Having settled in Melbourne for a couple of years, Rachel Bailey and John Howell these days call Dunedin home, and fittingly recorded the fourth The Broken Heartbreakers’ album in the living room of drummer Jeff Harford’’s North East Valley house. Amanda Mills talked with the country/folk/pop couple about just how they got to now.
The history of The Broken Heartbreakers stretches back over 13 years and up to Auckland, when alt-country was not yet in vogue. Multi-instrumentalists John Howell and Rachel Bailey formed the group, with band members over the years revolving around the duo. Howell remembers the band’s early days well.
“I was playing in an instrumental group, Salon Kingsadore,” he reminisces. “I just started writing songs that were completely different to anything I’d ever written. It was pretty country at the time, and it needed a vocalist.”
Enter singer and songwriter Rachel Bailey. “I met Rachel… she was pretty staunch and wouldn’t have a play until she’d heard some music.”
Bailey wanted to be certain of what she was signing up for, which she did in 2002.
“We used to sit down and play. It seemed strange to be singing songs and harmonising, and bringing it down and making it more intimate,” Howell laughs.
The band have been described as country/folk, with a pop twist, something they agree with. “There’s a lot of storytelling of modern life, which I think is folk music… [and] there’s a lot of pop hooks,” Bailey considers.
Their new (fourth) album, ‘How We Got To Now’, takes the listener on a journey through the highs and lows of Howell and Bailey’s last five years, since 2010’s ‘Wintersun‘ album.
“Rachel and I went overseas, and decided we’d go to Europe and take our guitars,” Howell explains. “We very naively thought that if we went over there, and were open to the universe and experiences, then things would unfold. We wouldn’t recommend that to anyone, that’s a really bad idea! You need a plan, you need to be extremely well organised, and you need funding. We had a tough time.”
The sound of The Broken Heartbreakers has evolved as line-ups and dynamics changed. The first album from 2006, ‘Everybody’s Waiting For Their Darling‘, was according to the pair, very country, and sweet, “…just making songs as small and as honest as possible.”
Their self-titled second album, (also known as ‘The Red Album‘) appeared in 2007.
“That is a funny one,” Howell admits. “It was a real disappointment for me that nothing happened, because I thought… if you do something that good, people will hear it… ‘The Red Album’ is a good album.”
2010’s ‘Wintersun’ was very much a band affair, with a new line-up of Howell, Bailey, Sam Prebble, Mike Stoodley and Myles Allpress. Balancing music and musicians was a delicate manoeuvre.
“When you’ve got a band, it’s people playing and it’s friendships and it’s egos, and all of those things,” Bailey describes. “People feel this need to fill up the space… I love not having all the space filled up.”
Five years later, The Broken Heartbreakers are a quartet, now with Jeff Harford on drums and Richard Pickard on bass, both electric and double. It hasn’t been an easy time, as close friend Sam Prebble passed away a year ago, and is deeply missed.
“He was one of our best buddies, and he was such an incredible person,” Bailey says with evident sadness.
Melody in H, which closes the 12-track album, strongly evokes Prebble.
“I originally wrote the song for a friend of mine who passed away six years ago… I only finished that basically while I was about to record it, and the words are definitely a nod to Sam. That was a powerful moment… it’s as much about Sam as it is about my friend. And, I know it is for some other people as well.”
Written between 2010 and 2015, and recorded over five days early in February, Howell describes ‘How We Got To Now’ as very much being himself and Bailey on a mission.
“This album is a little more indicative of what our tastes actually are.”
Former bassist Mike Stoodley came down from Auckland to engineer the recording in Harford’s living room. Howell and Bailey then recorded vocals and overdubs at their house. That work, plus mixing and mastering at Stebbing, took seven months to complete before the album could be self-released. Howell found the mixing process fascinating.
“Mike had remote access to our computer… and he’d go in, and you’d just see the mouse start moving! He’d have a mix and send it back through, and we’d tweak it,” he laughs. “That ‘future’ that people would talk about 10-15 years ago, it’s actually happened now!”
The album has a political thread running through it. Howell has a clear stance, and a timely metaphor. “Not enough bands put their flag in the sand about where they stand on things.”
The Revolution of the Wolves considers a third term National Government, while Twenty and Ten is about the Irish economic downturn that followed the growth explosion of the Celtic Tiger era.
“In 2010 we went to Ireland… right after the IMF so-called bailout,” he says. “We didn’t have any money, we turned up in Ireland, and thought that we could get work… but, that simply wasn’t an option. To be right in the middle of that really politicised me… that couldn’t but help come out in some of my songs. Twenty and Ten is about going back to Ireland, to see the devastation of the politics of austerity.”
The remainder of the album is similarly relevant to their experiences and its title. “We can’t help but write things that are absolutely true…… I don’’t think we’’d know how to do it any different. So, they’re very much our stories.”
Both are happy with the outcome, Bailey especially so with her vocals on Somebody Please.
“I’ve always felt that in previous recordings I haven’t quite delivered to what I know I can do, and I feel like I’ve done that on this album.”
She says there was also a desire to make the sound more interconnected than before. “Rather than take this bunch of songs, and make it sound… cohesive in terms of arrangement, we made them serve that kind of song in the best possible way.”
Guest performers added strings, brass and group backing vocals.
“Melody in H has got this big singalong at the end, and we wanted to have lots of vocals and voices in the background,” describes Bailey. “We asked Reb Fountain and Steve Abel, Dylan Storey, Brendan Turner and Alison Millar… Dylan recorded it at his studio in Auckland with Mike. We also had John White, he played viola on a couple of parts, and also did some vocals for us on When You Don’t Have Your People.”
After settling in Melbourne for a couple of years, Bailey and Howell now call the music mecca of Dunedin home. “This is home for me, I grew up here, and we really wanted our little girl to grow up here,” Howell explains.
For Bailey though, it was a new experience. “We knew we wanted to come back to NZ, and we didn’t want to go back to Auckland. I’ve never lived in Dunedin before, but… I feel very at home here. I love the weather! I think it’s my Irish upbringing – I can’t handle the heat, I hate humidity. And I love big coats, so it’s a win-win for me!”
To mark the release of ‘How We Got To Now’, the band played Dunedin, Lyttelton, Wellington and Auckland, but now anticipate a lower profile period of songwriting.
“If people want to pay us to come and play at festivals, and ask to go and play, then we’ll do that, Bailey adds, to Howell’s agreement. “We’re a great band, and if people want to pay us some money and invite us somewhere, then we’re there!”