Does Wellington-based band French for Rabbits have a ‘New Zealand sound?' Frontwoman Brooke Singer thinks they do, but finds it hard to pinpoint exactly how. “It's not your well-known New Zealand barbecue reggae or roots sound” she says. She recalls that while on tour overseas, people who have visited New Zealand, as well as Kiwi fans, often comment that the group’s music reminds them of the country. “So there's something in the sound that we've created that is reflective to them of what New Zealand is, even if we don't necessarily quite grasp what it is that we're doing” she explains. Could it be the vivid evocations of nature and the ocean in their lyrics? Is it something about Brooke’s gentle but penetrating voice? Is it the understated nature of the music, or even the humble attitude of the players? These were all questions that came up when I sat down with French for Rabbits to discuss their new album, The Overflow. Marking their tenth year of their existence, this release finds the band reflecting on the importance of nature in their music, the influence of jazz and what it means to sound like New Zealand.
Making understated music is easier said than done. Guitarist John Fitzgerald recalls when he and Brooke first formed French for Rabbits, his jazz training could be a burden. “I was just tryna like shred scales and like, play too much stuff. Turning everything into a major seven with a 9th on it or whatever. And then Brooke kind of drummed it out of me” he says. Drummer Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa’s jazz background also sometimes gets the better of him. “Hikurangi loves his fills” says Ben Lemi, who plays bass. Brooke laughs and agrees. “He's probably the most exuberant character in the band. He's the one I try and rein in the most, much to his dismay” she says. This balance of technical know-how and simplicity has always been important to French for Rabbits and is a dichotomy well understood by Ben. “I ended up going to jazz school, but then having this conflict of like, being aware of what good song writing is, and I feel like there's a bit of a disconnect. I did spend a few years trying to, like, marry the two things together” he says. “I feel like French for Rabbits is a good exemplification of that marriage.” The bands skillset often took some trial and error to assimilate, but the jazz-informed rhythmic basis provided by Ben and Hikurangi would become invaluable; while John’s harmonic ideas would remain ever present throughout French for Rabbits discography. They just needed the occasional reminder from Brooke to “keep it simple.”
While the assimilation of enthusiastic jazzers was in no small part thanks to her occasional reining in, this is not to say Brooke holds a monopoly over the project. During our conversation, she was making sure all members of the band had equal say, often repeating my questions to the rest of the group. “What do you guys think?” she would say to Ben and John. Brooke explains “I believe that my songs wouldn't be as good if they weren’t contributed to in the same way. We're not like Nadia Reid and her band, or Marlon Williams. It’s more collaborative and I think that's reflected by having a band name […] I respect these guys for things like – is it a good song that we're perusing or not, y’know?” The others seem to agree, and stress that it wasn’t something that happened overnight. “There's a lot of trust aye, that's required in order to have a kind of structure like that” says Ben. “Different types of trust I guess, which can only really develop over time.” Also, band members' contributions to French for Rabbits are often more than just musical. “Depends on the day, depends on the task” says Brooke. “I'll do lots of the emails and John will help me with the tax returns.”
While they indeed manage to balance several distinct musical voices, Brooke’s fascination with the ocean is dominant throughout French for Rabbits’ discography. Their material contains constant references to the sea, from lyrics and cover art to music videos. ‘This is no longer my house / It has been claimed by the sea’, Brooke sings hauntingly on Claimed by the Sea. ‘Goodbye seafarer / Dropping down beyond the breaking waves / A glimpse beyond these salty eyes / And hopes the clouds will take you yonder’ goes the chorus to Seafarer. Many of their single covers are taken at the beach, and so too are their music videos shot. Yet, when I asked Brooke why the sea appeared so much in their music, it was almost like she’d never considered it. “I'm not 100% sure why” she said. “You know how different artists have different touchstones? Like the other day I was listening to a poet, and I noticed she mentioned coconuts in every poem she read. […] I was like, how interesting. That was a symbol of something to her.” One explanation is Brooke’s upbringing in the small beachside town of Waikuku, where she recalls, even in the confines of her bedroom, the sound of the sea was ever-present. “I just think it's a connection that doesn't need to be, sort of, articulated,” she says.
The experience of growing up in a small town, surrounded by nature, is shared by Brooke and John, and they both believe it was artistically formative. “Growing up in the country, I'm pretty sure has been a direct link to the kinds of lyrics that I write” says Brooke. “Just like if I had grown up in an urban environment, I think I would have come at it from a different angle. Nature is much bigger when you live in a small place. Like working in a vineyard, the weather is so much more important than if you work in an office […] Also in small towns individual characters stand out, or you might get to know them more. You see these individuals more than in a city where everyone can blur together.” Neither Brooke nor John see themselves as “city people” and sometimes urban environments can even be unsettling. “I've never really felt like, um, that at ease in the city” says John. He recalls playing a rooftop gig in Paris, shortly after the Christchurch earthquakes, and looking out over the cityscape below. “It was just like a sea of concrete and concrete rooftops. And I remember just thinking, like, this is like a nightmare. If something happens, you're just kind of stuck in the middle of this big metropolis that you're gonna have to fight your way out of” he says. Brooke agrees. “Yeah, I couldn't imagine growing up in the city. I would find that strange.”
This said, Brooke admits French for Rabbits' latest album, The Overflow, is more inspired by urban themes, moving away from folk music towards production-heavy pop songs. “I spent a bit more time in cities before writing this last album” she says. While Spirits, evocative of the sea, sun and sky, was written mostly on guitar, and the vivid and poetic The Weight of Melted Snow was written on piano, many songs on The Overflow began on the computer. Starting with the production elements first would dramatically shape the sound of the album, which sometimes verges on psychedelic. The opening track, also titled The Overflow, is at once ecstatic and oppressive, building to a dense wall of choir-like harmonies and flanger treated vocals in the bridge. The intro to Passengers replaces Hikurangi’s typically crisp drumming with sequenced, heavily processed percussion. Also, French for Rabbits more characteristic folky sound is largely absent, making way for what are better described as pop songs. “I quite like pop music” says Brooke. “And especially like, creative pop music, so I really love pop production. In this band I'm trying to figure out how we can do it in a way where it melds the organic sound with something that's quite modern.” This vision was partly brought to life by producer/musician Jol Mulholland, who co-produced the album alongside Brooke. “We just knew he would bring grit” she says.
In some ways, the shift from folk to production-heavy pop signals a departure from the band's established sound. Yet, in other ways, it also signals the distillation of many of the group’s core tenets. For one, rhythm has always been the backbone of French for Rabbits music. “Ben played drums on the first EP, and then moved on to bass” says Brooke. “So we've actually got two pretty incredible drummers in the band, which is probably why the rhythm is such a predominant thing in the music.” John suggests that The Overflow epitomises this focus on rhythm, partly due to the fact many songs started on the computer. “If you start out with like guitar or something, it's gonna naturally lead itself to a more kind of like folky kind of sound, but most of these ones are not guitar based […] so like, the rhythm is sort of different and it kind of like opens up to that kind of more pop sort of sound” he says. In terms of production, the band have also spoken about being inspired by the PLAN remix of Claimed by the Sea, released on their first EP in 2012. Utilising extensive processing and production techniques, the remix served as a blueprint for how their music might sound in the skin of modern pop production. Since then, all their music has incorporated such techniques. So, in a sense, The Overflow also represents the current extent of French for Rabbits' slow burning exploration into the world of modern pop production. Lastly, John points out that much of Brooke’s personal writing had recently been erring on the side of pop. “Brooke's basically got like a whole kind of pop album written of her own stuff. So her general kind of trend I think has been in that direction” he says.
So, what is it about French for Rabbits’ music that reminds so many people of New Zealand? Does a ‘New Zealand sound’ even exist? Well, our talk didn’t yield definitive answers. The conversation inevitably strayed to the topic of tall poppy syndrome. “I think that is a thing. And I've seen it in other musicians” says Brooke. “This is very contentious definitely, but I reckon the further south you go, the more prevalent that sort of mindset is. You don't want to show you're putting in too much effort.” The band mostly agree. “But it's kind of hard to be able to say how much it affects my personal output or the output of French for Rabbits” says Ben. “I don't think that was ever like, something that we've been conscious about” says John. Optimistically, Brooke explains that over the course of French for Rabbits' seven international tours, she has only grown more and more impressed with New Zealand music. “You realise how good our music stands up to international music. Especially through Europe, I was like wow, when you look at The Beths or Vera Ellen, or any New Zealand artist you're just like, these people are doing amazing. So I don’t know” she says, pausing briefly. “Maybe we've got more space around us to be unique?”
Solomon Powell writes for a new music blog, The Noise Report, which focuses on local Wellington musicians, gigs and other music related subjects. Check out more of his writing at noisereport.co.nz