In the midst of planning an extensive Australasian tour while working a 9-5 job Frank Burkitt managed to squeeze in time to chat with Amy Maynard about working with a dream production team on his band’s newly released album, embracing the qualities of being a storyteller and the double entendre behind the album’s ‘Raconteur’ title.
A raconteur is a person who tells anecdotes in a skilful and amusing way, a storyteller, a teller of tales or a spinner of yarns – and there is no doubt that Frank Burkitt is all of these and more. Hailing from the highlands of Scotland, the singer/songwriter/guitarist relocated to windy Wellington in 2014, and wasted no time surrounding himself with a talented array of musicians to form The Frank Burkitt Band.
There’ve been changes since, but these days James Geluk joins him on double bass, Cameron Dusty Burnell adds mandolin, banjo and guitar, while Kara Filbey provides flute and backing vocals. The band’s first album, 2015’s ‘Fools & Kings’, reached number 12 of the NZ Charts with a five-track EP named ‘The Parade’ following a year later. It clearly wasn’t long before new album ‘Raconteur’ was in development.
That kind of release frequency is perhaps not surprising as his storytelling comes naturally. If you’ve ever caught one of The Frank Burkitt Band’s live shows, you’ll be well aware that the narrative is just as important as the music itself.
“Since the inception of the band, I’ve realised that a lot of people can receive and really like that [narrative], when I thought that I was just talking too much. Now I’ve sort of realised to incorporate that, which means that the stories go with the songs and I try to make both the stories and the songs as accessible as I can.”
‘Raconteur’ introduces us to a more refined and polished sound that is still undoubtedly steeped in folklore. Frank gushes about getting to work with one of the country’s finest producer/engineer combos.
“We recorded at The Surgery in Wellington with Lee Prebble and Gerry Paul. It was really awesome to work with those two guys. Having that fusion with Gerry’s particular sort of sound and our sort of music… he’s got great experience producing Mel Parson’s album as well. He’s just great to work with. And Lee’s gear is unbelievable! It was a very swift process the whole thing, it was very clean and crisp. Lee just kind of knew what was needed. We learned a lot working with him and the two of them together are like a dream team.”
The album was, he says, “…a big labour of love”. With two weeks spent in the studio, Frank and his band were able to add a plethora of sounds and instruments to the mix creating a fuller sound than they were previously used to.
“For the first time ever in my life, I have drums on an album! [Nick George from Miles Calder and the Rumours] They gave it that little bit extra. We’ve got a few things on there that I never even thought about, like the Hammond organ played by Ed Zuccollo. He’s played with Trinity Roots, and all sorts of legends, a totally amazing Hammond player.
“Oscar Laven did all the horns [trumpet, clarinet, sax and trombone] for six or seven tracks in one day! I thought it would be lovely to do a song with three-part harmonies, so Kim Bonnington added extra vocals in an homage to the old tradition of an a capella folk song which I love so much.
“We sent three tracks to Vyvienne Long who is an amazing cellist from Ireland, and she added some really lovely strings to the tracks. Lastly, we had the album mastered by Mike Gibson from Munki Studios. He’s a great dude who does the dark art of mastering, and he put a real gloss to the album.”
The move to a bigger studio and a bigger budget was a big decision but that Frank now explains was totally worthwhile.
“The difference in quality, sound, production, just everything compared to our first album is huge. There’s not a whole lot more we could have done with this one and we are really proud of it.”
Talking over the album’s 10 tracks he strikes up with the tale behind Work So Hard.
“I really like what that song’s about because it’s quite personal in some ways. It’s like a tribute to when I was a waster in my early 20s, that decade when I was just that half drunk, stoned, useless guy… I was never, you know, bad, but I never had any motivation. A long time ago, on the day that Kara was getting her PhD, I was working in a music shop in Edinburgh.
“I was sitting there with the telephone and I was obviously quite bored. Me and my friend had these telephone handsets, and I was like, mushing it into my face to see how many buttons I could press with my face. Then we were like, ‘Oh I got like five that time!’ and ‘Oh yeah, I got like 6 that time!’ My other mate came up and looked at us doing this ridiculous thing and just said, ‘You do realise that your partner Kara is getting her PhD today, and you’re sitting there mashing a phone into your face?’
“I don’t know how Kara obliged me for so many years,” Frank laughs then continues. “I suddenly found a lot of motivation, whether it was the age thing or moving to New Zealand, but that song is all about me missing being a lazy bastard because when you’re really motivated, quite a lot of stress comes with it when you actually have a goal to reach. You get really busy and stressed, you don’t holiday as much, you forget what it’s like to relax like you used to do. The line, ‘If you’re happy with a little you don’t need to work so hard,’ is kind of a homage to when I was a lazier guy. That song’s about ambition really. Ambition is good, but I miss being lazy.”
The ‘Raconteur’ album title is an apt fit. Frank epitomises this trait completely, though it was chosen for a different reason as he explains.
“The name is based on an old musical mentor of mine out of Edinburgh. His name was Martin Boland and he ran the Stonewater and Royal Oak Pub sessions in Edinburgh for 30 years. He ran sessions that were really encouraging for young folkies that would turn up to sing… I was 18 and he was downstairs bossing a session where people were all sat around a table drinking, with no PA, nothing, just those who wanted to listen. It really appealed to me because I wasn’t a tune writer, I didn’t know how to play along with tunes very well… I sort of approached these two real big bearded gruff men running the session and straight away Martin gave me a guitar and the whole pub went quiet… That was my first proper gig with my own songs.
“A few months before I was to go into the studio to record the album, I had written this song called Raconteur as a tribute to him. I’d mentioned it to him and it came out so well and he loved it so much that we put it on the album, then I kind of just named the album after him. I was due to go back to Edinburgh, but he died two weeks before I went over. It was a shame… He was a great kind of guy who had his problems, you know, with depression and such, but he was such a lovely positive encouraging guy.
“I have a lot of respect for him, he gave a lot for me when I was 18 and did the same for hundreds of others… he spotted talent and encouraged it. He didn’t do anything business-wise, he didn’t further anyone’s career as such, but the encouragement that he gave to so many who have now gone on to become really big artists, all because they were given a platform… He was a great man and they lost the real kind of soul of the Edinburgh folk scene and they now miss him hugely.”
Frank pauses then cheekily adds,
“That’s why its called ‘Raconteur’, not because of what some people think that I’m calling myself a raconteur, because you know, who would be that egotistical, honestly…”