Wellington reggae act BrownHill aren’t letting the grass grow under their feet, releasing a self-titled EP in 2011 and now back with a debut album of smooth Pacific reggae tunes called ‘First Love’, described as a culmination of their own individual experiences. The Good Friday-scheduled release makes sense given their various strict church upbringings and the album’s abundantly evident central theme of love, conveyed with up-lifting harmonies, beats and lyrics. BrownHill say they want people to use their music as “…a tool of encouragement for anyone facing the challenges that life and love throw at us. Martyn Pepperell threw some questions at the nine-piece band’s lead singer and lyricist Caesar Masoe.
In a former lifetime a young Caesar Masoe attended a concert by foundation Hawaiian reggae vocalist Fiji. He’d loved Fiji’s music since encountering his ‘Born & Raised’ album in high school. Seeing the man sing live was a transformative moment for Masoe who is now the lead singer, band leader and lyric writer of Wellington-based Island reggae nine-piece BrownHill.
“He blew me away,” he reflects. “I said, ‘I want to be like that guy.’”
Coming from a Pentecostal church background in the Hutt Valley, Masoe started playing music and singing very early on, and from that young age, was surrounded by technically competent players.
“Having a mother like mine, she made me sing every single Sunday without a miss,” he says with laughter. “I started playing drums when I was five in the church, and it is still with me now. In church you start playing with feel and you get a lot more feeling into it.”
Alongside discovering George ‘Fiji’ Veikoso’s music while at school, Masoe was also captured by UB40 and the new jack swing fusion of Jodeci, one of the ultimate ’90s RnB monoliths.
“I’m an RnB baby, I love my RnB and it shows,” he boyishly enthuses. “My songs have a real deep RnB influence. If you were to take away the Island [reggae] vamping, they’re RnB songs.”
Four years ago he got the opportunity to start folding his love of Island reggae and RnB classicism together when lead guitarist Mat Pa’ese approached him about playing together.
“He wanted to start a band to play at weddings and do pub gigs. I said, ‘Oh yeah’, so we signed on, Masoe says. Bringing in vocalists Afele Tolai and Ezra Iupeli, drummer Giovanni Lesa, bass guitarist James Feaunati, percussionist Venu Masoe and keyboardists A’aifou Ta’anoa and Natu Sopoaga, they formed BrownHill.
Kicking things off on the local wedding, pub and function circuit, BrownHill played covers and also wrote their own material. As a result of live videos they put up online, they were approached by another respected Hawaiian Island reggae singer J Boog, who asked them to act as his backing band for some NZ shows.
“It went from there,” Masoe reflects. “He went back to Hawaii and then when Fiji came next time, he asked us to back him up also!”
Following that, they were approached by Samoan-American reggae star Spawnbreezie who, like J Boog and Fiji, had heard of their prowess as a backing band. Through these substantial if distant connections, BrownHill worked their way onto stages under their own name, playing alongside locals like Katchafire, Three Houses Down and 1814, building themselves a sizeable audience in the process. Enthusiastic about the local scene for island reggae, Masoe believes that things will only get bigger.
” Internationally, it’s massive, it’s a huge network,” he says. “It is slowly growing. It isn’t as big here as it is in Hawaii or in America. J Boog is doing a 50-show tour at the moment, and every show is sold out. Sprawnbreezie is in the country at the moment and he is sold out at every single show he is having lately.”
In 2011 BrownHill released a self-titled EP, and late in 2012 hooked up with Dawn Raid and Frequency Media Group.
“Me and Danny [Leaosavaii] from Dawn Raid go way back, he recalls. “He’s always said, ‘When you’re ready to go to the next level, get in touch.’
Their debut album, ‘First Love’, which was recorded in Masoe’s garage-come-home studio, was taken up to Auckland to be mixed.
“Andy [Murnane] and Danny know what is good for radio and what isn’t, how it should be mixed. It was an awesome experience.”
As the result of BrownHill’s fast increasing capital, Masoe was able to duet with Fiji on the title song, in the process drawing a line between original influence and artistic output.
“The guy is a freak in the studio. He doesn’t write anything down. He just freestyled everything. He just sang whatever he was going to sing. That was how the whole album was written. When we found the time we’d work for 15 minutes! ‘Sweet, song done, onto the next one.’”