Claimed by the sea

February 12

French for Rabbits make soundscapes like seascapes, like driftwood, like walks on the beach.

THE MUSIC MADE BY FRENCH FOR RABBITS IS HARD TO DEFINE. THE BAND ARE OFTEN DESCRIBED AS PURVEYORS OF “DREAM POP”, BUT THERE’S MORE TO IT THAN THAT. FOR ONE THING, IT’S SALTIER. FRONTWOMAN BROOKE SINGER’S VOCALS FLOAT LIKE SEAFOAM ON THE WAVEFORMS OF JOHN FITZGERALD’S GUITAR, AND TOGETHER THEY MAKE NOT ONLY SOUNDS, BUT TOPOGRAPHIES. THEIR MUSIC SOUNDS LIKE LANDSCAPES AND SEASCAPES FEEL, SPECIFICALLY THE LANDSCAPES AND SEASCAPES OF AOTEAROA. THIS IS NOT WHAT SOMEONE LIVING IN CHICAGO, OR LONDON, OR MELBOURNE, WOULD MAKE. IN FACT, IT’S NOT MUSIC ANYONE ELSE WOULD MAKE. ULTIMATELY, FRENCH FOR RABBITS SOUND LIKE FRENCH FOR RABBITS. AND IT’S A BEAUTIFUL SOUND.

The band was formed in 2012 by two friends: Brooke, a classically-trained musician who also studied sonic arts (or “nerdy electronic production” as she calls it), and John, who is a Christchurch Jazz School graduate. The current French for Rabbits line-up also includes drummer Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa (Dawn Diver, Stellarize) alongside multi-instrumentalists Ben Lemi (Trinity Roots, Dawn Diver) and Penelope Esplin (Grawlixes). Their 2012 debut EP, Claimed by the Sea, received a New Zealand Music Award nomination for Best Folk Album, and two albums followed in 2014 and 2018: Spirits and The Weight of Melted Snow. They have toured extensively in Europe and American, opened for Lorde, appeared on the soundtrack of supernatural teen drama The Vampire Diaries twice, and played at the 2019 SXSW conference in Austin.

Though the band is now based in Wellington, the place most often associated with French for Rabbits is the one-shop coastal hamlet of Waikuku Beach. This is both because Brooke was based there when the French for Rabbits got their start, and because her dad, now closely associated with the band’s aesthetic, is a legendary local. More on him later.

Originally from North Canterbury, Brooke spent part of her childhood on a lifestyle property surrounded by cows, horses and chickens and paddocks, and she calls her youth “very much a country upbringing”. But it’s John who has the more rural pedigree. A proper county boy who is “fully at home hooning around on a dirt bike”, John grew up near the township of Kirwee on the Canterbury Plains. Kirwee is known as the site of the Courtenay A&P Show, the closest A&P show to Christchurch, and the “Wee”, a classic New Zealand tavern that, sadly, burned down in 2019.

“ULTIMATELY, FRENCH FOR RABBITS SOUND LIKE FRENCH FOR RABBITS.”

Both, then, felt at home in Waikuku Beach, with its population of less than 1000 and single dairy – the old-school Waikuku Beach General Store, for everything from postage, to groceries, to fish and chips and ice creams. Far enough from Christchurch to feel remote, but close enough (about a 35-minute drive) to be a doable day trip from the city, it’s a tight-knit community centred around the shared experiences of the beach, the surf (a “punchy and fun” wave, according to Surf Seeker NZ), and mucking about in the estuary.

It was at Waikuku Beach that Brooke and John first recorded the ambient demos for what would become French for Rabbits. Brooke says her songwriting is very much rooted to place, often reflecting where she is at the time. Of the songs written at Waikuku, she says, “I can hear it in
the music, the big grey empty beaches and the estuary.” This comes through on some of the tracks from their last album. ‘Hollow Bodied Friends’ sounds like it was recorded with the mythological Sirens on backing vocals (“we’re living on the edge of reason, let the fog ascend”, Brooke sings), and ‘Feathers and Dreams’ echoes like something played to the wind on a deserted seashore. As for the lyrics, goodness me. Words like “sadness steals my body, fills my bones / a careless lark, a heavy moan / Peter pick her up or let her go / her wings are but the weight of melted snow” (‘The Weight of Melted Snow’) are the sort of thing you need a long walk in the rain to think through.


“HANDILY … WEATHER AND LANDSCAPES MAKE GREAT METAPHORS.”


Handily, Brooke points out, weather and landscapes make great metaphors. “I have some songs where the entire song is a metaphor, two stories in one, like a fable,” she explains. Listening to ‘Claimed by the Sea’, which describes an old house succumbing to the encroaching ocean, one assumes the whole thing is also one big, and highly effective, metaphor for relationship breakdown: “there are cockles and broken glass spread across the floor / the door is wide open and the sand made drifts all down the hall / broken panes in the window reflected light in from the sky / this is no longer my house, it has been claimed by the sea.”

From a songwriting point of view, isolated places like Waikuku, and Aotearoa in general, are also just the thing for developing the kind of unique voice French for Rabbits has. “When we first went to the UK, we noticed these collections of sounds, people trying to make it in certain scenes,” Brooke says. “Here, no one does it for the money. Clearly, you do music because it is a creative outlet you can explore. It’s very much an individual pursuit, you don’t have to be part of a collective sound.”

 

 

Now in his seventies, Brooke’s dad, Douglas Singer, moved to Waikuku Beach when she was about 14. He is a stalwart of the local surf scene, a classic lifer who, according to one local, “is always out there, amping on it. He gets all the waves.” (He also taught John, the French for Rabbits’ guitarist, to surf.) He gained national recognition when he appeared on the album cover of The Weight of Melted Snow, as well as in the video for the title track. You get the impression he’s not someone who would actively seek a role in a rock video, but he was made for the part: part gentleman, part hipster, part that guy you’d find at the bar in any number of the many surf clubs of New Zealand. He has a fantastic beard.

It’s fitting that Brooke Singer’s surfer dad and the seaside town he lives in, have come, in a small way, to represent the band. Because if there’s anything that does describe French for Rabbits, it’s that their songs seem to ring with the sounds of the land and the sea – sometimes gorgeous, sometimes sad, sometimes unexpected. Or, as Brooke puts it, “it’s like when you go to a beach, you are in this massive space, but you are small. You can look at the detail of the sand. You can scavenge in the driftwood.”

French for Rabbit’s third album is scheduled for release in 2021 (frenchforrabbits.com).


LAURA WILLIAMSON

 


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