December/January 2019

by Richard Thorne

Orangefarm: Bittersweet Tales

by Richard Thorne

Orangefarm: Bittersweet Tales

It’s been a while between drinks and EPs down at Orangefarm. The band’s first, ‘Joined At The Hip’, was released in 2000 with its follow up, ‘The Water’ in July this year. Richard Thorne caught up with band leader Nigel Mitchell, the quartet’s main — and well, only — man following their Kumeu Live performance in October.

The seeds for Orangefarm were first sown back in 1992 when Nigel Mitchell formed Two Persons Bodiene with Peter Holm and Greg Goulding. The trio parted ways but Mitchell and Holm regrouped in 1997, adding Vivien Reid (French horn, keyboard, vocals) and drummer Karen Apperley to form the line-up which recorded the four songs on ‘Joined At The Hip’.

Following Holm’s departure in 2006 Orangefarm maintained a low-key existence with some live shows in the capital and occasional membership shuffles. The arrival of then 19-year old Celia McAlpine (bass, vocals) two years ago brought a new songwriting impetus, leading to renewed ambitions to get the band’s songs heard more widely.

Songwriter and guitarist/singer Nigel Mitchell describes the change in band dynamic as largely about the newly added youth perspective and aesthetic, as well as her “really lovely singing voice.” A violinist by training, Celia had advertised that she was looking for a band to play with.

“She was new to the bass then and her playing was a bit tentative, so the dynamic was a lot more cautious than Peter’s more melodic and precise sound. Celia’s was a bit more of a laid-back, warts’n’all approach, less focused on being precise.”

The EP’s recording dates back to the end of 2016. Andrew Dalziell, the band’s sound guy produced Say The Right Thing, but then became too busy to complete the project. Eventually, James Goldsmith was booked to engineer and produce the balance at Blue Barn in Wellington. Seven songs were recorded live over a couple of days, with just vocals and a few guitar overdubs added later.

Local indie rock fans might find something comforting, almost familiar about the opening track of ‘The Water’. It strolls forth with a skipping beat, a propulsive guitar strum and an early gentle toot of Reid’s French horn. But as the lilting tune and the his/hers harmonies take hold, it’s apparent there’s something thorny going on. Do Me In might have a sunny sonic disposition, but its lyrical sentiment proves more barbed.

‘If I should ever be like you, just do me in …’ chime the three voices of Mitchell, Reid and McAlpine.
“It’s about people you work with who drive you nuts and you worry that if you stay in the same job for too long you’ll end up like them,” explains the smiling Mitchell. “It’s a bit of an homage to The Bats too, with a vocal line at the end modelled on a Martin Phillipps’ line, from a song I can’t quite remember.”

The EP’s other four tracks offer more bittersweet, literate touches – plus moments where the deceptively low-key music is a framework for complicated emotions and some cosmic ideas.

Take the title track. Built on an agile rhythmic pattern from drummer Karen Apperley, the intertwined vocals, liquid guitar, loping bass and swirling keyboards combine to cast a spell. It may not have many words, but The Water is still a song that ponders life, loss, the universe and so on.

“The lyrics are sort of a reflection on the fact that everything is made of matter from the stars and that we all came out of the water, to which we still have an affinity,” says Mitchell.

Much more a lyrical poem, Princess Margaret is actually named for the aged Christchurch Hospital, a place which resonates with Mitchell, his late parents having spent their final years in the earthquake-damaged city.

“I was stuck for an idea for the words for the music until, flying into Christchurch one day, I noticed how Princess Margaret Hospital was standing proudly against the hillside.

“This was the last place my late dad stayed before we brought him up to Wellington. Mum makes a cameo in it too – she told me about the magnolia trees when I was a kid. So, to have one ‘hold her tightly underground’ kind of turns the tree upside down, but also contains the idea that she and the beautiful things that spring from the land are combined.”

Again the guitar swirls around with hollow-bodied warmth, the drums are frontline and Mitchell’s unassuming lead vocal tracks are supported with delightful harmonies.

“I like the idea of just leaving it at Princess Margaret, rather than making it clear what it’s about. Not sure if that’s a good idea though,” he admits with a gentle laugh. “People don’t really know quite what to make of it!”

Though radio-friendly in its brevity, Say The Right Thing adds to the cinematic scope of the EP with its unhurried drift through a parched landscape (‘The picture on the brain, the hillside needs the rain’), which gets a sprinkling of dreamy harmonies.

Finishing the EP with a baroque rock side-step, 8 Things swerves neatly from music-box keyboards to guitar fireworks as its restricted eight-word lyric throws up disparate images.

“I’d been teaching kids how sense is in the mind of the reader, possibly more than on the page. I tried to write a meaningless song using eight three-syllable words that had nothing logical to do with each other. The last word, ‘terminal,’ though, was pinched from Allen Curnow’s poem, Names are News. I thought it would be a good one to finish on.”