nzoa july 2019

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by Amanda Mills

Jonathan Bree: Webtalking On Sleepwalking

by Amanda Mills

Jonathan Bree: Webtalking On Sleepwalking

Jonathan Bree is a musical maverick who has been creating opulent, cinematic pop since his days as part of The Brunettes. A solo artist since 2013, he has taken his love of lush orchestration to new levels with each album and his latest release, ‘Sleepwalking’, fuses this with melodic baroque-pop. He has at the same time made himself increasingly hard to identify, interviews are rare, ‘faceless’ masks are now regular and his upcoming international album tour gigs will have a no stage-banter policy. Amanda Mills posed some questions for NZ Musician.

‘Sleepwalking’ pulls on Jonathan Bree’s musical inspirations of classical orchestration, film composers and ‘60s pop production Meanwhile the strong visual aesthetic of faceless mannequins in his music videos recalls ‘60s variety shows. This disturbing visual has proven extremely popular, the video for lead single You’re So Cool being named New York Time Out’s video of the year (2017), and enjoying over a million online views. It’s this attention that has led to days dealing with what he calls “self-management admin,” and a lot of requests to perform overseas.

When did you decide that music was going to be your career path?

Around the age of 8. I saw the video clip for Take On Me by A-ha and knew what I wanted to be… Morten Harket… thrashing my way out of the pages of a comic book.

Lil’ Chief Records has been quite a success in its 15 years… Has having the label changed your own approach to music?

I don’t think having the label has changed my personal approach to my own music. However back when it use to feel more like a collective I think we helped each other, challenged, and bounced off each others’ creative output.

‘A Little Night Music’ was a wonderful record. How does ‘Sleepwalking’ follow on from that album sonically?

Thank you. I think ‘Sleepwalking’ retains a lot of orchestral elements and techniques learnt from ‘Night Music’, though in general, it’s probably more pop-minded and not as subdued.

The 1960s plays a big part in the sound and visual aesthetic of ‘Sleepwalking’. Why does that decade appeal to you?

It’s the decade with the most pioneering adventures in pop songwriting, and an era where the studio became a major tool in deciding what a pop song could be. I just love the productions of that time.

How difficult is it to perform while wearing the mask? What is the mask made of?

I don’t find it difficult. I actually find it almost meditative. You can’t see much out of them though. It’s made out of cloth which I soak in ether… no, it’s a combination of plastic and spandex.

You self-directed the extremely successful You’re So Cool video. Were there any challenges to directing a video where all the ‘band’ were masked and with quite limited vision?

Yeah, it wasn’t the easiest shoot for everyone. Those masks can be a bit uncomfortable. I had to trust Ben Zambo, the director of photography, and his camera crew captured the angles and shots we needed. It all turned out really well.

The genuine confusion with some members of when to come in etc. made it all the more authentic in our opinion. Those old ‘60s music variety shows were always laced with errors, so I find the string players that can’t play violins at all did a perfect job. We filmed two music videos that day so I’m really looking forward to the other one surfacing at some point.

Has the success of the You’re So Cool video impacted on ‘Sleepwalking’ and how you perceived the album? Did you think it would get such a positive reaction?

I thought it was a good recording, but I’ve thought that before about songs I’ve released which failed to find a wider audience. Its success has definitely changed a few things in the short term, [and] I now have promoters in different corners of the world wanting me to tour and perform in their cities. It’s nice to be noticed, but I was also pretty content that I would just release it and then head back in the studio and do it all over again for my own creative satisfaction. For the meantime days now are filled with self-management admin…

What was the other video recorded during the You’re So Cool shoot?

It’s for a track called Kiss My Lips which Princess Chelsea sings the lead vocals on. We bumped it from ‘Sleepwalking’ because it only made sense to have Chelsea singing lead vocals on a track if it was on the original formatted double album.

The video for You’re So Cool (in fact all four videos from ‘Sleepwalking’) succeeds in capturing every nuance of emotion and meaning in a tilt of the head and pose, even though you don’t ‘sing’ with moving lips. Was that difficult to achieve?

I find it’s not that difficult to convey expression in the mask. I’m amazed at how much you can take from body language without seeing someone’s face, and I think it becomes easier for people to project what they want to see. The blank mask allows them to imagine what expression is being conveyed, which I am finding pretty interesting with this character.

Where did the idea for an anonymous masked performer and band come from? When did you decide to begin using this persona?

I’ve always had a thing for masks. As a kid I’d walk around with this Planet of the Apes’ mask on, we’d sometimes wear masks in the Brunettes, and in the Disciples of Macca (a Paul McCartney and Wings-only covers band) we all mask up as Paul or Linda. I worked on the blank mask persona for the ‘Weird Hardcore’ music video in 2014 when it was mixed with classical wigs and costume… when it failed to make much of an impression I retired the look for a few more years. I was still convinced it was a compelling visual so I resurrected the masks again for You’re So Cool.

Was there a vintage ‘science fiction element to the faceless mannequin aesthetic, like say the Automatons from Dr Who?

I grew up watching re-runs of the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker years of Doctor Who. I love all the cheap green screen effects and the look of those costumes made on a tight BBC budget. I think that show and other ‘80s television, in general, has inspired and had a hand in shaping my character… physically and mentally… I wouldn’t be surprised if I was channelling some ‘Who’.

Is the orchestrated element of your music becoming a recognised part of your sound?

I suppose so. I have a palette I like and haven’t tired of using. Not many other people tend to use dulcitones and cimbaloms… those music stores around town need to order them in perhaps… Guitars are boring, cimbaloms are where it’s at.

Do you arrange the strings yourself?

I write and arrange my own string parts, and when I’ve had no clue as to how to notate them my friend Andrew Keoghan has helped me make some sense of it.

Has your use of strings on ‘Sleepwalking’ changed from how you used them on ‘A Little Night Music’?

There’s definitely a continuation of exploring the string sliding techniques that I think I first got into when recording the song Weird Hardcore. Glissando strings weren’t anything new to my previous recordings but Weird Hardcore was probably the first time I’d really embraced the slow descending / ascending motif. From there I started to see how else I could explore and apply that technique within a pop song format.
It’s not too crazy, just slightly microtonal when the notes are in transit which gives it that certain sound. Boombox Serenade is probably my favourite track for this where the cello and backing vocals slide down an octave three times over the course of the song. Something I hadn’t heard done before.

What do the songs on ‘Sleepwalking’ represent thematically – do personal memories and themes appear or are they fictions?

They are both fictional and personal. Being the grand old veteran that I am I’m usually writing more from personal experience these days. Somewhere along the way, though, certain details and imagery maybe conjured up for whatever reason. It wasn’t intentional but just turned out to be about the many ways people connect to others.

There is a strong element of melancholia, do you think this is a part of the modern human condition?

Just call me the master of misery… most of the themes deal with relationship dynamics that have been around ever since we were monkeys. Some are definitely in a modern context though; Characters is about an agoraphobic internet celebrity with body dysmorphia; Static explores the dynamics between findoms and their pay pigs, or also could simply be between any girl with a number of internet admirers that are fed images and texts to continue a cycle of adoration.

Are you the sole writer of the album?

Yeah, that’s all on me. Princess Chelsea has a lot of input though, I guess she’s my editor. If something is a little too on the nose then she’ll say… or not say, and I’ll know that I need to work at it a little more.

Who performs on ‘Sleepwalking’ apart from yourself, Clara Vinals, Princess Chelsea and Crystal Choi?

Andrew Keoghan once again performed a number of the string parts and was very helpful in translating my string arrangements to written score. Hollie Fullbrook (Tiny Ruins) played the cello on You’re So Cool and a few other tracks. Other great string players involved were Jessica Hindin, Kathleen Tomacruz and old bandmate Mike Hall. Ella Smith is a soprano singer from Auckland now based in Berlin who did backing vocals on some of the tracks.

Where are you touring the album? What are the challenges of performing in such a highly stylised way?

A number of European countries mostly, and as far east as Romania, Turkey, then Korea, Malaysia, NZ and South America. Not your typical tour circuit. Not sure yet what the main challenges performing this way will be but it will be different.

Are you deliberately creating distance between you and audiences with your no stage-banter/audience talk policy for these shows?

Distance is not necessarily the objective. I won’t be throwing out trite lines about, “How’s everyone doing out there tonight?” or how much I love coming to their beautiful city/country. I hope that during the course of the show people will experience enough within the music and stage performance despite us all being faceless.

Is there a track on ‘Sleepwalking’ that you identify with most or is your favourite?

I like them all equally for different reasons… ‘Sleepwalking’ was supposed to be a double LP, but towards the end of 2017, I realised I would never finish it on time for a tour mid-year so I backed the 11 most finished tracks to complete a single LP. I’m already looking forward to getting back into the studio and finishing the rest off… Until then I’ve got six months of touring ‘Sleepwalking’ and Princess Chelsea’s ‘The Loneliest Girl’.

How do you see your sound developing in the future?

Hard to say. I’m currently enjoying the more avant-garde string arrangement-based work… But hey, maybe I’ll move to Nashville and go country…