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May 4, 2023

Learning to be vulnerable with Junk Harmony

Junk Harmony's latest EP, 'a2b', captures the complicated human desire to be seen, to be understood – and to hide from difficult emotions.

  • Words: Johnny von Einem
  • Main image: Emerald

There are few people who’ll walk past a lonely, unguarded notebook, its pages curled from late-night journaling, and won’t consider stopping to take a peek.

Though we might refrain from temptation, even the most privacy-conscious among us will at least wonder what world it contains within.

To listen to Junk Harmony’s latest EP, a2b, is to be invited to open the book and scan its pages.

Junk Harmony is the solo bedroom project of Tom Matheson, a familiar face in Adelaide’s music scene: a founder of Swirl Records (currently on hiatus) and musician with Siamese (now defunct), Ricky Albeck, Big Town and Pine Point.

On Junk Harmony’s Bandcamp page, Tom describes the project as “mid-fi”, which captures the blending of bedroom-recorded audio with brighter, punchier, more professional production.

As a solo project, Junk Harmony songs are introspective, searching and vulnerable, but Tom will often obscure their self-exposure with low vocal mixes, warbled and chopped production, and sudden cuts.

The EP is filled with pop ballads, experimentation, softly spoken confessions and occasional interludes.

‘June’, the sixth track of nine, contains almost all of this in its three and a half minutes.

The opening moments are almost silent, but for a plectrum passing softly over a guitar’s strings. When the ballad starts proper, it is Tom at their most unmasked – voice clear and unaffected by digital effects, accompanied sparsely by a guitar with only the slightest audible warbling.

Tom is more lyrically forthright then usual here, too. The song is a letter to the titular June, not a direct address, but they’ve found the words to ask: “Why can’t I sing this song to you?

The drums and additional guitars join in after the chorus, the rhythm changing slightly. After a beat pause, the song expands further and Tom’s vocals begin to disappear into the mix – retreating from their emotions like an old habit.

As the song reaches its conclusion, the band lets the final chord ring out like a confession hanging in the air, until suddenly it cuts, jumping to disjointed guitar noodling. Rather than know for certain whether they were about to be rejected or embraced, the song’s protagonist retreats from the vulnerability, happy in the lonely safety of their own thoughts.

This construction is a startlingly recognisable portrait of human behaviour – one that draws on Tom’s own thoughts and experience.

“I tend to do that a lot, to defuse the situation with a bit of humour,” they say.

It’s about “feeling too vulnerable and wanting to shut that off, which is some of the themes in the EP.

“Vulnerability and feeling anxious about that vulnerability and wanting to just shut that down and not be anyone to anyone. Be nothing.”

Tom Matheson, obscured. This picture: Elliot Oakes


The creation of a2b was bookended by separation. Though Junk Harmony is only officially a year old, Tom found the project in retrospect, going over old demos, dating as far back as 2017. Many of these they’d recorded but decided not to show their band at the time, Siamese.

“They were always songs that, when I was in the band, I thought, ‘Maybe they’re a little bit too personal’,” they say.

Siamese saw some success – two of their singles got Triple J airplay in 2018, and they had a national tour booked right before they disbanded. Tom didn’t want to lose the momentum, but the fallout from the breakup weighed heavier than they’d expected.

“I wanted to start doing something straight away, and then sure enough I was sort of kidding myself,” Tom says. “I just wanted to really keep doing it, but feel like I was chasing that: ‘I just want to get back to that trajectory’.

“I found that that wasn’t really breeding any positive or good experiences with songwriting and things like that.”

He embarked on a bachelor of music and sonic arts in the wake of Siamese, “keeping myself busy,” they say, “which is probably the best choice I ever made. Then it did downward spiral a little bit.”

The second separation came last year, when Tom was writing new songs for a2b EP. Their seven-year relationship ended.

“It was very much my whole world felt like everything collapsed in a little bit,” they say. “But everything’s still moving forward, so there was that aspect to it.”

A2b is filled with this sad, pragmatic acceptance, inflected with a hopeful feeling that brighter days will come. On ‘billions (vi)’, a driving meditation on existentialism made entirely from samples and repurposed stems, Tom conjures the sense of a new dawn in audio form – and with an almost danceable beat.

In the time between these two major changes in Tom’s life, the musician squirrelled away songs that had no home, but which would eventually coalesce to become Junk Harmony’s back catalogue.

Despite so accurately portraying vulnerability on this release, Tom doesn’t see themself as an advocate for emotional honesty. At least not yet.

“I’d love to be, but it’s a little bit hard when the message isn’t as clear-cut as it probably should be,” they say. “But maybe people can resonate with the fact that we’re all a little bit scared and want to hide, and we do hide behind these things to make ourselves feel safe.”

A2b has been out a couple of weeks now, but its follow up is not far away. On the day we speak, Tom has only a few additional parts to record for Junk Harmony’s first LP. The mixing could take a couple of months after that, but its release is on the horizon.

“I’m very much following the… Alex G approach of just writing and releasing and not worrying about getting PR,” Tom grins. “Once it’s done it’ll probably be out. It won’t be a fully planned thing.”

Tom’s a little nervous about the next release. They can feel a growing comfort with saying how they really feel.

“There’s definitely a couple of songs on the new album that are much more direct. I’m a bit worried about releasing those,” they laugh.

Stream a2b on Apple Music, Spotify and Bandcamp.

Connect with Junk Harmony on Instagram.

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