarageBand because it gets the job done for demos and it’s simple! 

I do all my demos from home and record my music for release in proper grown-up studios. Most recently I recorded with the incredible Natasha Newling in probably the most positive recording experience I’ve ever had. Tash and I gelled really well and she really heard my vision and brought it to life. Without giving too much away before release, one of my favourite parts of this session was recording with her DIY telephone mic for an absolutely authentic, vintage lo-fi sound. You can see a how-to video on her Instagram if you’re intrigued (@natasha_newling). 

What is your process when working with other people? How is collaboration different in the studio vs working remotely? 

This is a really tricky and anxious part of music-making for me because of that sneaky little thing called Imposter Syndrome. Music is also one of those things where there is no formula and language can vary depending on your musical background. As a solo artist I’m usually bringing my vision to others and so being able to communicate is absolutely vital. I’m always straight up with asking people how they prefer to work and generally I try to adapt to that (providing demos, charts, notes, meetings, whatever they need). I much prefer working face-to-face but that isn’t always possible so I like to be clear about what the person I’m working with needs before we get together. 

When working with others, I used to get really scared of saying something wrong or somehow giving away that I wasn’t a ‘real’ musician (thanks, brain). I’ve actually just had a realtime ‘a-ha’ moment that potentially transferring to Jazz in second year fuelled that inferiority complex as it really put me on the backfoot for a while. But I know I have the musicality and the knowledge, so letting go of that need to prove myself has been liberating. Now I try to lean into using as many different ways to describe sound as possible because ultimately there is an intangible element to this craft. It can sometimes be challenging or take a few false starts to get to the sweet spot but it helps to work with good people who know I have their back and who have mine.

At what point(s) are you comfortable letting other people hear what you are working on?

It truly depends on what I’m working on, who’s asking, where they want me to share it, and what headspace I’m in. It can range anywhere from having no secrecy and being totally happy to share… to plugging my instrument directly into my headphones and singing in a whisper. But whenever I have a demo that I feel is a final mix away from being finished, I usually play it for my partner through our speakers in the living room while he washes the dishes.

Do you share your work in progress (streams or downloads)? Any technical frustrations?

I’ve been lucky to never have any really dramatic technical frustrations with sharing work, although I’ve heard some horror stories. I used to share a lot of works-in-progress on social media but more recently I’ve enjoyed focusing on the creating part more than the sharing part (both are valid parts of art, by the way). But I have released songs and shared the demo versions of them on Bandcamp, for example, because I think it’s cool to share the different iterations of them so people can see what a journey it is to release a track.

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How do you know when a track/album is finished?

Either when it feels like home or when you never want to hear it again. 

How do you listen to the final mixes/mastered work?

The engineer/producer sends them over and  I’ll put it on through my living room speakers, lie down on the floor, close my eyes, and tell my partner to be on call. I’ll also listen through my studio headphones, again with my eyes closed, several times over. This process will be intermittently repeated for a while.

How important is pre-release security when sharing new work?

Most of the songs I have released or will be releasing are songs I’ve been playing at gigs for a while now so a lot of people already know them, or snippets will end up on social media. But when I decide to release a song, from that decision on I’ll keep it off of my social media and so far, no horror stories!

Who on your team gets to hear the final versions first and why, what formats do they each need?

The first people to hear the final versions are probably my partner and my dog, and after that my manager, Jaz from JY Management Group (@jymanagementgroup). For release, we’ll generally provide a Google Drive folder with both WAV and mp3 formats and it’s always handy to get instrumental versions of the track too for putting promo and digital marketing together. 

Outside of your inner circle who are the people that will need to hear the new tracks next?

Anyone and everyone? But really, the order might change but it’ll probably be film production for the music video shoot to get the vibe, PR to be able to write up a press release, and all my beautiful friends who ask for a sneaky listen.

Anything you are working on, anyone you are working with and want to share?

I’ve just released a new single in the studio with Natasha Newling (engineer/producer), Josh Manusama (bass) and Lachlan O’Kane (drums) and am preparing for more releases in 2023. Definitely keep your eyes and ears open ‘cause I’m coming in hot this year.