COUSIN Tony's Brand New Firebird have every right to feel defeated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Melbourne band were in the initial stages of their Australian touring cycle for their second album New Romancer when the world literally shut down. Plane tickets to Austin, Texas for South By South West Festival went unused.
What should have been "the apex" of the band's career, was replaced with the silence of lockdown.
Yet at that moment Cousin Tony's frontman Lachlan Rose made the decision to focus on what remained in his control.
"The choice was how are you going to respond to all this silence and lack of momentum?" Rose says.
"For me it seemed pretty obvious quickly - don't fight it. This is a pretty extraordinary thing happening to everyone in the world. It's out of your control, so what's in your control?
"It was to notice the things around me which are beautiful and ever present. There's a lot that came out of that slowness and it became the central theme of the album."
The album Rose refers to is Cousin Tony's Brand New Firebird's third record Smiles Of Earth, released last Friday.
The album written and recorded by Rose (vocals, piano, synths, guitar), Francesca Gonzales (keytar, vocals), Peter Simonsen (guitar, vocals), Nicholas Reid (drums), Matthew Hayes (bass) and Oliver Whitehead (saxophone) during breaks in Melbourne's lockdowns.
They even had an opportunity to make a 26-hour round trip to Dashville for The Gum Ball in April 2021.
In the bleakest moments, Rose focused on the positive.
"It went through a lot of shifting along the way, but the longer we stayed in that situation of lockdowns, they were the ideas I tended to come back to, the ones that felt euphoric or uplifting," he says.
"That's not to say there isn't darkness in those songs. But they were the ideas I tended to stand the test of the time and made us feel positive to play and record.
"Even though it was a difficult time, there were windows where we were able to record and they were really joyous when we came together to perform together in a room."
In typical Cousin Tony's fashion, it's a difficult album to pigeon-hole.
Smiles Of Earth features elements of new-wave, psych-rock, and even splashes of neo-soul, courtesy of the strong use of warming trumpets and saxophones.
Rose's soothing baritone oozes with the reserved flamboyance of Bryan Ferry, especially on the album highlight Bluestone, where he croons "I love you for leavin'/ Cause I know that it's hard/ To break down a bluestone wall/ For a change of guard," over a swelling horns section.
Fullness Of Time is a journey in itself as it begins with a bluesy riff before exploding into epic shades of new-wave synths and saxophone.
After listening to 2000s US chamber-pop band Antony and the Johnsons, as well as Roxy Music and Primal Scream's Screamadelica heavily in the early days of the pandemic, Rose felt horns were required to differentiate Smiles Of Earth from their previous albums.
"On some simple level I started hearing trumpets and saxophones in my head, and the more I thought about that, [I heard] joyous, euphoric execution," he says.
"Normally in the past we've done those parts on synths and this is still a synth-heavy record.
"To me it was something that was done more or less by the band. I was treading in familiar territory, so a way to get around that, and to ensure the songwriting was exciting to me, was to do something different with the instrumentation."
The horn sections also allowed Rose to take advantage of his degree in composition, completed at the Victoria College of the Arts in 2016.
"I was getting adept at composing scores, but I hadn't done that in a long time," he says.
"That's where the challenge came in. If I could dust off those cobwebs and write some actual scores to this stuff, there's no limit to how we can execute these parts."
Rose's classical training is essential to Cousin Tony's eclectic sound. But Rose is also mindful of the restrictions knowledge can place on the creative process.
"It's all about knowing when to lean into that knowledge and when to stay away from it," he says. "It's not essential, that's the bottom line.
"Most of the great songwriting we hear in a pop and rock sense is written by people who didn't study and that's probably why they're able to write because they're not hindered by all of these rules and traditions.
"They just allow ideas to come to them. I try to hold true to that and I can feel sometimes why having too much theoretical knowledge can actually get in the way."
Cousin Tony's Brand New Firebird were building serious momentum before the pandemic. Their singles Melbourne Bitter and Cool Parties had found an audience and the danceable grooves of their second album New Romancer appealed to overseas markets.
Rose is confident the band can recapture that momentum.
"It's been a hard-fought battle but we're at a point that, we're not grateful for the pandemic, but we're grateful for the time it forced us to put into this album," he says.
"It's made it inconceivably better than we thought it was going to be."
Cousin Tony's Brand New Firebird play Newcastle's Cambridge Hotel (October 6), La La La's in Wollongong (October 8), The Eastern in Ballarat (October 14) and the Euroa Music Festival (November 5).
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