Explaining the four-year delay since her last album, Flip Grater says that in the past she has typically been quite impatient, writing, recording and releasing quickly, typically without a proper plan in place. As she tells Richard Thorne, she wanted her fourth album to be thought out and done with a bit more patience, plus she wanted the experience of writing (and recording) it while travelling around Europe. On top of that came the challenges and delays. There were financial issues with trying to get it finished, issues in dealing with French folk who, she says, seemed not to want to work (ever), and challenges like having her manager leave Paris in the middle of the project.
Flip Grater first toured through Europe as a solo artist in 2008, a self-managed tour that resulted in the publishing of her second foody book, The Cookbook Tour Europe complete with five-song CD, in 2011. It also resulted in her gaining French management and booking agent interest that has allowed her to return there regularly in the years since. For the release of her Tim Guy-produced third album, ‘While I’m Awake I’m At War’, she was signed with French label Vicious Circle and Euro label Make My Day Records, explaining why Kiwi audiences have seen little of Flip since that album’s local release back in 2010.
She has since performed widely around Europe, venturing to Brazil and North America, playing festivals and cafes. By 2012 she decided to take a plunge and move to Paris.
“All I knew was that I wanted to be challenged. To experience something different. I wanted to meet new people and to live in a busy European city, with all of the stress and excitement that come with that.”
“And I wanted to record an album outside of NZ and see what it sounded like. See if it sounded different just because of where I was, and the types of music that different nationalities make? I wanted to know if music was inherently a result of the writer or collaborations – all of that. And it was a fascinating journey. It was a really interesting and enlightening process, which I really enjoyed, and I’m totally happy with the result, so it was totally worth it in the end.”
The result is ‘Pigalle’, her fourth album, recorded at Studio Pigalle, in the Pigalle district, a theatre and tourist area perhaps best known as the home of Moulin Rouge. She describes Paris as having very different sides – equal parts disgusting and romantic, beautiful and grimey – and in a similar vein her album is one of darkness and light. It evokes both vulnerability and considerable strength, pessimism and hope, and takes Flip Grater several strides forward as a recording artist.
“I am a bit cliché in that the further down I fall the more I write. I spent a couple of years doing house sitting around the place and I spent a lot of time alone during that period – which is difficult for me ’cos I’m super sociable, I like to be around people.
“That was one of the challenges I wanted, to be forced into being isolated, to be alone and reflect on where I’d been and what I’d done and who I am and who I want to be – all those important things. My lyric writing went hand in hand with that, I was writing the album during that period of time and it reflects that. It shows a lot of nostalgia and self-reflection and ideas about what it is to be me, to be Kiwi, to be human – all those things.”
The guts of the recording were done over two weeks in September 2012, but it then, she says with a hint of residual frustration, took all of 2013 to finish, including a few returns to the studio over that time.
“That [recording] was at the end of the initial (challenging) 10 months I spent in Paris and I was just starting to get happy. The process was really fun, I was meeting all these new people and getting involved in a pocket of the Paris folk and indie scene. I met my boyfriend through that as well and started to really find my feet in Paris.”
The start of her Parisian experience was indeed rocky, starving-artist-in-a-garret rocky, though that was never her plan.
“I thought I was going there totally set up, she says, her face unusually conveying anguish at the memory. “I had a booking agent, a French record label, I had French management who lived in Paris, I had a place set up to live. I just arrived there with my suitcase and guitar.
“The week before I went my manager decided to move to San Francisco, the night I arrived in Paris my guitar got stolen, and a month after I arrived my booking agent had sort of a break down and quit! My label stuck by me, but I didn’t really know those guys and they’re not in Paris. So it seemed like this great idea, but I found myself there with no contacts, no guitar, no friends – just totally on my own, and it was not what I’d planned. I thought I was quite hooked up, but I wasn’t at all.”
She admits to spending a while feeling a bit depressed, before shaking it off, telling herself to get out of her apartment and establish some new friendships.
“I had this romantic idea of being broke in Paris – but at the end of the day being broke anywhere sucks. Especially if you can’t even afford to sit in a café and take a coffee!”
Having applied for several rounds of funding in NZ and being rejected each time, Flip admits she questioned the wisdom of continuing with plans for another album, well knowing that sale numbers wouldn’t even cover the studio costs. Her manager pushed her towards crowd funding and set up a project with IndieGoGo. Unfortunately the rewards she offered for pledges were over the top, and while the funding gained was a great boost for the project, it didn’t come close to meeting the recording costs – or the additional costs of meeting those promised rewards. Then her manager split.
“I was like, ‘What am I going to do? I’m tens of thousands of Euros in debt to my fans right now, I’ve got to get this album finished and make all these prizes – and I’m on my own!’ It was extremely overwhelming.”
There was little choice but to do another crowd funding campaign – to finish the project and pay for the first. This time Flip chose a French platform called KissKissBankBank.
“It was really good. I had learnt a thing or two from the first campaign and didn’t go for much money, and promised much more realistic rewards. Now that I have finished the album I have to figure out how I can get the other stuff together! I think the artbook is going to end up being a digital thing but I want to be sure everyone ends up happy with it. The crowd funding was invaluable, I couldn’t have done it without fans, and friends and family!”
Her manager gets the credit for encouraging Flip to look around for a producer she’d like to work with.
“I was loving this album by a French musician called Babx, and I looked at the credits and he had self-produced it. So I approached him through his label and asked if he would like to work with me and produce my album.”
Babx was about to tour but suggested Flip work with his friend Maxime Delpierre, and that he would join in when he could.
“So that’s what I did. Through Max I found the studio and he organised all the musicians. Recording the album proved a great way to meet people, I actually met my boyfriend through that process. All of my band and a lot of my friends came through that process, so it was a wonderful gateway to a whole scene which is really supportive, and a great process – they were all very talented musicians.”
Noticeably rockier than her more delicate recent albums, ‘Pigalle’ has enough subtle flavours for its French production origins to be indentifiable, but not, in any way, to dominate. She says she wanted the production to reflect the darkness of the lyrics.
“I have that side to me and I didn’t want to make light of those lyrics by making a sift feminine production – I wanted it to be a bit masculine, a bit darker, have some electric guitars in there. With ‘While I’m Awake I’m At War’ I wanted it to be folky, with this one I wanted to explore a grittier side.
“I really think it was the right [combo] for the songs,” she says with conviction. “I was really lucky that Max understood what I wanted with the album and he has a beautiful touch. I think he struggled, as a French man, with me wanting to co-produce my own album, but we got past that! His light touch on guitar is exceptional and every musician he pulled in had that same ability. There was a lot of delicate playing, which is perfect.”
Rather less perfect was the album mixing process, which also took place in Studio Pigalle, but was fraught with delays and frustrating postponements, many of which she attributes to the fundamental French work ethic, and sense of holiday entitlement. Flip wanted to be involved so hung in despite the delays, but chose to send to Mike Gibson for mastering in Wellington.
“It’s the only album I’ve made outside of NZ (thus far), and I’m not totally sure I would record in Paris again. It was such a challenge because doing business in France is quite difficult. People don’t really have the same work ethic that we have here, I found the delays frustrating. It is one of the things I have learnt from French people – how to take your time, how to enjoy each moment, to sit in a cafe for the entire afternoon and not feel guilty about it – that’s actually been really good for me personally, but professionally I struggled.”
She says that even simple things like paying the musicians proved a challenge because the French banking system is antiquated, and that all things considered, she will probably record in NZ next time. Still, she’s loving her new album.
“It’s kind of like reading a diary, a reflection of a moment in my life, so for me that’s fun because I am still partly in that mode. It’s all very personal for me still, and I love it for that reason. I think it’s a really honest reflection of who I am now, as a musician and as a person.”
Like a good diary, ‘Pigalle’ opens with a strong statement of personal intent in The Quit. ‘I’m quittin’ my life, cold turkey…’
“I wanted to escape my comfort zone and the routine that I had gotten into. We all do sometimes, we just get comfortable and stay still a little bit and I just think that’s a little bit dangerous. I think it’s important to challenge yourself in whatever ways you need to be challenged, otherwise we don’t grow.
“I was single and in my 20s and I thought: ‘This is a great time to travel – my life shouldn’t be this easy right now.’ If ever there is a time to be not settled it should be when you’re single and in your 20s! There’s every other time in your life to be settled.
“The Quit is all about that desire to quit my comfort zone and be somewhere else. I was between two house sits in Paris and ended up for one night in this disgusting hotel room, on this terrible ugly bedspread, with this clashing wallpaper and awful curtains, and I wrote The Quit in like five minutes, in that room. And I thought, ‘Yep, this is what I’m going to do now, I want these challenges, I want to spend some time in this city.’
Two tracks later, Exit Sign touches on the feeling of being very far away from her Christchurch-based family who were at the time experiencing the aftermath of the earthquake tragedy while she wasn’t.
“I had this feeling of separation from that, it was definitely hard being away from that in particular. It happened just before I left the country. Apart from all the obvious shocking things, was a realisation that every place I associated my childhood and teenage life with was gone – all of it – and that was such a bizarre feeling. I thought about it a lot while I was travelling and some of the stories on the album, like Justin Was A Junkie, came up because I did a lot of reminiscing about my teenage life and the places and people that I remembered. That song is pure nostalgia.
On Marry Me (written before she met her French beau, with whom she is now planning a future of six months in NZ and six in Europe), Flip sings that she doesn’t ‘… want to sing about anything else but love’. Over a soy milk coffee in Auckland she laughingly threatens that her next album will likely be full of love songs.
“I’m far too happy to write anything else!”