“It was a struggle to create this year,” Alexia Antoniou said.
As one half of the indie-folk duo, Gawain and The Green Knight, Antoniou is well aware of how fickle something like creative inspiration can be. And with this past year being a time of unprecedented change and isolation, her and her bandmate—her fiancé, Mike O’Malley—have gotten to know this fickleness on a whole new level. Leonard Cohen once described the struggle as akin to being “married to a mystery”—Antoniou describes it in simpler, yet equally effective language: “Every time I sat down to write, it felt like my brain was getting up and walking out of the room, like we were in a fight.”
But nonetheless, as a lot of songwriters know, just because creating can be a struggle at times doesn’t mean you stop trying to do it. In fact, when they were faced with a bit of writer’s block, Antoniou and O’Malley decided to tackle it head-on, opening the hood on their process and tinkering around to try to make the engine run again. “It turns out that, in order to create anything, you have to be okay with sitting with your thoughts and feeling your feelings—neither of which felt particularly great to do,” Antoniou said. “Distraction was all I wanted, which made me wonder, ‘Who else might have felt that way? What distractions would they have sought?’”
In searching for the answers for these questions, Antoniou accidentally stumbled across what she was looking for in the first place: inspiration. Now, on June 11, the flame that grew out of that spark is set to drop—titled A Sleeping Place, the EP is a seven-song romp exploring everything from history to mythology, philosophy, anxiety and more. Contemplative, well-spoken and with brilliant, symbolic imagery, the EP shows off just how powerful a simple change in perspective can be for a songwriter.
One song in particular that grew out of this initial moment of inspiration is the introspective tune, “Dionysis,” which combines ancient Greek imagery (Antoniou was born in Greece) with a distinctly modern point-of-view. “It was easy to imagine that the cult of Dionysus (a god so associated with wine and revelry) might have an escapist lure for someone in a similar, distracted state of mind,” Antoniou said. “Which, ironically, got me a little excited about songwriting again, as I got to play with that mythological imagery (the ivy, which is associated with Dionysus; honeysuckle and resin in his hair in reference to one of his ancient titles, Dionysus ‘the Blooming.’ And, of course, the idea of sacrifice hinted at by ‘awful smoke in the air….’) I also think of this as the first ‘horror story’ song I’ve ever written, which was probably as much influenced by the subject matter as the state of mind I was in while writing it.”
One the ice was broken, Antoniou and O’Malley started working up all sorts of tunes, including a lot of other ‘firsts.’ For example, opening track “The Dressmaker” is the duo’s first proper “breakup song,” but it certainly takes a unique angle.
“Yeah, that’s my first ‘breakup song’ even though the breakup it describes takes place roughly 130 years before I’d ever even dated anybody.” Antoniou said of the song, which is set in the 1800s. “I began writing the song with just the line, All of your clothes smell like me and the children repeating in my head again and again—which was weird, because it certainly didn’t apply to me or my non-existent children. That line ended up morphing into the story of a woman realizing—after her husband walks out on their family—that she hasn’t really gotten the chance to figure out who she is yet. That’s a feeling I absolutely related to at the end of some of my long-term relationships—that, even in the grief, there’s this excitement at getting just a little bit closer to yourself and who you’re going to be.”
In that sense, “The Dressmaker”—and The Sleeping Place as a whole—show off Gawain and The Green Knight’s biggest strength: their knack for tying hard-hitting meaning to heart-touching imagery.
“‘The Dressmaker’ begins with her navigating the tumult of emotions in the immediate wake of him leaving—lying awake on her side of the bed that first night, listening to the quiet sounds of her neighbors moving around in the apartments around her but feeling completely alone,” Antoniou continued. “It then jumps ahead to the life she builds for herself and her daughters without him, finding (as I imagine it) a sort of creative satisfaction in making dresses. I wanted to make sure the song wasn’t about him leaving so much as her staying. And that, by the time we get to all those sewing metaphors (‘I add lace to all our sleeves/ I find lace is such a beautiful way to hide a stain/ embroider over the moth holes/ slash the seams of a thing outgrown,’ etc), the tone of the song would just be this big, triumphant catharsis!”
Even musically, the duo ensures that every single element serves the theme as strongly as possible. “‘The Dressmaker’ was our first stomp-and-holler song!” O’Malley said. “I wanted to elevate the narrator’s frustration to proper, righteous anger in spots, which accounts for the occasional rowdiness. Toward the end is an arpeggio happening at three different speeds in four different registers, shared by the piano, clarinet and flute. They lace together like threads, echoing the lyrics. I’d hoped to express the triumph of the narrator’s self-salvation through the repetitive act of sewing.”
Yet, for as skilled as they are at metaphor and simile, there’s another “first” on The Sleeping Place that’s perhaps the most touching moment of the whole work: the closing track, “Fingers,” which marks one of the first times Antoniou has actually written about herself.
“Usually, when writing songs, I’m a little shyer,” she explained. “I take an emotion I’m feeling, but give it to someone else to sing—a jealous king, a cloistered nun, whoever. But I was on an airplane with Mike a few years back and we hadn’t been able to get seats together. I had been reading Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles and finished it mid-flight and was just completely emotionally devastated. I wasn’t just teary-eyed, I was outright weeping—so much so that the woman next to me took one look at me and started turning up the volume on her little headrest TV. I managed to make meaningful eye contact with Mike across the aisle, and with a few gestures of the head, he agreed to meet me near the airplane toilets so I could cry some more on him. ‘Fingers’ was inspired by that whispered conversation that came out of reading Song of Achilles. It’s a love song for my bandmate and fiancé, simple as that. Most of the songs on this EP are sorta circling around mortality, but this one stops tip-toeing around it and just… sits with it, in what I hope is a sweet way.”
With that moment of strikingly beautiful vulnerability closing the EP, The Sleeping Place is certainly a soul-bearing work. Between its clever historical illustrations, its poetic introspection, its tasteful folk arrangements and its powerful questioning on the meaning of our world, it feels like a true extension of Antoniou and O’Malley’s lives.
“Mortality and immortality were definitely the central themes in my mind while writing it,” Antoniou said. “What of ourselves is left behind and for how long? Do the things we leave behind really tell our stories—the important stories? And what about all the seemingly unimportant bits and ends about our lives that might feel so precious in the moment yet mean nothing to history? I think of the EP as a love letter, full of desperate affection, to anyone who has ever been alive and been scared to die.”
Gawain and The Green Knight’s EP The Sleeping Place is out on June 11. Watch the video for the single “Fingers” below: