Reb Fountain seems to have an inadvertent knack for messing with her own album releases. The last time she dropped an album was in 2017, but confusingly its release followed a rather more up-to-date (and award-winning) EP by just a matter of weeks. This time the stars had aligned sufficiently to warrant self-titling her new album, and with the momentum of strong singles and even stronger live shows it seemed likely that ‘Reb Fountain’ would be a shining star among the NZ Music Month launch galaxy. Not to say it wasn’t, but Covid-19 rather stole the show, well, the shows actually. Amanda Mills talked with the Auckland songstress under lockdown conditions.
With the forced closure of venues during the Covid-19 crisis period leaving artists and promoters no choice but to cancel/ postpone tours and shows, it seems an understatement to say musicians are suffering uncertain times. Releasing a new full-length album – her fourth – during lockdown was quite another unknown quantity, as singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Reb Fountain discovered. An experience she describes as surreal.
“It’s not what I would have planned, or necessarily hoped for, but… it feels like it’s the one thing that I can offer people right now. So, even though it’s weird, it feels like it’s important work. I’m just connecting with the community here and growing that feels good to me right now.”
Lockdown has understandably been busy for her, although things have slowed down.
“Right now I’m caught up in the fervour of it all, and just working, essentially,” she says. As well as promoting the album’s release, she has been writing a song every day as part of the process of dealing with these strange and intense times, something which was a challenge. “Some days you have nothing, and you still have to write something. Other days… ‘Ha! I’ve got three or four songs coming out,” she smiles.
Global lockdown also affected her global exposure plans as she and her band were due to tour the US, notably to play shows at the South By South West international live performance showcase.
“We were flying out on the Sunday from WOMAD directly to Austin… playing shows at SXSW, and then across to the coast and tour of the States and Canada. My bags were packed!”
While uncertain about when she will see her own family in North America next, Fountain feels positive about the necessarily revised focus on performing here. She has changed her local tour dates from June to October and November but laments that touring internationally feeds into her identity as a traveller, admitting she’s feeling “antsy” to work as she loves being on the road, adapting to the unknown and being challenged by different environments.
“That’s part of what I’m so excited about, spreading my wings more… I like being on the move,” she laughs. “Connecting with other people is what we’re all about, so it’s challenging times, not only because we’re out of pocket, but in some ways we’re out of purpose, when you aren’t able to go out and connect with your audience. I feel very honoured to be up there. I have a job to do… you know, I work my ass off! I take it very seriously.”
As much as it may be a source of excitement and income, the stage is a vulnerable space for Fountain as she inhabits her songs, bringing them to life.
“I’m stepping into them, and I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she explains of her exceptional live presence. “I know the general landscape, but within that, so many things can occur… it’s committing to yourself, and your self-confidence, and it allows me to go out and perform the way I do.”
Self-titled albums indicate new beginnings, and ‘Reb Fountain’ is no exception.
“It feels like a line in the sand moment where there’s been a shift. But, that shift could not have occurred without what’s come before,” she muses.
Her most recent releases in 2017, the album ‘Little Arrows’ and EP ‘Hopeful and Hopeless’ were important, honouring her work with friends and collaborators Sam Prebble and Dylan Storey, and also the memory of Prebble who passed away before the release of both recordings.
“It was hard. ‘Little Arrows’ had been there for years and years and years, and ‘Hopeful and Hopeless’ we recorded a month before Sam passed. It just sat there. It took a lot to pull myself together enough… and commit to myself to step out and share them. That process was empowering, and by the time I got through it it was such a relief.”
By the time of recording ‘Reb Fountain’ she was however taking the stage with relish. She was part of Julia Deans’ band for her album release tour in 2018, played with Neil Finn on his ‘Out Of Silence’ album, spearheaded the local Nick Cave 60th birthday anniversary shows (a liberating experience that she carried onto her new album), and was also a key participant in Aotearoa’s Neil Young ‘Live Rust’ 40th anniversary tribute shows. With momentum building towards her album release in January this year she opened for The Muttonbirds on their reunion shows.
One recent collaborator – and new friend – is Finn Andrews, who she met during the Bowie tribute shows. After she worked on some acoustic re-recordings and his album ‘One Piece At A Time’ (and subsequent tour), he returned the favour by singing on When Gods Lie, an elegant ballad that was the album’s second single.
“Finn’s an amazing artist, he’s so prolific, a fantastic performer, so incredibly focused, and I feel very lucky to have worked with him.”
‘Reb Fountain’ marks her first release on Flying Nun, an important move as the label’s artists have been influential on her, and she says she now feels part of that whole family. It was recorded at Roundhead Studios, also familiar from having worked on Finn’s 2017 album, and which she describes as “a dreamland for recording.”
“It felt really homely to me, I felt really comfortable in that space… I felt very privileged to be there… to be doing this fresh project in that space with Simon, Dave and the guys was awesome.”
Alongside those familiar production and performance and collaborators Simon Gooding and Dave Khan, the album includes performances from Elroy Finn, Ben Wooley, Logan Compain and Finn Andrews. The album’s cover is arresting – a dramatic shot of Fountain on a gold background taken by photographer Frances Carter. She says it took time finding an image.
“I wanted something that reflected the essence of the record… [that] this is a self-driven record that really reflects who I am right now. I wanted a cover that really imbued all that meaning.”
Immediate in its impact, the new album is a major statement from Fountain as an established artist. Jazz-trained though with a more familiar background in country and folk (she won both the Best Country Artist Tui and Best Country Song in 2018 with her ‘Hopeful and Hopeless’ EP), Fountain’s performance and writing styles flow, not necessarily settling on a style. However, the songs on ‘Reb Fountain’ are tonally different, and she agrees there has been a shift in her writing. The opening song Hawks And Doves, sets the tone with the line,‘Changes, I’ve made some changes.’ It’s an important song and one she describes as coming easily.
“I went just whatever it went, just let it come. It felt like a new way for myself. I wanted it to be the opening song on the record because to me it does signal that shift, the change. And it’s not so much about genre, it’s more internal for me, and the possibilities that come from that.”
The songs were mostly new with a couple of older tracks thrown in, and some, like Samson (written over the course of one evening) are among the best she has written. Samson resonates throughout the album.
“I got home late that evening, it was only a few days in and I just felt this really strong need to express things that haven’t been expressed before, or felt like they were repressed,” she considers.
Those expressions were complex emotions of desire and longing, and work well within the song’s spoken word structure.
“It felt the right way to express what I wanted to say, and [has], for me, quite a poppy chorus.”
The mythical imagery of Samson – hair shorn and holding up a building – underpinned the song, but real figures are the main focus.
“My songs… they are always my experiences, and there’s real people. But, I do like to attach that to the universal as well. There’s aspects of lost love, and my lost friend Sam, and my own feelings of desire for myself and my relationships – the whole gamut!”
Influences ebb and flow on the album, but veins of Nick Cave and Patti Smith run strongly through it, most clearly seen on Don’t You Know Who I Am, the album’s centrepiece. It’s a favourite of Fountain’s to perform – an intense, freeform number reminiscent of Cave’s epic Jubilee Street, that can go anywhere. The song was inspired by First Nations artist Benjamin Chee Chee.
“His artwork [Three Flying Geese] is on the cover of ‘Little Arrows’, my last record. I heard about his story, and that’s where it kind of came from” she explained. “It really developed over time, and is about who we are, and who we think we are, and try to be, and rising up beyond the stories and our ego, and uniting together!”
The Last Word was constructed mostly in the studio, the opening line written on electric guitar before being re-arranged by Khan for strings, which she describes as beautiful. Khan’s electric guitar playing also shines.
“It’s great. I let him have lots of guitar solos in that one at one stage!”
Promotional videos for the album have been directed by Fountain’s daughter Lola Fountain-Best, and meld themes of identity and image, and how we are viewed by others. In line with the songs they are intense, beautiful works. Frustratingly the video for Samson (featuring Medulla Oblongata) has faced unexpected issues.
“Medulla’s work is so incredible, it was such an honour to meet them and have them in my video,” she says. “I’ve been trying to get some traction on Google with that video, but Google is blocking any ad promotion that I do on Samson… whatever algorithms they are using are coming up saying it’s shocking content, and it’s just be because there’s a drag queen in it. It’s so prejudiced, it’s not ok!”
Fountain is a storyteller, and this flows through her new album. She reflects the holistic, taking the universal human condition and representing it within a song or story, regardless of genre, and credits her time with Christchurch alt-country band The Eastern for this.
“Performing with The Eastern taught me about the importance of the universal, and reminded me about why I’m making music. It was always really about connection – I found value in songs, and that was because of the meaning that was imbued in them. I’ve certainly been focusing on that probably, from the songs that I was writing from ‘Hopeful and Hopeless’ through to this record.”
With future live performance still up in the air, Fountain and band have instead planned online content around the album’s release.
“We’ve got several live to airs coming up, and a whole bunch of musical content – filmed at home kind of stuff. We’re all really jonesing to work right now,” she laughs. “It’s a great opportunity for us to do that in a way.”
Made with the support of NZ On Air.