Interview: Jonathan Bree of the Brunettes
We’re very lucky to present an interview today with one half of brilliant New Zealand duo The Brunettes. Along with Heather Mansfield, Jonathan Bree formed the Brunettes in 1998, and they quickly started recording, releasing their first EP, Mars Loves Venus, on the independent label Lil’ Chief Records, and was soon followed by their first album, Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks, in 2002. Their albums stand out in a world of Auto-tune, and idols created by companies’ wallets. Their music features not only great harmonies, but also a sort of trademarked call and response that one could date back to songs from the jazz age like “Her Doorstep Last Night,” and more recently to Spector and the Brill Building’s classic “tell me more about him” songs, but it really is wonderfully unique to themselves alone.
But what makes the Brunettes truly great, is their continual, and seemingly effortless evolution. Their first two records perfectly captured the innocence of early Beach Boys, but their most recent two records grew leaps and bounds, while still retaining Jonathan Bree’s witty sense of lyricism. Their third album, Structure and Cosmetics, perhaps their biggest leap forward, experimented with long, album oriented songs, and sounded like one indivisible whole, and their latest effort, Paper Dolls, explored their electronic tendencies that were always lingering about in the corner. Thanks to Jonathan Bree to agreeing to give us this interview -Cody
Neotomic: First, a question I’ve been wanting to ask. On “These Things Take Time”, do I hear a subtle nod to the Beach Boys’ Vegetables? [see last video]
Jonathan Bree: We weren’t on the same health kick so it was a mouthful of corn chips instead of a carrot, however yes.
N:The musical chemistry that the two of you exhibit sounds natural, whereas other who attempt it sound plastic and artificial. It may be a clichéd questions, but the combination of you two musically seems so perfect, one can’t help but ask, how did the two of you meet?
JB: I heard Heather’s voice before I met her. My cousin had recorded her band Yoko and I thought she had a great natural voice, no silly effected delivery. I was looking for a girl to sing on some duets I had written so I tracked down her number and asked her to come see my band play. I guess that was pretty forward of me but thankfully it worked out alright.
N: There seems something rather ingeniously entrepreneurial about your approach to the music industry. Rather than waiting for a record deal, you created your own label, Lil Chief Records, which has now turned into a major prescience in the music scene. Do you think there’s something to be said for independent musicians and labels when everything else is manufactured by the large corporations, down to the musician’s hairstyle?
JB: I guess it really comes down to the type of artist you are. The top 40 manufactured artist usually is gifted with looks and being a good dancer so songwriting teams, producers and stylists are quite necessary. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I didn’t always feel that way but the music market is these days it’s a bit easier for independent musicians and labels to promote themselves.
N: In the past you’ve cited Phil Spector and The Beach Boys as influences, but the recent maturity of your albums have suggested a move away from the innocence of Brian Wilson. Are you still influenced by the music that impacted the sound of your earlier albums?
JB: I’m always gravitating back to recordings from the 60’s. I find modern production interesting and occasionally I’ll latch on to a modern recording and listen to it daily. However I still love my Beatles and Beach Boys best. I suppose the later Brunettes albums weren’t quite as focused on being young, naive and in love.
N: Your music has always had electronic flourishes, but your latest album, Paper Dolls, exhibits your electronic tendencies fully. Is this a sound you’ve always aimed for, or is it a natural progression of the Brunettes’ sound?
JB: It was a natural progression but what probably steered me in that direction was having to make albums in tour vans. After our second album Mars Loves Venus we started touring a lot. Coming from New Zealand you can’t just whip over to the US to do a 6 week tour and return home. In order to break even we’d have to tour solidly for the best half of a year in the northern hemisphere. I was used to making albums in my bedroom but that turned into making albums on laptops during the 8 or so hours spent in a day traveling to the next town.
N: As your albums progress, they sound more and more ambitious, and it’s startling to realise it’s mostly just the two of you. Since the personnel is so small, how labour-intensive are your albums in terms of recording?
JB: Usually they are quite labour-intensive. We don’t really consider the live show as to how many musicians we’ll need to pull it off our recordings live. This usually led to our recordings being full of instrumentation.
N: Do you prefer employing strings or synthesizers and mellotrons?
JB: Real strings are always nice but I do like the effect of synthetic strings or mellotron strings. It depends on the actually recording really. The first album had real strings and it worked with the 60’s production sound of that album.
N: I also hear what sounds like a strong Jonathan Richman influence coming from the guitars on “Loopy Loopy Love”, to half-singing half-talking vocal moments on Jukebox. Are you influenced by Jonathan Richman, or am I completely off the mark?
JB: Ooh no. I’m a huge fan. My cousin played the Modern Lovers to me when I was about 10 and I was hooked. Hearing those back up singers say “Jonathan” all the time made me finally like my own name. I try and see him play whenever I’m in the US. He is just brilliant.
N: It seems that Ipods and digital-sharing are rapidly overpowering and replacing albums and record stores. With you releasing Mars Loves Venus on vinyl this year, do you see the album as a whole format staying relevant in the future?
JB: I think musicians or music lovers will always see the release of an album by an artist they like as something significant.
N: When can we expect the Mars Loves Venus vinyl to hit the shelves, and anything else planned for this year?
JB: That will be out very soon I believe. As for me I’ve been helping one time Brunette band member Princess Chelsea record and produce her album which is coming out vinyl also in a few months time on Lil Chief. We’re planning to tour her album later this year.
N: Lastly, genius self-destructive Brian Wilson Beach Boys, or the trucker hat wearing Mike Love Beach Boys?
JB: It’s too easy to say Brian Wilson…Mike Love because of his strong work ethic and dance moves.
For more of the Brunettes check out:
Thanks again to Jonathan Bree, and this Friday, expect a special Album of the Week by none other than Jonathan himself!