How many artists can you think of whose first single made it right into the Silver Scroll Top 20? Here’s one! Until the release of her single Extreme Highs as Mousey in June this year, the biggest claim to fame for Sarena Close was quite likely working as backing singer on Tami Neilson’s ‘Sassafrass’. Following up a string of indie radio-friendly singles, her debut album ‘Lemon Law’ showcases her big voice and varied, quality songwriting somewhere between indie pop, neo soul and folk. Mike Tweed talked with her.
Christchurch’s Sarena Close, aka Mousey, has just completed her first Australasian tour. Only a matter of days later she suffered a broken foot in the most bizarre circumstances.
“I put some spring rolls in the oven, then immediately dozed off on the couch”, she laughs. “I woke up to the smell and quickly jumped up. Because I was still half asleep my foot just kind of ripped apart. Lucky it didn’t happen on tour!”
This unfortunate setback aside, Sarena is thrilled with how things have been going as of late. It’s no surprise, as her debut album ‘Lemon Law’ has received rave reviews, with first single Extreme Highs a Silver Scroll Top 20 nominee. With her live band of husband Chris Close (drums), Dave Cloughley (bass) and Terence O’Connor (guitar) in tow, the first Mousey tour exceeded all expectations.
“There was a little bit of Australia, but mostly NZ. It all depended on the individual shows really, because once you’re in a venue, no matter where it is, it’s down to the people who come. It was quite a nice surprise because we had quite low expectations going into it. The smaller shows like Blenheim and Barrytown, in particular, were pretty incredible. Lovely has been the word I’ve been using a lot to describe it! Hanging out with the guys in my band has been soul food.”
The debut album is a sprawling ode to her turbulent family life, with the guitar pop of Extreme Highs countered by heartfelt ballads like Take Me To Harley Street, with its aching opening stanza, ‘Waiting for my hope to die/so I can move on with my life’.
There as waiting and hoping involved in recording her debut album too, Sarena explaining it took more than one attempt to get the job done.
“My first try was in the garage where the Extreme Highs video was shot. I guess I wanted to be that person who was like, ‘You don’t need money to make a record,’ but it turns out you do! It ended up sounding a bit shit, so I had to have another go!”
With the aid of producer and studio bass player Ryan Fisherman, she eventually managed to get ‘Lemon Law’ to a place she was happy with.
“We recorded the drums and did pre-production at The Sitting Room in Christchurch, where artists like Tami Neilson, Marlon Williams and Aldous Harding have recorded. Because I tried to record the album twice before, I really wanted to stick to my guns and get it right. The difference this time was having good gear and a good engineer. After the drums we did everything else at Ryan’s flat in Cashmere. So, I guess it was still a bit of a garage recording, just not in an actual garage!”
Her album has received acclaim, but Sarena maintains there’s room for improvement when recording in the future.
“The vocals are really loud, and they really stick out. I think I’m gonna tackle that with the next record, getting the balance right. On ‘Lemon Law’ It feels like there’s a big fat vocal sitting on sand! We definitely did the best we could with our abilities at the time. It was Ryan’s first record producing, and mine too, so it was all an amazing learning experience.”
An eclectic mix of styles on the album reflects the time frame in which the songs where written, though Sarena maintains the themes and feelings expressed are similar throughout.
“That whole Harley Street song was written when I was 18, and it’s still one of my favourites. I wrote the songs over so many seasons and the album’s really diverse, but the thing that ties it together is the lyrics. I always found myself coming back to the same subject matter, like family and my home life and stuff. I tried to tell a story through the songs.”
Her time studying jazz has shaped the way she sees music these days, and despite being disgruntled at the way it was structured, Sarena is thankful for the experience.
“Jazz school was the best test for my own individuality. There was so much hate on certain genres of music, and if it wasn’t soul or funk or jazz then it wasn’t good. Things like Radiohead and Coldplay were bad! By the time I hit third year I was kind’a over it. Now when I listen to a song I want it to make my heart warm, rather than looking around thinking, ‘Should I like this?’ It shouldn’t matter who made it or where it came from.”
Artists as diverse as Queens of the Stone Age and Sufjan Steven have given her inspiration, but she is quick to assert that copying a particular band or style is not on her agenda.
“So many things inspire me. I love the new Angel Olsen record. My favourite song of last week was California Dreaming by the Mamas and the Papas! Music as a whole inspires me and fuels me. I won’t just try and copy a song though, it’s more like using a structural inspiration perhaps.”
The follow up to ‘Lemon Law’ is already in the works.
“There’ll be a lot of piano on the next album, because I can speak a lot better on that particular instrument than guitar. I’m really looking forward to tapping into new sounds. I think it’ll be an evolution of songs like Harley Street and Painting of a Trench. At the moment I have a title and a concept and a few tunes. I already know it’s gonna be called ‘My Friends’, and it’s gonna be about relationships, good and bad, and moving on. It’ll be a lot more cohesive as a whole.”
With a lot of touring a certainty in the future, she knows it’s important to have songs that will stand the test of time.
“I’m not going to put any time pressures on myself to get it done. It’s about being satisfied with every layer, and if these songs are going to be played over and over then the music better be really good!
“I definitely want to be in control. I just did some shows recently with The Beths and they did 250 shows in a year and a half! I’m not sure I want to sign up for something like that, because I like being here in Christchurch. At the end of the day it’ll be me, doing whatever I want.”