The newly released second album by Wellington group Pales, ‘Don’t Be So Nice,’ brings more of their gently flowing, delicately fingerpicked and vocally rich sound, albeit a swifter stream flowing into a darker pool. Finding the trio no more animated in interview, NZM’s Michael Hollywood was left to wonder whether the album’s title was simple irony, or perhaps related to words of advice offered them by some rather more grizzled individuals within the industry.
Wellington trio Pales – collectively Rose Blake, Mike Isaacs and Scott Maynard – have just released album number two. Ironically (it would seem given their nice-ness evident in our face-to-face interview), titled ‘Don’t Be So Nice’, it follows the band’s 2013 debut and is the second of a proposed three-album trilogy project.
The trilogy idea is, if not exactly unique, no less challenging for its simplicity. The plan is for each member of the band to write an album individually, which is then recorded and performed collectively under the Pales’ guise. It began three years ago with Isaacs’ full-length effort called ‘It’s Cold Outside’. This time it’s Maynard’s turn, while Rose Blake’s offering will follow “… probably next year.”
The initial Isaacs-Maynard connection was a music school one, dating back 10 years, but according to Isaacs, Pales came about as much by accident, as it did by design.
“The whole thing started when I was fiddling around with recording programs and writing a bunch of songs on guitar, which I’d never really played that much before, because I’m a saxophone player originally. I found playing and recording on guitar really refreshing. I had nine or 10 songs (recorded) and I wanted to play them live. So I asked Scott to do that with me, and then Rose joined. I basically recorded ‘It’s Cold Outside’ by myself, but when we did the live set I didn’t want to just do my songs, so Scott and Rose wrote a couple, and that’s how the collaborative element came about.”
Maynard then set about writing for ‘Don’t Be So Nice’, which explores the same dreamy folk-pop path of the debut, while offering some slight differences. Each has an inescapable intimacy, but Maynard’s work has a certain density to it, more confronting in its use of chords, and a little darker in texture and overall feel. The album was produced by Mike Gibson, primarily at Park Road, but also at Munki, with production help from Isaacs and Maynard’s brother Darren.
“A lot of people had an influence on it, but Mike had the final say. We started off trying to do the whole thing ourselves, but then we got Darren involved, and Mike stepped in near the end to work his magic.”
There’s a range of instrumentation on the album, with drummer Cory Champion and Emi Pogoni (synth) helping out. Maynard talks a little about how that studio work translates into a less forgiving live environment.
“A bunch of the songs, maybe half of the songs on it, we had played as a trio as part of a live set. We’ve been experimenting with new ways to approach it, and just recently, Mike’s got a whole synth collection, so a lot of the woodwind parts, and some of the piano parts, and the bass parts were changed. It’s pretty hard to do all that stuff live as a trio, so we’ve been experimenting with using keyboards to help fill out the arrangements.”
“The whole recording and mixing process took a long time for this album, and it was pretty painful,” Isaacs adds. “So by the time it got out, we’d been playing these songs for a couple of years really. They needed a new breath of life, so that’s why we tried the new instrumentation. But performing live hasn’t been a priority because we have a bunch of other projects we want to do.”
With two down, it’s reasonable to wonder if Blake is starting to feel any pressure to make ‘her album’, and whether or not there is a ballpark release date in mind.
“There’s no restrictions, but definitely now I feel we’re in the zone where we can start rehearsing. I’ve got all the songs there. I’m just starting to arrange them and work them out. There’s no timeline, but we’ll be working on it this year, so probably a release next year.
“I studied classical singing, so I guess I’m a singer first. Often I’ll come up with a melody in my head, so I’ll start with the voice. Or it can come with a chord on the banjo, or something on the piano, and sometimes guitar, but I guess the main thing that drives it for me is the melody. That’s where it starts.
“I guess my whole process is to work on the songs, get them to the level they need to be, and then to go in and play them. We’ll see how that goes.”
They are involved in other projects including Fuyuko’s Fables, Ida Lune, and Groeni. Each possesses its own unique personality and stylistic point of difference, but what exactly separates Pales’ work from those other ventures? What makes the band special?
“It’s the thing about having three writers,” answers Maynard. “Not so much a band that’s writing together, but three distinctive writers. I feel like we’ve all got our own sound, but they (the songs) work well enough together that we can put them in the same set and it doesn’t sound random.”
“Yeah, I can tell a Scott song, from a Rose song, from a Mike song, really quite strongly. They’re definitely different. Maybe it’s the instrumentation, but having the three voices in all the songs is the link between the three of us.”