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Brooke Fraser - The IndieLondon interview

Brooke Fraser

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BROOKE Fraser talks exclusively to IndieLondon about her UK debut album, Flags, and some of the emotive themes behind the tracks (including the cycle of grief and people’s fragility as humans.

She also discusses her career to date, supporting David Bowie and her extensive charity work, which has seen her travel to Rwanda and (soon) Ethiopia to help support water projects and raise awareness of the ongoing need for help for the people of those countries.

Q. Hi Brooke, we really enjoyed your new single, Something in the Water… what inspired it?
Brooke Fraser: London in a roundabout way… I was reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton, and was struck by a sentence in which he was describing the demeanours people ‘wore’ as they moved about their workplace in London’s financial district. Though the song describes a demeanour exactly opposite to the ones they wore, that’s what sparked the first line and melody.

Q. Similarly, what are the themes that inspired your current album, Flags?
Brooke Fraser: The land, mortality, the breadth of people’s ‘stories’ and the combination of all three ideas in the image of a flag.

Q. Why did you decide the time was right to make your UK debut with Flags?
Brooke Fraser: As soon as the choice was mine to make, we were here!

Q. You’ve now played a number of shows in the UK, so what has the reaction been like?
Brooke Fraser: It’s always a great show for us in the UK. People are such music lovers here and it’s a real pleasure to play to people who are there to listen. Plus, the Kiwi and Brit senses of humour are similar (and you can understand my accent) whereas in America it’s a bit touch and go sometimes!

Q. Coming back to the album, Ice On Her Lashes was inspired by the cycle of grief, apparently. Can you explain a bit more how you explored that issue and what inspired it initially?
Brooke Fraser: The characters in the verses are both grieving a woman in the chorus called ‘Annie’ and whoever she was to them, though they live in different eras. Over the past few years I’ve watched a few of my friends face and cope with grief, knowing that one day I would have to confront it myself. It’s the idea of being in a car after you get a call that something devastating has happened and watching people in the cars around you through a haze of shock and grief, wondering how it is that they are just going about their day, driving home from work or picking their kids up from soccer practice, while your world is falling apart – and then the concept of the way that time changes that trauma/grief.

Suddenly, it’s a day, a month later, two years later, and you’re driving in the car on the motorway whilst perhaps the person in the car in the lane next to you has just gotten that phone call. The idea that we’re all somewhere in the cycle.

Q. And the title track is inspired as much by landscape as it is identity – cultural and personal. Is that fair to say?
Brooke Fraser: I would say that’s fair of the album but not of the track in particular. The “flags” imagery in the title track refers to our fragility as humans… the verses allude to humans being capable of despicable and noble things and the chorus reminds us that good and bad alike, no one gets off this planet alive – “memento mori” as the Italians say – “remember you’re mortal”.

Q. How old were you when you first started singing and song-writing and what made you decide to start doing it? Who inspired you?
Brooke Fraser: I began dabbling in writing when I was 12, and there was never an official start to singing… I just sang my songs because there was no one else to sing them and no one told me to shut up! But at the same time singing was always quite a private thing… I don’t think my own mum even heard me sing until after I signed with Sony just out of high school!

Q. How supportive were friends and family and how did you juggle the first steps towards a career in music with your education?
Brooke Fraser: I had received some minor indie label interest when I was 14 after I was in a schools music competition thing in NZ called ‘Rockquest’, but I knew it wasn’t the right time and that I wasn’t good enough and needed to concentrate on school. I had planned to go to university and do a journalism degree, but ended up being signed straight after finishing school and moving up to Auckland, the “big smoke”, to make my first record. I still often think that eventually I’d love to do some papers… my correspondence if life calms down a bit, but I think I’d do history or English literature… I’ve had enough of journos now. ;)

My friends and family have never been anything but supportive, I’m very fortunate in that sense.

Brooke Fraser

Q. Your debut album went eight times platinum and stayed in the New Zealand Top 10 for a year after debuting at No.1. Could you ever have imagined such a success?
Brooke Fraser: Obviously, it was a big life change for me and quite a shock to suddenly have these songs I’d written in my bedroom as a far-too-intense teenager all over the airwaves and see my face on buses, especially in a small country like New Zealand, but at the same time it was such a thrill and an honour knowing that my music was reaching people.

Q. Did it make the second album more challenging?
Brooke Fraser: I was asked that a lot at the time, but strangely the answer is no. The material for the second album seemed to come quite easily and I knew it was strong – stronger than the first record – so I was reasonably confident about it.

Q. And coming to the third, how has your process evolved, if at all, and what lessons do you feel you’ve learned from each album’s creative experience?
Brooke Fraser: If anything I had the “difficult third album” rather than the “difficult second album”. The themes in Albertine (my second album) had been so specific and slightly traumatic that for a while I was pretty stumped about what to ‘say’ next. The writing and making of each of my albums has been such a different beast each time, so I’m interested in seeing what kind of animal the fourth one turns out to be!

Q. You also got to support David Bowie on one tour, so what was that like? What did you take away from that experience?
Brooke Fraser: David Bowie is the quintessential English gentleman and, of course, a musical and generational institution. I only played support for him for one night (not a whole tour) but he was incredibly gracious and generous toward me and I’ve certainly never forgotten it.

Q. Away from music, you are closely connected to a number of charities, including Charity Water. Can you talk a little bit more about your work with them and what inspired it?
Brooke Fraser: In a way, this kind of work is the bottom line for me and it makes everything worth it. In the end, no matter how my records are panned or praised, if there are kids and communities in developing nations that have improved living conditions and are finally getting access to things we all have a basic right to (clean water, education, healthcare) because I am able to advocate, raise awareness or funds in some small way, then my life has achieved something that in the end means far more than having the track or album of the moment.

Brooke Fraser

Q. You also travelled to Rwanda in 2005 and sponsored an orphan whose name inspired your second album. How was that experience?
Brooke Fraser: I’m not quite sure where the sponsorship rumour came from… probably because I have been a spokesperson for child sponsorship so people just assumed that was the connection. Albertine was already over the eligible age for sponsorship when I met her and she’s now a fully fledged adult.

Visiting Rwanda that first time and hearing the story of her and Joel (a man I befriended that rescued her during the 1994 genocide, lesser known because his name isn’t in the song) changed my life. Not an understatement.

Q. And do you continue to be involved in efforts to raise funds and awareness for Rwanda?
Brooke Fraser: Africa has a big part of my focus and where possible we have worked with projects in Rwanda (child sponsorship and water projects through World Vision) though currently I’m working on some water projects in Ethiopia with Charity Water.

We’ll be heading to Ethiopia in October to be there for the drilling of the wells my audience raised money for during our initial release of Flags at the end of 2010. I’m hoping to head to Rwanda after Ethiopia though and revisit the communities I’m involved with there, evaluate the current needs and work out how we respond and move forward.

Q. Are there any other projects close to your heart? Have you been involved with any fundraising for the New Zealand earthquake appeal or Japan? Were you at all affected by the New Zealand quake?
Brooke Fraser: We were in New Zealand on a tour called the MoreFM Winery Tour when the quake hit. We were a couple of hours north in a place called Nelson and felt it there. For the remainder of the tour the Red Cross were with us taking donations. It was/is a pretty crazy time.

Q. Coming back to music, what’s the biggest buzz you’ve received from a live performance? What is your favourite live memory?
Brooke Fraser: My first shows in Australia back in 2004 were to arenas as a support act on John Mayer’s “Heavier Things” tour of Down Under… those shows were huge for me and even now I’ll meet people at Aussie shows who first became fans during that tour and have followed me ever since.

I also met such great people and friends on that tour who I still keep up with today, like Michael Chaves who has played on my last two records.

Q. And if you could duet with anyone who would it be and why?
Brooke Fraser: The Australian fellas Boy & Bear. Because I adore them!

Q. Is there any song you’d love to cover and why?
Brooke Fraser: I see a cover of The Black Keys’ Variety in my future…

Q. And finally, what are the 10 tracks that are never far from your iPod player at the moment?
Brooke Fraser: “Golden State” – Delta Spirit
“All My Tears (Be Washed Away)” – Emmylou Harris
“Helplessness Blues” – Fleet Foxes
“Barton Hollow” – The Civil Wars
“Punching in a Dream” – The Naked & Famous
“When A Man Loves A Woman” – Karen Dalton
Friggin’ Adele! There’s a bandwagon for a reason…
“Hearts & Bones” – Paul Simon
“Elephants” – Rachael Yamagata
“This Old Dark Machine” – James Vincent McMorrow

Watch the video for Something In The Water