Isabella Manfredi: “This record is an extension of what I was trying to achieve with The Preatures, but couldn’t quite capture”

Isabella Manfredi
(Image credit: Maclay Heriot)

For 11 years, Isabella Manfredi was best known as the energised and effervescent, groove-riding force that fronted Sydney indie-pop outfit The Preatures. However short their tenure may have been, the quintet remain venerable icons in the realm of Australian pop – so when she split The Preatures up to embark on a solo career, Manfredi was eager not to shed what made them so great.

Her debut solo album is named for the alter ego she adopted in The Preatures – the “the chrome wheel-spinning character” known as Izzi – with Manfredi’s intent being “to capture her essence, but also create space for my true adult self to have longevity and move beyond her if I needed to”. As she declared bluntly in unveiling the record, “I am Izzi but she is not me.”

In the same breath, Manfredi described Izzi as both the “exploration and development of a new artist” and “the culmination of a decade’s vision”. Such rings undoubtedly true when you dive into the record: it’s bold, radiant and slathered in groove, just like the best of The Preatures’ material, but it’s also shiny and buoyant in ways that Manfredi couldn’t be with a full band in tow – it sees her fully embrace her unashamed love for cheesy ‘80s synthpop, while simultaneously staring determinedly into the future.

As she gears up to take the album on tour, Manfredi welcomed Australian Guitar into the weird and wonderful world of Izzi.

Do you see this record more as a transition between your work in The Preatures and your individual musicality, or between who you were once and who you are now?
That’s a really good question, because when ‘Jealousy’ came out, quite a few people said – both publicly and personally – “That sounds like The Preatures”. And I was like, “Yeah, it does.” It’s funny, that, isn’t it? It’s always been very easy for people to assume, being a frontwoman, that I was not the instrument of my own artistry or destiny in that role. And of course, The Preatures was the amalgamation of five very different, autonomous artists – that’s the beauty of being in a band. But at the heart of it, it was a collaboration that I had, as the main songwriter, four other musicians. 

In that sense, I think this record is an extension of that – of what I was trying to achieve with The Preatures, but just couldn’t quite capture, for a number of reasons. And at the same time, it feels exciting to me, because I genuinely love working with other people. I find that it’s better for the songs, and that’s what brings me joy about making music: being in a room with people – or as it was with this record, being on the other side of the world, but having that exchange and feeling their life-force and energy come into the songs.

So I don’t think, musically, that’s a departure a departure. I think it’s just an elevation of what I’ve been banging on about for the last ten year – and that is, really, that I’m still searching for the heart of pop-rock. I love pop-rock. Everybody used to say to me, “What’s your vision for The Preatures? What do you want to do, musically?” And I’d just be like, “Pop-rock.” And they go, “Oh. Well, that’s... Is that it?” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s it.”

There’s a reason pop-rock is such a cliché, though – because it’s f***ing good.
Well pop-rock, to me, incorporates a lot of different elements. I’ve always been influenced by country music, and confessional folk, for example. Classic songcraft has been a big influence, too – even in the band, when we were doing instrumentals and jams, I always brought it back to to the songcraft. And you know, rock encompasses blues, funk, R&B, a bit of soul… so I’ve always gotten into that, and encouraged a very kaleidoscopic musical vision. But I also love pop-rock because, to me, it feels quite purist. It’s about simplifying complexity. And that’s what I find really satisfying about writing a song – taking something that feels almost overwhelming, emotionally or conceptually, and refining it into something that is simple and communicable – that I can reach people with.

There’s not a lot of guitar on this record, but where there is, it feels crucial. Is it important for you to be really considered with the soundscape?
Absolutely. And the guitar is always going to be a big part of the way I make music. I was really sad to see it fall from grace in the last couple of years. But I wasn’t the guitarist onstage in The Preatures – I was surrounded by really accomplished, masterful players, who had a lot of their own personality – and for me, guitar has always been an instrument for songwriting. I struggled a lot with my confidence as a guitar player, and the best way for me to deal with that was to go and get the best guitarists I knew to play on this album. 

The two main guitarists on the record and Kirin J Callinan and Jonathan Wilson. Kirin is such an anti-guitarist – he doesn’t play guitar in any conventional sense. I think what they both have in common – which I think is maybe what you’re getting at when you say there’s not a lot of guitar on the record – is that both of those players, they’re all about the songs. They’re slaves to the song. And the guitarists that I grew up loving, and that I have the most respect for, are always in service to the song. So yeah, the choices that I’ve made as a producer, particularly with guitar on this record, have been really considered.

And that benefits the impact of those parts where the guitar is prominent, because they hit harder than they would on a record packed with riffs.
Well I was very conscious, with this album, to leave a lot of space for my voice, and for the song, and for the storytelling. I mean, being a female vocalist in a rock band for so many years, my voice would sit right in the mids – right where the guitars would sit – so it felt like a constant battle. And this record didn’t feel like a battle, specifically because I was conscious to leave a lot of space. It means it’s less riff-heavy, which is, you know, a bit of a shame for that sense of energy and excitement and power. But I mean, I’ll do that again someday. That’s just not what this record is about. This record is about storytelling and songcraft.

I love how unapologetically ‘80s this album sounds. Where did that whole vibe come from?
It’s so funny, I have this running joke that I breathe and the ‘80s comes out – I just can’t f***ing help but make an ‘80s record [laughs]. And you know what’s so weird about that? When I was little, I went through a phase where I declared that I hated the 80s. What a decade to discard, right? My favorite period of music is that late-‘70s-to-early-’80s period – it was such a fertile, wonderful period for creativity. 

The best part of music in the ‘80s, to me, was this sort of supreme production. It was like the pinnacle of analogue and those traditional studio techniques, married with the songwriters that had come from the ‘70s and were then in their prime, making these amazing records with incredible studio musicians. There were so many great guitarists in that era, too, like Mark McEntee – I grew up just having such immense respect for him because he was an incredible, melodic and harmonic player, but again, always in service of the song. I love guitar when it appears on a record and feels like its own voice, but not in a way that goes against the song – like when Paul Kelly plays a guitar solo and it’s just the vocal melody. Heaven.

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…