Hello again from New Zealand. The country that brought you Lorde has a whole lot to offer the music world in genres as varied as pop, reggae, house, and even Americana. Since New Zealand has managed to keep COVID at bay, this small island nation finds itself at the forefront of the entertainment industry in 2021. You’re never too far away to discover the wealth of talent that resides at the end of the world.
San Fran – Wellington’s self-professed “best live music venue” – looks primed for the rowdiest of shows. Massive old school speakers and a stage rail/bull bar suggests mosh pit potential. By all accounts this is not an uncommon scenario. Tonight, however, things were decidedly chill. Low tables and chairs before the stage invited the audience to settle in for an intimate listening experience. A decision that was affirmed the moment Ebony Lamb launched without introduction into a fluid finger picking style that at once hushed the crowd and set the stage for her haunting and honey sweet voice. Ebony has a depth and mystery that suits her aching melodies. While I strained to understand her words at times, the quality of her voice plus the phrases that did strike with memorable clarity demand further listening. Ebony’s vocal prowess and skillful solo arrangements are impressive. Her folky style features adept vocal control over sliding, stylized onset/offset of phrases, and vibrato, paired beautifully with languid picking patterns punctuated with percussive strumming as needed. At times the jewel tones in her voice and in the guitar synchronized. Eyes often closed, she appears completely in the zone. One gets the feeling that this is how she would sing even when she’s alone. As though having woken from a trance, her stage banter is suddenly conversational, funny, relatable, and concise. No sooner has she made you laugh than she’s deep in the zone again.
If Ebony Lamb drew the audience into her own state of semi-conscious reverie, Dream Chambers opened the door for the audience to enter their own. Introduced by Brooke of French for Rabbits who described Ebony and Dream Chambers as her ideal lineup, Dream Chambers – artist name for APRA award winning singer-songwriter, Jess Chambers – wordlessly took the stage at San Fran for the first time in 12 years. After extensively touring the US since relocating to Nashville in 2012, she returns to NZ having developed her own ethereal soundscape style composed of modular synthesizers, sequencers, granular vocal samples (featuring her own angelic voice), and peaking sub-bass. Her first tune developed in a familiar electronic cadence of growth and decay, reminiscent of an acid-induced happy cry-fest, or a “most inspiring places on earth” montage. Subsequent tunes took less familiar paths, exhibiting subtle, smooth, intuitive variations on climax and cadence. Her seated audience followed in placid, meditative concentration. Occasionally Dream Chambers introduced sounds that for a moment would seem out of place before melting neatly into the soundscape. The sub-bass came sparingly, underscoring climactic moments to great affect. Chair bound while feeling the frequencies pulse above, beneath, and within you, one half expects to look to the venue ceiling and see a starry sky racing toward you. Four journeys later, Dream Chambers bowed and left wordlessly as she’d come. Follow Dream Chambers for updates on an upcoming single release via Wellington-based experimental music label Sonorous Circle this September.
French for Rabbits began their set softly with a modern art song (poem set to music) featuring vocal pedal affects and harmony over a pre-recorded track plus guitar, and lyrics from The Wounded Bird by Katherine Mansfield. Frontwoman Brooke Singer’s impeccable diction gives the impression that she’s tasting and relishing each word, a characteristic as true to art song as it is to
Brooke. In spite or because of Brooke’s very soft voice, her diction made it possible to capture every word, plot, and nuance of the performance. French for Rabbits’ own dream pop lyrics are poetic in nature and diverse in sentiment. They’re sometimes direct and relatable in lyrics such as
“I won’t be the first to say I’m sorry, even if it’s my fault. It’s not like I don’t know how to say it, it’s just that I won’t.” (“Goat) Or evocative and mystical, as in
“The mottled collection of displacement.
To love them is to know how it feels to be lost and to be left.
You know? you remind me of a boy I once knew..” (The Dark Arts)
As Brooke would tell it, the forthcoming album leans into the latter. “I don’t know why,” she tells the audience in her characteristically witty and halting speech, “it just happens. You reference the mystical sometimes.” “The Dark Arts”, the first single from the forthcoming album, The Overflow, due to be released November 12th via Reckless Yes (UK), AAA Records (NZ/AUS) and A Modest Proposal (Italy), is reminiscent of such recent popular songs as Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke,” while the newest single, “Ouija Board,” features “a little musical nod to The Beatles and to the Addams Family.” “Ouija Board,” which released this Friday, August 13th, also comes with a “very special video shot on 16mm film using some magical video trickery so characters could exist in parallel black and white, and color realms” created in collaboration with long time French for Rabbits collaborator and friend Misma Andrews, and two of Aotearoa’s (New Zealand’s) most creative film makers, Martin Sagadin and Ezra Simons.
Says Brooke of the new album, “I think we found a middle ground between the complexity and nuance we love, and some more immediately accessible, big honest feelings.” July saw the release of the album title track, “The Overflow,” the deceptively soothing sound of which contrasts with the lyrical admonition of anxiety and near panic. The corresponding music video, made in collaboration with Bill Bycroft, Marton Sagadin, and Hamish Waterhouse, draws inspiration from yellow, everyday objects. Brooke carries this inspiration with her today, sporting a bright yellow jacket and reasoning that “anyone wearing yellow has to be a good person.” The show is interspersed with amusing assertions such as this. Sometimes her tangents are observational, other times narrative, but always quirky, humorous, and unexpected. The band featuring guitarist John Fitzgerald, drummer Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa, and multi-instrumentalists Ben Lemi and Penelope Esplin create broad soundscapes comprised of delicate, overlapping melodic lines and arpeggios. Drummer Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa’s use of various mallets and percussion to shape the momentum of each song and contribute to the text painting established by his bandmates was especially effective. Ben Lima harmonized beautifully with Brooke, and while Penelope Esplin’s synths were missed (Penelope was reportedly out with a concussion), she will be happy to know that the band held it down in her absence. French for Rabbit’s dream pop journey concluded seemingly moments after it began, the audience practically floating from their seats as after a massage. “I hope you had a very serene time. I’m such a big fan of the opening acts…I like to make the audience think and to book acts that both inspire and educate,” says Brooke. Ebony Lamb, Dream Chambers, and French for Rabbits managed just that.
*Live photographs by Micky Nogher, Ouija Board Single photography by Lily Paris West