May/June 2021

Reb Fountain: Now You Know Who She Is

Reb Fountain: Now You Know Who She Is

Having led the way into the challenging realm of online Kiwi music awards last year, with admirable success, in mid-April the Taite Music Prize returned to its much-preferred venue of Q Theatre on Auckland’s Queen St – and the welcoming applause of the few hundred-strong live audience. With such events still impacted beyond our borders there was some lingering sense of the surreal – enhanced doubtless by having a band of fully protected bee-keepers wandering among the crowd. Plus the knowledge that an outstanding and nationally cherished song, one released fully 38 years ago, was to be celebrated alongside an album ‘of outstanding creativity’, that was released in the last calendar year. 
The 10 finalist albums for the 2021 Taite Music Prize came very close to encapsulating the cream of this nation’s current recording artists. With more than 20 NZ Music Awards’ Tui trophies shared among them, a previous Taite Prize and Silver Scroll Award, predicting the winner was a fun but fraught challenge. Reb Fountain was quite clearly caught by surprise when she was announced as winner, taking a while to get to the podium. Once there she made an unrehearsed but captivating speech that, in keeping with her self-titled album, was generous and heartfelt. It’s 12 months now since ‘Reb Fountain’ was released, and rather than revisit that process NZM took cues from Reb’s acceptance speech to pose some questions.

Judging by your Taite Music Prize acceptance speech, winning came as a genuine surprise. What was the first thing that came to your mind when they called out your name?

‘Maybe this is one of those moments where you think they are saying your name but actually, they have just called out Tami Neilson and you’re standing up to receive the award but you haven’t actually won it.’ … this was the actual conversation that flashed through my mind as I got up from my seat.

Among the anecdotes you shared was about calling Dave Khan out of the blue to ask him to produce your album. He doesn’t have history as a producer and suggested you should ‘find a real producer’ but you insisted… Why was that?

I woke up one morning, knew I wanted to make a record and called Dave. He was on tour with Marlon [Williams] and the Yarra Benders somewhere in Europe. From memory they were at a gas station, it was freezing and someone had just put petrol in the diesel tank … #tourlife

Dave and I had worked together on and off in a performance capacity so there was a history there, but I remember feeling like he had more to share – untapped potential – and because I was ready to commit more fully to my own work and grow my own artistry, I thought we might be able to learn from, and teach one another. I wanted to inhabit a relationship where I could develop in collaboration with another person who shared a similar vision. Dave had never officially produced a record before and I just had a strong sense this was the right choice – so it was that initial commitment, and our connection with co-producer and engineering master Simon Gooding that really changed our trajectory. 

Are those things specific to the musical intent you already had for the album?

Commitment, vulnerability, trust, openness, courage, resilience, experience – yes all those things underpinned the musical content of the album – very much so.

Were there any specific sessions you and Dave Khan have worked on together that led to that determination to engage him?

I don’t think it was one particular project that made me want to work with Dave, more a culmination of experiences. However, by 2018 I was on the other side of releasing ‘Hopeful & Hopeless’ and ‘Little Arrows’, and ready to work in a new way. I appreciated what he brought to my music. I watched how he musically directed those around him, he was open to trying new things and taking risks and he was a wizard genius… a closet producer if ever I saw one. However, at the time I didn’t know what a producer really did, I just knew he was the person for the job. 

Given the ‘Reb Fountain’ album’s success and now deserved recognition, can we assume it all worked out exactly as you had hoped?

Nothing ever works out the way you plan. I love where our work has taken us… but the only thing that you can ever really know is that if you open yourself up to the doing, something will get done. It may not be pretty – you gotta be open to failing as much as succeeding – but the continuum of experiences in between; that’s the stuff of magic. The every day doing of being who you are… ‘success’/everything else is a bonus.

I wanted to foster learning and opportunity for all involved by creating a space where we could grow; ourselves and a project… we’ve done that but the doing is not complete. We planted a seed when we all chose to work together and we’re still growing it. This is just the beginning…

Booking three weeks at Roundhead as an independent artist is a bold statement of self-belief in itself. Was Simon Gooding being an engineer there a key part the reason for choosing that top-end studio?

I had spent time at Roundhead working with Neil Finn on his ‘Out Of Silence’ album and I’d gotten really comfortable there. I wanted an environment where I was free and at ease to explore, and that also challenged me to up my game; Roundhead definitely fit that bill.

Dave and I discussed other options but that was always my preference – and yes – I had pencilled it in from the start. I made a lot of calls that may or may not have been my place… and not all of them worked. Learning is a beautiful thing! I wasn’t really clear on the producer role vs artist role at the time, and I certainly didn’t and don’t hold back from saying what I think is right, irrespective of said roles. However, I hope I am more respectful now of each person’s ability to offer unique perspectives and expertise, and I know I appreciate collaboration on a whole new level.

Simon was head engineer at Roundhead at the time, but we also go way back. Simon played in my band when he was making coffee at York St in the early days of his engineering career. He’s played a part in every record I’d made, either performing, engineering, mixing or mastering in some capacity, and we’re friends. Simon and I had been through a lot and I wanted to give him an opportunity to do something fresh that we could work on together. Plus Simon’s an absolute genius at engineering and he and I work so well on vocals that there really was no one else I wanted at the helm. The Dave / Simon combo on production was a no brainer… for all of us.

You secured NZ On Air Project funding in 2018, so presumably knew you had that amount to put towards recording?

I didn’t apply for or receive NZ On Air Project funding till after deciding to make the record, so all the decisions to go full steam ahead were made irrespective of funding. However, I was super lucky to receive Project funding in Oct 2018, which reimbursed me for 60% of costs paid towards recording and marketing of the album. This support made the world of difference as it’s one thing to ‘commit to one’s art’ and it’s another thing to come up with the money to back a project like this. We are soooo fortunate to have funding support in Aotearoa – I know it’s not always easy to get (I have applied and failed many many times), but the fact that it’s on offer is something to be very grateful for.

Which of the album songs did you have already and had they determined just what the album might sound like, or feel like, in some way?

I had a few older tunes like Strangers and Round the Bend kicking around. Don’t You Know Who I Am, When Gods Lie and Hawks & Doves I had written in the months leading up to my decision to make a record.

Once I had made the commitment however I started writing with the album in mind. I had never done that before – set myself a deadline and forced myself to write or complete songs. I tried out lots of stuff with Dave and I’d often decide on the spot to cull or keep tunes or parts thereof. Lighthouse I wrote in one sitting and shared with Dave and we got it straight away. Samson I wrote one night during the recording process after I’d gotten home from the studio and we shaped it in house. The Last Word had many incarnations and was musically constructed mid-recording it. In saying all that it was still a very concentrated writing process – over 4-5 months, which in the scheme of things was very cohesive.

The great gift of the production on this album is space; space for the songs and voice to be heard. The choices to fill space are well-considered and deliberate… and rare. I think the songs find their home in this landscape… and gift back their strengths in turn.

There was a strong commitment on my end to exploring my process of songwriting – to being open to however I wished to express myself musically, creatively. The songs reflect that dedication to process and form a foundation from which choices and outcomes emerge. In other words, everything we do impacts everything else, as we are also impacted by all that is done.

What criteria do you have in place to pick those songs that will go further than your songbook or a demo?

‘What makes a song’ might be a question I have to answer before I could consider yours. Recently I threw out a whole box full of songs/poems/thoughts/scribbles on paper because they’d served their purpose – they were expressed. It’s just as valid to write a song that you only ever sing to yourself or your kids, as it is to record and release one. I guess it depends on why you write. For me, I do it because I have to, and want to and need to… I also happen to make a living out of being a musician, but I do so irrespectively of the financial reward.

When it comes to choosing what to share I start small… What do I feel is whole enough to share with myself and want to keep exploring? Do I want to share it with Dave or the band? Do I feel ready to let it go and become something new as I collaborate with others? Is it good – that’s an impossible question. Do I enjoy playing it – that’s easier. From there you just go with the flow.

Some songs don’t make it onto a record because you run out of time, not because you don’t like them. Some tunes end up on a record because they’re the ones you finish first, not because they’re the best. I am way more considered now than I was years ago and make sure I am choosing each step along the way, but it’s still an organic process. Songs develop a life of their own when they get performed – some last forever and some come and go.

You’ve previously won a Tui and an award for Best Country Song, now the Taite. For you personally, how does winning such awards affect one’s musical career, if it does?

It’s a great honour… and it’s also quite strange. We go to work and do our work and produce our work. I know the mahi my fellow musicians put into their art and their lives in order to create their work. I want to honour them all. I am grateful for opportunities to value the work we do and celebrate our collective efforts – being a creative artist in our times is challenging on many levels.

Peer recognition through awards is wonderful. And it’s also important to see them for what they are. One way of acknowledging you’ve done well, or sold a lot of records, or worked hard or touched some people’s lives… but an award is just one of recognising the work. I think you have to be careful of thinking awards are a marker of who you are, of whether you achieved success or that they are something you must achieve to be ‘somebody’ to be of value. It’s beautiful and special but you are equally as valuable without it. I have to hold both spaces – the genuine gratitude I feel for being honoured and the knowledge that it’s the work that is important.

‘Career’ wise, I do think it can help a ‘career’ because our industry values the accolades. So it’s great when you can add to your bio that you’ve won something, or been in the top 10 for so many weeks or sold however many records, because somewhere out there that stuff is valued… and it is cool… but it’s not everything. 

You’ve gone through plenty of hardship and personal loss, in life and as an artist, which we hope makes winning this award even more sweet. What advice would you give younger creative types to keep up their resilience as artist?

I couldn’t do the work that I do in my music or performance without serious self-care to balance it out. I believe it takes dedication to your practice – and for me the practice is being human… everything else – songwriting, music, performance that’s all an extension of who I am.

A lot of us creatives are wrestling with our egos – take the time to work through your shit – no matter how scary, it’s actually the easier road to face yourself than it is to spend a lifetime hiding. But you need support to do this work – like a crutch if you break your leg, you need someone to lean on (if not a team). Don’t be afraid to consider what kind of support is right for you to help you on your journey as an artist (and a human).

I’ve been saved by my musical compadres around the country. Being open to working with other artists – in collaboration with or on their projects – helps grow your artistry and your community. You’ll need them along the way, so value those connections no matter how small. It takes practice to have your own back, to love yourself, especially when it’s tough – so reach out when you need an anchor to help you stay afloat. We’re all in this together. #musichelps